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The Great Debate: Gompers Versus Hillquit

At the turn of the 20th century, many socialists within the labor movement argued that unions should be an instrument of larger social transformation. Others, led by American Federation of Labor (AFL) President Samuel Gompers, believed that the labor movement should have more limited goals. In 1903 Gompers told socialist AFL members pushing for independent political action and public ownership of the means of production: “Economically, you are unsound; socially you are wrong; industrially you are an impossibility.” In 1914, Gompers once again participated in a public debate over the larger goals of the labor movement. His opponent was Morris Hillquit, a Jewish immigrant lawyer and a leading figure in the Socialist Party in New York. Gompers and Hillquit had been called to testify before a special session of the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations, set up by Congress to investigate the underlying causes of industrial strife in America.

Mr. HILLQUIT: Now,.is it your conception, Mr. Gompers, or that of the Federation, that workers in the United States today receive the full product of their labor?

Mr. GOMPERS: I think, but I am not quite so sure, that I know what you have in mind.

Mr. HILLQUIT: Do you understand my question?

Mr. GOMPERS: I think I do, but in the generally accepted sense of that term, no.

Mr. HILLQUIT: In any particular sense, yes?


Mr. HILLQUIT: Then the workers of this country do not receive the whole product of their labor? Can you hazard a guess as to what proportion of the product they do receive in the shape of wages?

Mr. GOMPERS: I will say that it is impossible for anyone to definitely say what proportion the workers receive as the result of their labor; but it is the fact that due to the organized-labor movement they have received and are receiving a larger share of the product of their labor than they ever did in the history of modern society.

Mr. HILLQUIT: Then one of the functions of organized labor is to increase the share of the workers in the product of their labor, is that correct?

Mr. GOMPERS: Yes, sir; organized labor makes constantly increasing demand upon society for reward for the services which the workers give to society, and without which the civilized life would be impossible.

Mr. HILLQUIT: And these demands for an increasing share of the reward of the product of labor continue by a gradual process all the time?

Mr. GOMPERS: I am not so sure as to gradual process. Sometimes it is not a gradual process, but it is all the time.

Mr. HILLQUIT: All the time?

Mr. GOMPERS: Yes, sir.

Mr. HILLQUIT: Then, Mr. Gompers, you assume that the organized labor movement has generally succeeded in forcing a certain increase of that portion of the workers in the share of the general product, do you?

Mr. GOMPERS: Yes, sir.

Mr. HILLQUIT: And it demands more now?

Mr. GOMPERS: Yes, sir.

Mr. HILLQUIT: And if it should get, say, 5 per cent more within the next year, will the organized labor movement rest contented with that and stop?

Mr. GOMPERS: Not if I know anything about human nature.

Mr. HILLQUIT: Will the organized labor movement, or the labor movement of the country generally, stop in its demands for an ever greater share in the product at any time before it has received or does receive the full product, and before in its eyes complete social justice shall have been done?

Mr. GOMPERS: That question again that you have bobbed up with quite serenely in regard to the share of the product of labor, say that the working people—and I prefer to say working people and speak of them as real human beings—the working people, as all other people, they are prompted by the same desires and hopes of a better life, and they are not willing to wait until after they have shuffled off this mortal coil for the better life, they want it here and now, and they want to make conditions better for their children so that they may meet the other, the newer problems in their time. The working people are pressing forward, pressing forward, making their claims and presenting those claims with whatever power they have, to exercise it in a normal, rational manner, to secure a larger, and constantly larger share of the products. They are working to the highest and best ideals of social justice.

Mr. HILLQUIT: Now, the highest and best ideals of social justice, as applied to the distribution of wealth, wouldn’t that be a system under which the workers, manual, mental, directive, executive and all other lines together get the sum total of all the products we supply them?

Mr. GOMPERS: Really, a fish is caught by the tempting bait: a mouse or a rat is caught in a trap by the tempting bait; the intelligent, comprehensive, common-sense workmen prefer to deal with the problems of today, the problem which confronts them today, with which they are bound to contend if they want to advance, rather than to deal with a picture and a dream which has never had, and I am sure never will have, any reality in the affairs of humanity, and which threaten, if it could be introduced, the worst system of circumscriptional effort and activity that has ever been invented by the ken of the human kind.

Mr. HILLQUIT: That is what I want to get from you, Mr. Gompers, but I would like to get an answer. In your experience with the labor movement and in its ever forward march toward greater and greater improvement, and a greater and greater share of social justice, can you point out any line where the labor movement will stop and rest contented so long as it may receive short of the full product of its work?

Mr. GOMPERS: I say that the workers, as human beings, will never stop in any effort, nor stop at any point in the effort to secure greater improvements in their condition, a better life in all its phases. And wherever that may lead, whatever that may be, so far in my time and my age I decline to permit my mind or my activities to be labeled by any particular “ism.”

Mr. HILLQUIT: Do not try to attach any “ism” to me, please; but the question I ask is whether you maintain—whether the American Federation of Labor, and its authorized spokesmen have a general social philosophy, or work blindly from day to day?

