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“Certain Fundamental Truths”: The AFL Protests Unemployment

The spreading economic depression of 1893 stirred the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which was sometimes guilty of focusing primarily on the needs of its own members, to call for broad measures that would benefit all working people. The AFL urged the unemployed to hold mass demonstrations. The federation also organized “federal labor unions” of the jobless. New York’s organized labor movement also protested, as seen in this September 1893 appeal signed by local and national labor leaders, including Samuel Gompers. Although the resolution primarily called on the city to provide “immediate relief and public employment,” it also suggested that the state and federal governments should provide for the unemployed. This claim was part of a long-term shift in which working people and others came to see the needs of the jobless as more than a local obligation (in the manner of traditional poor relief). Only with the New Deal of the 1930s were such demands realized.

A hundred thousand men, women, and children are nearing the verge of starvation in this rich metropolis of these free United States. Hundreds of thousands of others are within but a short distance from want and its attendant suffering, misery and crime. From all the manufacturing and commercial centres there comes the anxious demand for work, soon we fear to be followed by the despairing cry for bread.

The fields of our matchless domain have blossomed with promise of an abundant harvest and beneath our feet is stored the wealth of ages, of metals and of minerals for the needs of men. The cattle reed upon a thousand hills and our forests covering empires of states crown the earth with glory. All nature smiles with the abundance of prosperous peace. The sword of war is sheathed and pestilence has withdrawn its destroying hand. Invention has quickened production and lessened cost. Electricity and steam have conquered time and space. The North and South, the East and remotest West are one, a grand indissoluble union of independent states. The hands of labor, skilled in every craft, answer the will of an intelligent, industrious, peace-loving people. The untaught, foreign born, oppressed for ages beneath the heel of usurping power, have come to these shores, as our fathers came, to seek a higher and a happier life. The forces of nature and the right good will of millions of workers on farm and sea, in mill and mine, and in all the enterprises of this new world of free men, are united to make this country the home of plenty—the garden and forum of the world.

A few thousand men and women enjoy the opulence of eastern potentates, while abject millions grovel in the dust begging for work and bread. This is the industrial and social exhibit of our Columbian year.

Against these conditions and their inevitable results and against the underlying causes that make poverty the normal condition of the wage-laborer, we, the organized workers of the city of New York, voicing as we do believe the organized labor of the world, enter our serious and determined protest and warning.

In this hour of distress and danger we call upon all citizens of all religious and political faiths, to give their most careful consideration to our appeal, and to the methods and measures herein set forth. The authors of the Declaration of Independence before severing the colonies from the mother country wisely set forth certain fundamental truths and upon the basis of these eternal verities erected the temple of political freedom.

So, we, mindful of the power of error and prejudice against any seeming departure from the beaten paths of human experience as in duty bound, make this declaration of the reasons that prompt our action and justify the methods and measures proposed.

We do not believe that the industrial and social system so firmly entrenched, can be changed for the better by declaration or demand, by edict of rulers, by laws of legislative assemblies, by individual or corporate experiments by riot or by the deadly anger of class hate.

We believe that so radical a change as we contemplate must be obtained by the slow process of evolutionary development.

That the methods and measures by which the world of workers to-day enjoy better conditions than those of other times and the greater purchasing power of a day’s work in the United States over that enjoyed by the laborers of other countries are the methods by and through which labor will receive its full measure of justice and equity.

We believe that the organization of wage-workers in trade unions is the purest guarantee of a peaceful solution of the world-wide problem: “How to abolish poverty.”

That the wage system of labor can be succeeded by a better one only through the increase of the purchasing power of a day’s work.

That increased wages (or increased purchasing power) reduces profit upon labor.

That a constant increase in wages and in reduction of profits will make a capitalistic or employing class unprofitable and unnecessary, thus eliminating classes and establishing equity.

That the reduction of the hours of labor increases wages without increasing the cost of production, and is a measure upon which the full power of the labor movement should be directed.

We also believe that in times of great distress, whether caused by the upheavals of nature, by earthquakes, floods, or cyclones, or when caused by man’s folly, ignorance, or avarice, as in the case of pestilence, fire, financial panics, and periods of industrial stagnation, it is the duty of all men to give relief to the suffering, to care for the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the houseless. We, therefore, call upon all to contribute funds for the unemployed, who wait for work in vain, and whose wives and little ones are starving in our streets.

That as a city is a co-operative corporation in which all citizens are shareholders, and all other residents guests or sojourners, no one citizen has the right to live in extravagant luxury while the other wants for the needs of life. We therefore call upon the Mayor and the Board of Aldermen of the city of New York to convene in special session and there devise ways and means in the same manner, and to the same effect, as they would in the case of flood, fire, or pestilence.

That as food obtained by work is more enjoyable than food obtained, even as a right, without work, we ask the city authorities to provide ways and means for the commencement and continuance of public works, and the employment of the new unemployed directly and not by contract.

That the same reasons that prompt us to call upon the officers of our city for appropriations for immediate relief and public employment, also prompt us to call upon the Governor of the State, and the President of the United States, to call attention by public proclamation and by legislative action to the same end, and in such manner as the fundamental law will permit.

In that immortal document that sounded the death-knell of kingcraft, the signers there to set forth a challenge and defiance to that social and industrial system, that rests upon the same foundation and upholds the theory of the divine rights of kings.

In the declaration: “That all men are born possessed with certain inalienable rights, among which are the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” will be found the keynote to a new and yet grander declaration of labor’s independence from the monarchical control of the industrial system

The right to life carries with it the right to means of life.

The right to liberty carries with it the right to that economic independence without which political liberty is void.

The right to the pursuit of happiness carries with it the right to all the opportunities and privileges that are necessary to the securing of happiness.

The administrative, executive and legislative acts herein called for are in line with precedents heretofore established. From its earliest days to these closing years of the century all the functions of government have been used not only for the security of property, but for the increase of capital. Bonuses for the establishment of new industries, and for the continuance of profitable investments, had been frequent. Appropriations had been made and the credit of municipalities, of states and of the United States Government had been granted and leased to capitalistic corporate and private enterprises, and the tariff costs have been placed upon the product of foreign manufactures. All and several of these have been granted under the plea that such bonuses, credits, appropriations and tariffs were granted and loaned for the good of all the people.

The confidence of all the people in the peaceful methods of agitation, organization and action, is worth more to the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of the people, and for the protection of property than the confidence of bankers in any financial system.

As humane men and women we entreat you to listen to the cry of labor for work and bread. As patriotic citizens we proclaim that those who control the industries and the finance of the United States are responsible for the employment and non-employment of labor, and we demand of them immediate relief for the victims of a system inherited from the ages of wrong with which the poor have been oppressed.

Source: Samuel Gompers, Chris Evans, Andrew J. Smith, Thos. C . Walsh, Henry Weismann, Jos. Barondess, Henry White, The American Federation of Labor, “To the People of the United States,” New York, August 21, 1893 in The Carpenter, 13 (September 1893): 9.