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The Samuel Gompers papers: Vol. I, the making of a union leader, 1850-86.

The Samuel Gompers Papers: Vol. I, the Making of a Union Leader, 1850--86.

This is the first of a projected 12-volume series of documentary papers of and about Sam Gompers. this first volume takes the reader from the poorest section of London (his parents' marriage certificate, 1849, and SG's birth certificate, 1850), the passenger list of the ship London in which the family arrived in New York in 1863, to Gompers' election as the first president of the new American Federation of Labor, 1886.

All labor history buffs have a treat in store for them as they follow through Gompers' eyes the workingman's efforts at organization in the turbulent post-Civil War industrial era. Readers will enjoy learning more about the institutions, politics, and mores of that period. Here we find the ethnic splits in Gompers' union, the Cigarmakers, the ideological split between the Knights of Labor and the trade unions, and the continuing thrusts and parties between those who put first the buiilding of socialism and those who put first the building of trade unions. In the middle of all this strides Gompers, young and vigorous, very sure of his facts and his views, and working ceaselessly.

Two highlights are worthy of special mention. The first is Gompers' testimony, at age 33, before the U.S. Senate Education and Labor Committee, documenting wages and working conditions, explaining the reasoning behind the movement for an 8-hour day, giving details of individual strikes along with his personal philosophy of trade unionism. Sixty-six fascinating pages of testimony.

The second concerns Gompers' efforts in 1881, as an official of the Cigarmakers, to outlaw by legislation the practice of manufacturing cigars in New York City tenements. Gompers personally conducted a special investigation into the practice of employers who used tenement families to roll cigars in their two-room tenement flats, which were filled from morning to night with tobacco leaf and its attendant tobacco dust. His extensive report included case histories of individual contractors and individual tenement houses, as well as medical evidence of the deleterious effects of tobacco, expecially on pregnant women and their chances for healthy births. This, 83 years before the Surgeon General's Report on cigarette smoking.

This is the work of many hands. Stuart Kaufman, along with four associate and two contributing editors, faced a herculean task inasmuch as Gompers' papers had been scattered to the four winds (and some destroyed). Since its start in 1973, the project has gathered speed and the next two volumes are nearing publication. The book's format is helpful to the reader. Documents are grouped together, roughly chronologically, with introductory notes clarifying events and identifying individuals.

It's true that basic labor history can be more easily obtained elsewhere, but the letters, newspapers articles, organization reports, committee minutes, and convention proceedings endow history with the stuff of reality. You are there. Don't miss it.
COPYRIGHT 1986 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Henle, Peter
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1986
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