Gompers, Samuel

views updated May 23 2018

Samuel Gompers

Excerpt from "Tenement-House Cigar Manufacture"

Published in the New Yorker Volkszeitung, October 31, 1881

"For many years the system of tenement-house cigar manufacture has formed one of the most dreadful, cancerous sores in our city."

Samuel Gompers (1850–1924) is best known as the leader of the American Federation of Labor, a group of unions (organizations of workers) representing workers with special skills, such as weavers or carpenters. Before he came to national prominence as a leader of the labor movement, he was active in organizing a union of cigar makers.

In 1881, when Gompers was thirty-one years old, he wrote a series of articles in a German-language newspaper in New York City, the New Yorker Volkszeitung (New York Peoples' Newspaper), describing the living and working conditions of people who worked in cigar factories located in tenement houses. Tenement houses were narrow, run-down apartment houses built right next to one another; the houses Gompers describes were located in a neighborhood of Manhattan (in New York City) called the Lower East Side. Because they only had windows on two sides, the front and back, they were often dark and lacked good ventilation.

In these buildings, cigar makers worked in spaces that doubled as living quarters. As described by Samuel Gompers, a typical family lived in three rooms: a bedroom, a room where cigars were made, and a kitchen. Usually the entire family was engaged in the process of making cigars. Because they were paid by the cigar, life was reduced to rolling cigars for twelve hours—or more—a day, then sleeping, and waking in order to make more cigars. Merchants delivered tobacco leaves to the cramped quarters; the leaves gave off an overpowering smell that lingered in the poorly ventilated rooms.

Gompers was inspired to write his own articles by a series of newspaper articles in the New York Times that had run ten years earlier, exposing corruption in city government. As he notes in the introduction to his articles, no one did anything about the corruption until the New York Times provided exact details about the wrongdoing. It was Gompers's aim to provide such details about tenement house factories in order to arouse public disgust and bring about government action.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Tenement-House Cigar Manufacture":

  • Samuel Gompers was a cigar maker and understood the business from the inside. The use of children as workers from a very young age was a practice not limited to cigar-making in the 1880s. Child labor and substandard living conditions were common in many other industries. As the nineteenth century progressed, articles like Gompers's succeeded in creating a public uproar and resulted in legislation to ban child labor.
  • Gompers believed that he needed to paint a vivid word picture of cigar makers' conditions in order to be effective. Rather than simply saying that workers lived in poor conditions, he went to the trouble of measuring the rooms, even the size of the windows, in order to give readers a precise picture of the harsh conditions in which cigar-makers and their families lived.
  • In order to put the wages and rents mentioned by Gompers into context, the dollar amounts have been translated into current values. One dollar in 1881 would be worth about $18.17 in 2003, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. In the text below, the dollar values in 2003 are in brackets after the amounts mentioned in the original text. For example: $7 [$127] means that a rent of $7 in 1881 would be equivalent to a rent of $127 in 2003.

Excerpt from "Tenement-House Cigar Manufacture"

For many years the system oftenement-house cigar manufacture has formed one of the most dreadful, cancerous sores in our city: In every way, whether in regard to the wage conditions of the workers and not only that of the tenement-house workers—or their existence as human beings or family members, or the influence it has upon the immediate surroundings of the tenement factories and indirectly upon all the working population of the city, every year this system proves itself more of averitable plague spot in the alreadyquite corrupt economic and social life of New York. The truth of this assertion has been recognized often enough in so-called "decisive" places, and most recentlyMayor Grace expressed his intention of attacking thispernicious institution.

Cramped apartment building.
Veritable plague:
Virtual disaster.
Mayor Grace:
William Grace (1832–1904), mayor of New York.

Unfortunately, the impressions produced in people by general assertions of grievances, no matter how well-grounded they may be, are usually not very deep or lasting. Only when precise and authentic details allow the public to gain insight into the actual character of the evils wereproach are people set into motion and one can count on finding the appropriate support for anagitation to abolish the grievances. One of the most striking examples of all times of this tendency is the fall of theTweed Ring. Long before its collapse there was scarcely anyone in the city of New York who was not convinced that Tweed and his companions were daily and hourlyplundering the city in the most shameful way. Despite all this, no movement to oust the scoundrels could be launched successfully. Only when the"Times" produced that famousexpose which gave very precise details about the specific fraudulent transactions of city officials did a storm ofindignation arise in the public which then swept the whole gang of political crooks out of public life.

