Labor Quotes

The use of quotations can be an effective way to engage students in analyzing different points of view. For example, teachers can provide students with the first two quotations below and ask them to explain the point each person is making and state which, in their opinion, they most agree with and provide evidence for their answer.

Eleanor Roosevelt quotes on labor & human rights

Frances Perkins Quotes

The Great Labor Quotations: Sourcebook and Reader by Peter Bollen

The rights of the laboring man will be protected, and cared for, not by the labor agitator but by the Christian men to whom God has given control of the property in this country, and upon the successful management of which so much depends.

George Baer, letter, July 17, 1902

The trade unions are the legitimate outgrowth of modern society and industrial conditions. … They were born of the necessity of workers to protect and defend themselves from encroachment, injustice and wrong. … To protect the workers in their inalienable rights to a higher and better life; to protect them, no only as equals before the law, but also in their health, their homes, their firesides, their liberties as men, as workers, and as citizens; to overcome and conquer prejudices and antagonism; to secure to them the fight to life; the right to be full sharers in the abundance which is the result of their brain and brawn, and the civilization of which they are the founders and the mainstay; to this the workers are entitled. … The attainment of these is the glorious mission of the trade unions.

Samuel Gompers, speech, 1898

Labor is the great producer of wealth: it moves all other causes.

Congressman Daniel Webster, 4/2/1824

We recognize that labor dishonors no man.

President Ulysses S. Grant, 1877

Without labor nothing prospers.

Popular banner

The history of America has been largely created by the deeds of its working people and their organizations. Nor has this contribution been confined to raising wages and bettering work conditions; it has been fundamental to almost every effort to extend and strengthen our democracy.

William Cahn, labor authority and historian

Yes, it is bread we fight for-but we fight for roses too.

Final stanza-Bread and Roses, strike poem

We want a better America, an America that will give its citizens, first of all, a higher and higher standard of living so that no child will cry for food in the midst of plenty.

Sidney Hillman (1887-1946), first president (1914-1946) of Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), Textile Workers Union of Needlecrafts, Industrial & Textile Employees (UNITE)

The role of a labor union is to ensure that the balance is not tipped in favor of the employer when employees do not receive wages and benefits commensurate with their contribution.

William Burrus, vice president, American Postal Workers Union (APWU)

Employers and employees alike have learned that in union there is strength, that a coordination of individual effort means an elimination of waste, a bettering of living conditions, and is in fact, the father of prosperity.

Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-N.Y., 1929-1932), in address before the New York Women’s Trade Union League, 6/8/1929

It is time that all Americans realized that the place of labor is side by side with the businessman and with the farmer, and not one-degree lower.

President Harry S. Truman (1945-1953), 1948

There is no America without labor, and to fleece the one is to rob the other.

President Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)

If a man tells you he loves America, yet hates labor, he is a liar!

President Abraham Lincoln

We insist that labor is entitled to as much respect as property. But our workers with hand and brain deserve more than respect for their labor. They deserve practical protection in the opportunity to use their labor at a return adequate to support them at a decent and constantly rising standard of living, and to accumulate a margin of security against the inevitable vicissitudes of life.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, fireside chat, 1936

The union miner cannot agree to the acceptance of a wage principle which will permit his annual earnings and his living standards to be determined by the hungriest unfortunates whom the non-union operators can employ.

John L. Lewis, 1927, in Labor Baron -A Portrait of John L. Lewis, 1944

Labor is not fighting for a larger slice of the national pie-labor is fighting for a larger pie.

Walter Reuther, 1945

I regard my workplace just as I regard my machinery.

Mill owner At Lawrence Mill Strike, 1912, in The Lawrence Strike of 1912, 1980

Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize!

Telegraph sent to Big Bill Haywood and the Wobblies from Joe Hill before his execution, 11/19/1915, after a dubious murder conviction on circumstantial evidence

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Frederick Douglass

If there is no struggle, there can be no progress.

Frederick Douglas

Esau was a traitor to himself; Judas Iscariot was a traitor to his God; Benedict Arnold was a traitor to his country; a strikebreaker is a traitor to his God, his country, his wife, his family and his class.

Jack (John Griffith) London (1876-1916), author, socialist, adventurer, The Definition of a Scab

Long ago we stated the reason for labor organizations. We said that they were organized out of the necessities of the situation: that a single employee was helpless in dealing with an employer; … that union was essential to give the laborers opportunity to deal on equality with their employer.

Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes (1862-1948) for the U.S. Supreme Court (1930-1941), in NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. 301 1 at 33, 1937

With all their faults, trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in man, than the other association of men.

Clarence Darrow, The Railroad Trainman, 1909

If I were a worker in a factory, the first thing I would do would be to join a union.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt

The history of the labor movements needs to be taught in every school in this land. America is a living testimonial to what free men and women, organized in free democratic trade unions can do to make a better life. … We ought to be proud of it!

Vice President Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Jr. (1865-1969), Lyndon Johnson Administration

Our cause is a common one. It is war between poverty and wealth. … This moneyed power is fast eating up the substance of the people. We have made war upon it, and we mean to win it. If we can, we will win through the ballot box; if not, then we shall resort to sterner means.

William Sylvis, in History of the American Working Class, 1927

There is nothing fairer than workmen having unions of their mutual benefit.

Will Rogers (1879-1935), humorist, political commentator, journalist, actor, 1943, in Freedom of the Press, 1935

What can Labor do for itself? The answer is not difficult. Labor can organize, it can unify; it can consolidate its forces. This done, it can demand and command.

Eugene Debs, in The Bending Cross, 1949

Let your watchword be: Union and progress, and until then, no surrender.

Samuel Gompers

But today I take it that every intelligent person who has investigated this question, outside of the counsel foe the State, understands that working men have the right to organize; understands that if laborers are not satisfied with their conditions, they may stop work; they may stop work singly or collectively, exactly as they please, and no court will say them nay.

Clarence Darrow, 1898, in Attorney for the Damned, 1957

Effective labor unions are still by far the most powerful force in society for the protection of the laborer’s rights and the improvement of his or her condition. No amount of employer benevolence, no diffusion of a sympathetic attitude on the part of the public, no increase of beneficial legislation, can adequately supply for the lack of organization among the workers themselves.

Monsignor John A. Ryan, in Organized Labor and the Church, 1993

An injury to one is the concern of all.

Terence Powderly

In light of this fundamental structure of all work… in light of the fact that, labor and capital are indispensable in any social system … it is clear that even if it is because of production in any social system … it is clear that even if it is because of their work needs that people unite to secure their rights, their union remains a constructive factor of social order and solidarity, and it is impossible to ignore it.

Pope John Paul II

When labor speaks of free medical care, it is saying we need it for blacks who do not have it and whites who are concerned that they will have to pay for giving it to them. When labor calls for full employment, it is talking about blacks who are without jobs and whites who want to protect the ones they have. When labor says we must build more homes, it is seeking to create a society where the black brother need not be enraged because he does not have a home and the white need not fear for the home he has.

Bayard Rustin (1910-1987), black social activist and a founding member of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), civil rights organizer, Fellowship of Reconciliation, field and race relations secretary (1941-1953), in Overcoming Middle Class Rage, 1971

The first thing I want to say to you as individuals and as a movement-if you’re going to be something, if you’re going to do something, you have to be proud of yourself. And you have to be proud of your heritage as a Labor Movement just as you are proud of your family, or your religion, or whatever else it might be.

Senator Herbert H. Humphrey (D-Minn., 1949-1964)

And who but an enemy of organized labor would advocate the enactment of a law that so much as squints at depriving organized labor of the only weapon it possesses of maintaining its rights against those whose policy is oppression?

Eugene Debs, commenting on the Espionage Act of 1917, curtailing free speech, which had the ousting labor leaders through prosecution for voicing opposition to U.S. involvement in the World War, 1917

Long ago we stated the reason for labor organizations. We said that union was essential to give laborers opportunity to deal on an equality with their employer.

U.S. Supreme Court, NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. 301 U.S. 1, 1937

The right to join a union of one’s choice is unquestioned today and is sanctioned and protected by law.

President Harry S. Truman

Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.

President Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961), general and Allied Supreme Commander in World War II

(Right-to-Work laws) are a virtual conspiracy of the crafty, the ignorant, or the misguided to subvert industrial peace, exploit men’s need to work and deluge the community with industrial irresponsibility. ‘Right-to-Work’ laws do not create jobs; they only victimize the worker and make his organization ineffective.

Reverend Dr. Walter George Muelder, educator, economist, ethicist, dean of Boston University School of Theology

Every advance in this half-century-Social Security, civil rights, Medicare, aid to education, one after another-came with the support and leadership of American Labor.

