Samuel Gompers: Wikis


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Samuel Gompers

Samuel Gompers
Born January 27, 1850(1850-01-27)
London, England
Died December 13, 1924 (aged 74)
San Antonio, Texas
Occupation Labor leader
Spouse(s) Sophia Julian
Gertrude Gleaves Neuscheler

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



Early life

Samuel Gompers[1] was born on January 27, 1850 in London, England, into a Jewish family which had recently arrived from the Netherlands. He attended the Jewish Free School until age 10 when he left to become an apprentice, first as a shoemaker and then as cigar maker. The family emigrated to the United States in 1863, settling on Manhattan's Lower East Side in New York City. He married Sophia Julian in 1866 and became a U.S. citizen in 1872.<[2]

Union career

He joined Local 15 of the Cigarmakers' International Union in 1864, and was elected president of Local 144 in 1875. He was elected second vice-president of the international union in 1886, and first vice-president in 1896. He served in this capacity until his death on December 13, 1924. In 1877, the union nearly collapsed. Gompers and his friend Adolph Strasser used Local 144 as a base to rebuild the Cigarmakers' Union, introducing a high dues structure and implementing programs to pay out-of-work benefits, sick benefits, and death benefits for union members in good standing. He told the workers they needed to organize because wage reductions were almost a daily occurrence. The capitalists were only interested in profits, "and the time has come when we must assert our rights as workingmen. Every one present has the sad experience, that we are powerless in an isolated condition, while the capitalists are united; therefore it is the duty of every Cigar Maker to join the organization. ... One of the main objects of the organization," he concluded, "is the elevation of the lowest paid worker to the standard of the highest, and in time we may secure for every person in the trade an existence worthy of human beings."[3]

Leading the AFL

Gompers helped found the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in 1881 as a coalition of like-minded unions. In 1886 it was reorganized into the American Federation of Labor, with Gompers as its president. He would remain president of the organization until his death (with the exception of one year, 1895).

Under Gompers's tutelage, the AFL coalition gradually gained strength, undermining that previously held by the Knights of Labor, which as a result had almost vanished by 1900. He was nearly jailed in 1911 for publishing with John Mitchell a boycott list, but the Supreme Court overturned the sentence in Gompers v. Buck's Stove and Range Co..

His philosophy of labor unions centered on economic ends for workers, such as higher wages, shorter hours, and safe working conditions so that they could enjoy an "American" standard of living—a decent home, decent food and clothing, and money enough to educate their children.[4] He thought economic organization was the most direct way to achieve these improvements, but he did encourage union members to participate in politics and to vote with their economic interests in mind.

Gompers, who had ties with the Cuban cigar workers in the U.S.. called for American intervention in Cuba; he supported the resulting war with Spain in 1898. After the war, however, he joined the Anti-Imperialist League to oppose President William McKinley's plan to annex the Philippines. Mandel (1963) argues that his anti-imperialism, was based on opportunistic fears of threats to labor's status from low paid offshore workers, and as founded on a sense of racial superiority to the peoples of the Philippines.[5]

Gompers sat down with Progressive Presidential hopeful Robert M. LaFollette on September 19, 1924, shortly before his death.

Gompers, like most labor leaders of his era, opposed unrestricted immigration from Europe because it lowered wages, and opposed all immigration from Asia because it lowered wages and represented (to him) an alien culture that could not be easily assimilated. He and the AFL strongly supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that banned the immigration of Chinese.[6] The AFL was instrumental in passing immigration restriction laws from the 1890s to the 1920s, such as the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and the Immigration Act of 1924, and seeing that they were strictly enforced. At least one study concludes that the link between the AFL and the Democratic Party rested in large part on immigration issues, as the owners of large corporations wanted more immigration and thus supported the Republican party.[7] Other scholars have seriously questioned this conclusion, arguing it oversimplifies the politics and unity of labor leaders and the major parties. As one reviewer argued in the Journal of American History, major Republican leaders such as President William McKinley and Senator Mark Hanna made pro-labor statements, many unions supported their own independent labor parties, and unity within the AFL was never as extensive as claimed.[8]

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

Gompers's trade union philosophy and his devotion to collective bargaining with business proved to be too conservative for more radical leaders who established the Industrial Workers of the World organization in 1905 with the goal of organizing the entire working class. Their long-term goal was to destroy capitalism.[9] Gompers vigorously fought his competitors, who had almost entirely vanished by 1920, largely due to government repression for their militant opposition to the U.S. entry into the war and their leadership of industry strikes during wartime. He likewise fought the socialists, who believed workers and unions could never co-exist with business interests and wanted to use the labor unions to advance their more radical political causes, typified by the presidential campaigns of Eugene V. Debs. By 1920 Gompers had largely marginalized their role to a few unions, notably coal miners and the needle trades.