Mr. GOMPERS: I think your question—

Mr. HILLQUIT: (interrupting). Inconvenient.

Mr. GOMPERS: No. I will tell you what it is, it is a question prompted to you, and is an insult.

Mr. HILLQUIT: It is not a question prompted to me.

Mr. GOMPERS: It is an insult.

Mr. HILLQUIT: Why? Why, Mr. Gompers?

Mr. GOMPERS: To insinuate that the men and women in the American Federation of Labor movement are acting blindly from day to day.

Mr. HILLQUIT: I have not insinuated—

Mr. GOMPERS (interrupting): Your question implies it.

Mr. HILLQUIT: I am giving you an opportunity to deny.

Mr. GOMPERS: If a man should ask me whether I still beat my wife, any answer I could make would incriminate me if I answered yes or no. If I answered that I did not, the intimation would be that I had stopped. If I answered that I did, that I was continuing to beat her.

Mr. HILLQUIT: But Mr. Gompers, this question bears no analogy to that story—

Mr. GOMPERS (interrupting): Your question is an insult and a studied one.

Mr. HILLQUIT: Now, will you state whether you will or whether you will not answer my question?

Mr. GOMPERS: Will you repeat the question?

Mr. HILLQUIT. My question was whether the American Federation of Labor as represented by its spokesmen has a general social philosophy, or whether the organization is working blindly from day to day? Now, that is a plain question.

Mr. GOMPERS: Yes; it is a plain question; it is a plain insult.

Chairman WALSH: Do you refuse to answer it on the ground that it is insulting?

Mr. GOMPERS: Yes, sir.

Chairman WALSH: That is all, then.

Mr. HILLQUIT. Then, inform me upon this matter: In your political work of the labor movement is the American Federation of Labor guided by a general social philosophy, or is it not?

Mr. GOMPERS: It is guided by the history of the past, drawing its lessons from history, to know of the conditions by which the working people are surrounded and confronted; to work along the lines of least resistance; to accomplish the best results in improving the condition of the working people, men and women and children, today and tomorrow and tomorrow—and tomorrow’s tomorrow; and each day making it a better day than the one that had gone before. That is the guiding principle and philosophy and aim of the labor movement—in order to secure a better life for all.

Mr. HILLQUIT: But in these efforts to improve conditions from day to day you must have an underlying standard of what is better, don’t you?

Mr. GOMPERS: No. You start out with a given program, and everything must conform to it; and if the facts do not conform to your theories, why, your declarations, or, rather, your actions, betray the state of mind “so much the worse for the facts.”

Mr. HILLQUIT: Mr. Gompers, what I ask you is this: You say you try to make the conditions of the workers better every day. In order to determine whether the conditions are better or worse you must have some standards by which you distinguish the bad from the good in the labor movement, do you not?

Mr. GOMPERS: Certainly. Well, is that—

Mr. HILLQUIT (interrupting): Now, just—

Mr. GOMPERS (interrupting): Well, one moment. Does it require much discernment to know that a wage of $3 a day and a workday of 8 hours a day in sanitary workshops are all better than $2.50 a day and 12 hours a day and under perilous conditions of labor? It does not require much conception of a social philosophy to understand that.

Mr. HILLQUIT: Then, Mr. Gompers, by the same parity of reasoning, $4 a day and seven hours a day of work and very attractive working conditions are still better?

Mr. GOMPERS: Unquestionably.

Mr. HILLQUIT: Therefore—

Mr. GOMPERS (interrupting): Just a moment. I have not stipulated $4 a day or $8 a day or any number of dollars a day or eight hours a day or seven hours a day or any number of hours a day, but the best possible conditions obtainable for the workers is the aim.

Mr. HILLQUIT: Yes; and when these conditions are obtained—

Mr. GOMPERS (interrupting): Why, then, we want better.

Mr. HILLQUIT (continuing): You will still strive for better?


Mr. HILLQUIT: Now, my question is, Will this effort on the part of organized labor ever stop until it has the full reward for its labor?

Mr. GOMPERS: It won’t stop at all.

Mr. HILLQUIT: That is a question—

Mr. GOMPERS (interrupting): Not when any particular point is reached, whether it be that toward which you have just declared or anything else. The working people will never stop—

Mr. HILLQUIT: Exactly.

Mr. GOMPERS (continuing): In their effort to obtain a better life for themselves and for their wives and for their children and for humanity.

Mr. HILLQUIT: Then, the object of the labor union is to obtain complete social justice for themselves and for their wives and for their children?

Mr. GOMPERS: It is the effort to obtain a better life every day.

Mr. HILLQUIT: Every day and always—

Mr. GOMPERS: Every day. That does not limit it.

Mr. HILLQUIT: Until such time—

Mr. GOMPERS: Not until any time.

Mr. HILLQUIT: In other words—

Mr. GOMPERS (interrupting): In other words, we go further than you. (Laughter and applause in the audience.) You have an end; we have not.

Source: U.S. Congress, Senate, Final Report and Testimony Submitted to Congress by the Commission on Industrial Relations, 64th Cong., 1st sess., S. Doc. 415, 2 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1916), 1526–1529.