Gompers, L. Samuel

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Samuel L. Gompers

BORN: January 27, 1850 • London, England

DIED: December 13, 1924 • San Antonio, Texas

American labor union president

Samuel Gompers was a vital player in the labor union movement in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL), an organization of trade unions, and served as its president for forty years. An enormously influential figure in his day, Gompers led the American labor movement into the modern era, when unions became lawful organizations that secured historic job protections for their members.

"Our labor movement has no system to crush. It has nothing to overturn. It purposes to build up, to develop, to rejuvenate humanity. It stands for the right. It is the greatest protestant against wrong. It is the defender of the weak."

Cigar maker at age ten

Samuel Gompers was the son of Solomon Gompers, a cigar maker from the Dutch city of Amsterdam. The family had left the Netherlands and settled in London, England, by the time Samuel was born on January 27, 1850. They lived in the Spitalfields section of the city, which was home to many poor and immigrant families like their own. Very few children from working-class families in England went to school during this era. Instead, they took low-paying and unskilled jobs to help support their families. But the Gompers family was Jewish, and its firstborn son was able to attend the Jewish Free School on Bell Lane for a few years.

At the age of ten, Gompers followed his father into the cigar-making profession. He first served as an apprentice, or trainee, to another cigar maker, which was the standard way to learn a trade at the time. In the apprentice system, young boys and teenagers worked and sometimes lived with an established tradesperson to learn the necessary job skills. Gompers earned twelve cents a week during his first year as an apprentice. It was here that he gained his first experience with the union movement. London's cigar makers had formed a professional society, which collected dues from members for various funds. One of these funds paid someone to read essays or newspaper articles aloud while the men worked. Another fund provided financial help for those who wished to emigrate to America, where wages for cigar makers were thought to be higher.

Solomon Gompers decided to move to New York City with the help of a loan from the cigar makers' society. The Gompers family, which included five sons by then, arrived in Manhattan in 1863. For the first few years, both Samuel Gompers and his father worked at home, rolling cigars by hand and being paid by the piece. The family lived on the Lower East Side, a rough section of New York that was home to many new immigrants. The neighborhood was known for its overcrowded, often airless apartment blocks called tenements. These unsanitary buildings were breeding grounds for disease and crime.

Despite the hardships, Samuel Gompers liked living in New York City and joined a number of clubs and organizations that were open to workers and immigrants. He also belonged to the Cigar Makers' Local Union No. 15, a New York City version of the London society. He married in 1867 and began a family. A year later, he went to work in one of the new cigar factories that were beginning to replace the cozy workshops of his father's era. These factories featured a new kind of machinery, the cigar mold. Traditional cigar makers opposed the new technology because it meant that some of the steps of the process were eliminated. As a result, unskilled workers could be hired instead of older, more experienced cigar makers. In some cases, the unskilled workers were women and children, but they were almost always paid less than the union members. In 1870 the members of the New York Cigar Makers' Local Union No. 15 went on strike to protest this, but their walkout was unsuccessful and they returned to work.

Labor union leader

Gompers became more active in the union and seemed to possess natural leadership abilities. He had suffered from a speech disorder called a stammer earlier in his life, which caused him to either repeat sounds or have difficulty forming them, but managed to overcome it. As a young man he became a talkative, energetic organizer who quickly became known for his ability to negotiate disputes between workers and the factory bosses. He soon rose to head the English-speaking branch of the Cigar Makers' International Union, and he began working with Adolph Strasser, who led the German-speaking branch. In 1877, two years after becoming president, Gompers introduced a new set-up for the union. There would be a clearly defined chain of command and specifically stated goals that the union hoped to achieve. One of them was the eight-hour workday, a somewhat radical, or extreme, idea at the time. Many industrial laborers worked twelve-hour days, if not longer.

Gompers's rise in union politics occurred at a time of immense economic growth in the United States. In its first two generations since declaring its independence in 1776, the United States was made up of farmers, skilled-trades workers like blacksmiths, and a handful of merchants in every community. But the Industrial Revolution, which had begun in England in the mid-eighteenth century, had firmly taken root in America by the 1850s. New types of machinery and significant advances in technology, such as the invention of the steam engine, had created immense worksites known as factories. The rural, farm-based economy was overtaken by manufacturing and trade, and the urban population began to multiply as people moved to cities looking for work. They competed for jobs, however, with a flood of immigrants from Europe, who were also seeking new economic opportunities, much like Gompers's own family had done.

By the 1880s, manufacturing enterprises dominated the American economy. Company owners treated workers poorly because they saw that competition for jobs was fierce. There were always many people looking for work, and every day new immigrants arrived who were willing to work for even less money and longer hours than those who came before them. A few groups of workers, however, were able to stand up to their employers. These were the skilled-trades professionals who were harder to replace. Gompers belonged to this group, and the Cigar Makers' International Union that he headed was one of the first to start actively fighting for better wages and working conditions.

