James H. Maurer

James H. Maurer

Socialist Labor Leader


When Jim Maurer wrote his autobiography during the 1930’s, he looked back over more than half a century of feverish work on behalf of the American working man, and he regretted not a moment of it. He was old and ill when he wrote, and as he put it, he was “on the sidelines watching keenly.” But his mind was still alert; his ideas had changed very little, and of course be gloried in the fact that he had lived to see his beloved Reading in the bands of a Socialist Administration. As be looked back across the years, Maurer thought he saw that much of the social progress which had occurred could be attributed to the Socialist movement. Therefore, it was with a feeling of great satisfaction and accomplishment that he entitled his book It Can Be Done.

Maurer was an important figure in the American labor movement, but he is little known and unfortunately it is quite likely that a full scale biography will never be written. His personal papers, which no doubt would have been a gold mine of information on the Socialist and labor movements, have been lost, as have the records of the Pennsylvania Federation of Labor for the period before 1930. Other major collection’s which might be thought to contain a great deal of relevant material have proved quite disappointing. These include the Socialist Party Collection at Duke University, the Tamiment Institute Library of New York University, and the various major labor collections such as those at Cornell and Wayne State Universities. In all of these archives there is only enough Maurer material to whet the appetite of the serious scholar.

The two most useful and easily obtainable sources of information on Maurer, therefore, remain his autobiography, published by the Rand School of Social Science in 1938, and the Reading Labor Advocate, a weekly socialist newspaper owned and operated by the Maurer family from 1911 to 1918, and firmly devoted to the socialist cause for many years thereafter. Although the book is very uneven in content and analysis of events, and decidedly lacking in literary style, it is nonetheless a very important tool for establishing the chronology of Maurer ‘s career and for ascertaining the details of his early life. The Advocate on the other hand, is an excellent source not only for Maurer, but for the entire socialist movement in Reading.

Maurer was born in April, 1864, in Reading, Pennsylvania, the third of four brothers. His father, who worked variously as a shoemaker and policeman, died of smallpox in 1872, leaving his family penniless and without adequate means of support. After about one year of struggle, Maurer’s mother found that she could no longer hold the family together, so “little Jimmie” was farmed out to relatives. That experience, however, was brief and unhappy, and in 1874 Maurer returned home and went to work. He was ten years old.

It seems clear from a reading of Maurer’s book that as he reviewed his life he thought he could discern the influences which molded his ideas and his career. The first of these was the poverty of his youth. After the death of his father, Maurer was literally on his own. The treatment he received from his various employers, and the fact that he was denied an education seemed so intolerable in retrospect that it was easy for Maurer to convince himself that the capitalist system itself was at fault. Maurer was fond of recalling that as a youth he was so ignorant that he did not even know why it would be advantageous to be literate. He did not learn to read until he was sixteen years of age. Even then he did not learn in school, but was taught by his older friend Tom King, a Knights of Labor Organizer, in the Reading machine shop where both were employed.

Another influence was industrial violence. Maurer was thirteen at the time of the 1877 railroad strike, yet over fifty years later his memories of that grizzly event were vivid. He carried a picture in his mind of the militia firing on defenseless men, women and children simply because they had defied the whims of the “master class.” Throughout his long career Maurer remained a consistent and vocal opponent of the use of police and military organizations in labor disputes.

A third influence on Maurer’s views was bitter personal experience. In the early 1880’s he lost his home as the result, he claimed, of a slyly worded mortgage. Later, he was to suffer what seemed almost unbearable persecution for his activities as a labor organizer and reformer. Even if it is argued that all these influences were exaggerated in his mind by the passage of time, it is still not difficult to understand why Maurer grew to maturity as a bitter opponent of capitalism and set forth like Don Quixote to avenge the innocent and right all wrongs. Unlike the ancient Don, however, Maurer experienced a certain amount of practical as well as moral success.

