1921: Union Politics


The Gompers Dispute

The year following the death of his first wife was particularly tough for Dan Tobin. Balancing work between the Teamsters and the AFL, all while juggling life between Indianapolis and Boston, left the Teamsters General President and AFL Secretary-Treasurer with little patience for ineffective leadership. Although the IBT continued to run smoothly under thanks to devoted International leaders like Tom Hughes, Mike Casey and John Gillespie, Tobin was growing tired of the infighting between members of the AFL Executive Board. AFL President Samuel Gompers, one of Tobin’s close friends and most influential mentors, had always been cautiousness in supporting pro-labor initiatives. Never one to bite his tongue, Tobin became infuriated by the old man’s decision to oppose unemployment legislation. In September of 1921, nearly a year to the day after his wife’s death, Tobin attempted to resign from his post as AFL Secretary-Treasurer in response. Gompers, fearing workers would become dependent on government handouts, argued workers may become reliant on government support at the expense of union membership. Tobin, however, strongly supported the initiative, seeing it as a safety net for the workers most in need of help. Gompers would inevitably concede Tobin’s point, pledging the full support of the AFL in favor of the unemployment law, but he refused to accept Tobin’s resignation. Although the newspapers reported that Tobin had left the post, he would inevitably continue serving under Gompers as AFL Secretary-Treasurer. 

The Lewis Betrayal

At the 1921 AFL convention in Denver, just a few weeks following the dispute, Tobin confronted Gompers again about John L. Lewis, the UMW President who had decided to oppose Gompers for AFL President. Riding on past glories, the old man, now in his 70s, did not realize that his presidency was in jeopardy. Acquainted with the situation, Tobin tried to warn him that the opposition was serious. He advised Gompers to go down to the convention floor and mix with the delegates or he would “find himself a defeated man.” Gompers brushed off Tobin’s warning with an arrogant response: “Dan, they can’t beat me; I am Sam Gompers. I have made this Federation to a great extent. I have given my life to its work. Why should anyone want to displace me now at the end of my days?” Tobin was losing patience. He tried to convince Gompers that he needed to fight for his election. Finally, he gave him a typical Tobin ultimatum: “Sam, as far as I am concerned, unless you get down on the floor, mix with the delegates and do as you always have done, I shall cease to be interested.” Tobin left the room, slamming the door behind him. The dramatic exit served its purpose as Gompers began actively campaigning and later winning the election, continuing as AFL President.

Also in 1921:

International organizers increase their efforts, traveling across the country to build solidarity among workers.  By the end of 1921, the IBT grows to more than 75,000 members.