SAMUEL GOMPERS 1850-1924
EUGENE V. DEBS 1855-1926
Unlike many places in the world, the unions and labor movement in America failed to form a powerful political party. One of the reasons was a man named Samuel Gompers. Born in London, Gompers moved with his family to New York in 1863. He got a job working in a cigar factory, joined the Cigar Maker’s Union and rose to become its president. Gompers rejected the idea that workers needed radical intellectuals to help them achieve their goals. “I saw that betterment for workingmen must come primarily through workingmen,” he wrote. “I saw the danger of entangling alliances with intellectuals who did not understand that to experiment with the labor movement was to experiment with human life.”
In 1886, Gompers gathered together a wide range of unions to form the American Federation of Labor. He advocated “Pure and Simple Unionism” meaning that unions would avoid forming a political party in order to preserve the unity of the labor movement. By 1903, the American Federation of Labor represented more than one and a half million union members and was becoming a force to be reckoned with in American life. At that year’s AFL convention, Gompers forever parted ways with his old allies:
“I want to tell you Socialists,” he said, “that I have studied your philosophy … I have kept close watch upon your doctrines for thirty years; have been closely associated with many of you, … And I want to say that I am entirely at variance with your philosophy … Economically, you are unsound; socially you are wrong; industrially, you are an impossibility.”
|Samuel Gompers, founder of the AFL (1880s, George Meany Memorial Archives)|
Led by Eugene V. Debs the Socialist Party of America split off of the American Federation of Labor. Between 1900 and 1920, Debs ran for US President five times. At its peak, the Socialist Party won 6% of the popular vote with Debs in the presidential election of 1912.
World War I formed a major turning point for unions and socialists. Debs’ Socialist Party was adamantly anti-war, where Gompers’ AFL supported President Wilson’s decision to enter the war. Most trade unionists followed Gompers. In 1918 Debs was arrested for publicly speaking out against the government’s prosecution of war protestors, charged with sedition and sentenced to ten years in jail. Campaigning from prison, Debs made his final bid for president in 1920, winning a little more than 3% of the popular vote.
For more information, read interviews with:
Author, Populist Persuasion: An American History