Attempt to arouse public feeling.
Tweed Ring:
Political organization in New York City that aligned itself with Democratic Party officeholders to steal public money; run by William Marcy Tweed (1823–1878).
Stealing from.
The New York Times, a newspaper.
A formal statement of facts.
Anger aroused by something unjust.

Proceeding from this standpoint we have made it our business, through an exact examination of the facts and through publication of the results obtained … to provide the necessary factual foundation for those oft-repeated general assertions about the dreadful conditions produced by the tenement-factory system. This is no longer a matter of phrases but of facts and figures that cannot be argued away and that are well suited to horrify the reader who has had no previous idea of the depth of thisabyss.

Intellectual or moral depth.

We hope the results of these publications will provide a lever that will at least contribute to preparing as quick an end as possible to that institution which is a burning humiliation to the so highly praised culture of our day and of our country.

In presenting to the readers of the N.Y. Volkszeitung the results of a careful examination of tenement-house cigar manufacture, of its system, the circumstances under which it takes place, and the dreadful consequences that inevitably result from it, we ask that attention be paid to the fact that the information depends in part on the degree of willingness of those most immediately involved, that is, the workers themselves, to inform us about their conditions. Since these workers are in constant fear not only of losing their jobs but also of beingevicted from their apartments, it is natural for them toregard with suspicion every stranger who attempts to gain precise information about their situation. Although it is fairly safe to assume that everything which the reporter learned about the conditions of the workers, not through his own observations but through what the workers told him themselves, still makes the situation appear far more favorable than it really is, there were nevertheless no attempts made in the following reports to expressspeculations or assumptions that would alter the actual facts. On the contrary, the following remarks, without any coloration or exaggeration, are a true mirror of that which our thoroughly objective reporter saw and heard. Since we will refrain from making the required commentary on the results of the investigation, without further introduction we begin with the presentation of our reporter which in its almost photographic way speaks an eloquent and terrible language.



No. 90 Cannon St. [in New York City], was the first of these buildings visited by this writer. It is a five-story double tenementhouse. Already from a distance it gave the impression of not having been repaired for a generation; we did not wish to rely on external impressions, however, but wanted to see with our own eyes what it looks like on the inside, see the rooms in which people live and work, are born and die. Fifteen families live in the house, an average of four on each floor. Each family has a room and a bedroom; the size of the room is 11 by 13 feet, the bedroom 512by 712feet. In the wall adjoining the dark corridor is a hole measuring 18 inches square, a so-called window; the ceiling height is 712feet. Fifty-two people live in this house; moreover the whole bottom floor and half of one of the upper stories are used as an office and a place for packing cigars and as storage space for tobacco and tobacco stems. In two families, four people work in the apartment rooms described above; in three families, three. The remaining families have two workers each but thestrippers are not included in this figure since this task is usually carried out by an old person who is useless for other occupations or by a child. Tobacco in every stage of preparation is found in all the rooms; mostly it lies spread out over the floor to dry. In the bedroom we find casks, chests, and rusty milk cans that contain tobacco and tobacco stalks, called "stems" by the workers. Working hours are from 6 or 6:30 in the morning until 10, 11, or even 12 o'clock at night. Wages vary from $4.25 to $6.00 [equivalent to $77 to $109 in 2002 prices] in per thousand [cigars rolled] and a family in which two people work can produce 2,800 cigars a week on the average, but the families with more working members do not produce proportionately more, but significantly less for their number. Rent is from $7.00 to $9.00 [$127 to $164] per month. What one finds as furniture in these apartments usually consists first and foremost of a worktable, kitchen table, and cook stove, two or three wooden chairs, a bedstead, and a few cheap pictures of saints. We go through the rooms, the hallway, down the stairs, and into the yard, and everywhere we come across tobacco, tobacco scraps, tobacco stems, and other filth. Even in the yard where the children who are still too young to be able to work—and they have to be very young not to—are playing, great piles of drying tobacco are lying about. One structure in the yard arouses a curious impression; it looks like a small model of adilapidated palace or castle, but when we come nearer our sense of smell quickly tells us what the purpose of this "little palace" is. We go to the door but the stench drives us back; this breeding-ground of disease has no drain to the sewer and consists only of a pit which is emptied out when it is filled to the brim. Great piles of tobacco stems, some 60 to 70 pounds, lie, rotting and moldy,in the entry way next to the stairs. We could not ascertain how often these piles are removed to make space for new ones, but theatrocious smell emitted by these deposits indicates that it does not happen often. And this odor of tobacco hovers over everything, the infant's cradle, the marriage bed, and the food set before the children. The cellars are dank, damp, and filthy, and the store on the ground floor, which serves as office and packing area, is encrusted with filth. The condition of the upper floors is made even worse by the fact that no water rises to them—and this is the case not only during a period of drought—which, of course, in no way encourages cleanliness. We asked each family that did not regard us with too much suspicion what they thought about efforts to eliminate the tenement factory system and the answer was always the same: "We wish it could be abolished and the sooner the better."…

