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The term labor movement is often applied to any organization or association of wage earners who join together to advance their common interests. It more broadly applies, however, to any association of workers by geographical area, trade or industry, or any other factor. While labor unions have been the almost exclusive center of the modern labor movement in the United States, in Western Europe, and in many other countries, the term labor movement has come to embrace labor-oriented political parties as well as labor unions, usually combined in a loose alliance. (Flagger, 2) Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the ups and downs of the business cycle have influenced labor movements in the United States. The expansion of economic activity bringing with it growth in the demand for labor creates conditions favorable to union organization and to demands of wage earners for improved living standards. Correspondingly, significant economic decline weakens the position of workers and labor unions and often leads to a greater emphasis on government solutions to labors problems. Generally, American unions had their greatest successes among blue-collar, or manual, workers, especially in the great goods-producing sectors of the economy. (Flagger 9) In recent decades there has been a shift away from goods to service production.
Unions have not been as successful in organizing workers in the services, large numbers of whom are women, including many part-time employees. It was during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that the United States saw the true effects labor unions could cause. Through powerful leaders it was obvious how much could really be accomplished in favor of workers. Leaders such as Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, and John L. Lewis, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, were just two of this countries great leaders amongst labor unions.
These men were intelligent and used their heads to get the job done and in this sense, they shared many things in common. Samuel Gompers was one of the founders of the American Federation of Labor in 1886. He was elected president, a position which he held, except for one year, until his death 38 years later. Under his leadership, the organization grew from a handful of struggling labor unions to become the dominant organization within the Labor Movement in the United States and Canada. (internet source ) Gompers was born in London, England, on January 26, 1850. His parents were poor immigrant Jews from Holland. He apprenticed and became a cigar maker, a trade he brought with him to New York when his family emigrated to America in 1863.
Life was far from easy in the crowded slums of New York where Gompers spent the rest of his childhood. There were a few relatively large cigar making shops, perhaps, with as many as seventy-five employees; but much of the work was done in a thousand or more sweatshops, often the same crowded apartments where the workers lived. Thousands of little children worked in New York sweatshops and factories, as they helped their parents maintain enough money to survive with the little income child laborers were able to bring in. With such a difficult beginning himself, this may have sparked Gompers strive to create a more descent working environment and better pay for all in the future. In 1881 Samuel Gompers was sent as the delegate of the Cigar Makers to a conference of various unions which created a loose confederation to be called the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Councils. Although without the title of President, as head of the legislative committee, Gompers became its leader, practically speaking; but the organization was structurally weak and ineffective. (Quaglieri, 45) By 1885, Gompers had become highly skilled at his trade and was employed in one of the larger shops.
He was respected by his fellow workers, mostly Germans, who elected him as president of Cigar Makers Union Local 144. This, alone being a great accomplishment, was even harder for Gompers, having to stand against racial criticism of Germans, because of his poor Jewish heritage. He and the other officers were unpaid as they struggled to keep the union together in the face of mechanization and the flooding of the labor market by scores of new immigrants, largely Bohemian. Nevertheless, the need for close cooperation among like-minded labor organizations was abundantly evident; so the organization was reconstituted in 1886 as the American Federation of Labor.
This time with Gompers as the President. He works tirelessly in a cramped office the could not have been much more than an 8 215; 10 room in a shed. His son was the office boy. There was $ 160 in the treasury.
As Gompers said, it was much work, little pay, and very little honor. (internet ) However, four years later, the AFL represented 250, 000 workers. In two more years the number had grown to over one million. Under Gompers, the guiding principle was to concentrate on collective bargaining with employers, and on legislative issues directly affecting the job. Broad social goals and political entanglements were left to others.
John L. Lewis, another great influence on American history, worked as a coal miner and rose through the union ranks to become president of the United Mine Workers (UMW) of America in 1920. Forceful and eloquent, Lewis built up the union and won the loyalty of the miners. He was an important figure in the AFL as well, along with Gompers, until he founded the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935, which he headed as president until 1940. At first, a supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lewis became his principal labor critic, backing Wendell Willie in the 1940 election.
In 1942, Lewis pulled the UMW out of the CIO. During World War II, he led the coal miners in several strikes, arousing public anger and drew a heavy fine in 1948 for failing to obey a court order ending a protracted strike. By the 1950 s Lewis, becoming less aggressive, sought accommodation with the depressed coal industry. He resigned the UMW presidency in 1960. (52) Gompers and Lewis were alike in many ways. Both awesome leaders in relatively the same field, they truly created desperately wanted change amongst laborers. In both cases of the AFL and the CIO, as presidents of their unions, the groups flourished; whether it was in members, outside support, finance or all of these.
Both unions were also created around a certain time period, founded in the same fifty year time frame, and continued to co-exist for years following. Both men struggled through the same difficult downfalls that all unions of the time felt and were able to pull through and keep their unions strong. Their contributions to American history are important. It was only when such strong groups were finally founded, that real progress in the middle-working class began to become evident. If it were not for such ideals and coalitions, it is impossible to tell where today s working class might be. However, to contrast the two men and their unions, the AFL, although it included political demands in its platform, was largely controlled by the national unions of skilled workers and was devoted to practical union objectives.
A basic principle was the safeguarding of its affiliates individual autonomous and jurisdictions. The unions of the AFL placed great emphasis on written collective agreements, including the closed shop, in which only union members are permitted to work. The AFL unions also insisted that members pay relatively high dues, and many of them established insurance and strike benefits. (Flagger, 18) They came to be characterized by job consciousness as opposed to class consciousness. John Lewis along with other labor workers, noticing the largely ignored mass-production workers, proposed great new organizing drives to build industrial unions that would embrace all employees skilled and unskilled in the steel, auto, rubber, and other major industries. When his proposal was rejected by the traditional craft unions in control of the AFL, Lewis set up a special committee in 1936 to perform this task. For taking this action, his union, the United Mine Workers of America, and those of his collaborators were expelled from the AFL.
In the end, though both unions may have focused on two separate groups of people, its ideals remained the same. In the 1950 s, a social and political environment that was less favorable to unions, the passing of leaders who had led the struggle between the AFL and CIO, and other factors led to the unification of the two federations in 1955. AFL President George Meany and Walter Reuther, president of both the CIO and the United Automobile Workers (UAW), took the initiative. The new organization, the AFL-CIO, accepted the principle that both craft and industrial unions could exist side by side, as all AFL and CIO affiliates were accepted into the new body intact. (27) Membership of the united movement was about 15 million, with an additional 2 million outside the AFL-CIO in independent unions.
The contributions by Gompers and Lewis to our society still carry on today as the AFL-CIO still continues to harbor laborers and fight for better workers rights everyday. Although these men were similar in many ways and still different in small aspects, the man that had made the greater impact in our history would be Samuel Gompers, for whom Gompers Park on Chicago s Northwest Side and Samuel Gompers Park in Washington D. C. was named. With his presidency in the AFL came an increase in membership by over four times the previous amount. It was also no small achievement that under his leadership, the AFL union was able to stick together through World War II, the Great Depression and F.
D. R. s New Deal, which only further weakened the unions around it. He was a supporter of trade unionism in Mexico as well, and, though elderly and in failing health, he went to Mexico City to attend the inauguration of Mexico's reform President Calles; and, also, the Congress of the Pan-American Federation of Labor. It was at the Congress that his final collapse occurred.
He was rushed to a hospital in San Antonio, Texas where he died on December 13, 1924. It is for these reasons and more that the name Gompers will never be left out of any American History book written in the future.
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