In 1892 the possibility of a Labor-Populist alliance circulated. Populist orators like Mary Lease sought to build ties between the Farmer’s Alliance and the labor movement by mobilizing farmers to send wheat and corn to striking workers at Carnegie’s Homestead mill. Top labor leaders like Samuel Gompers did not respond to Lease’s and other Populist leaders’ overtures. Gompers’s opposition to labor support for Populism was part of his broader reluctance to entangle the labor movement in any political alliance or in political action at all. Despite Gompers’s opposition, the 1892 AFL convention did endorse the Populist calls for initiative, referendum, and government ownership of the telephone and telegraph system as well as a campaign to increase trade unions’ political activities. In 1896 there was renewed pressure for the AFL to endorse the combined Democratic-Populist ticket headed by William Jennings Bryan. Gompers sought to meet that pressure with this circular to “affiliated unions,” which argued against allying with the Populist Party.
We will soon be in the throes of a political campaign. The passions of men will be sought to be aroused, their prejudices and supposed ignorance played upon and brought into action. The partisan zealot, the political mounteback, the statesman for revenue only, as well as the effervescent, bucolic political party, cure-all sophist and fakir, will be rampant. The dear workingman and his interests will be the theme of all alike, who really seek party advantage and success, though civilization fall, labor be crushed and relapse into barbarism be the result.
We are on the eve of events which will place our members, our unions and our entire movement to a most critical test, a test which may mean either a partial dissolution of our organizations, or their growth, extension and development. It is because of the great trust committed to my care that a timely word of advice and warning is given lest our members be taken unawares, fail to profit by the experience of labor organizations which have weathered the storms, and those others whose only evidence of former greatness or existence are their epitaphs folly, blunders, calamities. “Learn to see in another’s calamity the ills which you should avoid” is a maxim which Syrus declared more than nineteen hundred years ago; and it is as applicable to our times as it was when first penned.
Whatever labor secures now or secured in the past is due to the efforts of the workers themselves in their own organizations—the trades unions on trade union lines, on trade union action. When in previous years the workers were either unorganized or poorly organized, the political trickster scarcely ever have a second thought to the dear workingman and his interests. During the periods of fair or blossoming organization the political soothsayers attempted by cajolery and baiting to work their influence into the labor organizations; to commit them to either party or the other.
There are many organizations which may declare that their unions are safe from such influences, and, lulled into a fancied security, permit the virus of political partisanship to be injected into their very being; laying their unions liable to the most malignant diseases of division, antagonism and disruption. Bear in mind that the modern political party freebooter finds his prototype in the one who “For ways that are dark and tricks that are in vain the heathen (political) Chinese is peculiar?”
The industrial field is littered with more corpses of organizations destroyed by the damning influence of partisan political action than from all other causes combined. Nor must it be at all lost sight of that this does not only apply to local or national trade unions but also to previous efforts of labor at national federation. The National Labor Union, in its time a great federation, after it committed itself to political partisan action, went to the limbo of movements which no longer moved. After that act it acted no more. No convention of that organization was ever after held.
In the light of that experience the American Federation of Labor has always declared and maintained that the unions of labor are above, and should be beyond, the power and influence of political parties. It was with these great object lessons still dangling before our vision, . . . like the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads by a single thread, which, severed by a failure to profit by past experience, may leave us headless, and the whole body of organized labor bleeding to death, a hapless victim of our own folly, serfs or slaves to the cupidity of corporate monopolistic greed, that the A. F. of L. at its last convention resolved that,
“Party politics, whether they be Democratic, Republican, Socialistic, Populistic, Prohibition, or any other shall have no place in the conventions of the American Federation of Labor.”
This action, while it directly decrees the course for the conventions of the A. F. of L. is also a declamation of policy and principle and hence applies equally to all affiliated organizations.
The power of the trade unions is extending to all classes and influencing public sympathy and public judgment. Let us build up our organizations upon a solid basis . . . , that they may endure for all time, that they may be our protectors, our defenders in our struggle for justice and right; that we may turn the in the hour of our trials with the confidence of our manhood maintained, and in the hour of our triumphs to pay them the meed of praise and glory of victories won, men, women and children saved, our civilization and emancipation assured.
Let the watchword be: No political party domination over the trade unions; no political party influence over trade union action.
Long live the trade union! Long live the American Federation of Labor!
Source: Samuel Gompers, President, American Federation of Labor, Indianapolis, “To Affiliated Unions,” 27 June 1896, National Labor Standard, July 1896.