A Labor Leader on Military Conscription Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

National labor unions gained prominence in the decades leading up to World War I. Organizations like the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the Socialist Party, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) fought for workers’ rights and improvements to wages and working conditions across industries. Most union leaders were pacifists, as they believed war to be anti-progress and anti-worker, but industrial workers also benefitted from the jobs and stability brought about by the material support of war abroad. Many labor leaders were active in peace movements and spoke out against the war in Europe.

Summary Overview

National labor unions gained prominence in the decades leading up to World War I. Organizations like the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the Socialist Party, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) fought for workers’ rights and improvements to wages and working conditions across industries. Most union leaders were pacifists, as they believed war to be anti-progress and anti-worker, but industrial workers also benefitted from the jobs and stability brought about by the material support of war abroad. Many labor leaders were active in peace movements and spoke out against the war in Europe.

When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, America’s all-volunteer army was not large enough to fight the war, and conscription (the draft) was necessary. The support of union leaders such as AFL cofounder and president Samuel Gompers was key in encouraging workers to support the war effort. The unions of the AFL encouraged their members to enlist and discouraged strikes and other anti-war activism.

Defining Moment

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson requested that Congress approve a declaration of war against Germany. Relations between Germany and the United States, which had deteriorated sharply since the sinking of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania in 1915, had taken a turn for the worse again in the first months of 1917. Germany had openly violated its pledge to halt unrestricted submarine warfare, and the United States had uncovered a secret attempt by Germany to bring Mexico into the war on the German side. Several days after Wilson’s request, war was declared by both houses of Congress.

It was soon apparent that an army of sufficient size could not be raised through voluntary enlistment. In the first six weeks of the war, a million men were expected to enlist. When only seventy-three thousand did so, the government turned to conscription to fill the ranks. The Selective Service Act was passed by Congress on May 18, 1917, requiring that all men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty register for service. The act sought to remedy the more offensive elements of the Civil War draft, which had caused rioting and bloodshed, by allowing for generous exemptions and by not allowing draftees to hire a substitute. Still, the draft was a tough sell to the American people, who had been convinced of the rightness of neutrality by Wilson himself. A concerted effort was needed to promote the idea that the war and the draft were morally right.

Official war propaganda was handled by George Creel, a veteran newspaperman. The Committee on Public Information organized seventy-five thousand speakers in support of the war and sent them out to give four-minute speeches across the country. Creel relied on AFL leader Samuel Gompers to galvanize support for the war among working men and labor leaders, as the AFL had more than 2.4 million members in 1917. That summer, Gompers founded the American Alliance for Labor and Democracy, a pro-war committee whose charge was to “unify sentiment in the nation,” and who sought to counterbalance the anti-war activities of the Socialist Party of America. Conservative and moderate labor leaders believed not only in the moral rightness of the war, but that it was an opportunity to prove the patriotism of the American worker and to win more rights and respect for their cause. Because of this, these labor leaders did not tolerate anti-war activism in their ranks.

Anti-war rallies took place across the country in May of 1917. A meeting of twenty thousand, organized by a coalition of pacifist organizations took place in Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. Wilson’s government, with Gompers’s help, disrupted or prevented meetings, even calling out the National Guard to prevent anti-war rallies. Civil liberties and freedom of speech were severely curtailed, and activists were prosecuted. Gompers, himself a pacifist, remained committed to the war effort, convinced that it was advantageous to the American worker as well as being his patriotic duty.

Author Biography

Samuel Gompers was born in England in 1850. He immigrated with his family to the United States in 1863. While working at a cigar factory in New York City, Gompers joined his first union in 1864 at the of age fourteen. He was elected president of the Local 144 (New York City) division of the Cigarmakers’ International Union of America in 1875. In 1886, Gompers helped found the American Federation of Labor and served as its president until his death in 1924.

Gompers began his career as a labor leader strongly in favor of the tenants of socialism, or the redistribution of wealth to all citizens. As time passed, however, he became increasingly committed to a more conservative approach, arguing that unions are better served by advocating for “class harmony” and “benevolent capitalism.” This conservative approach served him well at the beginning of the war, when he was able to work closely with the government to mobilize American industrial workers in support of the war effort.

Gompers helped develop wartime labor policies that explicitly mandated government support for collective bargaining and independent trade unions. He anticipated that the gains made during the war, which had been won by negotiation rather than by strikes and other activism, would remain in place after it. However, most of the gains made during the war were undone at its end, and strikes and labor unrest returned.

Document Analysis

Like many labor leaders, Samuel Gompers was a dedicated pacifist and had spoken out against going to war. However, he also saw opportunities to advance the cause of organized labor in the manufacture of goods and munitions needed for war. As early as 1916, when it seemed that the United States would inevitably be drawn in, Gompers worked to ensure that unions were part of the early readiness campaign. Because of the continued unpopularity of the war among union members and his own open pacifism, Gompers addresses his change of heart early in this speech. He has been, he states, “in happy accord” with peace activists, and has himself been a member of any number of state, national, and international peace organizations. He had, at one time, publically advocated a general strike to prevent war, believing, along with other international labor leaders, that workers could be mobilized so that there would never be an international war.

This “fool’s paradise” ended for Gompers in 1914, when Germany attacked Belgium and then France. In his speech, Gompers says he worked with expert German cigar assemblers in his younger days in New York and counts them among his mentors and friends, and he has participated in many international labor organizations. There is a particular poignancy in his description of men who had worked to alleviate the suffering of mankind who have now turned to “seeking each other’s destruction.”

Gompers states that the United States, like Gompers himself, wants peace and has tried to remain neutral, but since the nation’s “life and liberty are challenged and menaced,” there is no choice but to go to war. Gompers states his hope that this war will be the last one; the theme of a war for peace is one that reconciles his pacifist beliefs and his call for support of the war effort. Though Gompers is made ill by the thought of having a part in suffering or pain, he believes that the sacrifices needed to go to war are necessary.

Essential Themes

The primary theme in Gompers’s speech is the reconciliation of the desire for peace, shared by most of the country, and the call for US entry into the war. During the first years of World War I, the United States remained neutral, and though sentiments changed after the sinking of the Lusitania and other civilian deaths at German hands, many Americans in 1917 still believed in the pursuit of a peaceful solution. Gompers was able to reconcile this hesitancy with his support of the war by arguing that the war would prevent future wars, and that the United States had no choice but to go to war as a matter of defense and moral imperative.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Gompers, Samuel. American Labor and the War. New York: Doran, 1919. Internet Archive. Web. 24 Jan. 2014.
  • __________. Seventy Years of Life and Labor: An Autobiography. 1925. Ithaca: IRL, 1984. Print.
  • “Milestones: 1914–1920: American Entry into World War I, 1917.” Office of the Historian. US Dept. of State, n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2014.
  • “Samuel Gompers (1850–1924).” AFL-CIO. AFL-CIO, n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2014.
Categories: History Content