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Jewogle - Samuel Gompers

Samuel Gompers

Samuel Gompers

Samuel Gompers (January 27, 1850 – December 13, 1924) was an English-born American cigar maker who became a labor union leader and a key figure in American labor history. Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and served as that organization's president from 1886 to 1894 and from 1895 until his death in 1924. He promoted harmony among the different craft unions that comprised the AFL, trying to minimize jurisdictional battles. He promoted "thorough" organization and collective bargaining to secure shorter hours and higher wages, the first essential steps, he believed, to emancipating labor. He also encouraged the AFL to take political action to "elect their friends" and "defeat their enemies." During World War I, Gompers and the AFL openly supported the war effort, attempting to avoid strikes and boost morale while raising wage rates and expanding membership.

Early life

Samuel Gompers (often referred to as "The Big Gomp") was born on January 27, 1850 in London, into a Jewish family which originally hailed from Amsterdam. When he was six, Samuel was sent to the Jewish Free School where he received a basic education. His elementary school career was brief, however, as a mere three months after his 10th birthday, Gompers was removed from school and sent to work as an apprentice cigarmaker to help earn money for his impoverished family.

Gompers was able to continue his studies in night school, however, during which time he learned Hebrew and studied the Talmud, a process which he long later recalled was akin to studying law. While familiar with the ancient Hebrew language, Gompers did not speak and held a lifelong disdain for Yiddish.

Young worker at the bench

Owing to dire financial straits, the Gompers family immigrated to the United States in 1863, settling on Manhattan's Lower East Side in New York City. Gompers' father was engaged in the manufacture of cigars at home, assisted for the first year and half by Samuel. In his free time, the young teenager formed a debate club with his friends, an activity which provided practical experience in public speaking and parliamentary procedure. The club drew Gompers into contact with other upwardly mobile young men of the city, including a young Irish-American named Peter J. McGuire who would later play a large role in the AFL.

In 1864, at the age of 14, Gompers joined and became involved in the activities of Cigarmakers' Local Union No. 15, the English-speaking union of cigar makers in New York City. Gompers later recounted his days as a cigar maker at the bench in detail, emphasizing the place of craftsmanship in the production process:

"Any kind of an old loft served as a cigar shop. If there were enough windows, we had sufficient light for our work; if not, it was apparently no concern of the management.... Cigar shops were always dusty from the tobacco stems and powdered leaves. Benches and work tables were not designed to enable the workmen to adjust bodies and arms comfortably to work surface. Each workman supplied his own cutting board of lignum vitae and knife blade.

"The tobacco leaf was prepared by strippers who drew the leaves from the heavy stem and put them into pads of about fifty. The leaves had to be handled carefully to prevent tearing. The craftsmanship of the cigarmaker was shown in his ability to utilize wrappers to the best advantage to shave off the unusable to a hairbreadth, to roll so as to cover holes in the leaf and to use both hands so as to make a perfectly shaped and rolled product. These things a good cigarmaker learned to do more or less mechanically, which left us free to think, talk, listen, or sing. I loved the freedom of that work, for I had earned the mind-freedom that accompanied skill as a craftsman. I was eager to learn from discussion and reading or to pour out my feelings in song."

The day after his 17th birthday, he married his co-worker, 16-year-old Sophia Julian. They had a series of children in rapid succession, with six surviving infancy.

In 1873, Gompers moved to the cigarmaker David Hirsch & Company, a "high-class shop where only the most skilled workmen were employed." Gompers later called this change of employers "one of the most important changes in my life", for at Hirsch's – a union shop operated by an émigré German socialist – Gompers came into contact with an array of German-speaking cigarmakers — "men of keener mentality and wider thought than any I had met before," he recalled. Gompers learned German and absorbed many of the ideas of his shopmates, developing a particular admiration for the ideas of the former secretary of the International Workingmen's Association, Karl Laurrell. Laurrell took Gompers under his wing, challenging his more simplistic ideas and urging Gompers to put his faith in the organized economic movement of trade unionism rather than the socialist political movement.

