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Samuel Gompers

Samuel Gompers

The American labor leader Samuel Gompers (1850-1924) was the most significant single figure in the history of the American labor movement. He founded and was the first president of the American Federation of Labor.

Few great social movements have been so influenced by one man as was the American labor movement by Samuel Gompers. He virtually stamped his personality and viewpoint on the American Federation of Labor (AFL). This heritage included both Gompers's social conservatism and his truculent firmness on behalf of the organized skilled workers of the country. His is a unique success story, of an utterly penniless immigrant who became the confidant of presidents and industrialists.

Gompers was born on Jan. 27, 1850, in east London, England. His family was Dutch-Jewish in origin and had lived in England for only a few years. The family was extremely poor, but at the age of 6 Gompers was sent to a Jewish free school, where he received the rudiments of an education virtually unknown to his class. The education was brief, however, and Gompers was apprenticed first to a shoemaker and then in his father's cigar-making trade. In 1863, when Gompers was 13, the family moved to the tenement slums of the Lower East Side of New York City. The family soon numbered 11 members, and Gompers again went to work as a cigar-maker.

Cigar-makers' Union

Naturally gregarious and energetic, Gompers joined numerous organizations in the bustling immigrant world of New York City. But from the start nothing was so important to him as the small Cigar-makers' Local Union No. 15, which he joined with his father in 1864. Gompers immediately rose to leadership of the group. At the age of 16 he regularly represented his fellow workers in altercations with their employers, and he discussed politics and economics with articulate workingmen many years his senior.

This was a time of technological flux in cigar-making, as in practically every branch of American industry. Machines were being introduced which eliminated many highly skilled workers. The cigar-makers were distinguished, however, by the intelligence with which they studied their problems. The nature of the work—the quietness of the process, for example—permitted and even encouraged discussion of economic questions, and this environment provided Gompers with an excellent social schooling. The most significant influence upon his life was a formerly prominent Scandinavian socialist, Ferdinand Laurrel, who had become disillusioned with Marxism and taught Gompers that workingmen ought to avoid both politics and utopian dreaming in favor of winning immediate "bread and butter" gains in their wages, hours, and conditions.

In fact, Gompers had many contacts with socialists, though, from his earliest days, he had little time for their ideals. Basing his own unionism on a "pure and simple" materialistic approach, he built the Cigar-makers' International Union into a viable trade association despite technology and unsuccessful strikes.

American Federation of Labor

With Adolph Strasser, the head of the German-speaking branch of the Cigar-makers' Union (Gompers led the English-speaking branch), and several other trade union leaders, Gompers helped to set up in 1881 a loose federation of trade unions which, in 1886, became the AFL. Founded during the heyday of the Knights of Labor, the AFL differed from the older organization in nearly every respect. The Knights emphasized the solidarity of labor regardless of craft and admitted unskilled as well as skilled workers to membership. The AFL, with Gompers as its president, was a federation of autonomous craft unions which admitted only members of specific crafts (carpenters, cigar-makers, and so on) and made no provision for the unskilled. The Knights looked forward to a society in which the wage system would be abolished and cooperation would govern the economy, whereas the AFL unions were interested only in improving the day-to-day material life of their members. The socialists' attempt to capture the AFL in 1894 did succeed in unseating Gompers for a year, but he was firmly back in power by 1895 and, if anything, more bitterly hostile to socialism in the unions than ever.

"Socialism holds nothing but unhappiness for the human race," Gompers said in 1918. "Socialism is the fad of fanatics … and it has no place in the hearts of those who would secure the fight for freedom and preserve democracy." Throughout his career he inveighed against the flourishing Socialist party and the numerous attempts to form revolutionary unions. Although many forces account for the failure of socialist thought among American unions, Gompers's influence at the head of the movement for 40 years cannot be discounted.

Devotion to Unionism

However, if Gompers was hostile to the socialists, he was as devoted to the cause of unionism as any other American labor leader before or since. He was the first national union leader to recognize and encourage the strike as labor's most effective weapon. Further, when issued an injunction in 1906 not to boycott the antilabor Buck Stove and Range Company, he defied the courts (albeit gingerly) and was sentenced to a year in prison for contempt (a conviction later reversed on appeal). Gompers spent only one night in jail (a rare distinction among labor leaders of his day) and, characteristically, was contemptuous of, rather than sympathetic with, those with whom he shared his cell. But his devotion to unionism and the rhetoric with which he denounced avaricious industrialists matched anything of his time.

