This post is also being run on the site Roundtree7 (www.roundtree7.wordpress.com/).

By Jack Jodell, April 6, 2011

This is the third installment of a series highlighting ordinary American workers who, through tremendous risk and sacrifice on their part, became great leaders in the American labor movement. It is to people like this we owe a great debt of gratitude for having paved the way for a safe working environment, fair wages, the 8 hour work day, paid vacations, pension funds, and a host of other benefits we now take for granted and which today’s corporatist conservative Republicans and Tea Party members are now TRYING TO TAKE AWAY FROM US!

SAMUEL L. GOMPERS (1850-1924) was a tremendously influential member of our labor movement who was responsible for the creation of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Born in London, England, Gompers came from a Jewish family who had roots in Amsterdam. He was educated in school only until the age of 10, when family finances required him to begin a career as an apprentice cigarmaker helping his father. He continued this trade at home even after the family moved to New York in 1863. Once there, in his free time, he began a debate club with friends, which provided him with his first experience in public speaking. The club put Gompers into contact with other higher class young men of the city, including a young Irishman named Peter McGuire, who would later play a big role in the AFL.

At the tender age of only 14, Gompers joined and became involved in the activities of the Cigarmakers Local Union No. 15. He kept at this trade for some time, becoming quite skilled in the rolling and manufacture of cigars. At age 17, he married his 16 year old co-worker, and they rapidly had a number of children, six of which survived. By age 23, Gompers moved to the cigarmaker David Hirsch & Company, a “high-class shop where only the most skilled workmen were employed.” Here he came under the tutelage of Karl Laurrell, the former secretary of the International Workomgmen’s Association. It was a fateful encounter, for Laurrell convinced Gompers to put his faith in the organized trade union movement rather than the socialist political one he had originally been attracted to.

Gompers was elected President of Cigarmakers Local No. 144 in 1875, and within a few short years had restructured it into a high-dues union which enabled him to begin programs of  paying out-of-work benefits, sick benefits, and death benefits for all union members in good standing. This visionary man told his workers they must organize because arbitrary wage reductions had become almost a daily happenstance. He warned them that the capitalists were only interested in profits (SOUND FAMILIAR?) “and the time has come when we must assert our rights as workingmen…we are powerless in an isolated condition, while the capitalists are united; therefore it is the duty of every Cigar Maker to join the organization.”

In 1886, Gompers merged a number of different trade unions into the AFL. He served as its President from then on until his death 39 years later, with the exception of the year 1895.  The union steadily grew in strength and numbers. In 1911, he was nearly jailed for having published a boycott list (see the power companies had back then?). But the Supreme Court, then far more progressive and sensible in its approach to law than today, overturned the sentence in the important case of Gompers v. Buck’s Stove and Range Co..

During the 1890s, Samuel Gompers began the drive for an international federation of labor. He lent money to and was influential in establishing trade unions in Canada. By 1902, his AFL was the dominant union in that country. He went on to serve as chairman of President Wilson’s Labor Advisory Board on the Council for National Defense during World War I, and even attended the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 as an adviser for labor issues.

He died of complications arising from late-onset diabetes in 1924. My favorite quote of his reads as follows:

“And what have our unions done? What do they aim to do? To improve the standard of life, to uproot ignorance and foster education, to instill character, manhood and independent spirit among our people; to bring about a recognition of the interdependence of man upon his fellow man. We aim to establish a normal work-day, to take the children from the factory and workshop and give them the opportunity of the school and the play-ground. In a word, our unions strive to lighten toil, educate their members, make their homes more cheerful, and in every way contribute an earnest effort toward making life the better worth living.”

Mary Kay Henry (1958- ) has the uneniable role of having just been elected international President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) on May 8, 2010. Events staged by very conservative Republican Governors and legislatures in the states of New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Ohio have become a baptism of fire for this long-time labor activist.

She was born in 1958 to a Roman Catholic family living in suburban Detroit, MI. Her father was a salesman and her mother a teacher, so she was brought up in the typical middle class setting of the time. Due to her Catholic upbringing of those days, she developed an interest in social justice issues, and, because of where she lived,  a like interest in the United Auto Workers. She worked in local hospitals while in high school and college, and also served as a medical assistant for the American Red Cross. In 1979, she graduated from Michigan State University, with a B.A. in Urban Planning and Labor Relations. Her first job after school was distributing food stamps to the needy for the American Foreign Service. Here she came into contact with various members of, and lobbyists for, the UAW, and one of them suggested the best way to end hunger for the needy was to obtain for them good-paying jobs. That person didn’t know it then, but he had created a fierce union organizer. For soon after, Henry joined the SEIU as a researcher. She joined them because at the time, they were one of the few unions hiring women organizers, and a portion of them were involved in health care organizing. Throughout the 1980s, she took part in 18 different jobs for the California SEIU, among them a strike organizer for a 9.000 member strike of clerks, nursing assistants, and technicians against 14 different Kaiser Permanente hospitals and care facilities. She helped pioneer SEIU’s organizing strategy for that state. In 1993, she was named director of the 475,000 member health care division of the SEIU.

In late 1995, Henry was elected to SEIU’s Executive Board and was named assistant to the President for organizing a year later. She represented the union in talks which negotiated a card check agreement with the Catholic Healthcare West hospital chain, an effort which netted the union 17,000 new members in 27 different hospitals.

Almost a year ago, then-SEIU President Andrew Stern announced he would be resigning. Four executive vice presidents of the international union immediately launched an email campaign to support Mary Kay Henry as his successor. She was seen as a fresh face and a consensus-builder as opposed to the rest of the other possible candidates. In a memo circulated to other SEIU leaders, Henry said, “our local unions and divisions should drive our national priorities, not the other way around.”

A few weeks later, Mary Kay Henry was elected President of the SEIU, to fill out the 2 years remaining on Stern’s term. Her arrival on the scene was met rather rudely by the way ultra-conservative New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Ohio Republican governors and legislatures basically shut public sector union labor out of their respective states. The constitutionality of their actions, as well as the reactions by each state’s voters, as well as the strategy the SEIU will now employ to combat this blatant anti-union activity is unknown at this point. But several things are clear: Mary Kay Henry is a proven fighter; working people all across the country are riled up; and recall elections are looming against these despicable Republicans. The next year or two will be especially revealing as to how tough and determined the current American worker truly is!

The stories of Samuel L. Gompers and Mary Kay Henry both prove that the American worker desperately depends on strong labor unions for his and her economic survival.  Today, just as in Gompers’ day, the forces of big money are out to completely control and deny workers their right to a fair wage and decent working conditions!



About jackjodell53

I am an American Dissident trapped in a country where poor and middle class people are constantly being exploited and lied to by a very rigid and conservative plutocratic elite. I believe in government OF, FOR, and BY the people, not one controlled as it now is by corporations and special interests.
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  1. Tom Harper says:

    Excellent portrait of two great labor heroes. We all owe it to them and ourselves to not let their hard-won gains slip through our fingers.

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