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“Pure and Simple”: Making the Case for Unionism

Whereas the Knights of Labor had advocated “abolition of the wages system,” union leaders who coalesced behind Samuel Gompers and the new American Federation of Labor in 1886 were more likely to accept the terms of the existing capitalist system. Gompers and his closest associates rejected any interest in creating a new society. Instead, they called for a better life for working people. Adolph Strasser, a leader of the cigarmakers’ union, clearly articulated this emerging philosophy of “pure and simple unionism” in his 1883 testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Education and Labor, which was investigating the “relations between capital and labor.” Strasser had emigrated to America around 1871. In the early 1880s—around the time of this testimony—he allied with Gompers in refusing to turn over New York’s United Cigarmakers union to socialists who had been democratically elected. Instead, he and Gompers expelled the leader of the socialists and caused a serious split in the union. Strasser remained an AFL leader and organizer until his death in 1910.


Question. Please state your residence and occupation.—Answer. I reside in New York. At present I am acting president and secretary of the Cigarmakers‘ International Union of America, and editor of the journal of the organization. I do not work at my trade now, but am simply acting as an officer of the Cigarmakers’ International Union. . . .

Q. I see you recognize the idea of overproduction and of the necessity of obtaining outlets for our products in order that panics may be avoided. In that line it occurs to me to ask you whether it is in contemplation, as one of the ultimate purposes of the trades unions, that their funds shall be accumulated so that if, in order to prevent a panic by the excess of products being thrown upon the market, they can in future lessen production by suspending labor for a time, and maintain the laborers meanwhile out of the accumulated fund. Have your trades organizations any such idea as that?—A. The trades unions try to prevent panics, but in fact they cannot prevent them, because panics are governed by influences beyond their control.

Q. Panics result, do they not, largely from overproduction?—A. The trades unions try to make their members better consumers, thereby enlarging the home market, and at the same time to make them better producers. If we can make the working people generally better consumers we shall have no panics.

Q. But if the increase of the power of production goes on by the improvement of machinery and all that, will no your efforts be counteracted in that way?—A. Then we propose a reduction of the hours of labor. That will decrease production and will increase consumption. We hold that a man who works but eight hours a day will demand a better home than a man who works longer hours; he will not be willing to live in one or two squalid rooms; he will demand better clothes, better food, more books, more newspapers, more education; more of the commodities that labor provides, more of the world’s wealth, and that will bring about a better distribution of wealth and will consequently check panics to a certain extent. I do not believe that it is possible for the trades unions to do away with panics altogether, because panics depend not merely upon the condition of the industries of the United States, but upon the condition of the industries of the whole civilized world.

Q. Do you not contemplate, in the end, the participation of all labor and of all men in the benefits of the trades unions?—A. Of course we try to extend the good of the trades unions as well as we can and as far as we can.


Q. You have some hope even of the Hottentot, have you not?—A. What do you mean by that?

Q. I mean this: That although it is a great way off, still some time every man is to be an intelligent man and an enlightened man?—A. Well, our organization does not consist of idealists.

Q. But how are you to limit the progress of civilization? It goes from land to land. Races improve continually and the elements of human nature are always the same.—A. Well, we do not control the production of the world. That is controlled by the employers, and that is a matter for them.


Q. You are seeking to improve home matters first?—A. Yes, sir; I look first to the trade I represent; I look first to cigars, to the interests of men who employ me to represent their interests.

The CHAIRMAN. I was only asking you in regard to your ultimate ends.

The WITNESS. We have no ultimate ends. We are going on from day to day. We are fighting only for immediate objects—objects that can be realized in a few years.


Q. You want something better to eat and to wear, and better houses to live in?—A. Yes; we want to dress better and to live better, and become better off and better citizens generally.

The CHAIRMAN. I see that you are a little sensitive lest it should be thought that you are a mere theorizer. I do not look upon you in that light at all.

The WITNESS. Well, we say in our constitution that we are opposed to theorists, and I have to represent the organization here. We are all practical men.


Q. Have you not a theory upon which you have organized?—A. Yes, sir; our theory is the experience of the past in the United States and in Great Britain. That is our theory, based upon actual facts. Our organization has been experimenting for the last twenty years until we have arrived at a solid footing resting on experience.

Q. In other words you have arrived at the theory which you are trying to apply?—A. We have arrived at a practical result.

Q. But a practical result is the application of a theory, is it not?—A. Well, certainly there is no practical result without some theory.

Q. I agree to that. The difference is between good theories and bad ones, between false theories and true ones.—A. Yes; that is all.


Q. You have furnished us with a very valuable fund of information. Have you any further statement to make of any other facts connected with this labor question?—A. Well, I have not yet proposed any remedies.

