A statue of Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, on Market Street in San Antonio. Photo by Kay Richter.
A statue of Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, on Market Street in San Antonio. Credit: Courtesy / Kay Richter

The need for unions is still evident as we reflect on Labor Day, 2015. Many small businesses are forced out of the competition by large businesses. Corporate officers fatten their salaries at the expense of employees on the bottom rung. Job scarcity makes it hard to switch employers so management can refuse to offer amenities beyond a subsistence level.

Samuel Gompers worked to change these injustices. Born in 1850, Gompers went from a factory worker to become the first president of the American Federation of Labor. His quest for workers to receive higher wages, shorter hours, and collective bargaining was cut short by illness. He died in San Antonio in 1924 after attending the inauguration of Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles.

A statue of Gompers, across from the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on Market Street, was erected in 1982 for the AFL-CIO convention held in San Antonio. Sculptor Bette Jean Alden portrayed Gompers with a contract in his hand to symbolize the beneficial agreements that can come between capital and labor.

A statue of Samuel Compers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, on Market Street in San Antonio. Photo by Kay Richter.
A statue of Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, on Market Street in San Antonio. Photo by Kay Richter.

The pedestal of the statue has a plaque which reads:

“What does labor want? We want more school houses and less jails. More books and less guns. More learning and less vice. More leisure and less greed. More justice and less revenge. We want more… opportunities to cultivate our better nature.”

–Samuel Gompers.

These are words to remember on Labor Day.

Twenty-four Hour Day (a poem by Tom Keene)

Eight hours to sleep.
Eight hours to work.
Eight hours to do what we will.

Union workers slogan (1817-1938)

Eight hours to sleep:

Time to scrub our fears,
focus our hopes,
rest and attune ourselves.

Eight hours to work:

Time to do, to make
out of thought, skill, care
a work that matters,
that stands on its hind legs,
says to all and ourselves, “Good job.”

Eight hours to do what we will:

Time to choose the meanings
that make our survival matter,
to make of sleep and work a meaning
that whispers, shouts, “Behold.”

Poet Tom Keene did his military duty as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division during the Korean War. He has served his community as an organizer, a teacher and a founding member of both the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese and the San Antonio Community Radio Corporation (one of the parent organizations of Texas Public Radio). He holds post-graduate degrees in Psychology, Religious Studies and Theology and is professor of religious studies at Our Lady of the Lake University.

*Top image: A statue of Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, on Market Street in San Antonio. Photo by Kay Richter.

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Don Mathis

Don’s life revolves around the many poetry circles in San Antonio. His poems have been published in many anthologies and periodicals and broadcasted on local TV and national radio. In addition to poetry,...