Union-made cigar advertisement - Smithsonian Museum of American History - 2012-05-15
Union-made cigar label at the the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
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 will 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 high 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 became a cigar maker. 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 disliked party politics, instead pushing for a "reward your friends, punish your enemies" strategy of political action. He fought against government-run programs such as unemployment insurance, health insurance, and pensions -- arguing that unions could administer these programs better. He also avidly supported the U.S. involvement in World War I, successfully winning a no-strike policy.