James Duncan (union leader)

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James Duncan
James Duncan circa 1920.jpg
Duncan circa 1920
Born(1857-05-05)May 5, 1857
DiedSeptember 14, 1928(1928-09-14) (aged 71)
OccupationTrade union leader; granite cutter; president of the Granite Cutters' International Association.
Known forCo-founder, American Federation of Labor

James Duncan (May 5, 1857 – September 14, 1928) was a Scottish American union leader, and president of the Granite Cutters' International Association from 1885 until his death in 1928. He was an influential member of the American labor movement, helping to co-found the American Federation of Labor.

Early life[edit]

Duncan was born on May 5, 1857,[1] in Portlethen, Kincardineshire in Scotland. His parents were David and Mary (Forbes) Duncan. His father was a farmer, and David was raised Presbyterian. He attended public elementary school in Aberdeen, then apprenticed as a granite cutter.[1]

In 1873, Duncan became a full-fledged granite cutter. His first trade was as a maker of headstones, but he later carved granite statues as well.[1]

Duncan married the former Lillian Holman in 1887. The couple had one child.[2]

Union career[edit]

In 1880, Duncan emigrated to the United States and settled in New York City.[2] He joined the Granite Cutters' National Union in 1881, and was elected the local's secretary.[1] Duncan moved to Baltimore, Maryland, in 1884, and joined the Granite Cutters' union in that city as well. He was elected the local union's secretary shortly thereafter.[2][3]

In May 1895, Duncan was elected secretary of the Granite Cutters' National Union. He was also named the editor of the union's journal, the Granite Cutters' Journal. He moved the union's headquarters to Quincy, Massachusetts in 1900, where he took up residence.[1] The Granite Cutters' National Union had been organized in 1877 as the Granite Cutters' International Union of the United States and the British Provinces of America. The union's founder and first president was Thompson H. Murch, of Maine. He was elected to Congress in 1878, and was replaced by Josiah B. Dyer. Dyer moved the union's headquarters from Maine to Concord, New Hampshire. The union was, at best, a loose federation of largely independent locals. Although it claimed jurisdiction over and had locals in Canada, the Canadian members were an afterthought to the union. In 1880, the union changed its name to the Granite Cutters' National Union and changed its constitution to reduce its jurisdiction to the United States.[4][5] During his first few years in office, Duncan proposed and won passage of numerous amendments to the union's constitution, forming the Granite Cutters' National Union into one of the most effective unions in the country.[6] He was not, however, a supporter of civil rights for African Americans. Duncan negotiated several contracts in the Deep South which required employers to fire black granite cutters and hire Caucasian ones. When the American Federation of Labor (AFL) later complained about the agreements, Duncan strongly defended them and invoked the AFL's principle of autonomy for member unions in defense. The matter was dropped.[7]

In 1886, Duncan attended the founding convention of the American Federation of Labor as a delegate of the Granite Cutters' union. He was elected second vice-president of the AFL in 1894 and served on its executive council, positions he would hold until his death. Duncan became one of Samuel Gompers' closest friends and confidantes. A political independent, Duncan successfully pushed Gompers to avoid making political endorsements and support for a single political party.[8]

In 1900, Duncan led the granite cutters out on a nationwide strike.[9] The strike began on March 1, 1900, and was settled on May 16, 1900, after the intervention of former Senator William Andrews Clark (whose home needed granite for its construction). The strike was successful, and the subsequent collective bargaining agreement made the Granite Cutters' National Union the first American labor union to win the eight-hour day for every single local.[2][4][10]

Duncan's success in securing the eight-hour day for his members led him to be elected first vice-president of the AFL later that year.[11]

In 1903, Duncan proposed expanding the union's jurisdiction across North America. His proposal was not approved by the union's national convention, but he won passage of the jurisdictional expansion in 1905. Afterward, the union was known as the Granite Cutters' International Association.[4][5]

In 1905, Duncan established the first old-age pension plan for union workers in the United States.[12]

Duncan served in a number of capacities for the federal government as well. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed him to a national commission to study workers' compensation insurance.[2] In June 1917, Wilson appointed Duncan Envoy Extraordinary to Russia.[13] In 1918, Wilson chose Duncan to be one of the American trade union delegates to the Paris Peace Conference. He served as a member of the commission which established the International Labour Organization.[14]

In 1924, Samuel Gompers named Duncan one of the AFL delegates to the Pan-American Federation of Labor in Mexico City. The ailing 74-year-old Gompers collapsed on December 6, and doctors said he did not have long to live. Gompers, Duncan and the AFL delegation rushed back to the United States. When the train reached San Antonio, Texas, on December 12, Gompers was taken to a private home. As he lay dying, Duncan held his hand. Gompers died at 4:10 a.m. on December 13, and Duncan was highly distraught for several hours after his death.[8][15]

James Duncan was nominated for president of the American Federation of Labor after Gompers' death. But Matthew Woll, not Duncan, was the first choice of the "Gompers faction" on the council. The anti-Gompers faction, led by John L. Lewis, was adamantly opposed to Woll's election. Woll promoted Duncan as the candidate of the status quo, but he was easily defeated by William Green, a member of the United Mine Workers and a man generally considered subservient to Woll and Lewis.[16]

Duncan died at his home in Quincy, Massachusetts, on September 14, 1928.[11][17]