People who prepare tobacco leaves for rolling.


They own three houses on 15th Street and four on 16th St. No. 623 East 15th St. shelters 20 families numbering 98 people, plus ten people who work there but live elsewhere. Each family has a room of 8 by 10 feet, kitchen of 8 by 6 feet, bedroom of 7 by 512 feet, ceiling height 734feet. There is only one window in each room in this house, a window 2 feet high and 9 inches wide in the kitchen and an even smaller one in the bedroom, which understandably lets in almost no light or air at all. There is nohearth in the whole house, nomantelpiece, nothing but a round hole in the chimney through which a stove pipe could be put. In several families three or four people work in one room, surrounded on all sides by huge quantities of tobacco, with the fire blazing with all its might to dry the tobacco sufficiently; obviously under these conditions the air in the rooms is thick and steamy. In one of the rooms the father, mother, and small girl had an eye infection; the mother and a small boy also had sores on their lips. Last week a child died in this house. Rent varies from $7.50 to $8.50 [$136 to $154]; wages are $3.75 [$68] per thousand [cigars]; working hours go from 5 in the morning until 10 or 11 at night. We were told: "We begin around 5 o'clock in the morning and work as long as we can." When calculating the working hours, one must not forget that Sunday is not a day of rest in these tenement factories; most families, despite their religiousscruples , work until 2 or 3 in the afternoon on Sunday, some the whole day through as on any other day. A family with two workers produces an average of 2,800 cigars per week, provided a third person does the necessary stripping.

The shelf of a fireplace.

No. 621 East 15th St. has 18 families, totaling 92 people; 10 others work in the house but do not live there. Seven people were working in an 8-by-8-foot room; two small children were lying in the tobacco. A cookstove was in the room, spreading unbearable heat, next to it a small kitchen table where the family takes its meals. The bedrooms have no windows and neither air nor light can reach them. The room in which this large family works has only one window; the haze and stench are unbearable, the quantity of tobacco enormous, rubbish piled up everywhere. In every way this house resembles the first one we described; a short while ago two children died there ofdiarrheal illnesses.…

Intestinal virus.

When we went around the corner we came upon the houses owned by the same company on 16th Street; No. 634 is the first with which we wish to acquaint our readers. Sixteen families, consisting of 73 people, live in it; 20 others who do not live in the house work there as well. The families on the street side have a room, kitchen, and bedroom; those who live in the back, only a room and bedroom. The dimensions are: room 10 by 13 feet, kitchen 10 by 9 feet, bedroom 6 by 612feet, ceiling height 8 feet. Here as usual we found the only bedroom window 15 inches square looking out on the dark corridor. Six people work in one family and a seventh is hired by it; since last summer four children have died of measles in this house. Great heaps of tobacco lie about the rooms; one is constantly stumbling over tobacco rubbish and stems in the halls and on the steps. Rent varies from $7 to $9 [$127 to $164]. Thewater closet is a drainlesscesspool full of filth, as are the seats and floors in it.

Water closet:
Underground reservoir for household waste.