Death and legacy

The gravesite of Samuel Gompers

Gompers had suffered from diabetes, heart failure and renal failure for nearly a year. He collapsed in Mexico City on Saturday, December 6, 1924 while attending a meeting of the Pan-American Federation of Labor.[10] His condition was recognized as critical and that he might not survive for long. Gompers expressed the desire to die on American soil, and he was placed aboard a special train and sped toward the border. [11] Samuel Gompers was buried at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

Samuel Gompers inspired later generations of labor leaders, such as George Meany, who paid tribute to Samuel Gompers as a European immigrant who pioneered a distinctly American brand of unionism.[12]

His belief led to the development of procedures for collective bargaining and contracts between labor and management which are still in use today. In practice, AFL unions were important in industrial cities, where they formed a central labor office to coordinate the actions of different AFL unions. Issues of wages and hours were the usual causes of strikes, but many strikes were assertions of jurisdiction, so that the plumbers, for example, used strikes to ensure that all major construction projects in the city used union plumbers. In this goal they were ideally supported by all the other construction unions in the AFL fold.[13]

Samuel Gompers Memorial near 11th and Massachusetts Avenue, NW in Washington, D.C.

Gompers is the subject of statuary in several major American cities. A bronze monument honoring Gompers by the sculptor Robert Aitken resides in Gompers Square on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C.. On September 3, 2007, a life-size statue of Gompers was unveiled at Gompers Park which is on the northwest side of Chicago. Gompers Park was named after the labor leader in 1929. This is the first statue of a labor leader in Chicago. Local unions throughout Chicago donated their time and money to build the monument.[14]


During the early 1920s, Samuel Gompers resided in this Dupont Circle home in Washington, D.C.

Among the things we advocate is that women should have equal suffrage with men. . . . We not only work for equality of suffrage, but work to fight and obtain equal wages for her. (Samuel Gompers Papers, Vol 3:Rocky Mountain News, Feb. 28, 1891)

The worst crime against working people is a company which fails to operate at a profit. (Samuel Gompers, said in 1908 - Quotation #23111 from Rand Lindsly's Quotations)

What does labor want? We want more school houses and less jails. More books and less guns. More learning and less vice. More leisure and less greed. More justice and less revenge. We want more ... opportunities to cultivate our better natures. (Samuel Gompers Memorial San Antonio, Texas)

There are about 8,000,000 negroes in the United States, and, my friends, I not only have not the power to put the negro out of the labor movement, but I would not, even if I did have the power. ... Why should I do such a thing? . . . . I would have nothing to gain, but the movement would have much to lose. Under our policies and principles we seek to build up the labor movement, instead of injuring it, and we want all the negroes we can possibly get who will join hands with organized labor. (Samuel Gompers Papers, Vol 8: St. Louis Globe Democrat, Nov. 18, 1910)

And what have our unions done? What do they aim to do? To improve the standard of life, to uproot ignorance and foster education, to instill character, manhood and independent spirit among our people; to bring about a recognition of the interdependence of man upon his fellow man. We aim to establish a normal work-day, to take the children from the factory and workshop and give them the opportunity of the school and the play-ground. In a word, our unions strive to lighten toil, educate their members, make their homes more cheerful, and in every way contribute an earnest effort toward making life the better worth living. (McClure's Magazine, Feb. 1912)

  • Colored workmen have not been asking that equal rights be accorded to them as to white workmen, but [they] somehow convey the idea that they are to be petted or coddled and given special consideration and special privilege. Of course that can't be done.
Quoted in The Wall Street Journal, September 3, 2007. [15]
  • Our movement is of the working people, for the working people, by the working people.
  • The trade union movement represents the organized economic power of the workers... It is in reality the most potent and the most direct social insurance the workers can establish.


