Samuel Gompers and the U.S. Labor Movement

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[Hat tip to A.L.]

Today is Samuel Gompers’ (1850-1924) birthday. From the AFL-CIO website:

Samuel Gompers was the first and longest-serving president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL); it is to him, as much as to anyone else, that the American labor movement owes its structure and characteristic strategies. Under his leadership, the AFL became the largest and most influential labor federation in the world. It grew from a marginal association of 50,000 in 1886 to an established organization of nearly 3 million in 1924 that had won a permanent place in American society. In a society renowned for its individualism and the power of its employer class, he forged a self-confident workers’ organization dedicated to the principles of solidarity and mutual aid. It was a singular achievement.

Gompers is often denigrated by the more radical elements of the labor movement for promoting craft unionism and ignoring the plight of unskilled workers. Political Scientist Victoria Hattam provides a different interpretation. In Labor Visions and State Power, Hattam contends that the ideology of Gompers was more radical than that of the “reformist” Knights of Labor. By emphasizing “bread and butter” working-class issues like wages and working conditions and moving away from the notion of producing vs. non-producing classes, Gompers and other craft union leaders provided the means for American workers to form a national organization that would challenge the power of employers.

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