President Jimmy Carter, 1980

The labor movement has led the fight for progressive social legislation from civil rights to Social Security and minimum wage laws.

Ray Marshall

Where trade unions are most firmly organized, there are the rights of the people most respected.

Samuel Gompers

The rights of employees freely to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining should be fully protected.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, message to Congress, 2/2/1935

I am glad to see that a system of labor prevails under which laborers can strike when they want to. … I like the system which lets a man quit when he wants and wish it might prevail everywhere.

Abraham Lincoln, 1860

In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time, no one was left to speak up.
Martin Niemoeller (1892-1984), German Lutheran Pastor, attributed in congressional record, 10/14/1968

It is now beyond partisan controversy that it is a fundamental individual right of a worker to associate himself with other workers and to bargain collectively with his employer.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, address in San Diego, 10/2/1935

Greed to make the last dollar of profit led those employers to use violence, the courts and blacklists as weapons against unionism. They sought to deny workers their First Amendment rights-to act together and to speak freely to encourage others to join their cause. Those rights endangered their profits, and they felt-and some still feel-money to be important than rights.

George Meany

The American trade union movement-unlike any other labor movement in the world-is committed to working within the American political and economic system in order to achieve the social and economic justice promised by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

George Meany, AFL-CIO Labor Day message, 1978

We in the labor movement know that you don’t have to be a union member to support the doctrine of human rights, but we also know that without human rights there can be no free labor movement.

George Meany

As I have said many times, and believe with all my heart, the coalition that can have the greatest impact in the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the blacks and forces of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The essence of trade unionism is social uplift. The labor movement has been the haven for the dispossessed, the despised, the neglected, the downtrodden, the poor.

A. Philip Randolph

I can hire one-half the working class to kill the other half.

Jay Gould (1836-1892), financier, railroad businessman, on not worrying about an impending strike at Southwestern rail system, 1886

It is one of the characteristics of a free and democratic modern nation that it has free and independent labor unions.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, speech before Teamster’s union, Washington, D.C., 9/11/1940

The first thing a dictator does is abolish the free press. Next he abolishes the right of labor to go on strike. Strikes have been labor’s weapon of progress in the century of our industrial civilization. Where the strike has been abolished … labor is reduced to a state of medieval peonage, the standard of living lowered, the nation falls to subsistence level.

George Seldes, Freedom of the Press, 1935

We reward our friends and punish our enemies.

Samuel Gompers to union voters

There’s s a direct relationship between the ballot box and the bread box, and what the union fights for and wins at the bargaining table can be taken away in the legislative halls.

Walter Reuther

Today in a America, unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice. I have no use for those-regardless of their political party-who hold some vain and foolish dream of spinning the clock back to the days when organized labor was huddled, almost as a helpless mass.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Those who would destroy or further limit the rights of organized labor-those who cripple collective bargaining or prevent organization of the unorganized-do a disservice to the cause of democracy.

President d John F. Kennedy

Every piece of progressive social legislation passed by Congress in the 20th century bears a union label.

George Meany

The labor movement means just this; It is the last noble protest of the American people against the power of incorporated wealth.

Wendell Phillips, 1871

What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails, more books and less arsenals, more learning and less vice, more constant work and less crime, more leisure and less greed, more justice and less revenge.

Samuel Gompers, known as the More! More! More! Speech, repeated many times, Chicago, 8/28/1893

What do we want? Food on the table, a rug on the floor, a picture on the wall, music in the home.

Philip Murray (1886-1952), co-founder and president of CIO (1940-1952)

As long as there are such trade unionists, labor will be opposed by those who seek to portray workers and their unions as separate entities-referring to unions as an unneeded ‘third force,’ just as the diehard segregationists falsely labeled civil rights organizations as ‘outside agitators.’

George Meany, 1979

Our labor unions are not narrow, self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours, and provided supplemental benefits. Through collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor.

President John F. Kennedy, 1962

The AFL-CIO has done more good for more people than any (other) group in America in its legislative efforts. It doesn’t just try to do something about wages and hours for its own people. No group in the country works harder in the interests of everyone.

President Lyndon Johnson, 1965

The American Labor Movement has consistently demonstrated its devotion to the public interest. It is, and has been, good for all Americans.

President John F. Kennedy

Labor needs to be strong in numbers, in effective organization, in the justice of its cause, and in the reasonableness or its methods. It relies on moral suasion.

