Eyewitness 1881: Gompers helps workers of the U.S. unite

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When Samuel Gompers arrived here in November 1881 for a National Labor Congress, The Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette was apprehensive. The newspaper warned that as leader of what it saw as "the Socialistic element," he might fatally divide the labor movement.

Gompers, the president of the International Cigar Maker's Union, was 31 years old. A union member since age 14, he became president of his local at 25.

In its Nov. 16 edition, the Gazette described Gompers "as one of the smartest men present" for the four-day labor meeting. "It is thought that an attempt will be made to capture the organization for Mr. Gompers," the newspaper reported. "[W]hether it succeeds or not, there will likely be some lively work as the delegates opposed to Socialism are determined not to be controlled by it. If the Socialists do not have their own way, they may bolt, as they have always done in the past. If they do bolt, the power of the proposed organization will be seriously crippled," the newspaper warned.

The fears proved unfounded.

In his opening remarks, Gompers told the assembled delegates from 12 states that "he had come to Pittsburgh, not to air his opinions but to work, not to build a bubble, but to lay the foundation for a superstructure that would be solid."

Gompers maintained his conciliatory attitude the next day when it came time to elect officers for what would be called the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions -- a direct ancestor of the American Federation of Labor.

When Gompers' name was proposed as chairman by the labor convention's organizing committee, he faced immediate opposition. Two rival candidates, Richard Powers, head of the Lake Seamen's Union, and John Jarrett, president of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, were nominated from the floor.

"For a time it looked as if the chairmanship would be hotly contested, but Mr. Gompers poured oil on the troubled waters by stating that he was thoroughly devoted to trade unions, and in order to facilitate the work of completing the organization, would withdraw his name," the Gazette reported on Nov. 17. "Mr. Powers graciously followed suit, and Mr. Jarrett was unanimously chosen Permanent Chairman." Gompers and Powers shared the number two spot.

Delegates to that first convention, which opened Downtown in Turner Hall on Sixth Avenue, passed resolutions that took decades to become law but that now are accepted parts of labor policy.

They supported establishment of a standard eight-hour work day, an end to the use of convict labor, and a prohibition on factory work for children younger than 14.

One delegate "painted a graphic picture of the misery of the child laborers of the Pacific slope and how they were growing up in ignorance," the Gazette reported on Nov. 18.

Gompers described his investigations of young children who spent long days rolling cigars in tenements apartments "[He found little children who were too young to understand any of the questions asked of them, but yet were compelled to work from before daylight until after dark, and [described] how he often found the little ones fast asleep before their work."

"Other delegates recounted their experiences ... which were pathetic enough to bring tears to most eyes," the paper said. If those stories "could be published in full, they would form a powerful argument in favor of keeping the little ones out of the work shops and sending them to school where they belong."

The convention backed tariffs to protect U.S. manufacturers from goods produced with cheaper foreign labor and regulations to protect U.S. workers from competition from imported foreign contract laborers.

Delegates also called for laws that would require employers to care for workers injured in industrial accidents -- the idea behind modern workers' compensation programs.

Worried, perhaps, about being tarred with a "socialist" brush, the delegates voted down a proposal calling for government acquisition and operation of railroads and telegraph companies.

When the organization formed in Pittsburgh morphed into the American Federation of Labor in 1886, Gompers became its president. He served, except for one year, until his death in 1924.

Gompers forged an unlikely posthumous connection with one of Pittsburgh's best-known business figures. The labor leader and Andrew Carnegie both are buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.

Len Barcousky can be reached at lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. Past stories in the "Eyewitness" series -- all drawing from contemporary reports in Pittsburgh's newspapers -- can be read on post-gazette.com/pgh250 .


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