Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 12

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 12

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Time for the next installment in the internet’s least important historical series.

This is the grave of Samuel Gompers.

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Gompers, an English immigrant from a Jewish background, immigrated to the United States in 1863. He became involved in the nascent American labor movement in 1864, when he was 14 and working as a cigar maker. He was elected president of his local in 1875 and rose quickly after that. Although he never actually was president of his international, he became the most important person in American labor in the 1880s, heading the American Federation of Labor from its founding in 1886 until his death in 1924. Today, Gompers is often an object of disdain among radicals. Some of that is for good reason. He was violently anti-radical, and knew more about communism than any government official by World War I because he kept such close tabs on potential rivals. He wouldn’t organize most immigrants, women, black people, Asians, or children. He wouldn’t organize shop floors or the new industrial factories, yet worked hard to destroy unions who then tried to do that very thing. He held onto an older vision of independent male laborers working in skilled positions, which was totally unrealistic in the industrial economy developing around him.

This is all true. But it’s also worth noting that Gompers’ positions represented the feelings of millions of American workers who wanted that vision of the proper American worker to come true. He was not a dictator within the AFL, but rather was the head of a federation of unions, some of which, especially the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, that had a ton of power in the organization and which he had to represent. He also moved the American labor movement ahead significantly, creating a space for its legitimacy in a nation where employers wanted to crush all unions, especially in the aftermath of the Knights of Labor.

In other words, Gompers was a tremendously complex individual and our view of him should reflect this.

Samuel Gompers is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, New York.

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  • A final sentence like that, makes me with it ended with the following: “where his headless ghost terrifies mill owners and communists alike to this very day”

    • He’s actually buried a literal stone’s throw from Andrew Carnegie, not to give away future entries into this series.

      • Hogan

        Let’s make sure he has plenty of stones to throw.

      • EliHawk

        I love little things like that. One of my favorites is at Arlington Cemetery Justices Blackmun, Marshall, Stewart and Brennan are all in a neat little row together, and they’re all a row or so behind and away from Warren Burger, as though they still couldn’t stand spending time with him, even in death.

  • advocatethis

    In short, then, Gompers’s efforts contributed greatly to the creation of a middle class, and also to why that middle class was largely reserved for whites.

    • LeeEsq

      Even if Gompers wanted to, I really don’t think he could have done anything to make the union movement more inclusive. Besides the racism and sexism that were normal for the time, American workers had this vision of themselves as artisans and craftsman as Erik pointed out. Many of them really didn’t want to admit that they were employees. Immigrants from Europe were more open to industrial labor unions because they really had no experience or even folk memory of economic or political independence.

  • Peterr

    He held onto an older vision of independent male laborers working in skilled positions, which was totally unrealistic in the industrial economy developing around him.

    I read this and couldn’t help but think of faculty unions that don’t speak up on behalf of adjunct faculty . . .

  • Anna in PDX

    Unimportant series are what make the internet great.

  • The Dark God of Time

    I’ll just leave this here.

  • Are cemeteries the ecological horrors that golf courses are? I’m betting yes, & I say down w/ both!

    • The Dark God of Time

      My own observations, based on a nearby cemetery over 100 years old, is that if not maintained with the same rigor as a golf course, it can support a surprising variety of birds including in my own observations ravens, robins, blackbirds, doves, killdeer and others.

      Here’s some ravens at the cemetery telling a red-tailed hawk where to go.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmYi1EqWH_U

  • Warren Terra

    I read Gompers’s autobiography when I was a kid – I was perhaps not a normal kid – and my main recollection is that while as you say he wasn’t all that far left and wasn’t all that much a defender of downtrodden social classes, context matters. Certainly as he recounts it, his main contribution was to wrest control of the labor movement away from the Knights Of Labor and their ilk, and on the issues where Gompers was bad those folks were (as he tells it) much, much worse.

  • Judas Peckerwood

    He was violently anti-radical, and knew more about communism than any government official by World War I because he kept such close tabs on potential rivals. He wouldn’t organize most immigrants, women, black people, Asians, or children…. But it’s also worth noting that Gompers’ positions represented the feelings of millions of American workers who wanted that vision of the proper American worker to come true.

    Donald Trump?

  • EliHawk

    I do love that there’s a big ol’ statue of him in DC that sits right across the street from the Cato Institute, staring it down.

    • LeeEsq

      It’s like the labor equivalent of Cromwell’s statue.

  • Brett

    Time for the next installment in the internet’s least important historical series.

    You gotta give it a catchier name than “Erik Visits a Grave”. Loomis Log, 01/22/16!

    • EliHawk

      He’s just setting it all up for when someone too clever by half writes his obituary someday.

  • He’s a legend in Sleepy Hollow, you say?

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