Friday, January 6, 2017

Samuel Gompers by Rosanne Currarino

For men such as Samuel Gompers, president of the AFL for every year but one from its founding in 1886 until his death in 1924, the broad argument of more – that material and cultural life was a central to social power as political rights were – had been tacitly apparent since his early childhood. Gompers was born in London in 1850, the son of Dutch Jews. His father, Solomon, and numerous uncles and cousins were cigar makers, active in the city’s Cigarmakers’ Society. The family placed considerable value on craft and guild solidarity but also emphasized the importance of education and the arts. As a child, Gompers attended a free Jewish school until the age of ten, when he began to work alongside his father. With his family’s encouragement, he continued to take classes at night, and his education was supplemented by his grandfather, who took him to concerts and plays. By the time he was thirteen, Gompers could speak and read some French, Dutch and Hebrew in addition to English and had a fairly wide-ranging knowledge of European literature and music. Later in life, he remembered his early years fondly and saw them as instrumental to shaping both his belief in trade unionism and his love of music and literature.

As the Gompers family grew, its members had more and more difficulty making ends meet. “London,” Gompers remembered later, “seemed to offer no response to our efforts towards betterment,” and Solomon Gompers moved his family to New York in 1863. The Gomperes arrived at Castle Island two weeks after the end of the draft riots, and New York was still smoldering. Despite the turmoil, the Gomperes were able to find more commodious lodging in the city than they had possessed in London, and Gompers and his father soon found work rolling cigars. Young Gompers continued  his semiformal education in the city’s theaters, concert halls, as well at free lectures at the Cooper’s Union.  There he met other young workers who shared his commitment to trade union politics and his passion for culture and philosophy, most notably P.J. McGuire*, later president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, and Labor Day parade.

The theoretical connections between cultural life and labor politics slowly began to solidify in 1873 when Gompers started working in a cigar factory owned by David Hirsch, a German socialist. At Hirsch’s factory, Gompers read the Communist Manifesto, translated by his friend and mentor, Karl Ferdinand Laurrell. Inspired to read more, Gompers taught himself German and read as much German philosophy and economics as he could, including Carl Hillman’s influential pamphlet, Prakitsche Emanzipation-swike. Hillman, a member of Saxony’s Socialist Democratic Workingmen’s Party, produced what Gompers would remember as the perfect expression of ‘the fundamental possibilities of the trade union.” Hillman by no means dismissed the power of political organization, but he argued that a political organization that failed to address material concerns would be impotent. The “ political life in today’s state,” he explained, had “firm economic and social underpinnings”; labor organizations had to acknowledge the latter if they wanted access to the former. Gompers completely absorbed Hillman’s message. When Hillman claimed that “anyone who wants to attain practical results must deal with all actual conditions and circumstances,” Gompers agreed. Theoretical abstractions, he felt, could offer little hope to workers, whose concerns lay more with rent and food than with revolution or what Hillman dismissed as “utopian dreams.”

Gompers growing conviction that “practical emancipation”, offered more hope to workers than purely political tactics did was confirmed by his experience during the early years of the depression. Now married and supporting a quickly growing family, Gompers watched with alarm as the U.S. economy crashed in the winter of 1873-74. “The scenes downtown,” he remembered “were wild on that rainy day” when Cooke’s investment house failed, but they were nothing compared to what followed. “Thousands in New York City were walking the streets in search of a job. As winter came on the misery grew too appalling proportions. Public officials made gestures which might have had value for political purposes but did not give food to the hungry or solve the rent problem for those facing eviction.” One fellow cigar maker’s family was so hungry that they ate their beloved pet dog. What workers needed most, Gompers felt, was economic security; without it they were powerless, politically and socially.

Though the depression certainly put basic economic concerns at the forefront of Gomper’s thought, he did not abandon the lessons learned from his grandfather and from his visits to opera houses and theaters. “Mental hunger,” he insisted, “is just as painful as physical hunger”; the labor movement had to address both. As a young man, he reveled in “a poem, a paper, a book” and was particularly known among his coworkers as an enthusiastic musician. In his autobiography, Gompers remembered that his grandfather “introduced me to a world that brought a lifetime of pleasure. Music appeals to my whole nature as nothing else does.” Music provided him with solace: “The beauty of wonderful music would hold me speechless, motionless – only waking at the the end to gasp to myself, “god, how beautiful!” When he was a young man rolling cigars, singing bolstered his and his comrades spirits during work; soon after he married in 1867, he used money that his wife, Sophia, had saved for new clothing to buy a violin. She overcame her initial anger, and Gompers taught himself to read music and soon learned to play the violin with friends. Music- especially Italian operas such as Tosca and Norma – as well as lectures, literature (Gompers was particularly fond of Dickens) and theater were as important to Gompers as work. “The pure joy of living is good to know,” he insisted, no less important than high wages and political agitation.

Increasingly in the 1870s, Gompers looked with distain on those who did not see the importance of higher wages, shorter hours, and pleasant pastimes- that is, those who were not, as he put it, “practical.” He was particularly dismissive of the “so-called Communists” agitating in January 1874 as exploitive opportunists: “propaganda was for them the chief end of life,” he complained. “They were perfectly willing to use human necessity as propaganda material. Practical results meant nothing in their program.” Indeed, Gompers later blamed the communists and other “non-practical” organizers for the January 12874 debacle in Tompkins Square Park**, where policemen freely battered protesters. Many participants and onlookers were seriously injured, among them Gomper’s friend Laurrell, and Gompers only narrowly escaped being bludgeoned by jumping down into a cellar-way. Soon thereafter, Gompers and other-like minded men formed the United Workers of America (UWA), specifically to repudiate what Gompers saw as dilettante communists. Following Hillman’s advice, the UWA held itself to practical goals, with organizers declaring, “The emancipation of the working class can be achieved through their own efforts and that emancipation will not bring about class rule and class privileges for them but equal rights and duties for all members of society. Economic betterment is the the first step to that desired end.” Gompers reserved particular ire for radicals he saw as “faddist, reformers, and sensation-loving spirits.” He loathed “pseudo-communists” and others “who did not realize that labor issues were tied up with the lives of men, women and children –issues not to be risked lightly.”

Gompers was equally dismissive of those who sought to return to an idealized past, marked by smaller shops and less mechanization. Following an 1867 strike by cigar makers protesting the introduction of molds that simplified the rolling process, her remembered that he ”began to realize the futility of opposing progress.” Cigar makers, he believed, “were powerless against the substitution of machines for human skills,” but they could work together to prevent wage reductions and increases in work hours. For Gompers, at least, these practical goals reached beyond “mere” economics. They were, he believed, also demands for “all” that was essential to the exercise and enjoyment of liberty”- in short, demands for better lives.

For Gompers, and others,  without economic power, political rights had little meaning. In the context of those times and in the final analysis, however much it may be clothed in legal rights and political immunities, democracy means material goods accessible to all. They realized that socialized democracy was as much a process as an ideal, the result of small, endless efforts to improve not only wages and working conditions but seemingly trivial details such as sidewalks, libraries, and furnaces. “ Our hope of this democracy,” explained Walter Weyl, “does not depend upon the chance of a sudden, causeless turn of the wheel. The motor reactions of society, like those of individuals, proceed only from prior accumulations of nervous energy.” “Real”  democracy [  More- a better life in material terms] mattered as much as formal political democracy.


The Labor Question in America; Economic Democracy in the Gilded Age by Rosanne Currarino, Univ of Illinois, 2011

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