Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 115

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 115

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This is the grave of Adolph Strasser.

Born in 1843 or 1844 in what is today Hungary, Strasser emigrated to the United States in 1871 or 1872. He settled in New York and took up cigar making. He very quickly became involved in the city’s burgeoning trade union movement, meeting another young unionist cigar maker named Samuel Gompers in 1872. He organized the workers in the new tenement system of cigar making, where people were contracted to roll cigars in their homes, into the United Cigarmakers Union and then joined the other union in that industry, the Cigar Makers International Union, where he was editing their journal by 1875. He built a central trade union body in New York in 1876 and 1877 to coordinate strategy between unions, a precursor to what is today a central labor council. He was elected vice-president of the CMIU in 1876 and remained in that position until 1891. He was an effective union leader and helped the CMIU start winning strikes. He and Gompers were very close; both believers in “pure and simple unionism” that avoided politics or demands that transformed society, they worked together to isolate and defeat union factions that wanted to become what today we might call social justice unionists.

In 1886, Strasser helped Gompers found the American Federation of Labor at a conference in Columbus. In 1891, he retired from the CMIU and worked full-time for the AFL until 1914 as a speaker and internal union organizer, including arbitrating disputes between unions. He was a truly foundational figure in the history of the AFL. He left the labor movement in 1914 and decided to spend his old age selling real estate in Buffalo. He retired from that in 1919, lived in Chicago for the next decade, and then moved to Florida. He died in 1939, at the age of 95. By this time, he was a completely forgotten figure. His role in founding the AFL more than half-century ago was barely recognized. The CIO had split from the AFL and the entire world had changed from Strasser’s unionist days. CMIU Local 14 brought his body back from Florida and had it reburied at their memorial in Chicago.

Adolph Strasser is buried at Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois.

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  • TheBrett

    It’s always fascinating to see someone like that, whose life sat astride the entire First Gilded Age and played an important role in it.

  • varmintito

    Thanks, Erik. I know a fair amount of labor history (even took some courses at Cornell’s ILR school) but could not immediately place his name.

  • Robert MacGregor

    This seems an appropriate post to ask: What do you make of Randy Bryce (@IronStache on Twitter), and his campaign to unseat Paul Ryan?

    I assume WI-01 is very safe, but win or not, Bryce seems like the kind of voice and candidate to elevate as we try to win back some portion of the Rust Belt WWC, while also standing up against the demonizing of immigrants and celebrating the unshackling of ICE.

    • Erik Loomis

      I don’t know enough to say how legit of a candidate he will be in the end. But a few things. First, it’s important that Democrats run legit candidates against every Republican, including Paul Ryan. So this is good. Second, he fits the district. If you are going to run someone against Ryan, a white male populist steelworker with a big mustache is not a bad way to go. Third, there is likely to be a lot of grassroots support for the guy, so I think he will bring in a lot of small donors on the left. So I’m cautiously optimistic.

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