Gompers later recalled:

"I remember asking Laurrell whether in his opinion I ought to keep in touch with the Socialist movement. He replied, 'Go to their meetings by all means, listen to what they have to say and understand them, but do not join the Party.' I never did, though it was my habit to attend their Saturday evening meetings. There were often good speakers present and the discussions were stimulating.

"Time and again, under the lure of new ideas, I went to Laurrell with glowing enthusiasm. Laurrel would gently say, 'Study your union card, Sam, and if the idea doesn't square with that, it ain't true.' My trade union card came to be my standard in all new problems."

Gompers complained that the socialist movement had been captured by Lassallean advocates of "political party action" rather than the "militant economic program of Marx." He warned delegates to the 1900 annual convention that when men became enthusiastic about socialism, "they usually lost interest in their union."

Cigarmakers' International Union career

Gompers was elected president of Cigarmakers' International Union Local 144 in 1875.

As was the case with other unions of the day, the Cigarmaker's Union nearly collapsed in the financial crisis of 1877, in which unemployment skyrocketed and ready availability of desperate workers willing to labor for subsistence wages put pressure upon the gains in wages and shortening of hours achieved in union shops. Gompers and his friend Adolph Strasser used Local 144 as a base to rebuild the Cigarmakers' Union, introducing a high dues structure and implementing programs to pay out-of-work benefits, sick benefits, and death benefits for union members in good standing.

Gompers 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."

He was elected second vice-president of the Cigarmakers' International Union in 1886, and first vice-president in 1896. Despite the commitment of time and energy entailed by his place as head of the American Federation of Labor, Gompers remained first vice-president of the Cigarmakers until his death in December 1924.

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 AF of L coalition gradually gained strength, undermining the position 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..

Immigration and foreign affairs

Gompers, who had ties with the Cuban cigar workers in the U.S.. called for American intervention in Cuba; he supported the resulting war with Spain in 1898. After the war, however, he joined the Anti-Imperialist League to oppose President William McKinley's plan to annex the Philippines. Mandel (1963) argues that his anti-imperialism, was based on opportunistic fears of threats to labor's status from low paid offshore workers, and as founded on a sense of racial superiority to the peoples of the Philippines.

By the 1890s Gompers was planning an international federation of labor, starting with the expansion of AFL affiliates in Canada, especially Ontario. He helped the Canadian Trades and Labour Congress with money and organizers, and by 1902 the AFL came to dominate the Canadian union movement.

Gompers, like most labor leaders of his era, opposed unrestricted immigration from Europe because it lowered wages, and opposed all immigration from Asia because it lowered wages and represented (to him) an alien culture that could not be easily assimilated. He and the AF of L strongly supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that banned the immigration of Chinese. The AF of L 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. At least one study concludes that the link between the AF of L and the Democratic Party rested in large part on immigration issues, as the owners of large corporations wanted more immigration and thus supported the Republican party. Other scholars have seriously questioned this conclusion, arguing it oversimplifies the politics and unity of labor leaders and the major parties. As one reviewer argued in the Journal of American History, major Republican leaders such as President William McKinley and Senator Mark Hanna made pro-labor statements, many unions supported their own independent labor parties, and unity within the AF of L was never as extensive as claimed.

During World War I Gompers was a strong supporter of the war effort. He was appointed by President Wilson to the Council of National Defense, where he chaired the Labor Advisory Board. He attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 as an official advisor on labor issues.


