Labor, Freedom and Democracy


By WILLIAM GREEN, President, American Federation of Labor

Delivered at Denver, Colo., September 2, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 754-756

ON Labor Day we in America celebrate the economic freedom of American workers. It is a national holiday. Just as on July Fourth we commemorate the Declaration of Independence which gave America its political freedom, so on the first Monday of each September we pay fitting tribute to the progress of the organized labor movement which serves to emancipate the workers of our country from wage-slavery.

The significance and importance of your Labor Day Celebration here in Denver is immeasurably increased through the attendance and participation of the representatives of 150,000 members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Stablemen and Helpers of America. These workers are a part of the largest international union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. The paid-up membership of this International Union is in excess of 400,000, and I predict that within a reasonable length of time it will be increased to 600,000. I welcome these sturdy, loyal, devoted members of the American Federation of Labor from the far-West. We are happy because they are with us. We ask them to join enthusiastically and wholeheartedly with us in this great Labor Day Celebration. We extend to them the hand of friendship, and the felicitations of five million of their fellow members affiliated with the American Federation of Labor.

Working people cherish freedom as a priceless possession. For this reason, they unite in opposing regimentation, governmental or otherwise. They will never surrender their personal liberty, freedom of action, freedom of speech, freedom of assemblage, and the exercise of the right to organize into free, democratic unions.

A new appreciation of the value of freedom and liberty has developed in the hearts and minds of American workers. This has been brought about because the World War has opened their eyes to the horrors of industrial regimentation of workers in totalitarian countries, where everyone is subject to governmental control, even in the ordinary and normal activities of social and economic life. Through contrast, American workers have learned a lesson which they could not gain from a purely academic source.

From the beginning the American Federation of Labor has condemned with equal and unqualified force the dictatorships of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini. We saw at once, as all discerning Americans see today, that dictatorship in any form and under any label deprives the great mass of human beings of their basic and inalienable rights and liberties. We warned then, and we warn with even greater fervor now, that the hunger of the European dictators for more and morepower can never be appeased and that their continued existence constitutes a menace to freedom and democracy in every part of the world, including our own beloved country.

Who could have imagined on Labor Day a year ago that within a few months practically all of Europe would be devastated by war? Who could have believed that the rights of the free and peace-loving peoples of Czecho-Slovakia, Poland, Norway, Denmark, Holland and Belgium would be crushed by a war machine that totally disregards human decency? Who would have thought that the great army of France would crumble so quickly in the face of the blitzkreig? Who could have predicted that the threat of invasion from across the seas would ever face America?

Yet these things have happened with breathless speed and today America is threatened—America and civilization. Today Great Britain, with her navy depleted, her air force weakened and her whole population with their backs to the wall, stands as the last obstacle between us and the onward march of the dictators.

This is Great Britain's hour of need and extremity. She needs help as never before. The American Federation of Labor believes that the United States should extend every help to her, short of entry into the war. We are convinced that in assisting Great Britain now we are strengthening our own national defense.

That is not an involved or far-fetched statement. Like all truths it is simple and compelling in its logic. If Great Britain succumbs, the United States and her sister Republics in the Western Hemisphere may be the next targets of the European dictators. We may face immediate war. The war may be an economic one at first, but it will be bitter and costly. The Atlantic Ocean may no longer be an insuperable barrier to military invasion of this hemisphere.

On the other hand, if Great Britain triumphs and Hitler is overthrown the threat to America will be dispelled. As long as Great Britain and her navy bar the way, Hitler and his blitzkrieg can never come here.

Therefore, the American Federation of Labor believes that this nation should not only extend sympathy to Great Britain but we should give her all the help and assistance we can.

We hope and pray that Great Britain will be victorious in her present death struggle with Hitler. But we must be prepared for the worst. Therefore, the American Federation of Labor pledges its full and unreserved support to the gigantic national defense program undertaken by President Roosevelt. Let us build more ships and more planes. Let us expand and modernize our army. Let us broaden and increase our industrial production. Let us show those who

would destroy our nation and our liberties that we are prepared to meet force with greater force in defense of our homeland.