Gompers thought that a group of skilled-trades organizations working together would be an effective way for unions to campaign for change. In 1881 he represented his cigar makers' union at a meeting of the National Labor Congress in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Out of that event came the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU), and Gompers was elected to serve as its vice president. FOTLU worked to secure an eight-hour workday for its members, and in May 1886 some 200,000 employees went on a one-day strike with this goal in mind. Gompers spoke to a large rally of union supporters in Chicago, Illinois. Several days later, a public meeting in the city was disrupted by a bomb. Several police officers were killed, and their colleagues then fired on protesters in what became known as the Haymarket Square riot. The event was a major setback for the union movement, and public opinion turned solidly against unions. Newspapers condemned such groups as the breeding ground for radical political movements such as socialism.

Rejects socialism, forms AFL

Socialism was a political philosophy that came to the United States from Europe. It urged workers, both industrial and agricultural, to band together and become a vital political force just by the strength of their numbers. The Industrial Revolution was dominated by capitalism, the opposite of socialism. In a capitalist economy, the means of production were owned by a small elite, who profited richly from the labor of the actual workers. Some socialists believed that workers could gain enough power to seize and control the means of production, and a new society would emerge in which there were no enormously rich citizens, nor any who were desperately poor.

Gompers had listened to lectures on socialism at meetings when he was younger, but came to believe that socialists were wrong. The labor force, he believed, was already a very important part of the business economy and should work toward the more immediately achievable goals of better wages, improved job security, and safer working conditions. Socialists, by contrast, hoped that ownership of production would bring a fairer, more just society for following generations. "Our labor movement has no system to crush," Gompers once wrote in a New York Times article. "It has nothing to overturn. It purposes to build up, to develop, to rejuvenate [renew] humanity. It stands for the right. It is the greatest protestant [protester] against wrong. It is the defender of the weak."

In November 1886, the FOTLU convention was held in Columbus, Ohio. There, Gompers urged the assembled union officials to vote for the creation of a new, stronger organization. This was to be called the American Federation of Labor (AFL). His speech was a success. The convention agreed to reorganize, and it elected him to serve as president. Gompers returned to New York City and opened the AFL national headquarters. It operated with the help of a fund created from dues paid by union members, and it quickly grew in strength. Gompers managed it well during its first years and soon was able to hire full-time union organizers who would meet with non-unionized workers and urge them to band together and join the AFL.

Organizes effective strikes

During its first ten years in existence, the AFL competed with the Knights of Labor, the other major union group in the United States at the time. Founded in 1869, the Knights included unskilled workers in its membership, unlike the AFL, which only represented skilled workers like carpenters, plasterers, and other tradespeople. Both organizations, however, were bitterly opposed by business leaders, and work stoppages and walkouts usually turned violent. Striking workers would form a picket line outside their workplace to protest unfair treatment, and their employers would hire new non-union laborers to cross that human chain and take over the vacant jobs. Companies also hired private-security firms to harass the strikers, and jeers and insults quickly turned to physical assaults.

Walter Reuther

Walter Reuther inherited the title of America's most influential labor-union leader following Samuel Gompers's death. Reuther headed the United Auto Workers (UAW) union from 1946 until his death in 1970, and he turned it into a powerful force for social change. Its 1.5 million members gained generous economic benefits thanks to Reuther's negotiating skills. Under Reuther's leadership, the UAW also emerged as a strong supporter of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and of Democratic politics.

Born in 1907 in Wheeling, West Virginia, Reuther dropped out of school at age fifteen to take a job in a steel mill. Around 1926 he headed north to Detroit, Michigan, where jobs in the city's booming auto industry were plentiful. He worked the night shift as a tool-and-die maker with Ford Motor Company. Reuther finished his high school courses during the day and joined the growing union movement within the auto industry. At the time, Ford and other automakers were strongly against labor unions for auto workers. They claimed that their workers were already treated fairly and paid well. Reuther lost his Ford job because of his union activities in 1933, and he spent some time in the Soviet Union working in a car factory there. When he returned to the United States, he became part of the United Automobile, Aircraft and Agricultural Implement Workers Union when it was founded in May 1935. More commonly known by its shorter name, United Auto Workers (UAW), the union was part of Samuel Gompers's American Federation of Labor (AFL).

In 1936 Reuther was elected president of Local 174 and helped organize the historic sit-down strikes at General Motors factories and other auto plants. In the sit-down strike, workers stayed at their machines but did not work. This prevented the company from hiring new workers to replace them. Reuther became a well-known national figure, especially after a 1937 incident known as the Battle of the Overpass. The event occurred outside Ford's massive River Rouge plant. Reuther and other UAW organizers were badly beaten by union busters hired by Ford. However, newspaper photographers witnessed the event and published images of a bloodied Reuther on the front pages of newspapers across the country.

