A Union Leader Betrayed

By Steelman, Aaron | Policy Review, January-February 1997 | Go to article overview
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A Union Leader Betrayed

Steelman, Aaron, Policy Review

Before the last election, the AFL-CIO, under the direction of its president John Sweeney, spent nearly $40 million lobbying on behalf of candidates who wished to expand the size and scope of government. It was the most ambitious political program the AFL-CIO had ever undertaken. It was also one at odds with the vision that labor pioneer Samuel Gompers had for the union movement.

Gompers was born in London in 1850. His formal education ended at the age of 10, when poverty forced him to leave his neighborhood's Jewish school and find work in the shoemaking business. He quickly grew tired of that trade and coaxed his father into teaching him cigarmaking. But even with the addition of Samuel's income, the family was unable to make ends meet. So in 1863, the Gompers family, like thousands of other European families of that period, secured passage to New York. In America they didn't expect to find a handout, but rather the opportunity for a better life.

Gompers soon began work in a New York cigarmaking factory. He was instrumental in the founding of the National Cigarmakers Union and served as its vice president for four years. In 1881, the cigarmakers joined several other unions in creating the Federation of Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada.

In 1886, the federation was reorganized and renamed the American Federation of Labor (AFL).with the exception of 1895, was annually reelected president until his death in 1924. During that period--as the AFL's membership grew to more than 4 million--real wages increased, work weeks shortened, and working condi- tions improved in industry after industry.

Although he supported such legal protections as child-labor laws and general liability laws for employers, he favored union bargaining power over govern- ment regulation as a means to advance the economic standing of wage earners. As historian Florence Calvert Thorne has written, Gompers thought that "by joining hands with like-minded workers,"wages which could make more material comforts available." That, coupled with "personal freedom and self-dependence, would help them to be alert and responsible citizens of their community." A Nonpartisan Union

From the beginning, Gompers was wary of embroiling the AFL in politics of any kind, partisan or otherwise.

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