Because I know the hearts and the minds of American working men and women, I can publicly pledge their services will be willingly and loyally devoted to the successful completion of our defense program. America's workers can be relied upon wholly and absolutely to do the job the nation requires and demands. Furthermore, as their spokesman, I pledge to our Government that the workers of America will respond whole-heartedly to the call, if it ever is needed, to take up arms in defense of our homeland, our freedom and our American way of life.

The great army of workers and the unions represented by the American Federation of Labor courageously face the fact that the preservation of America and democracy transcends all other considerations.

Truly observing the spirit of Labor Day, we stand here and publicly proclaim that we are ready to work, we are ready to sacrifice, we are ready to fight for America.

Our National Preparedness program must provide for the maintenance of our economic and social gains. They must neither be lowered nor wiped out. Profiteering and exploitation must be prohibited. The creation of war millionaires must be prevented and governmental guarantees must be given that no one called to serve the nation will be sent abroad to engage in a European conflict. We must prepare for defense but never for aggression.

I am gratified to report that the Government of the United States knows and appreciates the loyal spirit of Americas workers and has made a solemn pledge to them. That pledge is the assurance that the great advances achieved by organized labor after more than a half-century of struggle will not be scuttled to satisfy the greed of war profiteers. The American standard of work and the American standard of living will not be discarded, but will be fully upheld, in the defense program. In other words the Government recognizes that industrial democracy must be preserved if we are to preserve our national democracy.

In order to strengthen our military forces, Congress is now considering a proposal to conscript an army of a million men for military training and service. This measure was sponsored by men who do not enjoy the full confidence of organized labor. It was not drafted by the Administration, but by men who have consistently opposed the Administration. The bill has been so widely amended from day to day that the American people have not been able to keep up with its manifold changes.

The American Federation of Labor opposes the Burke-Wadsworth bill. We have no more confidence in it than in its sponsors. We do not consider it well-drawn or well-planned. On a matter as vital as this to the nation's welfare, we feel that it is the duty of the President of the United States to send a message to Congress stating the man-power needs of the nation's military forces and recommending a definite program to fulfil these needs. This is the first time in history when the American peoplehave faced a proposal for peace-time conscription. We should not undertake such a step blindly or lightly. The American Federation of Labor will not oppose conscription if it can be proved that the traditional method of voluntary enlistment has failed. But there has been a great deal of misinformation spread on this subject. Present enlistment procedure calls for long-term service. We suggest that the Government offer a new kind of enlistment, say for a training period of one year or a year and a half, with the guarantee that recruits will not be called upon to serve in a European war. Let the Government offer these inducements, together with reasonable increase in soldiers' pay, and we predict that thousands who are now hesitant would flock to the colors. At any rate, the position of organized labor is that voluntary enlistment should and must be given a fair trial first in the traditional American way. Then, if this system fails, the nation will without hesitation agree to the final expedient of compulsory conscription. I have great confidence in the common-sense judgment of the American people. I think their reluctance to accede to compulsory conscription in time of peace is sound and justified and patriotic. On this issue we say to our Government: "We do not know what this is all about. We are not obstructionists, we are patriotic Americans. Give us the facts. Show us frankly why conscription is needed. If we actually need conscription, we are ready to approve it."

American labor already has demonstrated that it recognizes and is capable of assuming its responsibilities in the defense program. There have been few, if any, serious strikes since the inception of the defense drive. Organized labor, as represented by the American Federation of Labor, realizes that at a time like this industrial conflict would be stupid and dangerous. We urge workers and employers alike to be calm and patient. We appeal to them to be governed by fair play in human relations in industry. American labor, suffering from a ten-year plague of unemployment, does not want strikes. It wants work. Nor does American industry want strikes. It is now gearing itself for greater and greater production. Let both sides follow the peaceful and sensible policy of collective bargaining in the settlement of any disputes that may arise. That is our prayer and our purpose.

There is more to national defense than armament. The forces of Communism, Naziism and Fascism have not conquered in Europe by armed might alone. They have organized subversive movements and undermined in advance the nations they planned to invade. They have used the Fifth Column as the first battering ram against the defense of their victims.