Q. We shall be glad to hear your views on that subject.


A. Well, we propose—

1. That trades unions shall be incorporated. At present there are a great many of the States that do not protect our funds. It is simply a breach of trust to use our funds improperly and we have lost considerable money in that way. There was one case where the president of an organization ran away with $327 and it cost us over $l,000 to bring him to justice, and if it had not been in the State of Illinois, we probably could not have done anything with him. In the State of Michigan we have no protection for our funds. Being, as we are, a benevolent organization, we desire some protection from the Government, that is, a legal recognition and protection for the property we hold. The money we hold today is invested in savings banks, in probably 145 different banks, and there may be an opportunity to invest it in some safer institutions or in something else; but at present we have no right to invest our money except in Government bonds or in savings banks, and we claim the same right as the banks and other corporations have to be incorporated. The banks, as I understand are incorporated by the States, but we desire a general act passed by Congress which will cover the whole ground and save us from going from State to State. Therefore, we request that the Committee on Education and Labor of the Senate report, before the 15th day of December next, for the favorable consideration of the Senate, a bill for the incorporation of the trades unions, giving them legal rights and allowing them to have headquarters wherever they deem most fit or practicable. This, we hold, will give our organization more stability, and in that manner we shall be able to avoid strikes by perhaps settling with our employers, when otherwise we should be unable to do so, because when our employers know that we are to be legally recognized that will exercise such moral force upon them that they cannot avoid recognizing us themselves.

2. The next demand we make, one which we think will benefit labor, is the enforcement of the eight-hour law and its extension to the operation of all patents granted by the, Government. By that I mean that if the Government grants a patent to anybody for any kind of invention, it shall be with the stipulation that the labor performed under that patent shall not be more than eight hours a day.

3. Our third demand is this: We claim that it is necessary to obtain information in regard to such questions as those which this committee is now investigating, and to that end we believe there is a necessity for a national bureau of labor statistics. That was attempted by the organized workingmen of the United States in 1866, and we hold that it is time to provide for it by law. To-day there are very few trades in the United States which have the means of getting such information in regard to their own members as I am able to give in regard to the members of our organization, as to wages, cost of living, and so on. We have regular blanks which we issue monthly and annually, in which we make all these inquiries, and in that

manner we have collected, to a certain extent, our own statistics; but there is a large number of industries in the country which are not organized, and besides we have no means of getting information in regard to the profits of the employers, and we hold that such a national bureau of labor statistics would give our legislators a great deal of information which will be very valuable to them as legislators, and we hold further that it would be a benefit, not only to labor, but, also, even greater benefit to capital, to have all this information compiled annually and distributed generally.

4. Our fourth demand is what I have already stated, that the Senate Committee on Finance shall report an amendment to the revenue laws, prohibiting the granting of licenses after May 4, 1884, to prisons, penitentiaries, and other such places for the manufacture of cigars. This demand is made, of course, simply in the interest of my own trade.

These are all the demands which we think it necessary to make now, and we believe that if these are granted, they will tend to relieve labor, to prevent strikes, and to accomplish the results formulated in the resolution of the Senate under which you are acting.

Q. Is the tendency of the trades unions on the whole to increase or to lessen strikes, as an ultimate result?—A. Our organization has prevented within the last three years over 200 strikes. No strike for an increase of wages can be approved under our constitution unless by a two-thirds vote of all the unions, and if a union makes an unreasonable demand it is voted down. For instance, within three years, Rochester has made three applications, and they have all been voted down. And so it is with other cities.

Q. Do you not believe that is the tendency of trades organizations generally?—A. Yes; there is a tendency in old organizations to avoid strikes; new organizations are generally formed for the purpose of jumping into a strike.

Q. You found in 1877 that the General Government had the power of its military arm to prevent strikes?—A. Yes.

Q. If that is so and the Government could prevent strikes in that way, why might not that same General Government exercise its power to prevent strikes by authorizing the establishment of trades unions?—A. Well that interference of the Government in 1877 has its dark side. It means virtually (to speak of it as Abram S. Hewitt spoke of it in Congress), “It means virtually a national police and the breaking down of our republican form of government.”

Q. No. You understand that when a State calls upon the General Government to assist in the preservation for order, there is a power and a constitutional obligation on the part of the Federal Government to respond to such a call made by a State. Now, if there is in the General Government that power to use force to prevent strikes, why cannot the same Government authorize the establishment of trades unions which would have the same effect to prevent strikes?—A. I am not very well acquainted with constitutional law—

Q. What is the feeling on the part of wage receivers generally towards their employers; is it a feeling of amity and confidence or is it a feeling of distrust?—A. In places where men receive good wages there is a general good feeling; where they receive poor wages—starvation wages—there is generally bad feeling. The feeling between labor and capital depends largely on the employers. If they treat their men well and pay them fair wages, there is generally good feeling. If the employers treat their men badly and pay starvation wages, there is generally bad feeling. It depends wholly upon the employer. He has the power to encourage good feeling or the reverse.

Q. Mr. Lenz, the editor of a paper called Capital and Labor, expressed an opinion here that there was a growing socialistic feeling among the members of the trades unions; what is your observation in regard to that?—A. It is not so in the Cigar-makers' International Union. That organization does not inquire into the private opinions of a member; it takes in Democrats and Republicans, or anybody else so long as they are workers at the trade; that organization aims at practical measures, and will not allow any vague theories to be foisted upon it.

Q. Then you deny Mr. Lenz’s statement so far as it relates to your organization?—A. As regards the Cigar-makers' International Union, I positively deny it. The members of that organization are simply practical men, going for practical objects that can be accomplished in a few years; they are no "trimmers."

Source: Senate Committee on Education and Labor, Report of the Committee of the Senate, upon the relations between Labor and Capital and Testimony taken by the Committee, Vol. 1 (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1885), 449, 459–64, 466.