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Samuel Gompers - History

Samuel Gompers - History

Samuel Gompers was born in London, England on January 27, 1850, and emigrated to the United States with his family in 1863. The next year, he joined the Cigarmakers Union, and was president of the organization by 1877. In these years, he came to believe in the importance of unionism for crafts and business, as well as the superiority of economic over political action. Gompers also held that unions had to be financially stable in order to withstand the pressures of economic depressions and lost strikes. In 1881, Gompers played a major role in establishing the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada. In 1886, the organization became the American Federation of Labor, and Gompers served as its president.
Gompers objected to radical political ideas, choosing instead to promote a conservative brand of unionism which worked within the existing economic structure to improve the circumstances of working people. During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson appointed him to the Council on National Defense and the Commission on International Labor Legislation at the Versailles Peace Conference. In 1925, Gompers published his autobiography, Seventy Years of Life and Labor. He died on December 13, 1924 in San Antonio, Texas, while traveling home from political ceremonies in Mexico City at which he had represented American labor.


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.

In the 1880s, Gompers was also instrumental in establishing the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which he served as vice president from 1881 to 1886. When the FOTLU re-organized in 1886 as the American Federation of Labor, Gompers was elected its first president, a position he held for nearly 40 years.


Samuel Gompers

In 1886, the American Federation of Labor was organized. Samuel Gompers, a former cigar maker, was elected to be its president. With the exception of one year, he remained in this position until he died in 1924.

Gompers was the son of Solomon and Sarah, nee Rood, Gompers. He was born in a London tenement on January 27, 1850. Both of his parents were originally from Holland. When Gompers was six years old, he attended a tuition-free Jewish school. At the age of 10, he was taken out of school to become an apprentice shoemaker since his family was struggling to make a living.

The family immigrated to New York during the Civil War. Gompers' cigar maker father taught him the trade. At the age of 17, after he became a cigar maker in his own right, he met and married Sophia Julian. He joined the Cigar makers' Union and became very active in 1877, his union's strike collapsed because of no money or member discipline. Following the strike, Gompers reorganized the cigarmakers and remained as president of their union. Lessons were to be learned from the strike. The international officers became supreme over the local unions. The dues were raised to build up a strike fund. Benefits were established for sickness, accident or unemployment.

In 1881, after other unions had emulated the Cigarmakers' Union program, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada was formed. Gompers was chairman of the Constitutional Committee. The federation was reorganized in 1886. It was renamed the American Federation of Labor. Gompers was its first elected president. What made this federation unique was that there could only be one affiliated craft union.

Gompers felt that labor could not displace capitalists in the management of business. He was criticized for being 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.

In World War 1, he supported President Woodrow Wilson's policies and organized the War Committee on Labor. The committee included representatives of labor and business. After the war, Wilson appointed him as a member of the International Labor Legislation. He fought those who would erode the gains that labor had made during World War I.

In 1894, Gompers became the editor of the official journal of the federation. He maintained the journal until he died. He wrote many articles on labor for the publication. During all of his years as president of the federation, Gompers had time for his family. He was family-oriented and believed in family loyalty. He had five children: three sons and two daughters. His wife died in 1920. A year later, he married Grace Gleaves Neuscheler.

Gompers was elected president for the last time at the 1924 convention. He had come to the convention knowing that he didn't have much time to live. He died on December 13, 1924. For almost four decades, Gompers had been the dominant figure in the American labor movement. He had broadened the horizons of the working man and his trade union. He was a pioneer in making the American labor movement free and strong.

Sources: This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes & Heroines of America : 150 True Stories of American Jewish Heroism, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.

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Samuel Gompers

Samuel Gompers, for whom Gompers Park on Chicago's Northwest Side was named, was one of the founders of the American Federation of Labor in 1886. He was elected president, a position he held, except for one year, until his death 38 years later.

Under his leadership, the organization grew from a handful of struggling labor unions to become the dominant organization within the Labor Movement in the United States and Canada.

Gompers was born in London, England, on January 26, 1850. His parents were poor immigrant Jews from Holland. In London the young Sam was apprenticed to a shoemaker at age 10. He soon changed trades and became a cigar maker, a trade he brought with him to New York when his family emigrated to America in 1863.

Life was difficult in the crowded slums of New York. There were a few relatively large cigar making shops, perhaps, with as many as 75 employees but much of the work was done in a thousand or more sweatshops, often the same crowded apartments where the workers lived. Thousands of little children worked in New York sweatshops and factories, as they helped their parents eke out a living.

By 1885, Sam Gompers had become highly skilled at his trade and was employed in one of the larger shops. He was respected by his fellow workers, mostly Germans, who elected him as president of Cigar Makers Union Local 144. He and the other officers were unpaid as they struggled to keep the union together in the face of mechanization and the flooding of the labor market by scores of new immigrants, largely Bohemian.