National Prominence

Although the leader of a socially disreputable movement, Gompers had good relations with several presidents and became something of an adviser to president Woodrow Wilson. In 1901 he was one of the founders of the National Civic Federation (an alliance of businessmen willing to tolerate unions and conservative union leaders), and Wilson found it politically expedient and worthwhile to have the support of the AFL during World War I. Gompers supported the war vigorously, attempting to halt AFL strikes for the duration and denouncing socialists and pacifists. He served as president of the International Commission on Labor Legislation at the Versailles Peace Conference and on various other advisory committees.

During the 1920s, though in failing health, Gompers served as a spokesman for the Mexican revolutionary government in Washington and considered himself instrumental in securing American recognition of the new regime. He was received with high honors by President Plutarco Elias Calles in 1924, but, realizing that the end was near, Gompers returned early to the United States and died in San Antonio, Tex., on December 13. Characteristically, his last words were: "Nurse, this is the end. God bless our American institutions. May they grow better day by day." What had begun as expedient for Gompers—acceptance of the capitalist system and working within it—had become his gospel. Indeed, he was one of the makers of the modern institutions of which he spoke in that he won for capitalism the loyalty of labor and for labor a part in industrial decision making.

Gompers the Man

Among friends, Gompers was gregarious and convivial. He enjoyed eating and drinking, sometimes excessively (he was a vociferous enemy of prohibition), and at home he was the classic 19th-century paterfamilias with a retiring, worshipful wife and a large brood of deferential children.

Gompers first made his reputation as an orator and always delivered a speech well. He spoke widely in the cause of the AFL, rose to great heights of eloquence on occasion, and thanks to an agile mind and sharp tongue was rarely bested in debate. He mixed with equal ease among awkward workmen and in the polished society of Washington's highest circles. He had been a militant anticlerical in his youth and never attended a church or synagogue except to speak on labor's behalf. Although of Jewish heritage and education, he did not think of himself as a Jew or, for that matter, as a member of any religion. None of his books was distinguished except his autobiography, Seventy Years of Life and Labor (1925).

Further Reading

Gompers's autobiography, Seventy Years of Life and Labor (2 vols., 1925; rev. ed. in 1 vol., 1943), is indispensable. The most comprehensive and authoritative biography is Bernard Mandel, Samuel Gompers (1963). Also valuable are Philip Taft, The A. F. of L. in the Time of Gompers (1957), and Marc Karson, American Labor Unions and Politics, 1900-1918 (1958). The best among the brief surveys of American labor are Foster Rhea Dulles, Labor in America (1949; 3d ed. 1966); Henry Pelling, American Labor (1960); and Thomas R. Brooks, Toil and Trouble: A History of American Labor (1964). □

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Gompers, Samuel

Samuel Gompers

Born: January 27, 1850
London, England
Died: December 13, 1924
San Antonio, Texas

English-born American union leader and union organizer

The American labor leader Samuel Gompers was the most significant person in the history of the American labor movement (the effort of working people to improve their lives by forming organizations called unions). He founded and served as the first president of the American Federation of Labor.

Youth and education

Samuel Gompers was born on January 27, 1850, in east London, England, to Solomon and Sarah Gompers. His family was Dutch-Jewish in origin and had lived in England for only a few years. The family was extremely poor, but at the age of six Gompers was sent to a free Jewish school, where he received the beginnings of an education practically unknown to poor people in his day. The education was brief, however, as Gompers began to work, first making shoes and then in his father's cigar-making trade. In 1863, when Gompers was thirteen, the family immigrated to the United States and settled in the slums of New York City. The family soon numbered eleven members, and Gompers again went to work as a cigar maker.

Cigar-makers' union

Full of energy and naturally drawn to other people, Gompers joined many organizations in the immigrant world of New York. But from the start nothing was as important to him as the small Cigar-makers' Local Union No. 15, which he joined with his father in 1864. Gompers immediately rose to leadership of the group. At the age of sixteen he regularly represented his fellow workers when confronting their employers, and he discussed politics and economics with well-spoken workingmen many years older than himself.

This was a time of technological change in cigar making (as it was in practically every branch of American industry). Machines were being introduced that replaced many highly skilled workers. The cigar makers were distinguished, however, by the intelligence with which they studied their problems. The nature of their workthe quietness of the process of making cigars, for examplepermitted and even encouraged discussion of economic questions, and this environment provided Gompers with an excellent kind of schooling. The most important influence upon his life was Ferdinand Laurrel, a once prominent Scandinavian socialist (someone who think goods and services should be owned and controlled by the government), who taught Gompers that workingmen should avoid both politics and unrealistic dreaming in favor of winning immediate "bread and butter" gains in their wages, hours of work, and working conditions.

