by Tim Paulson, Secretary-Treasurer
San Francisco Building & Construction Trades Council
Samuel Gompers, as I wrote last month, was the long-time President of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Over a hundred years ago, many national unions were sick of their umbrella organization, the Knights of Labor, who were more than willing to accommodate the employers. The unions formed a new organization, the American Federation of Labor. It became a stronger and more strategic labor body both in organizing and political work.
Samuel Gompers was the first and longest-serving president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). It is to him, as much as to anyone else, that the American labor movement still owes its structure and characteristic strategies.
One example: The AFL encouraged the creation of Central Labor Councils and Building Trades Councils. (One example: in San Francisco the Building Trades Council under the leadership of P.H. McCarthy, a Carpenter, dominated the Labor Council and McCarthy eventually became Mayor of San Francisco after the ’06 earthquake. This was a very important win in solidifying San Francisco as a union town even if his time in office was very uneventful.)
Besides the different strengths of this new organization, the AFL also had an elitist streak. There was a bigger priority for “skilled” union members vs. the unskilled; craft workers vs. factory workers or service workers. These are chauvinisms that divide us even to this day. Shouldn’t that be a stupid dichotomy and question?
Who can tell me which worker is more worthy than any another?
But, still, despite the traditional apprenticable crafts in the AFL like the Electrical Workers, Bricklayers, Plumbers, etc. the AFL also represented such diversely different work classifications and unions such as the Hotel Cleaners, Janitors and Doormen, Cigar Makers, Hat Makers, Bookbinders, Fur Workers and Coal Miners, many who don’t exist anymore. The AFL used to represent almost all workers no matter what their “skills.”
Years ago when I moved from my union, the Bricklayers, Tile Layers and Allied Craft Workers, I was recruited to work for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) organizing Janitors and Security Officers. One day when I was running a picket line outside a downtown San Francisco office building, a couple of my BAC brothers drove by and laughed at me because I was working for the immigrant men and women who cleaned the buildings I used to build. I was a little hurt at the time, but those few insults helped me think about how big or small our union movement could be.
Nationally, the AFL grew from 50,000 members in 1886 to nearly 3 million in 1924 and created a permanent presence in American society.
Elected every year, except one, until his death in 1924, Samual Gompers navigated these fights and division. He was known as the arbiter, spokesman, pundit and fighter for all of labor during this difficult and transformative time in American labor history. The AFL was the largest union grouping in the United States for the first half of the 20th century, even after the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) by unions which were expelled by the AFL because of its opposition to the industrial unionism of the so-called unskilled trades.
In 1955, the AFL finally merged with the CIO to create the AFL-CIO, which has comprised the longest lasting and most influential labor federation in the United States to this day. That is the national organization that you and your business managers and presidents and I work with.
I will close my sketch with a line we’ve all heard: “When we stick together we win.” (.....and that includes voting!.....)