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 natures.
- Samuel Gompers
From unadorned to ostentatious, the graves that make up Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Upstate New York include a veritable who’s who of 19th and 20th Centuries captains of industry: Walter Chrysler; Andrew Carnegie; William Rockefeller; Harry Helmsley.
But, in a twist of historical irony, just a stone’s throw from those luminaries lies the body of a semi-socialist labor organizer, who championed the working people that drilled the oil wells, forged the steel and worked the assembly lines that made their employers rich and famous.
From Cigar Maker to Labor Leader
Samuel Gompers was born in London in 1850, and with his impoverished family immigrated to the United States at the apex of the Civil War. Upon arriving in New York City in 1863, the family settled into a modest New York City home, where Gompers’ father plied the cigar manufacturing trade learned in England.
After working two years in his father’s small cigar operation, Gompers accepted an offer with a larger tobacco wholesaler – a union shop affiliated with the burgeoning United Cigars Makers. It was there he witnessed, first hand, the difficult conditions under which most tobacco workers toiled.
Gompers also took from the experience a firm conviction that collective bargaining is more than a strategy to improve workers’ rights, pay and working conditions. For Gompers, unionism – by way of its insistence that wealth be equitably shared with the workers who help amass it – is the best of all means to social reform.
Gompers was in 1875 elected as president of the Cigar Makers’ International Union (New York City), which in turn led to the position for which he is most remembered, and held until his death some forty years later: co-founder and first president of the American Federation of Labor.
A confederation of trade unions and guilds, under Gompers’ leadership the AFL (also known as the AF of L) grew in numbers and influence. So powerful did the Federation become that it in 1871 orchestrated a nationwide strike in support of an eight-hour workday, galvanizing a populist movement that would influence labor laws for the next five decades.
Much has been made of Gompers’ shift in economic philosophy. He began his public career in rough accord with contemporary socialist labor reformer, and five-time presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs. In a stump speech given not long after assuming leadership of the AFL, Gompers made the case that, “It is impossible for capitalists and laborers to have common interests.”
But, over time, Gompers made an economic pivot, making peace with, if not fully embracing, Western-style capitalism. In an address given mid-career, he signaled a clear break with Debs and the socialist wing of organized labor: “The worst crime against working people is a company which fails to operate at a profit.”
Likewise, Gompers at first advocated for integrated unions, emphasizing solidarity based on quality of work, and commitment to the labor movement: “There are about 8,000,000 negroes in the United States, and, my friends, I not only have not the power to put the negro out of the labor movement, but I would not, even if I did have the power…Under our policies and principles we seek to build up the labor movement, instead of injuring it, and we want all the negroes we can possibly get who will join hands with organized labor.”
Yet, for all his initial support of racial diversity within the AFL, Gompers would later yield to prejudicial trade union leaders that barred from union ranks African Americans and immigrants, declaring them threats to full employment and fair wages for white, native-born citizens.
And while the AFL passed no official policies prohibiting women from membership, during Gompers’ tenure, only in a few progressive regions did the Federation admit females.
But in the End…
Samuel Gompers died on December 13, 1924, in San Antonio. Of poor health for months before, he became seriously ill while attending a labor conference in Mexico City. He plead with friends to transport him north so that he might die on American soil.
In the end, the federation of labor unions assembled under Gompers was among the most influential in world history. The AFL – along with long-time rival and eventual collaborator, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) – served as an effective moral and economic counterbalance to the unbridled exploitation that plagued the American workforce.
Gompers’ biases, while wholly indefensible in any age, must be understood in their zeitgeist, not ours. And, although his beloved unionism continues to wane, his great gift to the nation – negotiation via collective bargaining – remains.
Labor Day, like every other secular holiday, has become many things, most of them
having little to do with its deeper meaning. But if you’re reading this over the long weekend, pause just long enough to remember one who helped bring it to you in the first place. Maybe hoist one in his memory.
Happy Labor Day, Samuel Gompers.
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