In fact, Gompers had many contacts with socialists, though from his earliest days he had little time for their ideas. Basing his own thinking about unions on a "pure and simple" concrete approach, he built the Cigar-makers' International Union into a functioning organization despite modern technology and unsuccessful strikes (an event in which a group of workers stop working in an attempt to gain rights from their employer).

American Federation of Labor

In 1881, with several other union leaders, Gompers helped to set up a loose organization of unions that, in 1886, became the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Founded during the height of the Knights of Labor, the AFL was different from the older labor organization in nearly every way. Most importantly, the Knights wished for a society in which cooperation would govern the economy, whereas the AFL unions were interested only in improving the day-to-day material life of their members. The socialists' attempt to take control of the AFL in 1894 did succeed in removing Gompers from power for a year, but he was firmly back in control by 1895 and, if anything, more opposed to socialism in the unions than ever.

"Socialism holds nothing but unhappiness for the human race," Gompers said in 1918. "Socialism has no place in the hearts of those who would secure the fight for freedom and preserve democracy." Throughout his career he argued against the thriving Socialist Party. Although there were many reasons that socialist thought did not take root in American unions, Gompers's influence as the head of the labor movement for forty years was important.

Even if Gompers was hostile to the socialists, however, he was as devoted to the cause of unions as any other American labor leader before or since. He was the first national union leader to recognize and encourage the strike as labor's most effective weapon. In 1906 he defied a court order concerning a union activity and was sentenced to a year in jail, though he ended up spending only one night behind bars. The way in which Gompers spoke against greedy businessmen matched anything of his time. (Gompers first became known as a speaker and always delivered a speech well. He spoke widely for the cause of the AFL and, thanks to a quick mind, rarely lost in debate. However, none of his books was distinguished except his autobiography, Seventy Years of Life and Labor [1925].)

A national figure

Although the leader of a movement that lacked social respect, Gompers had good relations with several presidents and became something of an adviser to President Woodrow Wilson. In 1901 he was one of the founders of the National Civic Federation (an alliance of businessmen willing to put up with unions and moderate union leaders), and Wilson found it politically useful and worthwhile to have the support of the AFL during World War I (19141918; a war that involved many nations in Europe and that the United States entered in 1917). Gompers supported the war energetically, attempting to stop AFL strikes while the war was being fought and speaking out against socialists and pacifists (people opposed to war as a way of solving disagreements). He served as president of the International Commission on Labor Legislation at the Versailles Peace Conference and on various other committees.

During the 1920s, though in failing health, Gompers served as a spokesman in Washington for the new Mexican government that had overthrown the old one, considering himself key in gaining American recognition of the new government. Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles (18771945) received Gompers with high honors in 1924. Realizing that the end was near for him, however, Gompers returned early from the trip to Mexico and died in San Antonio, Texas, on December 13. True to his character, his last words were: "Nurse, this is the end. God bless our American institutions. May they grow better day by day."

What had begun as useful for Gompersacceptance of the capitalist system (in which goods and services are owned and controlled by private individuals) and working within ithad become his guiding principle. Indeed, he was one of the creators of the modern institutions that he referred to in his last wordsfor capitalism he won the loyalty of labor, and for labor he won a part in business decision making.

For More Information

Buhle, Paul. Taking Care of Business. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999.

Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor. 2 vols. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1925. Reprint, Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University, 1984.

Livesay, Harold C. Samuel Gompers and Organized Labor in America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1978.

Stearn, Gerald Emanuel. Gompers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971.

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Gompers, Samuel

GOMPERS, SAMUEL


Samuel Gompers (18501924), the best known and most influential U.S. labor leader in the late 19th and early 20th century, was the first president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). In an era when armed physical combat between employers and workers often characterized labor relations, Gompers acted on the principle that unions should instead employ strikes, boycotts and other non-violent strategies to gain their ends.

The eldest of nine children, Gompers was born on January 27, 1850, in London, England, in a working-class tenement area. He attended school for only four years when financial considerations forced him to apprentice with his father, a cigarmaker.

In 1863, when the boy was 13, the family emigrated to New York City. Father and son immediately pursued work as cigarmakers. By 1864, at the age of 14, Samuel had joined the Cigarmakers' Union. In his autobiography written years later, he wrote, "All my life I had been accustomed to the labor movement and accepted as a matter of course that every wage-earner should belong to the union of his trade."

Gompers had a great thirst for knowledge and spent his spare time reading and attending public lectures and debates. In the cigar shop where he worked, he was able to test many of his ideas with fellow workers who often discussed issues of the day as they worked together. Gompers later claimed that these workplace discussions were like debating societies and that they honed his reasoning, as well as his persuasive and speaking skills.

