Born on January 27, 1850, in London, Samuel Gompers would go on to become a primary force behind the American labor movement. The oldest of five boys, Samuel left school at age 10 to apprentice as a shoemaker. Soon he joined his father making cigars. In 1863, the family moved to the Lower East Side of New York City. Samuel and wife Sophia Julian (to whom he was wed by age 17) would have twelve children.
Father and son made cigars in their home, and soon enough worked in a local shop. In 1864 he joined the Cigar Makers’ International Union. He learned quickly about labor reform, and became a union leader and spokesperson. In 1875 Samuel was elected president of CMIU Local 144. By 1886, he was a vice president of the international, having been involved with founding the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which later that year would become the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Mr. Gompers was elected its first president. Beginning with 50,000 members in 1886, it would see three million by 1924.
Mr. Gompers’ hope was to build the labor movement into a power strong enough to change the economic, social, and political status of American workers. He was an advocate of trade unions - limiting membership to those practicing a trade or craft, and grouping them into local organizations (“locals”). At the time, there were many who advocated for community-based organizations open to both wage earners and employers. Also at the time, there were the “one union” proponents such as the Industrial Workers of the World.
Mr. Gompers also felt that unions should focus on economic impetuses and not political. His belief in this was possibly shaken in the 1880s when the New York Supreme Court overturned two laws regulating tenement production of cigars that he had helped pass. However, he held forth that what workers secured through their economic strength was harder to shake away from them.
Additionally, Mr. Gompers thought that when necessary, political action should be nonpartisan. He felt that labor was its own partisanship, and endorsement of candidates and political parties because of their support of labor should be independent of other political concerns.
When Mr. Gompers was elected president of the AFL in 1886, his first big effort was a nationwide strike beginning on May 1st, in support of an eight-hour workday. By the end of the 1890s, union membership was huge. However, by the early 1900s, with employer hostility growing, the unions had to dig in. Employers were using the new anti-trust laws as a wedge to grant them permission to quell strikes and boycotts. In 1906, nonunion employers sued the hatters’ union and each individual member for triple damages in compensation for their losses from a union boycott. Mr. Gompers sought legislation to help extricate unions from this anti-trust leverage. Getting involved with President Woodrow Wilson, Mr. Gompers found himself appointed to the Council of National Defense, where he helped garner labor support for WWI.
Mr. Wilson put forth government support for labor unions, membership increased. After the war, Mr. Wilson appointed Mr. Gompers to the Commission on International Labor Legislation at the Versailles Peace Conference. He helped create the International Labor Organization. All of this became the basis for the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt and the official endorsement of labor rights in the 1930s.
Mr. Gompers, though, passed away in December 1924, and would not see the fruits of his labor.