For some reason, Colonel Lang’s recent essay reminded me of the plight of labor unions in the United States. Derided today by all except those union laborers who have gained entry to the great middle class through their hard work and membership in those unions, the American labor union movement is near extinct. It wasn’t always so. A textbook used in one of my Jesuit high school American history classes was written by a Dominican priest and chaplain general of the French Resistance during World War II, Raymond Leopold Bruckberger. His book, “Image of America,” first published in France in 1958, is a paean to America by a disillusioned European. His last chapter, in particular, sticks in my mind to this day… Samuel Gompers and Lenin – “More and More” and “All or Nothing.” It’s quite thought provoking. I still take it off the bookshelf and read it from time to time. If you can find a copy in a bookstore or library, I recommend reading it.
Gompers was an immigrant to America during the middle of our Civil War. He was a son of Dutch Jews and worked, as his father did, as a cigar maker. He became a champion of the working man. “In my religion, I am a workingman, and in every nerve, in every fiber, in every aspiration I am on the side which will advance the interests of my fellow workingmen.” But he was not a socialist or anti-capitalist. He also said, “The worst crime against working people is a company which fails to operate at a profit.” His contributions to the American nation and people were in the spirit of working together and compromise.
The following is the last section of an essay Gompers wrote in 1910 entitled “The Significance of Labor Day.” I find it especially appropriate for this Labor Day and our discussion of Colonel Lang’s “E Pluribus Unum no more.”
“At no time in the history of the world have the workers demonstrated more clearly their purpose not only to be just, but to demand justice. They realize that without organization in this day of concentrated wealth and industry their lives and their liberties are doomed. They have organized, and are organizing, with greater rapidity than ever. The earnestness of their expressions, the sincerity of their actions, the solidarity of their movements, the fraternity which they engender, all bespeak a brighter future for all who toil, for all who are dependent upon them.
Our labor movement has no system to crush. It has nothing to overturn. It purposes to build up, to develop, to rejuvenate humanity.
It stands for the right. It is the greatest protestant against wrong. It is the defender of the weak.
Its members make the sacrifices and bear the brunt of battle to obtain more equitable and humane conditions in the everyday lives of all the people.
It may be true that here and there a setback is encountered in the battle of labor; but it is simply a skirmish, for the grand army is ever moving onward and forward. One column in our ranks may be defeated, yet it is only a retreat for greater organization, better preparation for a more propitious time.
Splendid as has been the progress in organization and federation within the recent past, yet there is much to do to convince the yet unorganized workers that their duty to themselves, their wives and children, their fellow-workers, their fellow-men is to organize and help in the great cause. We must win or regain the confidence of the indifferent, negligent, or ignorant non-unionists, to impress on his mind that he who will not stand with his brother for the right is equally responsible with the wrongdoer for any wrong done. The excuse and justification for tyranny is the servility and indifference of the slaves.
By the organization of the workers we not only quicken the conscience of those inclined to the wrong, but we create a healthier public opinion regarding the great cause for which we stand. Hence, our fellow-unionists, rank and file, officers, organizers, leaders, in fact all, are devoting themselves unfalteringly and persistently to the work of bringing the non-unionists within the fold of organization.
The workers can be free. Justice and right can and must be proclaimed, established, and maintained.
The full realization of these principles and potent purposes can come only by the work, and if necessary, the sacrifices, of the hosts of unionists through whose earnest effort must be fulfilled the mission to unite the world of workers and usher in the dawn of that bright day of which the poets have sung, philosophers dreamed, and the workmen struggled and yearned to achieve for the human family.”
by Samuel Gompers, September 4, 1910