Eventually, the automakers formally recognized the UAW and entered into contract talks. The harassment of union activists continued for many years afterward, however. In 1948 Reuther's hand was permanently injured when he was shot through the window of his Detroit home. His brother Victor, who served as the UAW's education director, lost an eye in a similar incident. Elected UAW president in 1946, Reuther won many historic gains for American auto workers. One of these was supplementary unemployment benefits, which gave laid-off UAW members significant take-home pay. Other notable successes that Reuther negotiated included health insurance, retirement plans, vacation and overtime pay, and important workplace safety standards. Because of his leadership, UAW members became some of the highest paid industrial workers in the world.

Reuther led the UAW into the civil rights struggle in the early 1960s, believing that unions could become an important tool for social justice. He was one of the few speakers at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 who was not an African American. Under Reuther's guidance, the UAW formed strong ties with the Democratic Party, which would last for many years after his death despite declining union membership. Reuther died in 1970 in a plane crash. A hero in the metro Detroit area for a generation of working-class families, Reuther was named one of the twenty most important business leaders of the century by Time magazine in 1998.

Gompers believed the strike was the best way for workers to protest unfair or dangerous working conditions, but that walkouts and work stoppages needed to be well-planned and safe. Under his leadership, the AFL was able to carry out more effective protests that did not erupt in violence. A strike fund, again drawn from union members' dues, was able to pay workers when they walked off the job. This helped them stay committed to the goal of securing better treatment for all workers because they didn't have to worry about how they were going to feed their families. Such unity became a key part of the labor movement.

The AFL flourished despite great opposition and hostility. Business owners formed the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), which fought well-funded legal battles against the AFL and other unions. Lawyers for the NAM argued in court that unions were in violation of federal antitrust laws, especially the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890. Antitrust laws were designed to regulate business practices and ensure fair competition, but company owners used them to their advantage by claiming that the unions were conspiring to limit and reduce trade. These legal battles were costly, and many unions gave up the fight and disbanded. The AFL was one of the few that survived this era.

Joins forces with Democrats

Gompers had once avoided mixing his union beliefs with politics, but later came to believe that unions might gain strength if they joined with pro-labor political candidates. More union-friendly lawmakers in the U.S. Congress, it was thought, could result in legislation that offered workers greater protection. Gompers began making contacts with Democratic Party leaders. During the 1912 presidential election, the AFL officially voiced its support for the Democratic candidate for the White House, Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21). Wilson expressed his appreciation by supporting proposals that would help unions. The 1914 Clayton Act was one example. This landmark bill was an updated version of the Sherman Act of 1890, but contained an important provision specifically stating that unions were exempt from antitrust and restraint-of-trade rules. This made nonviolent strikes and picketing much easier to conduct, in theory, but the Clayton Act was not effectively enforced by the federal government until the 1930s.

Gompers worked with Wilson to gain support among AFL unions during World War I (1914–18), a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies. Although the U.S. military did not officially enter the conflict until 1917, the third year of the war, Gompers was able to win added job protection for workers in factories that produced guns, ammunition, tanks, and other machinery of war. In exchange, he urged his unions not to strike, which would disrupt the war effort.

By 1920 the AFL had four million members, and Gompers was still its dedicated leader as well as a national figurehead for the labor movement. He had headed the organization since its founding in 1886, except for a brief period when socialist factions managed to oust him in the 1890s. Despite declining health in his last years, Gompers was still active in other causes. After a leftist revolution in Mexico in 1910 soured relations between that country and the United States, Gompers was asked to serve as the spokesperson for the Mexican revolutionary government in its negotiations with American government officials. Although Great Britain and other European powers had formally recognized Mexico's new government as legitimate, the United States refused to do so. Thanks in part to Gompers's efforts, the Mexican rebel group was granted formal recognition by the United States. Gompers made a final trip to Mexico in 1924 and died in San Antonio, Texas, on December 13. His autobiography, Seventy Years of Life and Labor, was published a year later.

Gompers was survived by his wife, Sophia, and six children. The AFL continued on after his death and remained the largest union group in the United States into the first half of the twentieth century. In 1938 a group within the AFL broke away to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which worked to organize mass-production workers, not just those in the skilled trades. The two groups united in 1955 to become the AFL-CIO, which remained the largest grouping of unions in the United States into the early part of the twenty-first century. In 2005 it had fifty-three national and international member unions and represented nine million workers in the United States and Canada.

For More Information


Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor, an Autobiography. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1925.


Bluestone, Irving. "Working-Class Hero: Walter Reuther." Time (December 7, 1998): p. 157.

Gompers, Samuel. "The Significance of Labor Day." New York Times (September 4, 1910): p. SM7.

Yellowitz, Irwin. "Samuel Gompers: A Half Century in Labor's Front Rank." Monthly Labor Review (July 1989): p. 27.


"Site Guides and Resources." AFL-CIO: America's Union Movement. http://www.aflcio.org/siteguides/students.cfm (accessed on July 1, 2006).

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