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In the Advocate September 2023:

Cigars, Machines, and Immigrant Labor

Mike Andrew

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Cigar factory, early 20th Century. Note the "reader" hired to read books and newspapers to the cigar rollers as they worked. Many workers got their first introduction to socialist politics by listening to readers in the factory.

For most of the 19th century and a good part of the 20th, cigars were 

an indispensable part of male culture in the USA. 

     When United Press reporter Ray-mond Clapper wrote in 1920 that the Republicans nominated Warren Hard-ing for president “in a smoke-filled room in some hotel,” it was cigar smoke he had in mind. 

     To have cigars you need cigar mak-ers, and the Journeymen Cigar Makers’ International Union of America (CMIU) became one of the country’s most pow-erful unions. It was a founding union of the AFL, and one of the unions in the Seattle Labor Temple Association, the original owners of the old Labor Temple at First and Broad Street in Seattle. 

     CMIU’s International First Vice Presi-dent, Sam Gompers, became the first and longest serving president of the AFL. 

     But the CMIU is no more. In 1974 its few remaining members merged into the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, which itself merged into UFCW in 1993. 

     The rise and fall of the CMIU is the tale of organized labor in the US and its attempts to cope – or not – with tech-nological and demographic change. 

     Until the 1890s, almost all cigars were rolled by hand. The cigar maker was a skilled craftsman, who had to select only the best tobacco leaves for the outer wrapper, lesser quality leaves for the inner binder layer, and torn or scarred leaves for the filler. He (and in those days almost all the cigar makers were men) had to roll the cigar tight enough to stay together, but loose enough for the smoker to draw on it. 

     The first local Cigar Makers' Union was founded in Baltimore in 1851 by craftsmen resisting the entry of low-wage immigrant workers from Germa-ny. A couple of years later, a New York City Cigar Makers’ Union was formed by German immigrants who wanted to freeze out more recent immigrants from Bohemia.

Gompers himself was born in England into a Jewish fam-ily originally from Amsterdam. He and his family came to the US when he was 13. By that time, he was already working as an apprentice cigar maker. 

     As an adult, Gompers spoke English, German, which he learned from coworkers in his New York City local, and He-brew, which he stud

ied in night school after work. He hated Yiddish – a lan-guage used by Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania – and he resisted organizing Yiddish-speaking immigrants in the CMIU.

     The whole CMIU leadership, Gomp-ers included, believed in the law of supply and demand. As they saw it, the best way to guarantee high wages for union workers was to limit the supply of skilled union labor. In practice, this often meant excluding workers who wished to be part of the union in order to benefit the ones who were already members.

     One way to do that was to charge high “initiation fees” for union member-ship. Another way was to make rules excluding women or specific nationali-ties. 

     To their credit, the CMIU admitted both women and Black members as early as 1867, but the union – and Gom-pers himself – supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to bar Chinese immigration into the US. 

     Another way to limit the supply of union labor was to write a clause into the union contract prohibiting the use of machinery in the manufacture of cigars. That guaranteed that only the most experienced and skillful hand-roll-ers – the union members – were hired. 

In 1867, the CMIU accepted the introduction of a wooden cigar mold which standardized the size and shape of cigars and eliminated unnecessary labor in what was called “bunching,” gathering the tobacco leaves together prior to wrapping them.

     However, when the first cigar roll-ing machine hit the street in 1889, the CMIU opposed it and refused to admit the “unskilled” rolling machine opera-tors into its ranks. A cigarette rolling machine had been introduced even earlier, in 1880, and it was capable 

of producing cigarettes so quickly, and therefore cheaply, that smokers switched from cigars to cigarettes. Die-hard cigar smokers began buying cheaper machine-rolled cigars pro-duced by non-union labor. 

     By 1924, when Sam Gompers died, the CMIU was already on the skids. Four years later, the average age of a CMIU member was 64, an advanced age in those days. In 1931, the American Cigar Co., the only US-based cigar factory still making hand-rolled cigars, went out of business. By 1933, there were only 15,000 CMIU members left, most of them unemployed. 

     There were only 2,000 members left to merge with the retail workers in 1974.

Mike Andrew is the Executive Director of PSARA and Editor of the Advocate.

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