Maurer’s career in organized labor began in April, 1880, when be joined the Knights of Labor in Reading. His interest in the affairs of labor began to quicken at once. He had just learned to read and he devoured all the literature supplied him by his tutor. He attended every meeting of his lodge and despite his tender years became a respected member of the group. On one occasion he was even called upon to introduce a speech by the Grand Master Workman, Terrance Powderly.

By 1891, Maurer was in business for himself as a machinist and steamfitter. He maintained his connections, however, with the Knights of Labor, the Single Taxers, and the remnants of the Greenback movement. When the Peoples’ Party was born he also supported that movement. Along with his brothers Charles and Harry, who were also his business partners, he was very active and outspoken in his work on behalf of reform and the cost of his devotion was high. He was driven out of business as a steamfitter, and blacklisted as a machinist. When depression struck in 1893, he was completely ruined.

Maurer joined the Socialist Labor Party in 1899 while residing in Coatesville. Shortly after his return to Reading in 1901 he resigned this affiliation and joined the newly organized Socialist Party of America. At that time, the Reading Local represented a minuscule portion of the labor movement in the city, but conditions gradually changed. For a decade Maurer and his associates worked steadily to build up the Socialist organization. They engaged in both labor propaganda and political activities through constant and effective appeals to the workers’ basic interests, and by running candidates in every election. Their efforts produced astonishing results. By 1904 the Socialist Party had established its own permanent headquarters building in a converted factory, and was rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with in local affairs.

The Socialist organization and its vote continued to grow steadily in Reading until in 1910, when Maurer ran for the State Assembly from Berks County for the first time, it was possible to think seriously of winning. As usual, the Socialists conducted an intensive campaign. The Advocate lent effective support. The Appeal to Reason, best known national Socialist weekly of the pre-war era, was widely distributed in the city, and Socialist propaganda leaflets were distributed to every house by teams known as the “Flying Squadrons.” Maurer himself spoke outdoors almost every night to increasingly large crowds. His election was portrayed by the opposition as a temporary aberration, a Pyrrhic victory for the workingman of Reading which he would soon regret, but in fact it reflected much more than that. By 1910 the Reading Socialist Party organization had grown so large that it held the balance of power in the city, a condition which obtained for the next thirty years.

In Harrisburg Maurer lost no time in establishing himself as an outspoken opponent of the “interests” and a crusading champion of reform. His first effort was to introduce a bill aimed at the abolition of the state police. lt was an article of faith among labor leaders, both moderate and militant, that the Pennsylvania State Constabulary, the “Black Cossacks,” existed primarily as a strike-breaking force. The issue raised by Maurer was intensified when simultaneously Representative Gilpin V. Robinson introduced a bill to increase the size of the force. Maurer’s bill was pigeonholed, but with the backing of the Pennsylvania Federation of Labor he fought heartily against the Robinson bill and helped to defeat it.

In addition to his fight against the state police, Maurer introduced a Workmen’s Compensation bill during this session of the legislature. Although it did not pass, a similar law was passed in 1915, and many labor leaders are fond of recalling Maurer as the “father” of workmen’s compensation in the Commonwealth.

Maurer was returned to the legislature for a second term in 1914. Again he was very active, introducing and supporting many labor and reform measures. Meanwhile, in 1912, be was elected President of the Pennsylvania Federation of Labor thus increasing his potential power. Indeed, for a time his position was unique. As he himself described it :

For the next few years I cannot keep the story of my political activities and trade union work separate. Not only were they going on at the same time, but they were intimately related. My position as official head . . . of the movement of organized labor throughout the state naturally added to my prestige in the legislature, where I really spoke for two constituencies, for the people of Berks County and for the organized wage workers of Berks County.

