January 27, 2016
By Bill Hohlfeld
January Labor History (Part II)
London, England In a wonderful metaphor for the American dream, the man whose vision and plans most inspired and changed the lives of American workers was himself an immigrant. On January 29th, 1850 in London, England was born the man who would go on to become president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), Samuel Gompers.
His politics, as well as his destiny, would be formed – as is the case for most of us, by his personal experience. To begin, he knew first hand the barriers that could so easily be erected because of hate and ignorance. Though he was born in England, his father had emigrated from
the Netherlands. In addition, the Gompers family was Jewish. Victorian London was not known for its tolerance; anti- semitism and nativism were rampant. Nor was it particularly sympathetic to the working class, in general. (Think Dickens!)
The entire family emigrated to the United States in search of a better life when Gompers was 13. By that time he had already been working as a cigar maker for thee years, and had long left the halls of formal education. Yet there would still be much left for him to learn. The day he arrived in America, we were midway through the New York City Draft Riots. Gompers walked down the gang plank amidst lynchings, looting, and troops arriving fresh from the battle of Gettysburg to help a completely outnumbered and out gunned municipal police force in putting a
stop to the mayhem. He had not left all matters of race and class behind in Europe.
Living in a tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan was a daily reminder to him of the need for workers’ rights, and he witnessed first hand the violence of the Tompkins Square Park riot, reported on earlier this month. Armed with his outgoing personality, determinism and self acquired education, he rose quickly up the ranks of Local 144 of the Cigar Makers International Union, and became its president. He rubbed elbows with the leading socialist thinkers and reformers of his day. He went as far as to have the position of “reader” established among his brother cigar makers. Within the dark, damp tenements in which Coronas and Panatelas were tediously rolled by hand, each crew had one worker who was assigned the task of reading every newspaper and magazine which covered current events. When that was completed, there would be time for the literature of Stevenson, Tolstoy and Dumas. The result was a well informed, well educated workforce.
Yet, always a pragmatist, he saw economic betterment as the key to political power and not the other way around. So, he put what he considered to be “first things first.” He would view the successes and failures of the Knights of Labor and amend his strategies accordingly. When the Knights failed to give the necessary support to the Haymarket Martyrs, he correctly gauged the vacuum created and brought his fledgling umbrella organization, the newly formed Federation of Trade and Labor Unions to the forefront of the American workers’ consciousness. Carpenters and Teamsters and Pipefitters alike saw an opportunity to belong to something that would be, in total, much more than the sum of its parts. Later, when president of the AFL he would completely divorce himself from the “one big union” philosophy of his rival organization, the Industrial Workers of the World, favoring a craft based model of skilled workers.
Gompers remained at the helm of the AFL throughout the time of the robber barons, the Great War and the progressive era. At the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Gompers to the Commission on International Labor Legislation at the Versailles Peace Conference. There, Gompers helped form what would become the International Labor Organization (ILO).
At the time of his death in 1924, an immigrant boy, virtually uneducated, who had eked out a living by rolling cigars for those who could afford to smoke them, had helped to reshape the New York Cigar Makers Union, gone on to create and direct America’s most powerful labor
organization to date, and become advisor to the President of the United States. He fulfilled the American Dream for himself, and in the process, was instrumental in improving the lives of millions of his fellow Americans.
Samuel Gompers is buried in Sleepy Hollow cemetery, in Tarrytown, NY.