In 1881 Gompers was sent as the delegate of the Cigar Makers to a conference of various unions which created a loose confederation to be called the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Councils. Although without the title of President, as head of the legislative committee, Gompers became its leader, practically speaking but the organization was structurally weak and ineffective.

Nevertheless, the need for close cooperation among like-minded labor organizations was abundantly evident so the organization was reconstituted in 1886 as the American Federation of Labor. This time Gompers was the President. His office was not much more than an 8x10 room in a shed. His son was the office boy. There was $160 in the treasury. As Gompers said, it was "much work, little pay, and very little honor."

Four years later, the AFL represented 250,000 workers. In two more years the number had grown to over one million. Under Gompers, the guiding principle was to concentrate on collective bargaining with employers, and on legislative issues directly affecting the job. Broad social goals and political entanglements were left to others.

Gompers did have an interest in international labor issues. At the conclusion of World War I, he attended the Versailles Treaty negotiations, where he was instrumental in the creation of the International Labor Organization (ILO) under the League of Nations.

He was a supporter of trade unionism in Mexico and, though elderly and in failing health, he went to Mexico City to attend the inauguration of Mexico's reform President Calles and, also, the Congress of the Pan-American Federation of Labor. It was at the Congress that his final collapse occurred. He was rushed to a hospital in San Antonio, Texas where he died on December 13, 1924.

Some questions to explore:

If the AFL was the "dominant" organization, what were the names of others, and what was their role?

What did/does the International Labor Organization do?

The Cigar Makers were an interesting early union. What can you find out about the trade and their organization? (The Cigar Makers in Chicago owned a large number of gravesites in Forest Home Cemetery (Waldheim) in Forest Park, ILL. There is a large memorial stone and many graves of union members.)


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

Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), was the first and longest serving president of the American Federation of Labor. Because of him, the AFL grew from a regular union with only a membership of 50,000 in 1886, to the largest and most influential labor union of its time, with a membership of 3,000,000 in 1924.

What caused Gompers to go from a regular cigar roller to the 40 year president of the most powerful union in America? He was born in 1850 in London, into a cigar making family. He started working at 10 and joined Local 15 of the United Cigar Makers when he was 14. At his job an union, he would converse with older workers, most emigre socialists and labor reformers who he would always credit for his commitment to using unionism as his platform to social reform. Gompers also favored unionism because he thought the only viable alternative- legislative action- had failed, especially after the New York Supreme Court overturned two laws regulating tenement production of cigars that he helped pass.


Samuel Gompers - History


(AD-37: dp. 20,260 1. 643', b. 85', dr. 22'6", s. 20+ k. cpl. 1,056 a. 1 5" cl. Samuel Gompers)

Samuel Gompers (AD-37) was laid down on 9 July 1964 by the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton Wash. launched on 14 May 1966 sponsored by Mrs. Joseph Holmes, and commissioned on 1 July 1967, Capt. Harry Risch, Jr., in command.

After her commissioning, Samuel Gompers spent the next several months in initial outfitting, with acceptance trials taking place from 28 August to 1 September. On 3 October, she got underway for her designated home port, San Diego.

The next month, the destroyer tender underwent various inspections as she was to be deployed to the western Pacific without the benefit of a prior shakedown cruise. This necessitated that a high degree of readiness be attained in a short period of time. All inspections showed that the ship was ready for sea, and she departed San Diego on 10 November for Pearl Harbor.

Following a weapons transfer there, from Prairie (AD-15), Samuel Gompers stood out of Pearl Harbor on 20 November bound for Yokosuka. Upon arriving there on 30 November 1967, she began providing fleet repair support to the operating forces of the Pacific Fleet. In the first month of availability, her repair department accomplished job orders for 54 different ships and other activities.

Samuel Gompers departed Yokosuka for Sasebo on 13 January 1968. Her "in port" period there was originally scheduled on the 25th. However, the capture of Pueblo (AGER-2) by North Korea brought increased activity by the Pacific Fleet in the Sea of Japan. The destroyer tender's services were required to maintain the destroyer screen for the five aircraft carriers then alternating port visits to Sasebo. Seventy-one ships were serviced there before the AD departed.

On 18 March, Samuel Gompers sailed to Kaohsiung Taiwan, for three weeks. She anchored in mid-stream and serviced 17 ships before departing for Hong Kong B.C.C. Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines, and San Diego. Her first deployment ended on 8 May when she arrived at her home port. One month later, she moved to Bremerton for a period of yard availability. She embarked over 200 dependents to make the voyage up the west coast.