The Pennsylvania Federation of Labor served as a legislative pressure group with Maurer its chief spokesman, working on behalf of reform legislation such as workmen’s compensation, the regulation of female and child labor, and mothers’ and orphans’ pensions. Laws governing the latter two interests were passed in 1913 and the former in 1915. By that time, under Maurer’s leadership, the P.F.L. was rapidly becoming a major force in the state, and its Socialist President had been marked for defeat. At the annual convention in 1914 an effort backed by the National Association of Manufacturers was made to replace both Maurer and Secretary Charles F. Quinn. The effort failed, however, as Maurer was reelected by 57 votes and Quinn by four.

During 1914 and 1915 the two major legislative battles fought by Maurer and the P.F.L. concerned the so-called “Extra Crew Law” and workmen’s compensation. The former represented an effort by management to repeal the full crew railroad law of 1911 which had originally been passed in response to demands for safer operations. To management it represented a burdensome cost and thus was mounted a gigantic effort to repeal it. Despite the activities of labor, the repealer bill passed, but it was vetoed by Governor Martin G. Brumbaugh. Unfortunately, this victory was only temporary. In 1919 the repealer bill was passed again and this time approved by Governor William C. Sproul.

Maurer’s second major fight during this period was the crusade for “compensation for the victims of industry.” Even though most labor reformers gave their hearty endorsement to the compensation bill passed in 1915, they continued to agitate for improvement. Finally, in 1919, an amendment increasing benefits was passed and signed by Governor Sproul. This bill was written by organized labor and pressed through the Assembly by labor leaders. Maurer was considered largely responsible for this success.

The outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 had a dramatic effect on the labor movement in the United States. Under the dynamic leadership of Samuel Gompers the majority of organized labor was galvanized into support of the Wilson Administration and its policies. Radical labor, however, and most notably the Socialists, opposed U. S. entry and refused to support the war effort. James H. Maurer in company with many other radicals believed that the primary cause of the American drift toward war was the growing financial interest which private American concerns had in the Allied cause. To Maurer it was a “capitalist war,” and the working man had no stake in its outcome. In his dual capacity as a Socialist and as President of the P.F.L. Maurer acted upon his convictions thus putting himself at odds with the mainstream of both American labor and politics.

Before April, 1917, Maurer served as a leader on the local and national levels of the anti-prepared-ness movement. He was among the numerous labor leaders who visited President Wilson exhorting him to avoid conflict at all costs. For his efforts Maurer became the target of severe criticism, but he retained the support of the P.F.L. and in the midst of the controversy was re-elected President by an overwhelming majority. It might be added that the anti-war appeal of the Socialists was much more popular than might be supposed. In Reading, as in other cities during 1917, the Republicans and Democrats were obligated to combine forces in order to win elections. In the case of Reading, the four Socialist candidates for the City Council were defeated only by such a maneuver since the vote would otherwise have been split almost exactly three ways.

Maurer was also closely associated with the founders of the People’s Council of America, an organization established in late May, 1917, by Socialists and pacifists in an effort to mobilize labor against the war by attempting to counter the effect of Gompers’ pro-war labor organization, the American Alliance for Labor and Democracy. The People’s Council and its leaders were subjected to bitter attacks from the press, the pulpit and the government, and from their counterparts in the A.A.L.D. The majority of American working men supported the government, to be sure, but the dissenters never gave in, Maurer traveled across the country with his anti-war message making literally hundreds of speeches These activities required a great deal of personal courage as well as conviction, for Council meetings were frequently disrupted by local authorities and citizens.

When the P.F.L. Convention of 1918 assembled in Pittsburgh, Maurer was again the target of an effort to unseat him as President. He believed the movement was instigated by Samuel Gompers with the endorsement of the federal government. His own recollection of the affair is a classic in its own right :

The evening before the balloting for officers was to be held a stranger came to my hotel room…”Would you mind telling me what your chances for re-election are,” he asked. I reminded him that he had not introduced himself, whereupon he disclosed that he was a Federal Secret Service man. “You can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be reelected,” I told him. “I hope you are right,” he said, “because I have a warrant for your arrest if you are defeated.” “And if I am re-elected ?” “My instructions are not to serve it.” “Why ?” “Well, if you are strong enough to be re-elected, the government wouldn’t care to take chances of having production, particularly among coal miners, tied up by your arrest.” “In other words, if I were weak, the government would hound me, but being strong, I am immune from its persecution ?” “Well,” concluded the Secret Service man, “that’s war.”

