HAPPY LABOR DAY!
Cigar making in the 1800s was a dirty, hard job. Workers sat at tables on backless benches. There was no air circulation, and little light. A worker had to supply his own cutting board and knife. "Strippers" tore the leaves from the plant stems (making sure not to rip the leaves). "Bunchers" laid them in pads of 50. The cigar-maker then adjusted the leaves so that all the holes in the leaves were covered up. The unuseable portion had to be cut off, and the best cigar-makers cut off only the tiniest bit of unuseable leaf. Tougher leaves were used for the wrapper. The goal was to make a perfectly shaped and rolled product. Piece-rates varied from $16 to $22 per thousand. Women made much less than men; Asian laborers often made less than half what whites did. Cigar factories were full of the dust from the leaves, and pieces of stem and branch flew everywhere. Management wanted as little tobacco wasted as possible, the highest-quality rolls and best wrapping, and the highest number of cigars made per day. Managers had the right to remove as many "imperfect" cigars as they liked -- for which workers received no wage.
Unions attempted to win higher piece-rates, limit the abuse of the "right of removal", stop sexual abuse of women and children, obtain more ventilation and better lighting, win adjustable seating, and other benefits.
Samuel Gompers was a Jew born in Great Britain in 1850. He emigrated to the United States, and as a teenager started work in a cigar factory. His job was to read books, newspapers, periodicals, pamphlets -- anything to help alleviate the tedium of cigar-making.
He became president of the International Cigar Makers' Union, and then co-founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in October 1886. He served as the AFL's president from 1886 to 1894 and again from 1895 until his death in 1924. A critical leader in the American labor movement, he tried to stop the inter-union battles over jobs and members, promoted professional union administration, successfully advocated for the eight-hour working day, and demanded written contracts and improved collective bargaining.
Gompers suffered from diabetes, for which at the time there was no treatment. He suffered a serious bout of influenza in February 1923, and then was stricken with severe bronchitis in the summer. He was 73 years old, and increasingly frail, and recovery from the bronchitis was very slow. He began suffering from congestive heart failure (brought on by the diabetes, and severely worsened by influenza damage to his heart), and by spring 1924 could no longer walk without assistance. In June, his kidneys began to fail.
Gompers continued to travel heavily, however, on behalf of the American labor movement. He attended the Democratic National Convention in July, standing and speaking for nearly an hour. He attended the AFL's executive council meeting in Atlantic City in August, but was so weak that he could not preside over the daily sessions. Few thought he was well enough to attend the AFL's annual meeting in El Paso in mid November, but he did. During the noon lunch recess and at night, however, he practically collapsed from exhaustion.
Against his doctor's advice, he attended the inauguration of Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles on November 29. (Gompers had played a key role in putting down the rebellion that threatened the regime of Calles' predecessor, Álvaro Obregón.) A special train, escorted by the Mexican military, sped Gompers, his wife, and about 15 presidents of American labor unions to Mexico City. These included the most powerful men in the American labor movement: AFL Secretary-Treasurer Frank Morrison, Granite Cutters president James Duncan, Photo-Engravers president Matthew Woll, Street and Electric Railway Employees president William D. Mahon, and AFL Metal Trades Department president John P. Frey. Calles sat Gompers in a place of honor, and wore an AFL badge during his inaugural ball. But Gompers' friends noticed that he tired easily, and seemed fatigured. The meeting of the Pan-American Labor Federation opened on Decembeer 3, and Gompers stayed in Mexico City to attend the sessions.
On Saturday, December 6, Gompers collapsed. A physician told his wife and friends that Gompers had suffered a severe heart attack and was dying, and it would be only a matter of days -- if not hours.
Gompers expressed his desire to die on American soil. At first, the assembled labor leaders thought they should hire an airplane to transport him, but the altitude (which lowered blood pressure and forced the heart to work harder) probably would have killed him. A special express train was quickly commissioned, and at 7 P.M. on December 10 it began its journey toward the United States. The altitude on the high Mexican plateau was no good for him. He weakened considerably by the time the train reached San Luis Potosi on the 11th. Between Saltillo and Monterey later that day, Gompers' condition worsened. The three Mexican physicians traveling with him believed the much lower altitude might have him, but it did not.
Samuel Gompers arrived in San Antonio, Texas, at 5 P.M. on December 12. He was transported to the St. Anthony Hotel, then the most luxurious in the entire South. His condition had improved slightly, but his personal physician was contact and rushed from New York City to attend him.
Gompers slept little during that night. At about 2:30 A.M., it became clear he was dying. His heart rate was soaring to 160 bpm, and they administered digitalis but it did no good. They bled a pint and a half of blood from him in order to help decrease the heart congestion, and gave him epinephrin. But nothing helped. In his final hours, he made plans for his funeral and his estate. He lapsed into unconsciousness at 3:30 A.M., and died an hour later. Per his wish, his old friend James Duncan held his hand. It was December 13, 1924.
His body was placed in a 1,200-pound bronze coffin. A special two-car train was offered by the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad to carry his body home to Sleepy Hollow, New York. In the forward car was a lounge and sleeping bunks for officials. In the second car was the observation lounge, in which the casket was placed. Two beds were made up on either side of the casket, since AFL officials said they would stand watch over the casket day and night on its journey.
Gompers' body lay in state in the U.S. Capitol on December 14 and 15. His funeral was held Thursday, December 18, in the Lodge Room of the Elks Club at W. 43th Street and 6th Avenue in New York City on December 16. The funeral rites of the Elks was read over him, as was the funeral rites of the Freemasons (to which Gompers also belonged). Two rabbis then read the Jewish rites for the dead over him.
Because Gompers married outside the Jewish faith for his second marriage, he was barred from being interred in Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn (the large and famous Jewish cemetery where Gompers' first wife and many of his infant children were buried). Gompers purchased a burial plot in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in the fall of 1924, and made his first will about that time. The grave was near that of Andrew Carnegie. He left almost no money, and his only property consisted of his home in Washington, D.C.