On 27 July, Samuel Gompers stood out of Bremerton, with the dependents aboard, and returned to San Diego. From 30 July to 15 November, she serviced ships there. On the 15th, the tender departed San Diego, with Task Unit (TU) 15.8.2, bound for Subic Bay, via Pearl Harbor, and her second WestPac deployment. From 8 December 1968 to 13 May 1969, she

performed fleet repair services in Subic Bay. The period was broken by one five-day visit to Hong Kong. On 13 May, the AD sailed to Yokosuka for a short period of rest and recreation, from whence she sailed to the west coast, arriving on 4 June.

Samuel Gompers operated in the San Diego area until 13 March 1970 when she again deployed to the western Pacific. Subic Bay was her base of operations for servicing fleet units until returning to San Diego on 13 September 1970. She remained there until 2 November 1971 when she steamed west on another deployment. After making port calls at Pearl Harbor and Yokosuka, she moored at Subic Bay on 24 November. The tender operated out of that port until 12 July 1972 when she sailed for Pearl Harbor and San Diego. During the seven month deployment period, Samuel Gompers made two trips to Danang, South Vietnam from 9 to 16 April, and from 22 to 30 April. When she reached her home port on 31 July, she remained there to provide repair services to fleet units until mid-July 1973. At this time, she moved up the coast to Portland Oreg., and operated there until returning to San Diego in early December.

In January 1974, Samuel Gompers departed her home port for another tour in the western Pacific and into June 1974, still serves with the Pacific Fleet.


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.

Samuel Gompers - History

The turbulent story of the labor movement in the United States is an important one in American politics and history. Here we feature three prominent advocates for the manual worker: Frances Perkins, Samuel Gompers, and César Chávez.

Frances Perkins (1880-1965)

That Frances Perkins devoted so much of her life to the plight of the American worker is noteworthy in itself. However, the fact that she also blazed a trail for women in American politics makes her accomplishments all the more extraordinary. While organizers like Samuel Gompers attempted to enact labor reform from within the labor community, Perkins attacked the same problems from the level of city, state, and finally national government.

Perkins was a pioneer in women's issues in addition to her role in labor reform. Originally born Fanny Coralie Perkins, she later changed her first name to Frances because she thought people would take her more seriously. In later life she shocked many in polite society when she refused to take her husband's name after marriage.

Perkins's interest in social reform began during her years at Mt. Holyoke College, when she joined the National Consumers League, a group organized to improve labor conditions through consumer pressure. After college she became a teacher and spent holidays working in settlement houses and other social service organizations. In 1909 she won a fellowship to study at the New York School of Philanthropy, where she met many of the city's leading reformers. In 1910 she received a master's degree in social work from Columbia University. At the same time, as head of the New York City Consumers League, she monitored workers' conditions and lobbied the state legislature on their behalf. When Perkins's acquaintance Al Smith won the New York governorship in 1918, he invited her to sit on the governing board of the state labor department. In that capacity she became known as an expert in both industrial regulation and labor-management mediation.

In 1928, Franklin D. Roosevelt, recently elected governor of New York, appointed Perkins as head of the state labor department. For a woman to assume such a post was unprecedented. It was also the beginning of a close working relationship between Roosevelt and Perkins. Four years later, after Roosevelt was elected president, he invited Perkins to serve as his secretary of labor. During their years together, Perkins was an integral part of Roosevelt's response to the Great Depression, and an advocate of social security, wage and hour regulation, and the abolition of child labor. She distanced herself from labor leaders but earned their respect as she deftly managed some of the era's most volatile labor disputes.

As Perkins rose in prominence and position, she was forced to become more acutely aware of her status as a woman. After all, at the time she joined the New York state government, women in many states were still two years away from being allowed to vote. As a consequence, she was very careful about her demeanor and appearance when interacting with her male colleagues. On the subject of dress, she once remarked: "Many good and intelligent women do dress in ways that are very attractive and pretty, but don't particularly invite confidence in their common sense, integrity or sense of justice."

By the time of Roosevelt's death in 1945, Perkins was ready to retire. However, she remained active for several more years, serving on the United States Civil Service Commission, lecturing, and writing. Her best-known book is the memoir The Roosevelt I Knew (1946). After 1957, she served as a visiting professor at Cornell University.

Samuel Gompers (1850-1924)

As the power and scale of American industry grew during the nineteenth century, working conditions for most Americans underwent radical change. Mechanized, large-scale factories staffed by unskilled laborers gradually came to replace specialized craftsmen and small workshops. Trade unions, which had been designed to serve the older system, initially failed to adapt to the new conditions. Samuel Gompers, more than any other individual, helped to modernize the unions, organize them on a national scale, and open their doors to unskilled as well as skilled workers.