  1. ^ His name sometimes appears as "Samuel L. Gompers", however he had no middle name.
  2. ^ Fink, Biographical Dictionary of American Labor, 1984.
  3. ^ Mandel, Samuel Gompers: A Biography, 1963, p. 22.
  4. ^ Bernard Mandel, "Gompers and Business Unionism, 1873-90." Business History Review 28:3 (September 1954)
  5. ^ Mandel, Gompers pp 201-204
  6. ^ Thousands of Chinese entered the U.S. illegally, but nearly all lived and worked in Chinatowns where they did not compete with union labor. The restrictions were repealed in 1943.[citation needed]
  7. ^ Mink, Old Labor and New Immigrants in American Political Development: Union, Party, and State, 1875-1920, 1986.
  8. ^ Asher, "Review: Gwendolyn Mink, Old Labor and New Immigrants in American Political Development: Union, Party, and State, 1875-1920," Journal of American History, March 1988.
  9. ^ Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World. (2000)
  10. ^ The cause of the collapse was probably myocardial infarction, although no medical diagnosis was ever reported.
  11. ^ "End Comes On Home Soil," Associated Press, December 14, 1924.
  12. ^ June 18, 1961 entry in Journals of David E. Lilienthal, 1971.
  13. ^ Philip Taft, The A.F. of L. in the Time of Gompers (1957); Mandel (1954)
  14. ^ "Samuel Gompers Statue Unveiled," press release, Office of Ald. Margaret Laurino, City of Chicago, September 3, 2007.
  15. ^ Affirmative Action's Strange Career from the Wall Street Journal

Further reading

Primary sources

  • Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor. Abridged ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984. (Originally published in 1925.) ISBN 0875461123
  • Gompers, Samuel. Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume 1: The Early Years of the American Federation of Labor, 1887-90. Stuart Bruce Kaufman, Grace Palladino, Dorothee Schneider, and Peter J. Albert, eds. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1987. ISBN 0252013506 excerpt and text search
  • Gompers, Samuel. Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume 2: Unrest and Depression, 1891-94. Stuart Bruce Kaufman and Peter J. Albert, eds. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1989. excerpt and text search
  • Gompers, Samuel. Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume 3: The Making of a Union Leader, 1850-86. Stuart Bruce Kaufman, ed. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1991.excerpt and text search
  • Gompers, Samuel. Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume 4: A National Labor Movement Takes Shape, 1895-98. Stuart Bruce Kaufman, Grace Palladino and Peter J. Albert, eds. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
  • Gompers, Samuel. Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume 5: An Expanding Movement at the Turn of the Century, 1898-1902. Stuart Bruce Kaufman, Grace Palladino and Peter J. Albert, eds. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1996. ISBN 0252020081 excerpt and text search
  • Gompers, Samuel. Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume 6: The American Federation of Labor and the Rise of Progressivism, 1902-6. Stuart B. Kaufman, Grace Palladino and Peter J. Albert, eds. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1995. ISBN 025202303X excerpt and text search
  • Gompers, Samuel. Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume 7: The American Federation of Labor Under Siege, 1906-09. Stuart B. Kaufman, Grace Palladino, Peter J. Albert, eds. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1998. ISBN 0252023803 excerpt and text search
  • Gompers, Samuel. Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume 8: Progress and Reaction in the Age of Reform, 1909-13. Peter J. Albert and Grace Palladino, eds. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2000. ISBN 0252025644 excerpt and text search
  • Gompers, Samuel. The Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume 9: The American Federation of Labor at the Height of Progressivism, 1913-17. Peter J. Albert and Grace Palladino, eds. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2003. ISBN 0252027558 excerpt and text search
  • Gompers, Samuel. The Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume 10: World War I, 1917-18. Grace Palladino, Peter J. Albert and Mary Jeske, eds. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2007. ISBN 0252030419

External links

Preceded by
AFL President
1886 – 1894
Succeeded by
John McBride
Preceded by
John McBride
AFL President
1895 – 1924
Succeeded by
William Green
Awards and achievements
Preceded by
John Pierpont Morgan, Jr.
Cover of Time Magazine
1 October 1923
Succeeded by
Herbert H. Asquith


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote


Samuel Gompers [sometimes known as "Samuel L. Gompers," although he had no middle name] (27 January 185013 December 1924) was an American labor union leader and a key figure in American labor history.


  • We will stand by our friends and administer a stinging rebuke to men or parties who are either indifferent, negligent, or hostile, and, wherever opportunity affords, to secure the election of intelligent, honest, earnest trade unionists, with clear, unblemished, paid-up union cards in their possession.
    • "Men of Labor! Be Up and Doing" (editorial), American Federationist (May 1906)

External links

Wikipedia has an article about:

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

SAMUEL GOMPERS (1850-), American labour leader, was born in London on the 27th of January 1850. He was put to work in a shoe-factory when ten years old, but soon became apprenticed to a cigar-maker, removed to New York in 1863, became a prominent member of the International Cigar-makers' Union, was its delegate at the convention of the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, later known as the American Federation of Labor, of which he became first president in 1882. He was successively re-elected up to 1895, when the opposition of the Socialist Labor Party, then attempting to incorporate the Federation into itself, secured his defeat; he was re-elected in the following year. In 1894 he became editor of the Federation's organ, The American Federationist.

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