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Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor


Paperback, 224 pages
ISBN: 1-58367-003-3
Released: January 1999

The first comprehensive history of American labor leadership in the twentieth century, this is a tale of tremendous hope and appalling treachery, stunning accomplishment and dramatic defeat.

Paul Buhle tells the story of the American labor bureaucracy through vignettes of three powerful labor leaders of the twentieth century: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, and Lane Kirkland, successive presidents of the American Federation of Labor and its descendent, the AFL-CIO. Other important labor leaders, from John L. Lewis to Walter Reuther, receive in-depth treatment.

How did labor leaders in the United States grow remote from the workers they claimed to represent? Taking Care of Business explains why policies and practices at the highest levels of union federations came to be counterproductive to workers’ interests. It shows how the union hierarchy allied with the very corporate executives and government officials who persistently opposed labor’s interests at home and abroad, how a union leadership heavily populated by former radicals thwarted women and people of color from joining, and how the bureaucracy defeated generations of union militants who sought a more democratic, inclusive approach for the labor movement.

In a hopeful conclusion, Buhle speculates the historical pattern he identifies may have been disrupted by the 1995 election of John Sweeney’s New Voices slate in the AFL-CIO, a possible watershed in the history of a labor movement whose story remains unfinished.

Taking Care of Business catapults the reader through a panorama of American and social and labor history of the past 125 years … Buhle’s knowledge of the American working class and the political forces it unleashed is encyclopedic. His synthesis of the work of recent generations of labor and social historians in documenting the lost opportunities for labor unions to address broad social concerns and remake themselves into vibrant and inclusive class organizations is impressive.

New Labor Forum

Paul Buhle has written an important history of the U.S. labor movement . . . . it deserves wide attention.

American Journal of Sociology

Essential reading for a new generation of organizers, activists, and scholars as labor, once again, seeks to realign itself with social justice and community-based movements.

—Elaine Bernard, Executive Dir., Harvard Trade Union Program



  1. Samuel Gompers and Business Unionism
  2. Meany Takes Command
  3. Meanyism: Apex and Decline
  4. The Kirkland Years




Paul Buhle teaches in the American Civilization Department at Brown University. His previous books include Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist, The Encyclopedia of the American Left, Working for Democracy, and C.L.R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary.

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Publication Date: April 1999

Number of Pages: 224

Paperback ISBN: 9781583670033