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5. Labor Union

In late 1920, the American labor movement was at a critical juncture. Having been valued as a partner in achieving victory in World War One, it was now vilified as anti-American, demanding, and guilty of putting its goals ahead of the general welfare. What had caused such a change? As workers found employers unwilling to negotiate for higher wages after the war as prices kept rising, strikes were called by the hundreds in 1919 and 1920. The general public condemned the strikes, resenting the cut-off of heating fuel and other necessities, and fearing that foreign-inspired Communists and anarchists were behind the upheavals. The American Federation of Labor, struggling to affirm a moderate stance in the trade union movement, moved to defend itself against mounting charges of disloyalty and radicalism.

    Letters to a bishop PDF file
  • AFL, Letters to a Bishop, 1920. Are labor unions a threat to America? By early 1920, amidst paralyzing strikes and the postwar Red Scare, the answer for many Americans was "yes." In a rousing address in Baltimore, Bishop William Quayle of the Methodist Episcopal Church accused the labor movement of threatening the "very existence of our republican form of government," a charge leveled by many critics at the time. The AFL president, Samuel Gompers, responded to Quayle's charges in a letter, and a brief correspondence ensued. It did not end well. Published by the AFL as Letters to a Bishop, the interchange provides a capsule summary of the deeply held positions fueling the labor union controversy of the early 1920s. (6 pp.)

  • The Challenge Accepted PDF file
  • AFL, The Challenge Accepted, 1921. As anti-union hostility increased, Gompers called a conference of trade unions to initiate an AFL promotional campaign and portray the labor union as an American institution protecting democracy and freedom for all. The resulting declaration was signed by representatives of 112 trade unions and appeared in the AFL periodical The American Federationist. How did union leaders decide to counter the anti-union criticism? How did they appeal to the "general public" of non-union Americans to consider "workingmen" their allies and not their enemies? What can be learned from the list of 112 signing unions? (7 pp.)

  • AFL silent film: Labor's Reward, 1925

    As part of its promotional campaign, the AFL produced the film Labor's Reward in 1925, screening it at no charge across the country. Through a dramatic plot centering on a young woman sickened from overwork in a non-union bookbinding shop, and a young labor organizer who befriends her and helps her launch a shop union, Labor's Reward delivered two messages: (1) labor unions provide a fair and reasonable process for balancing the worker-employer relationship; (2) buying only union-made goods promotes workers' power to negotiate with employers. Before watching the surviving reel (the third of five), listen to the commentary of Steve Ross, a labor historian at the University of Southern California, that accompanies the brief clip from the film.

See also in this collection: Labor Strike and Labor & Capital.