No. 636 East 16th St. houses 16 families with 75 people; six people work in the house but do not live there. The ground floor is used as an office; the apartments are the same as at No. 634. Five people work in some families, four in others, two or three in the remainder. Three children have died of diarrheal ailments in this house since last summer. The condition of this house is the same as the earlier one, but it is even dirtier and more dilapidated. The walls, partitions, and stairways are defective and unsafe; the staircase steps are covered with dirt and tobacco refuse. Eight- or nine-year-old children work in several rooms making wrappers; despite its youth, the oldest of these pitiful creatures looks as if it will soon say farewell forever to all work. The water supply is deficient here as well, and the water closets are very filthy.…

What we have seen, heard, and smelled so far on our rounds through the atrociously unnatural cigar factories does indeed notencourage us to continue the investigative tour we have begun, and this writer would certainly prefer reporting more pleasant and appetizing things to the reader. But he who has once made it his duty to drag out of its dark hiding place into the light of day the total horror of the system which poisons men,demeans women, and murders children, who has undertaken to show his colleagues, the workers struggling for their daily bread, what a devouring, poisonous cancer the pursuit of the almighty dollar, throughexploitation, oppression , and sacrifice of our fellow men, has created in our midst, he must be willing to get his hands dirty in this duty and can say to anyone who turns away, disgusted by the unfolding picture: It is up to us to change it!

To take advantage of another for one's own advantage.
Unjust exercise of authority or power.

What happened next …

Samuel Gompers succeeded in organizing cigar makers into a union (an organization of workers that bargains for better pay and working conditions), and in the same year that he wrote his articles about the living conditions of these workers, he organized the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, the forerunner of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL was a group of unions representing skilled workers (people who had specific skills, such as cigar making) that joined together to push for laws to protect the interests of union members. The AFL was organized by trade, rather than by industry or company. It continues today in the form of the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations), the largest labor organization in the United States.

Despite the efforts of Gompers and others, the use of tenements as factories continued for at least thirty years after Gompers wrote about the cigar makers. From October 1906 to April 1907 a group of consumer groups and organizations opposed to child labor studied the issue in depth and released a report in January 1908. The report concluded that laws banning child labor in factories had been ineffective in eliminating child labor in tenements, which doubled as homes for the workers. Companies that made artificial flowers,
for example, continued to rely on home factories to assemble the parts and used children as young as age six to do the work. The fact that work was done in the home instead of in a factory made enforcement of child labor laws difficult.

The 1908 report observed:

The evils of the system, —intense competition among unskilled workers in a crowded district, low wages, unrestricted hours of work, irregularity of employment, and utilization of child labor, —are the very conditions which make the system possible and profitable to the employer.… By turning the workers' homes into branches of the factory, he escapes in them the necessity of observing the factory laws.

It was not until 1938 that the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, establishing both a minimum wage and a minimum age for workers (sixteen years; for hazardous work the minimum age was eighteen). Even so, child labor remains an issue. Underage children of migrant agricultural workers have been found working in the fields, and in developing countries of Asia and Latin America, children still work in U.S.-owned factories, making clothing, athletic shoes, and many other products.

Did you know …

In 1911 Samuel Gompers summarized his goals as a labor union organizer this way:

Our mission has been the protection of the wage-worker, now; to increase his wages; to cut hours off the long workday, which was killing him; to improve the safety and the sanitary conditions of the workshop; to free him from the tyrannies [severe authority], petty or otherwise, which served to make his existence a slavery.

For more information


Kaufman, Stuart B., ed. The Samuel Gompers Papers. Volume 1: The Making of a Union Leader, 1850–86 (includes "Tenement-House Cigar Manufacture" published in the New Yorker Volkszeitung, October 31, 1881). Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Livesay, Harold C. Samuel Gompers and Organized Labor in America. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1993.

Ranta, Judith A. Women and Children of the Mills: An Annotated Guide toNineteenth-Century American Textile Factory Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Schlemmer, Bernard, ed., and Philip Dresner, trans. The Exploited Child. Paris: L'Institut de Recherche pour le Développement; New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Gompers, Samuel

views updated May 18 2018

Samuel Gompers

Born January 27, 1850

London, England

Died December 13, 1924

San Antonio, Texas

English-born American labor leader

"Conscious that we are right in our movement to secure better conditions for the workers; conscious that we are entitled to it, to a continual larger share of the ever-increasing production and the productivity of the laborer, we shall continue the struggle for better homes and better surroundings."

Samuel Gompers, longtime leader of the American Federation of Labor, an organization of trade unions, had an enormous influence on the direction of the organized labor movement in the United States. As much as any single individual, he steered organized labor away from European-style socialism (the philosophy that government should own, or at least control, business activities) to focus instead on unionism (forming associations of workers who negotiate with business owners for higher wages and improved working conditions) "pure and simple," with a concentration on issues like shorter hours and higher pay. At the same time, he was largely responsible for the alignment of organized labor with the U.S. Democratic Party for most of the twentieth century.

