Samuel Gompers

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Samuel Gompers (January 26, 1850 - December 13, 1924) was the most prominent American labor union leader in the early 20th century. Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and held the position as president of the organization for all but one year from 1886 until his death in 1924. He promoted harmony among the different craft unions that comprised the AFL. Focused on higher wages and job security, he fought against socialism and the Socialist party. After 1907 he formed alliances with the Democratic party at the local, state and national levels. He enthusiastically supported the war effort in World War I, and saw rapid growth in union membership and wage rates.

Early life

Gompers was born in London, England into a working class Jewish family which had recently arrived from Holland. He left school at age ten to apprentice first as a shoemaker then as a cigar maker. The family immigrated to New York City in 1863, settling on the Lower East Side of the city. He married Sophia Julian in 1867 and became a naturalized citizen in 1872. Gompers did not have a formal education, but said, "The factory was my Harvard and my Yale."

In 1877 the union had collapsed and Gompers and his friend Adolph Strasser using local 144 as a base rebuilt the Cigar Makers' Union, introduced a hierarchical structure, and implemented programs for strike fund and pension fund, which were paid for by charging high membership dues. He told the workers they needed to organize because wage reductions were almost a daily occurrence. The capitalists were only interested in profits, "and the time has come when we must assert our rights as workingmen. Every one present has the sad experience, that we are powerless in an isolated condition, while the capitalists are united; therefore it is the duty of every Cigar Maker to join the organization. . . . One of the main objects of the organization," he concluded, "is the elevation of the lowest paid worker to the standard of the highest, and in time we may secure for every person in the trade an existence worthy of human beings." [1]

His philosophy of labor unions centered on economic ends for workers, such as higher wages, benefits, and job security. His goal was to achieve these without political action or affiliation by the union, but rather through the use of strikes, boycotts, etc.

Gompers viewed unions as the labor component of a business, neither superior nor inferior to the management component, but just as essential. Europeans unions were much more confrontational, but Gompers sought a business relationship that would be profitable to both sides. His belief led to the development of procedures for collective bargaining and contracts between labor and management which are still in use today. In practice, AFL unions were important in industrial cities, where they formed a central labor office to coordinate the actions of different AFL unions. Most strikes were assertions of jurisdiction, so that the plumbers, for example, used strikes to ensure that all major construction projects in the city used union plumbers. In this goal they were ideally supported by all the other construction unions in the AFL fold. Issues of wages and hours did arise, but were usually less important. Safety issues rarely were at issue in strikes.

Leading the AFL

Gompers helped found the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in 1881 as a coalition of like-minded unions. In 1886 it was reorganized into the American Federation of Labor, with Gompers as its president. He would remain president of the organization until his death (with the exception of one year, 1895).

Under Gompers's tutelage, the AFL coalition gradually gained strength, undermining that previously held by the Knights of Labor, which as a result had almost vanished by 1900. He was nearly jailed in 1911 for publishing, with John Mitchell, a boycott list, but the Supreme Court overturned the sentence in Gompers v. Buck's Stove and Range Co..

Gompers's insistence against political affiliation and radicalism in the AFL, combined with the AFL's tendency to cater to skilled labor over unskilled, led indirectly to the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World organization in 1905, which tried with limited success to organize unskilled workers.

Gompers, like most labor leaders, opposed unrestricted immigration from Europe because it lowered wages, and opposed any immigration at all from Asia for the previous reason and also because it brought an alien culture. He and the AFL strongly supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that kept out the Chinese.[2] The AFL was instrumental in passing immigration restriction laws from the 1890s to the 1920s, such as the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and the Immigration Act of 1924, and seeing that they were strictly enforced. As Mink shows, the link between the AFL and the Democratic Party rested in large part on immigration issues; the owners of large corporations wanted more immigration and thus supported the Republican party.[3]

Political involvement

During World War I Gompers was a strong supporter of the war effort. He was appointed by President Wilson to the powerful Council of National Defense, where he instituted the War Committee on Labor. He was an attendee at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 as a labor advisor

Death and legacy

Gompers died in San Antonio, Texas, aged 74, and is buried at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

The United States Navy destroyer tender USS Samuel Gompers was named in his honor. An impressive monument honoring Gompers resides in Gompers Square on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C. In San Antonio, Texas, a statue, controversial for its design, was dedicated in Gompers' honor near the current riverwalk and convention center.

Primary sources

  • Samuel Gompers, Seventy Years of Life and Labor (1925, 1985 reprint) online edition
  • The Samuel Gompers Papers (1986- ) definitive multivolume edition of all important letters to and from Gompers. 9 volumes have been completed to 1917. The index is online. For details and more on Gompers see [1]

Scholarly secondary sources

  • Greene, Julie . Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881-1917 (1998) [online edition
  • Livesay, Harold C. Samuel Gompers and Organized Labor in America (1993)
  • McCartin, Joseph A. Labor's Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modern American Labor Relations, 1912-1921, 1997 online edition
  • McKelvey, Jean Trepp . AFL Attitudes toward Production, 1900-1932 (1952) online edition
  • Mandel, Bernard. Samuel Gompers: A Biography (1963), the standard biography online edition
  • Taft, Philip. The A.F. of L. in the Time of Gompers (1957)

External Links


  1. Mandel p. 22
  2. Thousands of Chinese entered the U.S. illegally, but they all went to Chinatowns and did not compete with union labor. The restrictions were repealed in 1943.
  3. Gwendolyn Mink. Old labor and new immigrants in American political development: union, party, and state, 1875-1920. (1986).