Maurer was re-elected by a vote of three to one just as he predicted, and the efforts against him collapsed. In light of his conversation with the agent, it is interesting to note in passing that the Socialist organization in Reading was also relatively free from official harassment during the war. To be sure, there was a great deal of political turmoil in the city, but the Socialists were not arrested and their offices were not ransacked as in many other localities. This was true, no doubt, because of Maurer’s enormous prestige and the strength of the Socialist Party in Reading as demonstrated by the Councilmanic election of 1917 mentioned previously. This wartime immunity, incidentally, made it possible for the Reading Local to thrive in the post-war period when most other Socialist organizations around the country were in shambles.

In the immediate post-war period labor was affected by inflation, the “Great Red Scare,” and by the consequences of certain major organizational movements such as the steel strike of 1919. As one of Pennsylvania’s major labor leaders Maurer was deeply involved in all of this. His Socialist comrades in Reading engaged in an intense organizational drive hoping to take advantage of the unrest caused by the prevalent economic instability. By 1919, their friends and foes alike were ready to admit that most of the unions in Reading were Socialist controlled. Meanwhile, the P.F.L. supported the great steel strike and denounced both management and the government as responsible for its accompanying violence. In November 1919, Maurer called the Federation into emergency session, and the organization directed its wrath at the opponents of labor. Resolutions were passed condemning Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, Governor Sproul, and numerous local police officials. Another was passed threatening a general strike in Pennsylvania if the workers’ constitutional rights were not protected. The immediate response to this was an hysterical outburst against Maurer as the personification of “dangerous radical tendencies,” and the rise of demands in the press and from the pulpit that he be arrested and deported. Attorney General Palmer endorsed these attacks and no doubt favored the deportation idea even though in Maurer’s case it would have been quite illegal, but there was not even enough evidence against the P.F.L. leader to detain him in custody. The best Palmer could do, ironically, was to prevent Maurer from going abroad as a member of the Pennsylvania State Old Age Commission, on grounds that it was “against the best interests of the country to permit a known radical to travel in Europe during such unstable times,” It might be noted in passing that a file on Maurer and his activities exists, and is still in the hands of the Justice Department, but is closed to scholars.

Meanwhile, in Reading, violence was threatened by the American Legion which made plans to forcibly disrupt a Socialist sponsored meeting in behalf of anti-war spokesmen who had been arrested and imprisoned by the federal government. The meeting, scheduled for November 19, 1919, was to have been addressed by Irwin St. John Tucker, a Socialist leader of national stature. On the appointed night, however, as angry crowds gathered in the streets and the authorities admitted their helplessness to prevent mayhem, Maurer and his colleagues called off their meeting and sent their supporters home. This was as close as Reading came to bloodshed during the era of the so-called “Great Red Scare.”

After World War I Maurer continued as President of the P.F.L. for almost a decade, retiring in 1928. During that period the organization continued to grow in size despite the resurgence of the company union movement by industry. In 1928, Maurer claimed over 1,400 affiliates representing some 400,000 members. In addition to his organizational efforts, Maurer continued his long established practice of denouncing the legislature as a corrupt, ineffective body, and demanding the passage of more effective and practical labor legislation. Specifically, Maurer and the P.F.L. supported legislation aimed at the improvement of the workmen’s compensation program, the regulation of child labor, and the public control of utilities.” Maurer also remained deeply involved in the old age pension fight which had begun before the war. His resignation as President of the P.F.L. was occasioned by the fact that in 1927 the Socialists gained control of the city of Reading. The new officers included Maurer himself who served as a councilman. Thus ended, as he put it, “one phase of my work,” but the influence of that work has continued.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 1969-1970 issue of the Historical Review of Berks County.