Samuel Gompers is the name most closely associated with the rise of organized labor in the United States, but during his career as a union organizer, he was only one of many people actively working on behalf of the welfare of people employed in the rapidly growing industrial sector of the American economy. His influence was major, not just on the lives of workers but on the way that organized labor has influenced business and government policy since the end of the nineteenth century.

Childhood and youth

Samuel Gompers was born in London, England, the son of Sarah Rood and cigar maker Solomon Gompers. Both Sarah and Solomon had come to England from Holland. Samuel was sent to a Jewish school until he was about ten, but the family was too poor to keep Samuel in school. At first he became an assistant to a bootmaker, in order to learn the trade, and later to a cigar maker, following his father's footsteps.

In 1863 Solomon and Sarah decided that their family's future would be brighter in the United States. The family left England and landed in New York, where Solomon and Samuel resumed their careers making cigars. They lived on Manhattan's Lower East Side, which was then a bustling community of European immigrants attracted to the rapidly expanding industrial economy of post–Civil War (1861–65) New York.

After helping his father for a few months in New York, Samuel, who was just thirteen at the time, got a job as a cigar maker and in 1864 joined the Cigarmakers' Union. It did not seem like a momentous step at the time. "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," he wrote in his memoirs, Seventy Years of Life and Labor, many years later. Unions are associations of workers who joined together to negotiate with business owners for higher pay and better working conditions. Individual workers had little chance of influencing a company, but if all a company's workers came together to present the same demands, employers were more likely to listen and agree.

For young Samuel, in addition to being a career, making cigars was also an education: the custom among cigar makers was to assign one individual the job of reading books and magazines to others in the room. Some of the rolled cigars would be set aside to compensate the reader for the time he spent reading (cigar makers were paid by the cigar rather than by the hour). Though not in a traditional classroom, it was as a reader that Gompers rounded out his education.

Gompers was a good reader and was often chosen by his colleagues for that task. In turn, he shared his own evolving thoughts about economic organization and ways to improve the living conditions of working people. In addition to reading newspapers and magazines to his colleagues, Gompers (and other readers) also acquired and read the writing of political philosophers such as Karl Marx (1818–1883; see entry) and other European socialists, those who advocated that working people take control of the government and pass laws to protect workers (or, in some cases, to seize ownership of factories and run them for the benefit of everyone, not just the owners).

Getting involved with unions

The last quarter of the nineteenth century was a time of social change in the United States, as well as in Europe. On the one hand, the Industrial Revolution, a period marked by the widespread replacement of manual labor by machines that began in Great Britain in the middle of eighteenth century, was gaining momentum with the rapid expansion of the U.S. population. The major business figures of the U.S. Industrial Revolution, such as John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937), J. P. Morgan (1837–1913), Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), and Jay Gould (1836–1892; see entries), among many others, were organizing and building giant industrial enterprises to drill and refine oil, manufacture steel, and build transcontinental railroads. Large numbers of Europeans were migrating to the United States, taking low-paying jobs in the new factories and enterprises. Tensions developed between business owners and the new immigrants as a result of this rapid economic expansion. The workers wanted to be paid more for their effort; the business owners wanted to pay as little as possible.

In the 1880s and even into the 1890s, Gompers followed the ideas of socialists, particularly Karl Marx, closely. At the time Marx was the leading theorist of European socialism; he advocated the violent overthrow of governments and a takeover by workers of private property, a system he called communism. Marx also believed that property owners and workers were natural enemies, a phenomenon he called class warfare.

But while Gompers may have supported the theories of class warfare, which implies that one class would eventually triumph over the other, he always maintained a practical focus and worked to obtain concrete improvements in the lives of members of the Cigarmakers' Union. Among his fellow cigar makers were socialists who had emigrated from Europe to the United States, notably a man from Sweden, Ferdinand Laurrell, whom Gompers met and later considered a teacher.

Starting in 1875, Laurrell joined Gompers and union leader Adolph Strasser to rebuild the union, which had lost strength. According to Gompers, it was Laurrell who stressed building the strength of the union to represent cigar makers in negotiations with employers, rather than focusing on changing government policy towards business in general, as socialists advocated. Trade unions, Gompers came to believe, should focus on specific benefits for workers—higher pay and shorter hours were the two most important—whereas socialism was more all-encompassing and tended to focus on how the working class could gain control of the government. Laurrell urged Gompers to take lessons from the socialists, but to resist joining them. Gompers took the advice.