Gompers began his career as a cigarmaker after quitting school at age ten. In 1863, his family moved to New York City from their native England. In the multi-ethnic cigar factories of New York, the young Gompers received an informal education on the latest social theories coming from Europe. He and others discussed the industrial changes taking place and recognized the need for an improved workers' union. Gradually, Gompers began to form a plan of action.

The first task, beginning in 1877, was to revitalize the Cigarmakers' Union. Led by Gompers, the union tightened its organization, raised dues, and articulated a clear, limited agenda. Soon other trades began to follow the cigarmakers' example. But the real accomplishment came in 1881, when Gompers helped organize what was to become the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which united the various trade unions under one roof. To minimize dissension, Gompers required that each trade be represented by only one union, and that within each union the national organization should prevail over local chapters. Gompers himself served as president of the AFL every year but one until his death in 1924.

The AFL, while not the only union organization in America, was the largest and most mainstream. Though Gompers adopted ideas from socialism and communism, he never joined any political organization himself, nor did he seek to radically alter the American economic or political system. His goals for the union were clear and limited: in his words, "more wages, more leisure, more liberty" for workers through collective action. Gompers served on many official commissions, including the Council of National Defense during World War I, and was known for his conservative stances. Indeed, his harshest criticism often came from leftist militants who saw him as too much the creature of powerful industrialists.

Gompers was an excellent speaker, and after 1881 he gave much of his time to making speeches on behalf of labor. Historians agree that his success was due largely to his power of persuasion and his ability to articulate ideas and turn them into practical goals. He also wrote several books, including an autobiography, Seventy Years of Life and Labor .

César Chávez (1927-1993)

Life was difficult for the young César Chávez, and his childhood prepared him for a career as one of America's most prominent labor organizers and civil rights activists. Chávez was born on a small family farm near Yuma, Arizona. When his parents lost their land in the Great Depression, the Chávez family joined the growing mass of migrant workers in California. Despite frequent moves and primitive living conditions, Chávez managed to reach the seventh grade.

After serving in the navy for two years during World War II, Chávez settled in California and became active in the Community Service Organization (CSO), a support group for Latinos. From 1952 to 1962, he organized chapters, led voter registration drives, and worked with needy families. In the process, he began to see unionization as an important means for bettering the lot of California's Latino migrant farm workers. In 1962, after the CSO would not support such an effort, Chávez left the CSO to establish the National Farm Workers Association (now the United Farm Workers of America) in California's agriculturally rich central valley.

In 1965, the new union joined a strike begun by Filipino workers against grape growers in the region. The strike, which lasted five years, slowly gained the support of other workers, the public, and national leaders such as Robert F. Kennedy. Chávez's idea for a grape and wine boycott was particularly successful in winning public support and disrupting the local economy. At the strike's conclusion, twenty-three local growers had signed a contract with the field workers. For Chávez, the strike signified more than a labor dispute it was a fight for social justice. Taking inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., Chávez advocated nonviolent protest and strict dedication to la causa . His vision and leadership made him a hero for many, but his failure to separate community from labor issues occasionally weakened his role as a union organizer.

After 1970, conditions for migrant workers slowly improved, though the workers' way of life remained difficult. California's 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which formally granted farm workers the right to collective bargaining, represented an important milestone. Up to the end of his life, Chávez was a strong, and often controversial, voice in the constant struggle to improve the lives of farmworkers and of the entire Latino community.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History has several objects belonging to Chávez on display, including his jacket with a "No Grapes" button attached.


Samuel Gompers - History

Samuel Gompers wanted to help working men and women. So he founded a union, the American Federation of Labor. His office was a tiny eight-by-ten room in a shed, his son was his office boy, and the treasury had less than two hundred dollars. Does that sound like a good start? Gompers made it work. Four years later, the A.F.L. represented 250,000 workers, and by 1892, over one million.

Gompers was born in England in 1850 to poor Dutch Jewish parents. His first job—at age ten—was as an apprentice to a shoemaker. He didn't like it. He decided to become a cigar maker instead. When his family came to America during the Civil War, Gompers rolled cigars with his father in their apartment in New York City. He joined the cigar makers' union. In a few years the other cigar makers elected him president of the local union. Then he was elected vice-president of the international union.

After founding the A.F.L., Gompers served as its president for over thirty-five years. He wanted to help child laborers, who worked long hours in dangerous jobs. He wanted the government to pass compulsory education laws that would give all children—not just rich children—the chance to attend school. With the help of the A.F.L., many workers received better working conditions.

Gompers traveled to other nations to help workers achieve better conditions. While attending a conference of labor organizers in Mexico, he collapsed. He died in 1924.


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