Labor in Search of a Champion


“...when it comes to trade policy, the US doesn’t have a pro-business party and a pro-worker party. It has a steadfastly pro-business party and a more ambivalent but still substantially pro-business party. To find a political party that offers labor its full-throated support, you have to look beyond the two major ones”. (Steve Thorngate, The Christian Century, 4/23/15)

Steve Thorngate’s excoriating assessment of labor and the two-party system comes just in time for what will surely be the most expensive political campaign ever waged on the planet. (Estimates proffered by credible online sources range from an eye-popping $8-10 billion. Controlling for a mean of $9 billion, that figure would amount to a one-third increase over the record-setting 2012 presidential race.)

Much has been made of organized labor’s steep, ongoing decline in numbers and influence. Further dashing hopes for an organized labor revival is grim word from The Pew Institute the economic recovery is having no measurable impact on tanking union membership.

There is no dearth of economists offering up concrete solutions for what’s ailing unions – some more realistic than others. (For a sleek and practical set of suggestions see Huffington Post business columnist Gene Mark’s August 9, 2013 “What’s Wrong With Unions ... And How to Fix Them”.)

But no matter the soundness of a given recipe for how unionism might survive the times, the movement has long been without perhaps the most important ingredient for any sustainable cause: a fit champion.

This leadership drought has existed for the past quarter century – since labor icon Caesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers organized boycotts in the quest for fair wages and humane working conditions.

Minus such a galvanizing visionary, unionism is left to draw upon its heroes from a worthy if distant past. Starting with a cigar maker turned labor organizer.

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.

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 and sparking a populist movement that would influence labor laws for the next five decades.

Gompers 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.

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 bigoted 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.

Samuel Gompers died in San Antonio on December 13, 1924. 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 so common in the American workforce.

Today’s unionists lack for a strong champion — one that for a host of reasons may never come. If so there is no shortage of tribal leaders from which to draw, starting with a flawed but fearless cigar maker turned labor organizer.

Don Rollins is a juvenile court program coordinator and Unitarian Universalist minister. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2015

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