The Fifth Column has now moved across the Atlantic. The agents of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini have penetrated every key country in the Western Hemisphere, including our own United States. They are here, operating secretly and behind many disguises.

Never before was it so important that American labor should be strong and united. Powerful forces are trying to move heaven and earth in an effort to whittle down labor's gains and destroy its standards. Organized labor will need to draw upon its full resources to resist such selfish attacks.

Why, then, is labor peace being delayed? Who is the obstructionist? Certainly it is not the American Federation of Labor. The President of the United States, himself, has attested to the fact that the American Federation of Labor has responded willingly to every call for negotiations to bring about a settlement. It is the leader of the dual movement who refused. It was this same individual who vetoed a peace agreement which had been drawn up and approved by committees representing both sides. He is the sole obstructionist.

Let me repeat once more the position of the American Federation of Labor so that there can be no misunderstandings or mistakes. The American Federation of Labor is willing to do anything in reason to promote peace. We are willing to let bye-gones be bye-gones. We want those who left us to come back home. We will welcome them without discrimination and without penalties of any kind.

The American Federation of Labor reiterates this standing offer not because it is weak, but because it is strong. At this moment, the membership of the American Federation of Labor is higher than at any previous time in its history. The prestige of the American Federation of Labor is at its peak. Its influence in national affairs has never been greater. The voices of America's workers speak to the nation through the American Federation of Labor.

In the interests of our national defense, this nation must do more than ever before to strengthen its national economy. Organized labor has made a great contribution in this direction by lifting the standards of work and living to a high level by collective bargaining and by legislation. But there is still one great, gaping hole in our economic armor. That is the chronic condition of unemployment from which we have suffered for the past ten years. We must overcome this economic handicap to attain our full strength as a nation. The latest estimates of the American Federation of Labor show there are still more than nine and a half million unemployed in this country. We are convinced that the Government is doing everything in its power to provide jobs for them and to alleviate their distress. We hope and expect that the national defense program will, for a time at least, provide vast new employment opportunities. But we feel itis incumbent on our Government to find a permanent cure and solution of this pressing problem.

The strength of the American Federation of Labor rests upon a solid foundation of democracy and loyalty. We have never sacrificed these principles for any reason whatsoever. We have never resorted to dictatorship. We have relied on the intelligence and good sense of the members of the American Federation of Labor unions to see to it that their unions are operated, legally, Constitutionally and in accordance with the highest principles of trade unionism. Members of a union, just as citizens of our democracy, must be vigilant and active if they want good, clean government. This is a serious responsibility of every good trade unionist and every good citizen. It is a responsibility that cannot be shirked or passed on to someone else. That is the price of democracy. Your union and your government are what you yourselves make it. That is your right and your privilege as American workers. The American Federation of Labor stands as the immovable protector of those rights and privileges. It will never invade them or seize them in the manner of dictatorships.

It is eminently fitting that the President of the American Federation of Labor, the historic labor movement of America, should participate in the Labor Day Celebration this year here in Denver, a city located at the base of the Rocky Mountains; the center of the Nation, and figuratively speaking the heart of America. Here, at an elevation one mile high, towering above the sea-level industrial cities of the East, we renew our vows of devotion to American democracy, freedom and liberty. We solemnly rededicate ourselves to the task of defending our homeland against invasion, and to the preservation of our form of government, our democratic institutions, our individual liberties and our free, democratic trade unions.

The great Rocky Mountains, which serve as an appropriate stage setting for this historic Labor Day Celebration, with all their challenging majesty, typify the set purpose of the officers and members of the American Federation of Labor to resist the efforts of subversive forces to penetrate into our economic, industrial, social and political life.

We who have faith in humanity, in justice and in a Divine Power refuse to believe in the triumph of evil. We who seek the light are not afraid of the dark. We know a new day is coming, we know that peace and progress will once again be restored to humankind. Until that day comes we are ready to fight to the last drop of blood to defend and preserve America and the American way of life.