Beginning in the 1870s, Gompers became actively involved in reorganizing the largely ineffective Cigarmakers' Union. He joined in a demonstration for the eight-hour day in September 1871, and from then on, became a tireless advocate of the benefits that would accrue to workers from shorter working hours. Taking on leadership of the union, he advocated raising union dues to build a strike fund and to support a benefits program including out-of-work, sickness, and death payments. Strikes were carefully controlled. Gompers believed in building unity based on a common form of skilled work and then binding workers to the union through a strong benefit plan. He veered sharply away from becoming involved with socialism and later became hostile to socialists who attempted, unsuccessfully, to take over leadership of the union movement.

By 1877, Gompers had been able to introduce many of his theories into the Cigarmakers' International Union, which had become a model of militant, principled, persistent unionism. In 1886, under Gompers, the cigarmaker's union, along with other trade unions, formed the American Federation of Labor, (AFL). Except for one year (1895), Gompers remained president of the AFL until his death in 1924.

Gompers gave the growing union movement a moral gravity and a conservative approach. He supported craft as the basis for the organization of workers and argued that the labor movement should look first to organizing skilled workers. Suspicious of easy solutions and ideological answers, he held the union back from radical actions and irresponsible strikes that he believed would tarnish the unionism movement overall. He also distrusted the influence of intellectuals and outside reformers. Gompers was tireless in keeping the national union together through good times and bad and building it into an effective organization. By 1894, the AFL had more than 250,000 members.

Gompers accepted the capitalist system as a practical reality. But he did not trust the government, which he believed to be a tool of the moneyed classes, to look out for the needs of workers; in fact, he believed the state would use its power at the expense of the working class. Because he distrusted government so deeply, he even opposed progressive legislative initiatives concerning hours, wages, and unemployment and health insurance for men. (He did, however, approve of labor legislation to protect children and women, who were not part of organized labor.)

Gompers argued that trade unions were the only dependable working class institution in American society. His theories, called "voluntarism" held that workers should depend on their voluntary membership in trade unions to protect them instead of relying on the government. Many state and local union leaders split with Gompers on the voluntarism issue, choosing instead to seek legislative redress for labor issues.

Gompers also believed in keeping the unions out of partisan politics. In his view, political action had to yield to strikes and boycotts as a bargaining tool. Although, like most labor leaders, he had advocated neutrality in the early days of World War I, he was staunchly supportive of the participation of the United States by the time it entered the war in 1917. In fact, he headed the effort against those in the labor movement, chiefly socialists, who continued to oppose the war.

Gompers spent his final years attempting to shore up the labor movement which was losing influence in the 1920s. In 1924, in a speech to the AFL quoted in the July 1989 Monthly Labor Review, he summed up his career this way: "I want to live for one thing aloneto leave a better labor movement in the America and in the world than I found it when I entered, as a boy. . . . He died in San Antonio, Texas, a few weeks later.

See also: American Federation of Labor, Capitalism, Labor Movement, Labor Unionism, Socialism, Trade Unions

FURTHER READING

Dubofsky, Melvyn and Warren Van Tine, eds. Labor Leaders in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor. New York: ILR Press, 1984.

Kaufman, Stuart B. Samuel Gompers and the Origins of the AFL. New York: Greenwood Press, 1973.

Kaufman, Stuart B., ed. The Making of a Union Leader 18501886. The Samuel Gompers Papers, Vol. I. (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Kaufman, Stuart B., ed. The Early Years of the American Federation of Labor 18871890. The Samuel Gompers Papers, Vol. II. (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Livesay, Harold. Samuel Gompers and Organized Labor in America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1978.

Yellowitz, Irwin. "Samuel Gompers: a half century in labor's front rank." Monthly Labor Review, July 1989.

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Gompers, Samuel

GOMPERS, SAMUEL

Samuel Gompers, a founding member and longtime president of the american federation of labor (AFL), was instrumental in broadening the goals of the labor movement in the United States. He used his gifts as an organizer and speaker to consolidate numerous unions into one umbrella organization that lobbied successfully for improved working conditions for all tradesmen.

The son of Dutch immigrants, Gompers was born in London on January 26, 1850. He attended school briefly but began working at age 10. Initially apprenticed to a shoemaker, he chose instead to become a cigarmaker like his father. The family moved to New York in 1863, and within a year Gompers had joined the Cigar Makers' National Union.

