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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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