The rise of trade unionism

Gompers's role was as president of the local chapter of the Cigarmakers' Union, while Strasser became the union's international president, a title that more expressed wishful thinking than reality since the union had no members outside of the United States. Together, they achieved four goals. First, they insisted that leaders of local chapters should take orders from the international officers of the union. Second, they greatly increased union dues in order to provide the union with the ability to finance its activities, including strikes. Third, they put national officers in charge of the union's funds. And fourth, they designed a variety of benefits for union members, such as replacing lost wages if a worker became ill, had an accident, or lost a job.

In their vision, the union became a central institution in the lives of its members. The union, not the government (as the socialists advocated), would take care of its members during hard times, even providing workers with financial assistance when necessary. The union also was responsible for representing workers in talks with employers about financing benefits and negotiating for a higher pay.

Under the leadership of Gompers and Strasser, the Cigarmakers' Union became the model for other unions in the United States. By the 1890s, when the U.S. economy experienced a severe downturn, the Cigarmakers' Union had built up enough economic strength by collecting and managing members' dues to help protect its members from the worst effects of a slow economy.

Gompers's contribution went well beyond his work with the Cigarmakers' Union. In 1881 he helped establish the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, a group of unions representing skilled workers. (Skilled workers usually underwent several years of training to do their jobs; examples included cigar-makers, carpenters or brick layers.) Five years later, this organization was succeeded by the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which still exists as part of the AFL-CIO (a combination of the original AFL and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, founded in 1935), the largest affiliation of labor unions in the United States in 2002. In 1886 Gompers became president of the newly formed AFL, an office he held for the rest of his life, except for one year when a rival was elected president.

Gompers did not start out with a vision of trade unionism and then stick with it for the rest of his life. Over time, his views changed as circumstances changed. For example, when he started working, cigar making was a highly skilled craft, learned over years of practice as an apprentice (assistant). With time, manufacturers introduced the mold, which reduced the need for workers skilled in rolling tobacco leaves into cigars, and other aspects of automation. At first, Gompers resisted the introduction of machines as a threat to the livelihood of his union members; later, he came to accept the inevitability of some automation and fought to obtain a share of its benefits for his members as well as for employers.

In the beginning, Gompers was an advocate of equal rights for all workers, notably including African Americans. Later, Gompers assumed more conservative positions and was less adamant about racial equality. Gompers had started as a skilled craftsman, most of whom were whites at the time, and his union activities continued to reflect the interests of skilled workers, as opposed to unskilled workers who were paid an hourly wage for tending to a machine. For many decades, there was a distinction between the two sets of workers—reflected today in the name AFL-CIO: the AFL is an alliance of unions representing skilled workers, whereas the CIO is an alliance of unions representing employees in specific industries (United Steelworkers, for example) regardless of individual skills.

The central idea for Gompers was that the trade union, not the government or any other organization, should play the main role in representing the rights and economic demands of its members. He insisted that trade unions become central to workers' lives, and he believed that there could be only one national union (having several local chapters) for each craft. Gompers also insisted that the national union have the last word in negotiating contracts for workers and in other important issues.

Moreover, Gompers felt strongly that economic issues were the only issues that unions should deal with. He recognized that working people came from all races, all nationalities, and all religions, but pointed out that what all union members had in common was their concern for economic prosperity: how much money they earned an hour, how many hours they were required to work, their rights as workers.

Gompers resisted other aspects of union organization, such as setting up buying cooperatives, or organizations of people who negotiate better prices by purchasing for the group rather than individually, or commonly owned businesses. Union members were workers and should focus on what they knew how to do well, rather than stray into areas of business where they lacked expertise, he insisted.

There were two sides to this aspect of Gompers's philosophy. On the one hand, he insisted on limiting union involvement to economic issues that directly affected union members. On the other hand, he was willing to concede to business management its role in running a business. Thus, he moved away from the idea of class warfare, which implies that one class would eventually triumph over the other, and instead turned trade unionism into a kind of exchange of equals. Working people would negotiate for the biggest share of the economic pie they could achieve and leave running the business to professional management.

