Union Made: Labor Leader Samuel Gom­pers and his Fight for Work­ers’ Rights

  • Review
By – November 4, 2019

In Union Made, author Nor­man H. Finkel­stein chrono­log­i­cal­ly tells the sto­ry of the Jew­ish immi­grant and trail­blaz­ing labor leader, Samuel Gom­pers. Gom­pers lived over 100 years ago and his work is not gen­er­al­ly taught in schools and is, there­fore, not wide­ly known among stu­dents. Young read­ers will be sur­prised to learn of the con­di­tions work­ers had to endure 100 years ago that Gom­pers sought to improve.

The book recounts the mis­ery Gom­pers was born into and the con­di­tions he fought to change for the bet­ter­ment of all, while dis­cussing Gompers’s com­plex per­son­al life. He worked for a liv­ing as a cig­ar roller; his union work, as leader of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor (AFL), was a call­ing and a pro­fes­sion that took him away for extend­ed lengths of time from his fam­i­ly. Being on the road made him vul­ner­a­ble to injuries which dam­aged his health.

The sto­ry is full of descrip­tions that real­is­ti­cal­ly high­light Gompers’s short and pudgy stature. Most of the action takes place when Gom­pers is an old­er man which may make some read­ers feel less of a con­nec­tion to his sto­ry; the author cre­ates inti­ma­cy with the char­ac­ter by refer­ring to him as Sam through­out the story.

Gom­pers was not a reli­gious Jew, and he worked with oth­er wth immi­grants and minori­ties. Jew­ish mutu­al immi­grant aid soci­eties, or lands­man­shaftn, and the Hand-In-Hand mutu­al assis­tance soci­ety played key roles in help­ing his fam­i­ly sur­vive hard­ship and pover­ty. The book has clear images of many Jews engaged in the labor move­ment such as a pic­ture of work­ers hold­ing protest signs in Yid­dish that read Abol­ish Slav­ery” and it presents a sense of the chal­lenges for Jews at the turn of the century.

Aside from cov­er­ing Gom­pers’ life, the author elab­o­rates on the broad­er sub­ject of polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic sys­tems and how work­ers are treat­ed with­in these struc­tures. Gom­pers opposed con­flict and believed labor should nego­ti­ate for bet­ter con­di­tions with­in the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem. The book vivid­ly tells of the waves of immi­grantion and the vio­lent race rela­tions of the late 1800s.

The book teas­es out anoth­er time­less top­ic, the chal­lenges of chang­ing work­places and job loss­es due to tech­nol­o­gy as well as the exploita­tion of home piece­meal work that may have res­o­nance in today’s gig econ­o­my. Young read­ers will learn about the abus­es and unhealthy con­di­tions found in many work­places before reg­u­la­tion as well as Gom­pers’ role in lob­by­ing for stan­dards. Vivid descrip­tion of vio­lent Pinker­ton guards who roughed up strik­ers pro­vide a strong argu­ment for work­ers’ and human rights. Gom­pers is depict­ed as an inspir­ing fig­ure. Gom­pers felt com­pelled to cham­pi­on the cause of labor, even as he held dis­crim­i­na­to­ry ideas toward Chi­nese and African Amer­i­cans that may have changed and soft­ened over time.

The book starts and ends in an inter­na­tion­al con­text; first, Gom­pers’ immi­gra­tion and, lat­er, a pro­duc­tive inter­na­tion­al labor con­fer­ence with Mex­i­cans. The scope expands from the inti­mate mis­ery of the child labor Gom­pers fought against, to board­room greed, to the halls of Con­gress, pro­vid­ing con­nec­tions between labor and Unit­ed States his­to­ry encom­pass­ing Jew­ish his­to­ry, as well.

The book includes an epi­logue, a time­line, source notes, his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments and pho­tographs, and a bib­li­og­ra­phy, all help­ful in fur­ther­ing the edu­ca­tion of read­ers and deep­en­ing their under­stand­ing of an impor­tant his­tor­i­cal era.

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