  1. ^ a b c d e Who's Who in New England, 1915.
  2. ^ a b c d e Fink, Biographical Dictionary of American Labor, 1984.
  3. ^ At least one source says Duncan moved to Baltimore in 1885. See Fink, Biographical Dictionary of American Labor, 1984.
  4. ^ a b c Najita and Roberts, Roberts' Dictionary Industrial Relations, 1994; Orth, The Armies of Labor, 1919.
  5. ^ a b Whitney, Jurisdiction in American Building-Trades Unions, 1914.
  6. ^ Wood, "Tools and Machinery of the Granite Industry, Part IV," Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, March 2007.
  7. ^ Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol. 2: From the Founding of the American Federation of Labor to the Emergence of American Imperialism, 1955.
  8. ^ a b Taft, The A.F. of L. in the Time of Gompers, 1957.
  9. ^ This is not quite as important as it sounds, for granite cutters were primarily located in New England and a few other northern states.
  10. ^ Cahill, Shorter Hours: A Study of the Movement Since the Civil War, 1932; Markowitz, "Hazardous History: Researching the Dangerous Trades," Reviews in American History, June 1998; "Granite Cutters to Strike," New York Times, February 28, 1900; "Granite Cutters' Strike Settled," New York Times, April 29, 1900; "Granite Cutters' Strike Ends," New York Times, May 17, 1900.
  11. ^ a b "James Duncan Dies," New York Times, September 15, 1928.
  12. ^ Munnell, The Economics of Private Pensions, 1982; Kotlikoff and Smith, Pensions in the American Economy, 1984.
  13. ^ "Glennon's Words End Fleet Mutiny at Sebastopol," New York Times, June 25, 1917; "Root Has Faith Russia Will Stand," New York Times, August 5, 1917.
  14. ^ "Choose U.S. Labor Delegates to Paris," New York Times, December 29, 1918; Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol. 7: Labor and World War I, 1914-1918, 1987; Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol. 8: Postwar Struggles, 1918-1920, 1988.
  15. ^ "End Comes On Home Soil," Associated Press, December 14, 1924.
  16. ^ Phelan, William Green: Biography of a Labor Leader, 1989; Goulden, Meany, 1972; Robinson, George Meany and His Times, 1981.
  17. ^ "James Duncan Buried," New York Times, September 18, 1928.


  • Cahill, Marion Cotter. Shorter Hours: A Study of the Movement Since the Civil War. New York: Columbia University Press, 1932.
  • "Choose U.S. Labor Delegates to Paris." New York Times. December 29, 1918.
  • "End Comes On Home Soil." Associated Press. December 14, 1924.
  • Fink, Gary M., ed. Biographical Dictionary of American Labor. Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1984. ISBN 0-313-22865-5
  • Foner, Philip S. History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol. 2: From the Founding of the American Federation of Labor to the Emergence of American Imperialism. New York: International Publishers, 1955. Cloth ISBN 0-7178-0092-X; Paperback ISBN 0-7178-0388-0
  • Foner, Philip S. History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol. 7: Labor and World War I, 1914-1918. New York: International Publishers, 1987. Cloth ISBN 0-7178-0638-3; Paperback ISBN 0-7178-0627-8
  • Foner, Philip S. History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol. 8: Postwar Struggles, 1918-1920. New York: International Publishers, 1988. Cloth ISBN 0-7178-0653-7; Paperback ISBN 0-7178-0652-9
  • "Glennon's Words End Fleet Mutiny at Sebastopol." New York Times. June 25, 1917.
  • Goulden, Joseph C. Meany. New York: Atheneum, 1972.
  • "Granite Cutters' Strike Ends." New York Times. May 17, 1900.
  • "Granite Cutters' Strike Settled." New York Times. April 29, 1900.
  • "Granite Cutters to Strike." New York Times. February 28, 1900.
  • "James Duncan Buried." New York Times. September 18, 1928.
  • "James Duncan Dies." New York Times. September 15, 1928.
  • Kotlikoff, Laurence J. and Smith, Daniel E. Pensions in the American Economy. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1984. ISBN 0-226-45146-1
  • Markowitz, Gerald E. "Hazardous History: Researching the Dangerous Trades." Reviews in American History. 26:2 (June 1998).
  • Munnell, Alicia Haydock. The Economics of Private Pensions. Paperback ed. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution Press, 1982. ISBN 0-8157-5893-6
  • Najita, Joyce and Roberts, Harold S. Roberts' Dictionary Industrial Relations. 4th ed. Washington, D.C.: BNA Books, 1994. ISBN 0-87179-777-1
  • Orth, Samuel P. The Armies of Labor. New Haven, Ct.: Yale University Press, 1919.
  • Phelan, Craig. William Green: Biography of a Labor Leader. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1989. ISBN 0-88706-870-7
  • Robinson, Archie. George Meany and His Times. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981. ISBN 978-0-671-42163-2
  • "Root Has Faith Russia Will Stand." New York Times. August 5, 1917.
  • Taft, Philip. The A.F. of L. in the Time of Gompers. Hardback reprint. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957. ISBN 0-374-97734-8
  • Whitney, Nathaniel Ruggles. Jurisdiction in American Building-Trades Unions. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1914.
  • Who's Who in New England. Boston: A.N. Marquis, 1915.
  • Wood, Paul. "Tools and Machinery of the Granite Industry, Part IV." Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association. March 2007.