Samuel Gompers and Organized Labor in America
Harold Livesay, a history professor at the University of Michigan, has previously written a biography of Andrew Carnegie for this same series, the Library of American Biography. His primary concern is to trace and explain the rise of big business and big labor in America, and their unique record of substantial cooperation. He has a narrow approach, discussing only individuals and their connections with organizations. He ignores the contributions of many recent historians, particularly their discussions of cultural, intellectual, social, and economic tensions produced by massive industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and the introduction of technology in the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries. This focus is unfortunate, for it prevents him from gaining deeper insights into the problems Gompers faced and attempted to deal with. For Livesay, Gompers, a founder and long-time president of the American Federation of Labor, was successful in his goal of building a strong union movement because he was a realist. He accepted the prevailing economic system, the seemingly limited nonideological goals of American workers, and their desire to prosper within the system. Above all, deep-rooted attachment to individualism and mobility dictated labor’s inability to be attracted to radical means and ends. Gompers recognized labor’s conservative bent early and used it to advantage, Livesay argues. This argument is rather simplistic.
Samuel Gompers was born in London in 1850, the son of a Dutch Jewish cigarmaker. He learned the trade of cigarmaker and also acquired his father’s commitment to labor unionization. The Gompers family moved to New York in 1863, lured by the desire for increased opportunity. The thirteen-year-old cigarmaker took up his trade, joined the cigarmakers’ local union, and immersed himself in the frantic life of the city. The introduction of machinery into the craft, threatening its skilled status and leisurely pace, prompted Gompers to become seriously involved in union activities starting in 1869. Economic unrest and a depression heightened his involvement. His first inclination was to turn to socialism, then gaining in popularity, but this phase was short lived. More importantly, in 1872 he met Adolph Strasser, and the following year Ferdinand Laurrell, who would become the crucial influences on his thinking. Gompers and Strasser, soon committed to bread-and-butter unionism, worked to strengthen the local cigarmakers’ union in New York City by rejecting the old one and starting their own, with membership open to both factory (skilled) and tenement (unskilled) workers. Their union, the United Cigarmakers, concentrated on obtaining better pay and working conditions for their steadily increasing membership. The local affiliated with the Cigarmakers’ International union in 1875, when Gompers became both local president and official organizer for the national union. He was on his way.
In his new capacity Gompers concentrated on organizing local unions around improving wages and working conditions, as well as establishing decent financial benefits for union members, derived from high dues. His concept of union structure, known as business unionism, stressed strong internal organization and concentration on immediate goals rather than concerns about restructuring society and becoming overly involved in politics. He believed that American workers were most interested in individualism, mobility, property, and democracy—all conservative, quite personal concerns. To accomplish the goal of strengthening the bargaining strength of skilled workers, Gompers saw the need for unionization on a larger, national scale. The decade of the 1880’s was a ripe time for such an organization, judging from the short-lived success of the Knights of Labor, a loose federation of independent unions and associations. Gompers was first associated with the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, formed in 1881, composed...
(The entire section is 1,636 words.)