Samuel Gompers should probably be considered the greatest labor leader this country ever produced. He not only provided outstanding leadership to the U.S. and Canadian labor movement during its initial developmental stages but he was also one of the founders of the American Federation of Labor [AFL] in 1886. Following the AFL founding, he also became the AFL's president, a function he held, except for one year, when he was on a sabbatical, until his death in 1924, a period of 38 years.
Although Samuel Gompers was born in London, England in 1850, he was from solid Dutch Jewish background. His maternal great grandfather who was of French background was a French soldier quartered in Holland during the Napoleonic era. He married a Dutch woman and the family remained in Holland.
It is not clear why the Gompers family moved to England, but probably for economic reasons. The family was not middle class by any means. His father was a cigar maker, a trade that paid sparing wages. Samuel Gompers' family numbered seven and lived essentially in a one room apartment. Besides Samuel there were four other siblings, Henry, Alex, Lewis and Jack, and the parents.
Gompers attended the Jewish Free School in London and upon graduation he was at the top of his class. He could not continue his studies because as the oldest in the family, he was then ten years old, his earnings were needed to supplement the family's meager income. His first apprenticeship was as a shoemaker. But before long he was able to get an apprenticeship in the cigar making trade, a trade he followed for the next 25 years.
Economic conditions in London in the 1860's were harsh, as they were all over Europe at that time. It was also the time of the great migration of Europeans to America,
largely to escape the deplorable economic conditions in Europe at that time. So in 1863 when Gompers was 13, the family immigrated to America and settled in New York City. The sea voyage was on a sailing ship, a trip which took the customary six weeks. There were steamboats then, but only for those who could afford them. The Gompers' family did not fall in that category. They had to borrow money to pay for the voyage.
Both Samuel and his father were cigar makers, and that was the trade they took up upon their arrival in New York City. But as in Amsterdam and in London, life was difficult in New York City for the Gompers family. Child labor was rampant, and at age 13, Samuel Gompers himself belonged to that category, although he was probably one of the older children.
Development of labor and craft unions was common and prevalent in those days. These unions were essentially self-help type organizations with no bargaining power, and as a result were largely ignored during their early developmental phases. Gompers joined the Cigar Makers International Union [CMIU] in 1864. Even then he was only fourteen years old.
Gompers married Sophia Julian in 1867, at age 17, and became a father at age 18. They remained together until her death and during that time they had eight children.
In 1874 Gompers helped found local 144 of the CMIU, and he became its president. He remained a member for life, even after he entered into full time union activities.
The 1870's were also a time for Gompers' self education in those areas where he had had no schooling. He became active in the International Workingman's Association, the Economic and Sociological Club, and the Workingman's Party of the United States. What he learned during those years prepared him for and formed the foundation of his leadership in the trade and labor unionism for the rest of his life.
In 1881 Gompers attended, as a delegate for the CMIU, a conference to found the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions [FOTLU] of the USA and Canada. Its objective was to influence legislation in behalf of labor, prepare labor legislation, and to lobby Congress. Gompers was one of the chief founders and he became effectively its leader.
As an officer of FOTLU from 1881 to 1886, Gompers worked for compulsory school attendance laws, regulation of child labor, the eight hour day, higher wages, safe and sanitary working conditions, and workplace democracy.
FOTLU was reconstituted in 1886 as the American Federation of Labor [AFL] and Gompers became its president. He remained AFL's president until his death in 1924. During the early days of the AFL the organization was tiny. Gompers' office was an 8 by 10 room in a shed. His son was the office boy, and there was $160 in its treasury. During that time Gompers also served as a vice president in the CMIU and played an active role in the New York State Workingman's Assembly.
Most of the work associated with the Union movement consisted of testifying before Congress and State Legislatures on labor laws, rallying his troops at labor rallies, and negotiating strike settlements. Gompers was well known and respected for his integrity, his generosity and his willingness to stand up to power.
During his entire career as a labor leader, Gompers preached moderation. He was considered by many to be too conservative. He stressed cooperation by labor and management rather than strike action to obtain management concessions. Under his leadership the AFL grew from a few struggling labor unions to the dominant organization in the U.S. and Canadian labor movement.
Gompers' wife Sophia died in 1920. He was devastated and suffered from loneliness. He married a year later to Grace Neuschler. While attending the Congress of the Pan-American Federation of Labor in Mexico City he collapsed and subsequently died in a San Antonio, Texas hospital on December 13, 1924. He was then 74 years old. To this day he is remembered as the founder and father of the American labor and trade union movement.
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