“Labor Will Not Be Outlawed or Enslaved” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

At a 1921 conference of union representatives in Washington, DC, participants proclaimed that the labor movement–which they believed was under assault by employers and had a negative public image–remained vital for workers in the postwar economy. The conference argued that the unions were invaluable as buffers between increasingly powerful industrial corporations and their employees. It also assailed the corporations for their tactics in attempting to block unionization. Furthermore, the conference called for public support of labor’s efforts to grow membership in non-union enterprises.

Summary Overview

At a 1921 conference of union representatives in Washington, DC, participants proclaimed that the labor movement–which they believed was under assault by employers and had a negative public image–remained vital for workers in the postwar economy. The conference argued that the unions were invaluable as buffers between increasingly powerful industrial corporations and their employees. It also assailed the corporations for their tactics in attempting to block unionization. Furthermore, the conference called for public support of labor’s efforts to grow membership in non-union enterprises.

Defining Moment

For organized labor, the early twentieth century was marked by successes and failures. The dramatic post–Civil War expansion of American industrial development–including railroad construction, manufacturing, and automobile assembly–sparked a high demand for unskilled laborers. These workers, many of whom were immigrants, frequently worked in crowded, unhealthy, and dangerous conditions for long hours at meager wages. Union leaders like Samuel Gompers began organizing labor, seeking to create a unified force of workers to push back against the massive corporations that hired them. During the first decade of the 1900s, there were thousands of unions in the United States, the largest of which were the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”). The AFL, the United States’ first federation of labor unions, was formed in 1886, and Gompers was its first president; some, however, felt that the AFL was insufficiently radical and had not been effective in organizing the US working class, which led to the formation of the IWW in 1905.

The establishment of these unions created open conflict between workers and employers. One of the most significant strikes in American history, the Great Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, occurred during this period. This strike resulted in a stoppage of production of coal, one of the most vital natural resources of the time, and fomented violence between the two sides. The administration of President Theodore Roosevelt intervened and established an arbitration commission that ended the strike and made concessions to both sides.

During the Woodrow Wilson administration, organized labor that avoided the radical tendencies of Communism or anarchism saw an improvement in its public standing. The progressive Democrat Wilson endeared himself to these unions–mainly the AFL. During World War I, the AFL (unlike the more radical IWW) fully supported the American war effort and agreed to abstain from striking during this period. As a reward for its political stance, the AFL’s members garnered a number of key military manufacturing contracts. In contrast, the IWW and other radical groups were targeted as subversives by the Justice Department.

At the war’s end, however, labor-management relations began to slide backward. The relative goodwill between labor, employers, and the federal government that sprouted during World War I returned to an adversarial state when the matters of reconstruction and economic development came to center stage. There were numerous causes for this return to contention: the more conservative and anti-labor administration of Wilson’s successor, Warren Harding; the large number of breakdowns in contract negotiations in key industries (mainly over wages and working conditions); and the growing belief that foreign-based Communists and Socialists were behind the growth in union strength and activity. There were numerous strikes between 1919 and 1921, some of which threatened to shut down industries of vital import to the postwar reconstruction and development effort. Word even began to circulate that, during the war, unions had become so entrenched in government manufacturing operations that non-union workers were told they could only have a job if they joined a union.

In light of these events and factors, public sentiment–most of which was already firmly anti-Communist–began to turn against even Gompers and the more moderate organized labor movement. With labor at a critical stage, Gompers and his supporters hastily assembled a conference of union representatives in Washington, DC. The event’s participants would seek to clarify labor’s agenda and, most importantly, solicit the support of the general public.

Document Analysis

The Conference of Representatives of National and International Trade Unions, which took place in late February of 1921, was designed to unify the labor movement in the face of increasing opposition from employers, the government, and the general public. Conference attendees saw it as crucial to secure the support of the last and most important of these constituencies, the American public. The event’s resulting declaration, which was signed by more than 110 participants, appealed to the public to aid labor in its efforts to fight what the signatories saw as a threat to workers’ rights as well as democracy itself.

In their declaration, the Conference participants attempt to link the agenda of organized labor to the everyday lives of average Americans. For example, the declaration states that industries are, through their own actions, causing a decline in wages, which in turn will lead to a decline in consumer activity, ultimately affecting the economy. Additionally, the declaration reads, labor defends Americans’ liberties, including the right to work and freedom from servitude and tyranny.

