In honor of May Day, this week’s grave is that of Samuel Gompers, in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow New York. May Day is a holiday that shares both European pagan roots and a more modern labor interpretation; in the United States it is often associated with the Haymarket Riot and the Socialist Movement. Since I haven’t yet been able to visit Eugene Debs’ grave, I’ll use today to highlight the grave of Samuel Gompers, a crucial figure in United States labor history. Gompers was a German immigrant to New York in the 1860s who found work as a cigar-maker and rose through the ranks of the Cigarmakers’ International Union to become its head. By the 1880s he founded the American Federation of Labor, which became the country’s largest and most powerful union.
Gompers was not himself a socialist, though he certainly supported some similar aims. In other aspects of his beliefs, however, he tended toward the conservative; he strongly opposed immigration despite his own past, for example, on the grounds that any new influx of immigrant labor would depress wages for existing workers. Success also tended to moderate Gompers, and toward the end of his career he saw labor more as a part of, rather than in opposition to, industrial capitalism.
Gompers’ legacy in American labor relations cannot be overstated: his AFL, especially after its merger with the CIO, remains the most powerful force in American labor organizing, while his tendency towards conciliation set a tone for a less agitative – and therefore also perhaps a less successful – approach to labor disputes.