Gompers, unions, and politics

In the early years of the 1900s, both Democrats and Republicans vied for the votes of workers. The Democratic Party continued to be associated with the more conservative states of the American South and the defeated Confederacy of the U.S. Civil War (1861–65). The Republicans were more closely aligned with the industrial interests of the North. Both parties competed for the votes of the working people (as distinct from the landowning class or business owners) in the growing industrial economy.

The labor movement initially resisted affiliation with political parties. This began to change in the first two decades of the twentieth century, however, and Gompers was largely responsible. The new attitude marked a break from Gompers's ideas of a strict separation between trade unionism and politics; he came to believe that an alliance between labor unions and a political party could have distinct advantages for union members.

The turning point came during the presidential election of 1908, in which Republican William Howard Taft (1857–1930) ran against Democrat William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), from Nebraska. Bryan, a fiery orator, was running for the third time and represented the interests of small farmers and working people against what he denounced as bankers and wealthy industrialists. For the first time, the AFL wholeheartedly plunged into the election on the side of the Democrat, Bryan. Issues in the election included imposing an income tax, enforcing an eight-hour maximum work day, and setting in place government rules governing the operation of railroads and public utilities.

The Democrats lost the election of 1908, but the alignment of the AFL and the Democrats has continued. Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), a Democrat, was elected president in 1912 and again in 1916 with the direct assistance of Gompers and the AFL.

World War I

America's entry into World War I (1914–18) in 1917 posed another crisis for Gompers. Traditionally, socialists opposed war, seeing it as a quarrel between the property-owning classes in which working people had no real interest. Now, President Wilson appealed for union support as the United States entered the fray on the side of Britain and France and against Germany and Austria. Gompers went along.

Gompers organized the War Committee on Labor and strongly opposed pacifism (opposition on moral grounds to war under any circumstances). During the Versailles peace conference held from 1919 to 1920 to settle the war, Gompers was named by President Wilson to serve on the Commission on International Labor Legislation. Wilson strongly advocated establishing new international rules to avoid future conflicts, most notably the establishment of the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations.

By that time, the alliance between Gompers and Wilson had become a strong, two-way affair. Wilson addressed the AFL convention in 1917, and the Labor Department under Wilson was aggressive in pushing the case of unions. Pro-labor laws such as the Clayton Antitrust Act and the Adamson Act passed Congress, and Gompers was named to the Council of National Defense.

In exchange for AFL support, Wilson backed important items on the union's agenda, such as shorter hours and higher pay. At the time, there was another union organization, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), that took a much more radical approach to improving the lives of workers. The IWW strongly backed class warfare pitting workers against owners, and viewed the government as the chief protector of business interests against the interests of workers. When the government tried to suppress members of the IWW, Gompers agreed with the action. It was the start of a decades-long alliance between trade union leaders and politicians who opposed radical measures to advance the interests of workers.

Labor unions had emerged from the dim shadows of socialism to the broad daylight of electoral politics.

Gompers continued battling for the cause of trade unionism right up to his death, at the age of seventy-four, in 1924. After he died, both business and labor leaders mourned his passing. He was recognized for having directed organized labor away from socialism and toward a cooperative relationship with employers.

For More Information


Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor: An Autobiography. New York: A. M. Kelley, 1967.

Kaufman, Stuart Bruce. Samuel Gompers and the Origins of the American Federation of Labor, 1848–1896. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973.

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

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


Raskin, A. H. "Labor Enters a New Century." New Leader, November 30, 1981, p. 9.

Salvatore, Nick. "Talkin' Union: Gompers Among the Scholars." New YorkTimes Book Review, August 31, 1986, p. 1.

Web Sites

"Samuel Gompers." Earliest Voices: A Gallery from the Vincent Voice Library.http://www.historicalvoices.org/earliest_voices/gompers.html#recordings (accessed on February 13, 2003).

"Testimony of Samuel Gompers (1883)." History of the American WorkingClass.http://www.uwm.edu/Course/448-440/gompers.htm (accessed on February 13, 2003).

Yellowitz, Irwin. "Samuel Gompers: A Half Century in Labor's Front Rank." U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/1989/07/art4abs.htm (accessed on February 13, 2003).

Gompers, Samuel

views updated Jun 11 2018

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.

Samuel Gompers

views updated May 11 2018

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). □

Gompers, Samuel

views updated May 23 2018


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


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.