Samuel Gompers

The only effective answer to organized greed is organized labor.

THOMAS DONAHUE, Report to the Convention from the AFL-CIO Executive Council

The labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., speech to AFL-CIO, Dec. 11, 1961

The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., speech to the state convention of the Illinois AFL-CIO, Oct. 7, 1965

Our labor unions are not narrow, self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours and provided supplemental benefits. Through collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor.

JOHN F. KENNEDY, speech, Aug. 30, 1960

With all their faults, trade-unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in man, than any other association of men.

CLARENCE DARROW, The Railroad Trainman, Nov. 1909

To be free, the workers must have choice. To have choice they must retain in their own hands the right to determine under what conditions they will work.

SAMUEL GOMPERS, “The Worker and the Eight-hour Workday”, American Federationist: Official Magazine of the American Federation of Labor

The story of the labor movement needs to be taught in every school in this land…. America is a living testimonial to what free men and women, organized in free democratic trade unions, can do to make a better life. We ought to be proud of it.

HUBERT HUMPHREY, speech before the Minnesota AFL-CIO Convention, 1977

To a right-winger, unions are awful. Why do right-wingers hate unions? Because collective bargaining is the power that a worker has against the corporation. Right-wingers hate that.

JANEANE GAROFALO, Majority Report, Jun. 3, 2005

To remember the loneliness, the fear and the insecurity of men who once had to walk alone in huge factories, beside huge machines — to realize that labor unions have meant new dignity and pride to millions of our countrymen — human companionship on the job, and music in the home — to be able to see what larger pay checks mean, not to a man as an employee, but as a husband and as a father — to know these things is to understand what American labor means.

ADLAI STEVENSON, speech, Sep. 22, 1952

At the core, labor unions (we) are working men and women, unified as one force. Despite any personal differences that may exist between us, we have banded together to protect and improve the lives of workers. We rise up together for the greater good. We defend one another like family.

SUE CARNEY, “We’re Not a Fee-for-Service Organization”, The American Postal Worker, March/April, 2014

You know, when I was in college, there was a big debate: Do unions raise wages? Well, with regard to industrial unions, there were arguments back and forth — international competition. It is now clear, I think, that whether or not you think unions raised wages 50 years ago, the absence of unions and their weakness that is inflicted by anti-union public policy depresses wages. The fact is that people who are not represented, in the service industries in particular, are the victims of policies which depress their wages.

BARNEY FRANK, speech, Jan. 3, 2007

The labor movement was not originated by man. The labor movement, my friends, was a command from God Almighty. He commanded the prophets thousands of years ago to go down and redeem the Israelites that were in bondage, and he organized the men into a union and went to work. And they said, “The masters have made us gather straw; they have been more cruel than they were before.” “What are we going to do?” The prophet said, “A voice from heaven has come to get you together.” They got together and the prophet led them out of the land of bondage and robbery and plunder into the land of freedom. And when the army of the pirates followed them the Dead Sea opened and swallowed them up, and for the first time the workers were free.

MOTHER JONES, speech at front steps of capital in Charleston, Aug. 15, 1912

Too few Americans know labor history and how they have benefited from the efforts of unions. We have a 40-hour work week, defined benefits, higher wages, paid vacations and sick leave, largely as the result of union activity in the 20th century. We built a middle-class society in the period after World War II, also a period when the work force was, compared with today, heavily unionized.

KEN BERNSTEIN, “No unions: Government by the rich, for the rich”, CNN, Feb. 24, 2011

The laboring people should unite and should protect themselves against all idlers. You can divide mankind into two classes: the laborers and the idlers, the supporters and the supported, the honest and the dishonest. Every man is dishonest who lives upon the unpaid labor of others, no matter if he occupies a throne. All laborers should be brothers.

ROBERT GREEN INGERSOLL, “About Farming in Illinois”, The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll

Although it is true that only about 20 percent of American workers are in unions, that 20 percent sets the standards across the board in salaries, benefits and working conditions. If you are making a decent salary in a non-union company, you owe that to the unions. One thing that corporations do not do is give out money out of the goodness of their hearts.

MOLLY IVINS, attributed, “Labor’s Fight is OUR Fight”, Campaign for America’s Future

In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. It is supported by Southern segregationists who are trying to keep us from achieving our civil rights and our right of equal job opportunity. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone. Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., speech to support sanitation workers on strike for union recognition in Memphis, Apr. 3, 1968

Let the Unions become engines for the working people to right their wrongs. Not benefit societies, or burial clubs. Let the Unions become civilian regiments to fight in the cause of the people.

