From the Archives– Shin-Kickers From History: Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor

It’s the Labor Day weekend here in the United States. A holiday that many of us celebrate by firing up the grills, hitting up sales, and attending outdoor festivals. In short it is a day off. Something we can thank the American labor movement for, along with child labor laws, the forty-hour week, paid vacations, etc. (1)

One of the major players in the early labor movement in the United States was Samuel Gompers.

Gompers (1850-1924) was born in East London. His family immigrated to America when he was thirteen and settled in the Jewish community on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. For eighteen months, Gompers and his father rolled cigars in their small apartment before finding better job in cigar workshops.

In the evenings, Gompers attended free lectures and classes at Cooper Union. He received an education on the floor of the cigar workshop as well. Unlike many other skilled trades, cigar rolling was quiet work and talking was allowed. Sometimes one of the men in the shop would read to the others.

Gompers and his father soon joined a branch of the United Cigar Makers’ Union. Gompers was not very active in union business until the early 1870s, when the position of skilled cigar makers was threatened by the proposed introduction of a cigar mold that simplified an important step in the cigar-making process. He joined other union members in a series of strikes protesting the use of the mold, with its threat of making skilled workers less necessary.

During this period, Gompers also attended socialist meetings and demonstrations. He was drawn to Marx’s critique of capitalism, but came to the conclusion that socialist goals of long-term transformation were in conflict with the desire of most workers for immediate change. He described his own labor philosophy as “bread and butter unionism.”

After the failure of a 107-day strike, Gompers and fellow union member Adolph Strasser decided to reorganize the Cigar Makers’ Union. The new Cigar Makers’ International Union charged relatively high dues, which allowed them to build a strike fund and offer a benefits program. The idea was to build a sense of identity among union members based on their shared skills and bind them to the union through an extensive benefit system.

In 1881, Gompers was instrumental in creating another level of union strength in the form of a national federation of trade unions, the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions, which became the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886. By 1900, the AFL had roughly 1 million members. (2)

(1) Benefits that not all Americans enjoy even today.
(2) This post is drawn from a chapter on socialism in America from my first book for adults: The Everyday Guide to Understanding Socialism.

In which I share a small Nazi story

In an article dated March 21, 1933, Sigrid Schultz reported that the Nazis had raided a country home in search of weapons.* The event was a small incident in the larger Nazi program against German Jews. It would probably not have made the news if the home had not belonged to Albert Einstein, who had won the Nobel Prize in 1921 and was always good news copy.

Albert Einstein's official Nobel Prize portrait, 1921

The Nazis claimed they had received information that large amounts of arms and ammunition was cached in the scientist’s home. In fact, Schultz told her readers, “the nearest thing they found to arms was a bread knife.”

It is not clear what the Nazis hoped to accomplish. Einstein, who had denounced the Nazis and predicted a Fascist reign of terror as early is 1931, was then on his way to the United States. Before his departure, he had announced that he would not return to Germany under Hitler’s rule.

Not a story that matters in the the bigger picture except for two unrelated sentences buried in the middle of the article: “Authorities have announced that the first concentration camp for communists will be opened Wednesday at Dachau, near Munich. It will accommodate 5,000 Reds now in jail, as well as other political prisoners.”—one of the earliest references to the concentration camps, in an American paper



*For those of you who don’t have a timeline of Nazi Germany in your heads, Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor on January 1, 1933. On March 23, the Nazis pushed a set of bills called the Enabling Acts through the Reichstag. These acts gave Hitler the ability to rule by decree and made control of the Reichstag irrelevant.



In which I talk about the revision process and Welchs’ Grape Juice

As I work on these revisions,* I am dipping back into Sigrid Schultz’s documents, including the daily logs that she kept on and off over the years, looking for details that I remember but can’t quite put my hands on.*** In the process, things catch my attention that didn’t strike me the first, or fourth, time around.

For example, in her notes about a trip to the United States in 1933, Schultz noted “drink grape juice Welch.” It was hard for me to imagine why Schultz, who spent considerable time choosing wine for her personal cellar and occasionally splurged on a small keg of whiskey straight from the distiller, would think a swig of grape juice was worth noting. (She didn’t note whether she liked it. I know she was a big fan of orange juice.****)

As those of you who have been following along can guess, I went straight down the rabbit hole.

Turns out that, like the first Kellogg’s cereal, Welch’s grape juice was an innovative product developed to lead Americans to a more virtuous life. Who knew?

In the case of Welch’s grape fruit juice, the target was alcohol. As the American temperance movement grew, some churches became concerned about the use of sacramental wine in communion services. The obvious solution was to substitute grape juice for wine, but it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Grape juice stored at room temperature naturally ferments and fresh grapes are not available year round in many parts of the United States.

In 1869, aa Methodist dentist named Thomas Bramwell Welch pioneered the process of pasteurizing grape juice as a way of stopping the fermentation process. According to some versions of the story, he started experimenting with the process when a member of his congregation appeared at his house tipsy from too much communion wine—it’s a fun story, but I find it unlikely unless his guest was swigging communion wine direct from the bottle.

Welch made batches of what he called “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine.” in his kitchen with grapes picked from a trellis just outside the door.  He then attempted to sell it to churches as a substitute to wine for communion. The product wasn’t an immediate success. It only took off after Welch’s son changed the name to Dr. Welch’s Grape Juice, widened the proposed audience, and served it at the 1893 World’s Fair. The popularity of the product grew alongside the temperance movement.

In 1933, when Sigrid Schultz gave it a try, Prohibition was coming to an end. The other beverage she tried while she was in New York was a Manhattan.


*Which feel endless, I tell you, ENDLESS! To quote novelist Jami Attenberg** on the subject: “It’s just steady fucking work, and I have no choice but to hammer through it and it’s not always interesting, even if the book itself is always interesting. Let’s put it this way: solving the problem is fun, implementing the solution is (often) not.”

**If you are interested in the writing process or creativity in general, and can tolerate regular f-bombs, I strongly recommend Attemberg’s weekly newsletter. She is always smart and consistently inspiring.

***I make extensive notes as I research, typing anything that I think might be useful into a chronological Scrivener document that I grandly call the research draft. (It is not a draft in any meaningful sense. In the case of this book, it is a 500,000+ word mass of stuff from which I can build the first really messy draft.) In theory, I should be able to use the search function to find anything I need. In reality, that I assumes I 1)remember a useful key word to use as a search term and 2) thought the item in question had a chance of being useful.

****These are the kinds of details a biographer learns without even looking for them.