During a severe period of national economic recession in the early 1890s, labor unrest was at its height. A volatile situation in Chicago in August 1893 caused the city’s then mayor, Carter Henry Harrison to warn that the preponderance of the unemployed would lead to riots that would “shake the country” unless Congress interceded. In late August 1893, Gompers addressed twenty-five thousand unemployed workers who had massed on the shore of Lake Michigan. As reported in the Chicago Tribune on August 31, Gompers inveighed against the controllers of capital and the titans of industry and finance. “Why should the wealth of the country be stored in banks and elevators while the idle workman wanders homeless about the streets and the idle loafers who hoard the gold only to spend it on riotous living are rolling about in fine carriages from which they look out on peaceful meetings and call them riots?”

Samuel Gompers began his labor career familiar with, and sympathetic to the precepts of socialism, but gradually adopted a more conservative approach to labor relations. Labor Historian Melvyn Dubofsky has written, "By 1896 Gompers and the AFL were moving to make their peace with Capitalism and the American system. Although the AFL had once preached the inevitability of class conflict and the need to abolish 'wage slavery', it slowly and almost imperceptibly began to proclaim the virtues of class harmony and the possibilities of a more benevolent Capitalism."

Gompers' philosophy of labor unions centered on economic ends for workers, such as higher wages, shorter hours, and safe working conditions so that they could enjoy an "American" standard of living—a decent home, decent food and clothing, and money enough to educate their children. He thought economic organization was the most direct way to achieve these improvements, but he did encourage union members to participate in politics and to vote with their economic interests in mind.

Gompers's trade union philosophy and his devotion to collective bargaining with business proved to be too conservative for more radical leaders such as Ed Boyce, president of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), and later, WFM secretary-treasurer Bill Haywood. In 1905, Haywood and the WFM helped to establish the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, whose members were known as Wobblies), with the goal of organizing the entire working class. The IWW's long-term goal was to supplant capitalism with a workers' commonwealth. Nonetheless, when government abuses against the leaders of the WFM seemed too egregious, Gompers relented and offered assistance.

During the following decade, Gompers and his unions vigorously fought the Wobblies, and later cooperated with widespread government arrests of union leaders for the IWW's militant opposition to the First World War. The IWW was practically defunct by 1920. He likewise fought the socialists, who believed workers and unions could never co-exist with business interests and wanted to use the labor unions to advance their more radical political causes, typified by the presidential campaigns of Eugene V. Debs. By 1920 Gompers had largely marginalized their role to a few unions, notably coal miners and the needle trades.

Death and legacy

Gompers' health went into serious decline in starting in February 1923, when a serious bout of influenza sent him to the hospital, sidelining him from work for six weeks. No sooner had he recovered from the flu than he was stricken by a case of bronchitis that laid him low again. By June 1924 Gompers, who suffered from diabetes, could no longer walk without assistance and he was hospitalized again, this time suffering from congestive heart failure and uremia.

He collapsed in Mexico City on Saturday, December 6, 1924 while attending a meeting of the Pan-American Federation of Labor. It was recognized that his condition was critical and that he might not survive for long. Gompers expressed the desire to die on American soil, and he was placed aboard a special train and sped toward the border. Samuel Gompers was buried at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Gompers is buried only a few yards away from industrialist Andrew Carnegie, another important figure of industry in the Gilded Age.

Samuel Gompers inspired later generations of labor leaders, such as George Meany, who paid tribute to Samuel Gompers as a European immigrant who pioneered a distinctly American brand of unionism.

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, AF of L unions were important in industrial cities, where they formed a central labor office to coordinate the actions of different AF of L unions. Issues of wages and hours were the usual causes of strikes, but many 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 AF of L fold.

Gompers is the subject of statuary in several major American cities. A bronze monument honoring Gompers by the sculptor Robert Aitken resides in Gompers Square on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C.. On September 3, 2007, a life-size statue of Gompers was unveiled at Gompers Park which is on the northwest side of Chicago. Gompers Park was named after the labor leader in 1929. This is the first statue of a labor leader in Chicago. Local unions throughout Chicago donated their time and money to build the monument. Samuel Gompers also had a U.S. Navy support ship and a class of U.S. Navy destroyer tenders named for him.

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