America’s great labor leaders have been charismatic, well-known, and, above all, successful in creating and sustaining a middle class which was the envy of the world. Every American of my generation and before could name at least five, because they were frequently making news, which our press was happy to cover. In my family it helped that we skipped the L.A. Times, and subscribed to the L. A. Daily News, a tabloid that included Herblock and Drew Pearson.
The big story began with Samuel Gompers of the cigar makers union, who became the American Federation of Labor’s first President at its founding in 1886, and kept on the job until his death in 1924. After the often chaotic struggles of the 19th century, this national labor organization became a stable and permanently established part of the American economic system. Gompers urged Labor to follow a course of “political non-partisanship” which is still relevant today: setting an independent political agenda, and mobilizing union members to vote for those parties and politicians who were clearly committed to Labor’s agenda.
Other labor leaders once known to all Americans:
John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), founding President of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which merged with the AFL in 1955.
Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers (UAW), once the strongest American trade union. He was the model of a reform- minded, liberal trade unionist, and important in the CIO.
George Meany, who built a powerful New York state labor movement in the 1930’s, and later became founding President of the AFL-CIO in 1955, continuing until 1979.
Cesar Chavez, folk hero and symbol of hope who organized the United Farm Workers (UFW). He began an increasingly important strategy of forming alliances with related movements: liberals, students, religious, and civil rights.
The tradition continues, despite formidable political opposition at all levels of government. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor has built arguably the strongest central labor council (300 local unions, over 600,000 workers). Former political director James M. Wood became so successful in the L.A. political arena that the city renamed 9th Street after him when he died. The success has continued under Miguel Contreras, Maria Elena Durazo, and current political director (since 2006) Rusty Hicks.