Gompers, Samuel

views updated May 14 2018


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.


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

Gompers, Samuel

views updated May 23 2018


GOMPERS, SAMUEL (1850–1924), U.S. trade unionist. Gompers was born in London and after a few years of primary school was apprenticed in the cigar-making trade. When Gompers' family immigrated to America in 1863, settling on the Lower East Side of New York City, he joined a local of the Cigar Makers' National Union. From this point Gompers' life centered on trade union activities. He became a leader of the cigar makers' union in the 1870s, playing a major role in its reorganization (1879) through increased dues, sickness and death benefits, and substantial control of locals by the national officers. Gompers helped to establish the American Federation of Labor in 1886, and became its president. He also edited the official journal of the Federation from 1894 until his death. Most of Gompers' public activities were related to his position in the American Federation of Labor. From 1900 he served as a vice president of the National Civic Federation, which sought to promote stable labor relations through collective bargaining and personal contact between labor leaders, industrialists, and bankers. Gompers received considerable criticism from labor sources because of these associations. He also played a prominent role in winning strong support from American trade unions for President Woodrow Wilson's war policies in 1917 and 1918; and he did much to protect organized labor's interests during World War i.

Gompers was a formative influence upon the American labor movement, as well as a spokesman for it. Although he would have preferred the former role, the decentralized American labor movement did not permit any one individual to exercise much influence over the constituent trade unions. Gompers often had to rely upon his reputation and influence in order to be effective, and he often had to accept the role of spokesman even when his own views differed. Thus, for instance, despite his personal belief in organizing black workers, Gompers acquiesced in the refusal of the afl to attempt to enforce an anti-discrimination policy upon its affiliates. However, in most matters, his views became almost synonymous with those of the leading unions in the Federation.

Gompers argued that the improvement of workers' wages, hours, and employment conditions could only be accomplished through the formation of strong trade unions to exert direct economic pressure on the employer. The resulting collective bargaining agreements protected the basic interests of the worker. Such labor organizations must be independent of control by politicians, intellectuals, or any non-labor source. This viewpoint in effect acknowledged that organized labor lacked the political power to achieve its objectives through legislation, and that the climate of opinion in the United States was usually hostile to trade unions so that apparent victories might be reversed quickly. Moreover, Gompers believed that men view economic and social questions in terms of their material interests, which meant that the worker could not expect continuing support from the middle class, since their objectives would inevitably conflict. Workers must therefore avoid dependence on legislation or political action.

Gompers maintained a vitriolic hostility to socialism almost throughout his presidency of the afl. The socialists called for industrial unionism and political action, as opposed to Gompers' belief in craft unionism dedicated to the immediate interests of a relatively homogenous membership. The socialists viewed the labor organization as only the first step in the workers' struggle for social justice. Ultimately, Gompers accepted capitalism, providing it could guarantee an adequate standard of living for the worker, and he had little patience with claims that the entire economic system had to be reordered to accomplish this.

Despite his immigrant background, Gompers demanded the restriction of immigration in order to protect the competitive position of workers in America. Although he called for the unionization of all workers, he basically accepted the decision of the afl to concentrate on the skilled and retain the craft basis for organizing, which maintained the position of the existing trade unions. Clearly, Gompers was an effective leader for organized workers, but for the greatest part of the labor force his program had little validity since these workers were unorganized and likely to remain so. Gompers' career was thus marked by the paradox that he was an able trade unionist but a largely ineffective labor leader.

Gompers wrote American Labor and the War (1919), Labor and the Common Welfare (1919), Labor and the Employer (1920), and Party of the Third Part: The Story of the Kansas Industrial Relations Court (with H. Allen, 1921). His autobiography, Seventy Years of Life and Labor (2 vols.), was published posthumously in 1925.


B. Mandel, Samuel Gompers (1963); F.C. Thorne, Samuel Gompers (1957); R.H. Harvey, Samuel Gompers (1935); L. Reed, Labor Philosophy of Samuel Gompers (1930); dab, 7 (1931), 369–73. add. bibliography: H. Livesay, Samuel Gompers & Organized Labor in America (1978); W. Dick, Labor and Socialism in America: The Gompers Era (1972); W. Chasan, Samuel Gompers: Leader of American Labor (1971).

[Irwin Yellowitz]

Gompers, Samuel

views updated May 18 2018

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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