Samuel Gompers was a Jewish Englishman who founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to replace the Knights of Labor. He greatly impacted United States labor history as a labor union leader and president of the AFL. The Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School bears his name and was located in the Bronx, New York until it closed in 2012.
Youth and Education
Samuel Gompers was born in London, England into a family of Jewish immigrants from Amsterdam on January 27, 1850. He attended the Jewish Free School in London from the age of six until ten years old. A few months after his 10th birthday, his family sent him to work as an apprentice cigar maker with his father. He studied the Talmud and learned Hebrew in the evenings after work. He did not speak Hebrew fluently and disliked speaking Yiddish.
Union Labour Leadership
Early CareerIn 1863, the Gompers family moved to the United States and settled in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York. Gompers assisted his father in an at-home cigar manufacturing process for the first year and a half in NY. He joined a debate club in his free time and learned about parliamentary procedure and public speaking. He met other young men seeking to improve their positions, including Peter J. McGuire. McGuire was an Irish-American who assisted Gompers later in the AFL.
Samuel Gompers exposure to the tough life of a cigar maker at an early age greatly impacted his later decisions to support labor unions and form the American Federation of Labor.
Gompers joined the Cigarmakers’ Local Union #15 in 1864 soon became involved in activities with other English-speaking NY cigar makers. On January 28, 1867, he married a fellow cigar manufacturer, Sophia Julian. The couple produced many children, but only six survived past infancy. He transferred to David Hirsch & Company cigar makers “where only the most skilled workmen were employed.”
A German socialist ran Hirsch as a union shop and Gompers met many cigar makers who spoke German. He learned the language and gleaned many ideas from his coworkers, especially from the previous secretary of the International Workingmen’s Association named Karl Laurrell. Laurrell mentored the young Gompers, challenging his ideas and encouraging him to support trade unions rather than the socialist movement. He warned at the convention in 1900 that socialism leads to “lost interest in their union.”
Cigarmakers' International Union
In 1875, the Cigarmakers’ International Union Local 144 elected Gompers president. It nearly collapsed alongside other unions during the 1877 financial crisis. He and Adolf Strasser helped rebuild the Cigarmakers' Union by establishing a higher dues structure and programs to pay death, sick, and out-of-work benefits to members.
Gompers encouraged members to band together to stop the daily wage reductions and to help with “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.” The Cigarmakers’ Union elected him as a second vice-president in 1886. In 1896, they elected him the first vice-president. He maintained the position, even after becoming president of the AFL, until his death in 1924.
The American Federation of LaborIn 1881, Gompers joined unions with ideas similar to the Cigarmakers’ into the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. It reorganized into the American Federation of Labor in 1886 and Gompers became the president. He served as president from 1886 until his death in 1924, except for 1895. The AFL overtook the Knights of Labor, another labor rights organizations that disappeared by 1900. Gompers published a list of boycotts with John Mitchell in 1911, but did not go to jail after his sentence was overturned by Gompers v. Buck's Stove and Range Co.
Samuel Gompers work to close the door to immigration in the United States in fear of wages being lowered and the loss of all the unions worked so hard to achieve for U.S. workers.
Gompers advocated for U.S. intervention in Cuba and the 1898 war with Spain. He did not support President William McKinley and his plan take over the Philippines. The biographer, Mandel, argued that Gompers feared a threat to U.S. workers and labor unions by businesses being moved offshore due to the cheaper wages. The AFL helped pass the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, and the 1924 Immigration act. All these restricted immigration into the U.S.
Gompers also supported the U.S. efforts in the First World War and President Woodrow Wilson appointed him to chair the Labor Advisory Board for the Council of National Defense. Gompers also served as an official labor advisor at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.
Illness and Death
In February 1923, Gompers contracted a severe influenza virus, which forced him to quit working for six weeks. He recovered and immediately fell ill with bronchitis. He suffered from diabetes as well. By June 1924, he could not walk without help. Congestive heart failure and bloody urine forced him into the hospital again. On December 6, 1924, Samuel Gompers collapsed at a Pan-American Federation of Labor meeting in Mexico City. Since he wanted to die in the U.S., doctors put him on a special train before his death. Gompers died in San Antonio, Texas on December 13, 1924.
Gompers is buried in Sleepy Hallow, New York, in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery only a few meters away from Andrew Carnegie. In 1930, the Samuel Gompers Industrial High School for Boys opened and changed to the Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School before closing in 2012.
Gompers, S. (1984). 70 Years of Life and Labor: An Autobiography. San Francisco, CA, United States: Cornell University Press.
- Gompers, 1984
- Gompers, 1984
- Gompers, 1984
- Gompers, 1984
- Mandel, B. (1963). Samuel Gompers: A Biography (1st ed.). Antioch Press.
- Mink, G. (1990). Old Labor and New Immigrants in American Political Development: Union, Party and State, 1875-1920. Baltimore, MD, United States: Cornell University Press.
- Grubbs, F. (1968). The Struggle for Labor Loyalty: Gompers, the A. F. of L., and the Pacifists, 1917–1920 (1st ed.). Duke University Press.
- Gompers, S. (2011). The Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume 12: The Last Years, 1922-24. Baltimore, MD, United States: University of Illinois Press.
- End Comes On Home Soil (1924, December 14). The New York Times.
- The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery Historic Fund. (2016). Famous Interments. Sleepy Hollow Cemetery Walking Tours.
- Lestch, C. (2012, February 23). Struggling Gompers HS nixed to make way for five other career and technical schools in the Bronx. Daily News - New York.