|Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor
|Digital History ID 3193|
The labor movement gained strength in the 1850s in such crafts
as typographers, molders, and carpenters. Fixed standards of apprenticeship
and of wages, hours, and working conditions were drafted. Although
such agreements often broke down in periods of depression, a strong
nucleus of craft unions had developed by the 1880s so that a central
federation emerged. This was the American Federation of Labor.
Samuel Gompers (1850-1924) was the first president of the American
Federation of Labor, the first enduring national labor union.
He served as president from 1886 until his death in 1924, except
for a single year, 1895. Born in London, he immigrated to the
United States at the age of 13, and worked as a cigar-maker. He
became the leader of the cigar-makers' union, and transformed
it into one of the country's strongest unions.
Gompers believed that labor had the most to gain by organizing
skilled craft workers, rather than attempting to organize all
workers in an industry. He refused to form an alliance with the
Knights of Labor. "Talk of harmony with the Knights of Labor,"
he said, "is bosh. They are just as great enemies of trade
unions as any employer can be."
Gompers repudiated socialism and advocated a pragmatic "pure
and simple" unionism that emphasized agreements with employees--which
would spell out for a stipulated period the wages, hours of work,
and the procedures for handling grievances. Gompers proposed
that agreements contain clauses stipulating that employers hire
only union members (the closed shop) and that any employee should
be required to pay union dues. Employers advocated the open shop,
which could employ non-union members.
During the 1880s and 1890s, unions sought to secure and retain
a foothold in such major industries as railways, steel, mining,
and construction. It was in the building trades where the craft
principle was most dominant that the American Federation of Labor
developed its largest membership. Miners merged their crafts into
the United Mine Workers of America, an industrial union that admitted
to membership of those working in and about a mine, whether skilled
In 1892, the AFL's affiliate in the steel industry, struck
in protest against wage cuts. Following the bitter Homestead strike,
the steel industry adopted an open shop policy. Craft unions were
able to secure collective bargains on railroads, but when some
workers a union of all rail workers, their effort collapsed in
the Pullman boycott of 1894.
But some efforts at unionization proved more successful, including
efforts in organizing workers in immigrant sweatshops. The International
Ladies' Garment Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers demonstrated
that the new immigrants could be effectively organized.
As trade unionism gained ground before World War I, employers
in mines and factories established "company unions,"
to handle grievances and provide certain welfare benefits. The
most notable company union was in the Rockefeller-owned Colorado
Fuel and Iron Company.
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