From the mid-1880s until the early 1920s Samuel Gompers dominated organized labor in America. As the longtime president of the American Federation of Labor (AF of L), he played a major role in creating the first enduring national labor organization, an achievement even more remarkable given the considerable challenges facing such efforts during that era. In this short overview of his life and times Harold Livesay credits Gompers's success in his efforts to his pragmatic approach to the problem, one that, unlike those of many of his contemporaries, sought to create a labor movement that conformed to contemporary society rather than seeking to remake it according to a utopian ideal.
As Livesay explains, Gompers came to this conclusion after years as a laborer and union activist. Born in London, he learned the trade of cigar making before emigrating to the United States with his family. As a member of the cigar makers union, Gompers flirted with socialism but was steered away from it by Karl Laurrell, a former Marxist whose cynicism about the movement rubbed off on his young protégé. Nevertheless, Gompers advocated a more inclusive vision of unionism then he would pursue later in his career, encouraging unions to accept workers of all skill levels as well as women and African Americans into their ranks.
What limited Gompers's advancement of these views was his belief in local control. At a time when many labor organizers pursued the chimera of a nationwide union of laborers, Gompers preferred to create a national association of local unions. A firm believer in the "federation" in the AF of L's name, he accepted their autonomy as necessary for their flexibility of action in response to their particular circumstances. While this contributed to the AF of L's success, it came at the price of limiting their scope mainly to craft-dominated trades, where workers were less endangered by industrialization than their counterparts in industries where automation led to the replacement of highly skilled craftsmen with unskilled laborers. Because he did not threaten the ability of manufacturers to control their labor force, Gompers was tolerated by the leaders of the new industrial order, with the benefits brought by unions restricted to a skilled minority of the American workforce.
Livesay describes the events of Gompers life in a narrative rich with analytical insights. A business historian rather than a specialist in labor history, his situation of Gompers's activities within the context of the broader currents of the Gilded Age American economy is a particular strength of his book, one that helps to explain both his subject's achievements and the limitations he faced. Though the work is dated and marred by a few errors, this book nonetheless remains a first-rate introduction to the famous labor leader, one whose life reveals the possibilities and constraints American workers faced during a transformative era in their nation's history.