At around this time many trades were beginning to form unions, but their power was limited because as small, individual groups they had little clout. By the 1880s, leaders of the various unions decided that by uniting in common cause they would make for a stronger political force. Late in 1881, several unions joined together to form the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU). Gompers, who had proven himself an able leader in the cigarmakers' union, was elected an officer of FOTLU.

FOTLU was a first step for organizing unions but it was too loosely connected to have any real influence. In 1886, FOTLU was restructured into the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and Gompers was elected president. Except for a one-year hiatus in 1895, Gompers remained AFL president for the rest of his life.

As AFL president, Gompers steered the organization toward practical goals. He was interested in securing living wages for union members, an eight-hour work day, comprehensive child labor laws, equal pay for women and men, and compulsory school attendance for children. To that end, he lobbied tirelessly for these and other improvements for working men and women.

"I wonder whether any of us can imagine what would be the actual condition of the working people of our country today without their organizations to protect them."
—Samuel Gompers

Gompers steered clear of political issues (although in 1899 the AFL did endorse women's suffrage). Many left-wing labor leaders thought that Gompers was too timid and ineffective, too tied to the mainstream. Anarchist emma goldman wrote that the AFL had not "grasped the social abyss which separates labor from its masters, an abyss which can never be bridged by the struggle for mere material gains." But under Gompers's leadership, labor made significant sustainable gains at the state and federal level. Workers' compensation laws were enacted to

assist those injured on the job; wages were raised; and the eight-hour day became law for a growing number of workers (including federal employees in 1912). In 1913, the federal government created the labor department, and, in 1914, it passed the clayton antitrust act, which protected union members from prosecution under the sherman antitrust act. That same year, industrialist Henry Ford initiated the eight-hour workday (at $5 per day) at his automobile plant.

When the United States entered world war i in 1917, Gompers chaired an advisory committee of the Council of National Defense, which was created to coordinate industry and resources in wartime, and called on employers and employees to stand united and not take advantage of the war to make unreasonable demands. He traveled to Europe during the war to examine labor conditions, and after the war, in 1919, he attended the negotiations for the treaty of versailles, where he was instrumental in the creation of the International Labor Organization (ILO). He attended the Congress of the Pan-American federation of Labor in Mexico City in December 1924. He collapsed on December 8 and was brought to San Antonio, Texas, where he died on December 13.

further readings

Goldman, Emma. 1925. "Samuel Gompers." The Road to Freedom. The Emma Goldman Papers: Berkeley Digital Library. Available online at <sunsite.berkeley.edu/Goldman/Writings/Essays/gompers.html> (accessed July 6, 2003).

Kaufman, Stuart Bruce. 1973. Samuel Gompers and the Origins of the American Federation of Labor. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Mandel, Bernard. 1963. Samuel Gompers: A Biography. Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch Press.

cross-references

Craft Union; Industrial Union; Labor Union; Trade Union.

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Gompers, Samuel

Samuel Gompers (gŏm´pərz), 1850–1924, American labor leader, b. London. He emigrated to the United States with his parents in 1863. He worked as a cigar maker and in 1864 joined the local union, serving as its president from 1874 to 1881, when he helped to found the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. It was reorganized in 1886 and became the American Federation of Labor, of which Gompers was first president and of which he remained president, except for the year 1895, until his death. He directed the successful battle with the Knights of Labor for supremacy, kept the union free from political entanglements in the early days, and refused to entertain various cooperative business plans, socialistic ideas, and radical programs, maintaining that more wages, shorter hours, and greater freedom were the just aims of labor. He came to be recognized as the leading spokesman for the labor movement, and his pronouncements carried much weight. During World War I, he organized and headed the War Committee on Labor; and as a member of the Advisory Commission to the Council of National Defense, he helped to hold organized labor loyal to the government program. A man of great personal integrity, he did much to make organized labor respected. See American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.

See his autobiography, Seventy Years of Life and Labor (1925, repr. 1967); the Samuel Gompers Papers (ed. by S. B. Kaufman, 2 vol., 1986–87); biographies by W. Chasan (1971) and G. E. Stearn, ed. (1971); L. S. Reed, The Labor Philosophy of Samuel Gompers (1930, repr. 1966); F. C. Thorne, Samuel Gompers, American Statesman (1957, repr. 1969); S. B. Kaufman, Samuel Gompers and the Origins of the American Federation of Labor, 1848–1896 (1973).

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Gompers, Samuel

Gompers, Samuel (1850–1924) US labour leader, b. England. He helped to found the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. When it was reorganized as the American Federation of Labor (1886), Gompers became its first president, serving, except for 1895, until his death. During World War I, he headed the War Commission on Labor and served on the Advisory Commission to the Council of National Defense.

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