Furthermore, the participants state that labor is under attack from two extremes: One extreme is conservative politicians and industrialists, both of whom (the declaration claims) are trying to curtail workers’ rights to organize and negotiate better hours, work conditions, and wages. On the other side of the spectrum is the hot-button issue of the postwar period–political radicalism, especially Communism. The latter movements, the declaration states, abhor American organized labor because it is democratic and voluntary in nature and not susceptible to radical, revolutionary changes. These groups, therefore, seek to destroy American labor as part of their efforts to undermine the American way of life.

In light of these points, the declaration calls upon the general public to reject the claims of employers and conservative politicians that the labor movement is somehow inherently communistic and un-American, and instead support American organized labor’s true ideals. These principles include the right to organize, engage in collective bargaining, and otherwise participate in labor activities. The document also encourages the public to approach their respective congressional delegations to support labor’s political agenda. This agenda includes legislation to protect workers on the job and prevent unnecessary legal interventions in labor disputes, as well as the repeal of any “restrictive and coercive” state or federal laws that adversely affect union activities, and a two-year prohibition on immigration. (The participants argue that employers use the large influx of immigrants, who were willing to work for far lower wages, to circumvent the need to pay Americans adequate wages.)

Furthermore, the declaration acts as an appeal to organized workers (and those who wish to organize) to unify in the face of the aforementioned threats to the American labor movement. The participants call for workers to reject any efforts to create “open shops” (workplaces that employ non-union laborers). The declaration also called upon the unions to continue, in a cohesive manner, the effort to increase wages, improve workplace conditions, and protect workers’ collective rights and liberties.

Signed by 112 conference participants, including AFL president Samuel Gompers, this declaration was later printed in the April edition of the AFL’s periodical, American Federationist, as a call to action for the thousands of AFL members who could not attend the February conference.

Essential Themes

The February conference organized by Samuel Gompers served two main purposes. The first of these was to project a positive image to–and generate support from–the American public. The second purpose was to activate and galvanize the unions as they continued their fight to organize, receive better wages, and operate in more agreeable workplace environments.

The American public, the conference participants believed, had been fed a great deal of misinformation regarding the activities of the labor movement. This declaration was intended to provide the truth about the labor movement and, hopefully, generate public support for the unions. To this end, the declaration identified the organized labor movement as a protector of the American worker as well as a chief defender of the American way of life. The document even attempted to identify labor as a victim, constantly under attack by uncompromising (and often illegally operating) employers as well as fanatical foreign forces bent on destroying the American economy. American industries, the participants claimed, were using legal injunctions, political influence, and unregulated immigration as a means to halt union organization, hinder collective bargaining, and keep wages low. If the public rallied behind the union movement by supporting its political and social agendas, labor could continue to defend the principles and ideals put forth in the US Constitution. In turn, the American economy and general way of life would be safeguarded.

At the same time it was soliciting external support from the wider American public, the conference looked to all members of the American labor movement for their involvement. Labor’s pursuits were daunting, particularly in light of the aforementioned assaults on its activities from both the right and the left. The unions needed to come together and support the myriad campaigns, collective bargaining sessions, strikes, and other activities taking place in every state and in Washington. Workers themselves needed to join the movement, the declaration stated. Any workers who had an opportunity to organize or join a union should do so, the participants said. Only through solidarity and unity, the declaration said, could workers protect their own best interests from the unscrupulous behavior of employers.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Becoming Modern: America in the 1920s.” America in Class. National Humanities Center, 2012. Web. 12 May 2014.
  • Breen, William J. Labor Market Politics and the Great War: The Department of Labor, the States, and the First Employment Service, 1907–1933. Kent: Kent State UP, 1997. Print.
  • Domhoff, G. William. “The Rise and Fall of Labor Unions in the US.” Who Rules America? U of California at Santa Cruz, Feb. 2013. Web. 12 May 2014.
  • Goldberg, David J. Discontented America: The United States in the 1920s. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. Print.
  • Grubb, Frank L. Samuel Gompers and the Great War: Protecting Labor’s Standards. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan/Meridional, 1982. Print.
  • Livesay, Harold C. Samuel Gompers and Organized Labor in America. Long Grove: Waveland, 1993. Print.
  • Saros, Daniel E. Labor, Industry, and Regulation during the Progressive Era. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.
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