Samuel Gompers: Biography & Facts

Instructor: Thomas Davis

Thomas has taught high school age students for 34 years, undergraduate 12 years, and graduate courses for the last 8 years. He has a Masters Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from National Louis University in Evanston, Illinois.

One of the most prominent labor union leaders of the 20th Century was Samuel Gompers. Gompers founded the (AFL) American Federation of Labor and served as its president from 1886 to 1924.

Champion of Labor

The history of the United States is filled with examples of hard work and dedication leading to success. This puritan work ethic that helped build our country was evident in the life of Samuel Gompers, who went from a penniless immigrant to a successful and confident national labor leader. He supported trade and craft unions, focused on economic reform, and even worked for President Wilson during his lifetime. Most importantly, he was key to the success of the labor movement.

Samuel Gompers

Cigar Rolling Youth

Samuel Gompers was born in London, England on January 27, 1850. He was born to a Jewish family that had originally come from Amsterdam. He began his education by attending the Jewish Free School, but then quit after he turned ten. Following a brief attempt as a shoemaker's apprentice, he decided to follow in his father's footsteps and start a cigar making apprenticeship. At the time, Samuel's family was impoverished and in need of his help.

American Federation of Labor Cigar Makers Certificate
cigar makers

When Samuel was 13, the entire family immigrated to New York City. They moved into a tenement apartment, as most did. He began rolling cigars at home with his father until he found a job in a shop. Gompers joined his first labor organization, Local 15 of the United Cigar Makers, while working in the shop. He got his political ideas from the older guys that he hung out with. They were emigre socialists and promoters of labor reform.

Two years later, Samuel married Sophia Julian, with whom he had twelve children. In his private life, Samuel was outgoing and humorous, and he enjoyed good food and drinking. As a matter of a fact, he was very opposed to prohibition.

Labor Leader

Gompers took his first leadership role when he was elected president of Local 144 of the Cigar Maker's International Union in New York. He served that position off and on until 1896.

Always moving, Gompers became instrumental in establishing the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU). He served as its vice president. Shortly after, the FOTLU re-organized and formed the American Federation of Labor. The first elected president was, you guessed it, Samuel Gompers.

Board of Executives American Federation of Labor

Secret to Success

As a leader, Gompers wanted to build a labor movement with power. His goal was to transform the status of American workers socially, economically, and politically. Gompers by this time had formulated his secrets for success of unions: to support trade and craft unions, to support pure and simple unionism focused on economic reform, and when political action was necessary, to support the party that is pro-labor. The chess match was on.

The first move was that of Gompers. On May 1, 1886, he organized the first nationwide general strike, demanding an eight-hour work day. Around this time, the membership of the union grew more and more each day.

Employers Strike Back

Anti-union hostility continued to rise among employers, who made the next move. The employers for a long time had tried to use the new anti-trust laws against the unions. They focused on a legal precedent that allowed courts to issue injunctions against strikes and boycotts. To add more teeth to the employers' side, in 1906, nonunion employers sued members of the hatters' union for triple damages in compensation for losses sustained during a union boycott. Gompers believed the unions had to seek relief from the legislature.

Strikes could be deadly... funeral procession after steelworkers strike

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