Samuel Gompers: A Biography

By Bernard Mandel | Go to book overview

Chapter Two
THE CIGARMAKERS' UNION

1. LOCAL 144

BEFORE THE CIVIL WAR, CIGARMAKERS WERE GENERally independent workmen who sold their own cigars to the consumers. They rarely employed helpers and then only one or two journeymen. Consequently, unionism was virtually nonexistent in the trade, the first local being formed in Baltimore in 1851. During the war, the government imposed an internal revenue tax on cigars, granting permits to employers and employees and bonding the shops. This drove the industry out of the small shops and into factories.

With the growth of the factory system, the unionization of the workers became more widespread, and by 1864 there were enough locals to establish the National Cigarmakers Union with a membership of just under 1,000. In 1867, it was renamed the Cigarmakers International Union. Two years later, the organization had 5,800 members, but then it began to decline, partly because of the introduction of the mold which broke down the special skill of the cigarmakers, and partly because of the growth of the tenement system of manufacturing. In 1871 and '72 many Bohemians emigrated to New York and were employed as unskilled workers under the mold and filler system, working in tenement houses. The cigarmakers rented the rooms from the employers, bought their supplies from them, and furnished their own tools. The whole family was put to work, from early in the morning until late at night, seven days a week.1

Then the disastrous depression of 1873-79 all but wiped out the trade unions in the United States. The cigar business, as a luxury trade, was one of the hardest hit. By 1877 there were only seventeen locals left in the cigarmakers' union, with a membership of 1,016. The conditions of the workers in the trade sank. In 1869 the average wages of cigarmakers had been $12.35 a week, but in

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