RICHARD LLEWELLYN, How Green Was My Valley

Labor Unions are the leading force for democratization and progress.

NOAM CHOMSKY, attributed, 1001 Ideas That Changed the Way We Think

Today the labor union stands recognized by the best thought of the world as the foremost instrument for the good of the working people. Slavery, with its religious intolerance, which denied to the toiler even the possession of a soul and placed him on a level with the beasts of the field, has passed away. Serfdom, which tied the worker to the titled lord and made him a part of the estate without right to go even beyond the boundaries of the lord’s domain and held him to pass with the title to the land, is now no more. The evils of our present industrial system, such as child labor, the exploitation of women, and excessive hours of labor and insanitary working conditions, are in a fair way of being solved. Social reform is everywhere the order of the day and human rights are about to be given due consideration. Because of union labor’s persistent efforts it has come to this that no legislative body, state or national, in this great land of ours, is considered to be in accord with the spirit of the times if it does not concern itself with measures beneficial to the welfare of the working people.

A. BABLITZ, “The Struggle Upward”, American Federationist: Official Magazine of the American Federation of Labor

A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned — this is the sum of good government.

THOMAS JEFFERSON, Inaugural Address, Mar. 4, 1801

Without unions, workers will lose many of the protections against abusive employers. Wages for all will be depressed, even as corporate profits soar. The American Dream will be destroyed for millions. And we will have a government of the corporations, by the already powerful, for the wealthy.

KEN BERNSTEIN, “No unions: Government by the rich, for the rich”, CNN, Feb. 24, 2011

Our movement is of the working people, for the working people, by the working people…. There is not a right too long denied to which we do not aspire in order to achieve; there is not a wrong too long endured that we are not determined to abolish.

SAMUEL GOMPERS, The Samuel Gompers Papers: The American Federation of Labor at the height of progressivism, 1913-17

The benefits that unions win don’t just go to the union members, they become the standard. When labor won the fight for an 8-hour day and 40-hour workweek with overtime pay, that became the standard. When labor fought for minimum wages, that became the standard, when labor fought for workplace safety, that became the standard. Labor’s fight is a fight to set the standard for the rest of us.

DAVE JOHNSON, “Labor’s Fight is OUR Fight”, Campaign for America’s Future

Strong, responsible unions are essential to industrial fair play. Without them the labor bargain is wholly one-sided. The parties to the labor contract must be nearly equal in strength if justice is to be worked out, and this means that the workers must be organized and that their organizations must be recognized by employers as a condition precedent to industrial peace.

LOUIS BRANDEIS, The Curse of Bigness: Miscellaneous Papers of Louis Dembitz Brandeis

Every advance in this half-century — Social Security, civil rights, Medicare, aid to education, one after another — came with the support and leadership of American Labor. You have represented all the people, not just your members. You have been the voice of forgotten people everywhere.

JIMMY CARTER, Daily Labor Report, 1980

We thus see that a thousand years before the dawn of the Christian era labor unions afforded the toiler protection and advancement; that the union has been his chief means of defense and offense during that great historic cycle of time ushered in by the coming of Christ; and in the mighty labor unions of our day the workers have that which gives them the greatest encouragement and help on the road to industrial freedom.

A. BABLITZ, “The Struggle Upward”, American Federationist: Official Magazine of the American Federation of Labor

If unions can be broken in the public sector, this will further tilt the political playing field on behalf of corporate interests and their Republican allies. This will also silence one of the few remaining vehicles that advocate on behalf of ordinary people in this country.

KEN BERNSTEIN, “No unions: Government by the rich, for the rich”, CNN, Feb. 24, 2011

The state of the Union largely depends on the state of the unions.

EVAN ESAR, 20,000 Quips & Quotes

Union is power; the most attenuated thread, when sufficiently multiplied, will form the strongest cable. A single drop of water is a weak and powerless thing; but an infinite number of drops united by the force of attraction will form a stream; and many streams combined will form a river; till rivers pour their waters into the mighty ocean, whose proud waves defying the power of man none can stay but He who formed them.

HENRY GEORGE SALTER, The Book of Illustrations; or, Scripture Truths Exhibited by the Aid of Similes

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