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November 24: The Cigar Makers Union

November 24, 2012

Samuel Gompers was elected president of the Cigar Makers’ International Union, Local 144, in New York on this date in 1875. The union had reorganized itself after two decades of struggle with a piecework system and the constant arrival of immigrant laborers from Bohemia. During the economic crisis of 1877, a four-month lockout by the cigar manufacturers’ employers association all but destroyed the union — yet four years later the CMIU was instrumental in the formation of the American Federation of Labor, which Gompers led from 1886 until his death in 1924. He was a London-born Jew whose family hailed from Amsterdam, and he had worked as a cigar maker from his teens. While a strong defender of workers’ rights, Gompers was generally opposed to political radicalism and socialist ideology and saw trade unionism as an integral part of a vigorous capitalist system. He strongly supported the banning of Chinese immigration in 1882 and other restrictive immigration laws, including those in the early 1920s that effectively ended Jewish emigration to the U.S.
“The craftsmanship of the cigarmaker was shown in his ability to utilize wrappers to the best advantage to shave off the unusable to a hairbreadth, to roll so as to cover holes in the leaf and to use both hands so as to make a perfectly shaped and rolled product. These things a good cigarmaker learned to do more or less mechanically, which left us free to think, talk, listen, or sing. I loved the freedom of that work, for I had earned the mind-freedom that accompanied skill as a craftsman.” —Samuel Gompers