Discussion Questions

  1. What were the major goals and tactics of the AFL promotional campaign?
  2. What anti-union positions did the campaign work to refute?
  3. What were the greatest obstacles, from the AFL perspective, of getting its message across to the American people?
The Challenge Accepted___
  1. What was the "challenge accepted" in the AFL declaration? How did the unions intend to meet the challenge?
  2. Why did they identify the union as an "American institution of freedom"?
  3. How did they argue that collective bargaining is an application of American justice and democracy?
  4. Why did they call on Americans to "rally with labor to the defense of our imperiled institutions"? What were these "imperiled institutions"?
  5. What foundational American document did they quote in the declaration's conclusion? Why?
  6. For what five rights did they request "public support and recognition"?
  7. Conduct research on labor relations from 1917 to 1925 to explain the eleven goals for which the AFL urged public support. What specific grievances and employer policies did it emphasize?
  8. The AFL asserted that the labor movement was struggling between two "opposing forces" to preserve its mainstream identity. These forces were identified as "industrial tyranny and fanatical revolutionary propaganda" and, in another context, "autocrats of industry and the followers of radical European fanaticism." Explain these "opposing forces" in your own words.
  9. Study the list of 112 unions that signed the 1921 declaration and generate research questions about labor unions in the early 20th century. Compare the American labor movement then and now.
Letters to a Bishop___
  1. According to Bishop Quayle, how did labor unions threaten "the very existence of our republican form of government"?
  2. According to Samuel Gompers, why did unions have to fight against the "stealing of democracy in government from the people"?
  3. Quayle affirmed that he and Gompers were "at one in wishing a living wage and first-class social and family conditions." Where did their opinions diverge, according to Quayle?
  4. Gompers noted that other clergymen supported the union movement. How would Bishop Quayle have responded?
  5. How did each man address the issue of immigrant workers' effect on America and the union movement?
  6. Why did their correspondence fail to reach mutual understanding or an "agreement to disagree"?
Labor's Reward___
  1. How did the film function as entertainment, information, and propaganda?
  2. How successful was the film in presenting the union perspective (as far as you can tell)?
  3. If the four lost reels were discovered, what would you expect them to illustrate about the AFL's promotional campaign?
  4. What other media innovations of the period could the AFL have used in its promotional campaign? Design a radio broadcast, sky advertising banner, short "talkie," newsreel segment, etc., that would deliver the AFL message.
  1. Complete this chart to analyze the pro- and anti-union positions. How did each side argue that it was pro-American and the other side was anti-American?
    Unions value and enhance the American ideals of freedom and democracy.          
    Hostility to unions is a threat to American freedom.          
    Working without union rights is equivalent to involuntary servitude.          
    The AFL promotes moderation and opposes radicalism.

    Strikes are a means of last resort.          
    Unions are pro-American.          
    The union movement is a threat to American liberty and security.          
    Unions deny equal opportunity for all.          
    The unions work only for their members' benefit to the detriment of the general welfare.          
    Unions attract immigrant workers with radical foreign ideas.

    Strikes have led to violence and injury.

    Unions are un-American.


Framing Questions

  • What factors nurtured or weakened the unprecedented prosperity of the 1920s?
  • How did "prosperity" become a hallmark of national pride? How was the word adapted for political and psychological aspirations of the nation?
  • What role did "workingmen" and labor unions play in the economic panorama of the period?
  • Compare the Twenties' boom-and-bust with similar economic cycles before and after the decade.


Letters to a Bishop, 1920
The Challenge Accepted, 1921
Labor's Reward, film, 1925
 6 pp.
 7 pp.
    View online.
13 pp.

Supplemental Sites

AFL-CIO, official site AFL, Letters to a Bishop, 1920, full text (Hathi Trust Digital Library/Princeton University Library)

AFL, The Challenge Accepted, 1921, full text (Google Books, but search for American Federationist, Vol. 28, Pt. 1, in Google, not Google Books)

AFL, Labor's Reward, discussion (Rochester [NY] Labor Council History)

Labor resources in Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929 (Library of Congress, American Memory)

Primary sources in History Matters/Many Pasts (George Mason University and the City University of New York)

– American Federation of Labor, "The Challenge Accepted—Labor Will Not Be Outlawed or Enslaved," The American Federationist, April 1921, first page (details). Image courtesy of Google Books.
– Stills from Labor's Reward, AFL film, 1925. Courtesy of the National Film Preservation Foundation & Silent Beauties.
– Samuel Gompers on train station platform, Spokane, Washington, while en route from Washington, DC, to Portland, Oregon, for AFL convention, photograph, September 25, 1923 (detail). Courtesy of the New York Public Library, ID#1708466.
– Bishop William Alfred Quayle, photograph, n.p., n.d. (detail). Archives of St. Paul School of Theology, Kansas City, Missouri. Reproduced by permission.
– Samuel Gompers at the convention of the United Hatters of America, New York City, photograph, April 16, 1923. Courtesy of the New York Public Library, ID#1708465.
– Pres. and Mrs. Coolidge with delegation from the American Federation of Labor on the White House lawn, September 1, 1924 (details). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Photo Company Collection, LC-USZ62-111387.

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