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Samuel Gompers (1850–1924) played a bigger role in shaping the U.S. labor movement than any other individual.
Gompers was born in London and came to America with his family in 1863. He went to work as a cigar maker and by the age of 25, was president of his local union. Considered by all a man of integrity and intelligence, he went on to help form the American Federation of Labor in 1887, and served as its head for many years.
Gompers firmly opposed the radicalism of the Wobblies and socialists like Eugene V. Debs of the American Railway Union. He focused on organizing skilled craft workers and distrusted industrial unionism. He opposed racial discrimination at first, but later blocked black workers from AFL unions. Gompers' vision of accord through negotiation became the foundation of labor-management relations.
Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919) became wealthy in the coal and coke business around Pittsburgh during the 1870s. He formed a partnership with steel magnate Andrew Carnegie in 1881 and served as chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company, which would later become U.S. Steel.
His hardline stand at the Homestead mills during the 1892 lockout and strike set a tough tone for labor-management relations during the Gilded Age.
During the strike, anarchist Alexander Berkman, enraged at Frick's high-handed treatment of workers, walked into the executive's office on July 23rd, 1892 and shot him twice at point-blank range. Frick wasn't seriously wounded. Berkman was sentenced to 22 years, but was pardoned in 1906. Frick's mansion on New York's Fifth Avenue was turned into an elegant art gallery after his death.
George Meany (1894–1980), the son of a plumber, started as a plumber himself, but quickly became a union bureaucrat.
He was named secretary-treasurer of the AFL in 1939 and succeeded to the presidency in 1952. He oversaw the reuniting of labor when the AFL and CIO merged in 1955 and became president of the combined group.
Meany never walked a picked line or led a strike. He pushed labor in a conservative direction during his tenure, which lasted until 1979. He resisted the inclusion of Black workers and failed to support the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington. Meany represented unionism at its most complacent.
Walter Reuther (1907–1970) was discharged from the Ford Motor Co. in 1931 for union activism.
He began to organize for the United Auto Workers and led a sit-down strike in Detroit in 1936, establishing the effectiveness of the tactic. He became president of the UAW in 1946. In 1948, he pushed General Motors to accept an "escalator" clause in its union contract, linking wages to the cost of living.
Reuther became president of the CIO in 1951 and vice president of the AFL-CIO in 1955. A socialist early in his life, he pursued a more radical agenda than AFL-CIO president George Meany and frequently feuded with his boss. He finally led the UAW out of the organization in 1968, largely due to deep personal and philosophical differences with Meany. Reuther died two years later in a plane crash.
John L. Lewis (1880–1969) served as president of the United Mine Workers Union for more than 40 years.
He was one of the founders of the CIO and pursued the aggressive organization of workers in his fragmented industry. Under Lewis, mine workers fought some of the fiercest and bloodiest battles with management.
Surprisingly, Lewis was a lifelong Republican. He did support Franklin Roosevelt for president, but he later grew disillusioned and opposed him in the 1940 election. Lewis led strikes in 1946 and 1948 that led to royalties on coal that supported a workers' welfare fund. This money was used in part to construct ten hospitals in poverty-stricken Appalachia.
César E. Chávez (1927–1993) was one of the most effective labor organizers of the modern era.
Born in Yuma, Arizona, Chávez became active with the National Agricultural Workers as early as 1946. He formed the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. Three years later, the boycott of grape growers that he organized brought support from civil rights leaders and other unions and boosted the profile of farm workers.
Chávez's United Farm Workers became an AFL-CIO affiliate and won pay and benefits improvements for members. Chávez brought public attention to issues like pesticide exposure and education, which had a direct impact on his members. A follower of the nonviolent philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, Chávez brought a new moral tone to labor organizing.
"Our dignity," he stated, "meant more than money."
Eugene Debs (1855–1926) was the president of the American Railway Union and a founding member of the Social Democratic Party of America.
Born in Indiana, he dropped out of high school and went to work for the Terre Haute & Indianapolis Railroad at the age of 14. He soon became active in the local Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. In 1893, he helped organize the American Railway Union and became its first president.
During the Pullman strike of 1894, Debs instructed members of the ARU to support Pullman employees by refusing to handle Pullman cars, which were a vital part of the nation's passenger rail system. Debs defied a court order demanding that union leaders cease in their encouragement of the strike and was subsequently sentenced to six months in jail. Shortly thereafter, he embraced socialism, helped found the Social Democratic Party of America, and ran for president five times as a socialist candidate.
During World War I, Debs publicly opposed American intervention in the war and consequently was convicted under the 1918 Espionage Act, which imposed sweeping restrictions on speech and actions deemed detrimental to the war effort. Imprisoned in the Atlanta federal penitentiary, Debs ran for president from his jail cell and received more than 900,000 votes in 1920.