Gompers, Samuel

Gompers, Samuel

Gompers, Samuel, 1850-1924, American labor leader, b. London. He emigrated to the United States with his parents in 1863. He worked as a cigar maker and in 1864 joined the local union, serving as its president from 1874 to 1881, when he helped to found the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. It was reorganized in 1886 and became the American Federation of Labor, of which Gompers was first president and of which he remained president, except for the year 1895, until his death. He directed the successful battle with the Knights of Labor for supremacy, kept the union free from political entanglements in the early days, and refused to entertain various cooperative business plans, socialistic ideas, and radical programs, maintaining that more wages, shorter hours, and greater freedom were the just aims of labor. He came to be recognized as the leading spokesman for the labor movement, and his pronouncements carried much weight. During World War I, he organized and headed the War Committee on Labor; and as a member of the Advisory Commission to the Council of National Defense, he helped to hold organized labor loyal to the government program. A man of great personal integrity, he did much to make organized labor respected. See American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.

See his autobiography, Seventy Years of Life and Labor (1925, repr. 1967); the Samuel Gompers Papers (ed. by S. B. Kaufman, 2 vol., 1986-87); biographies by W. Chasan (1971) and G. E. Stearn, ed. (1971); L. S. Reed, The Labor Philosophy of Samuel Gompers (1930, repr. 1966); F. C. Thorne, Samuel Gompers, American Statesman (1957, repr. 1969); S. B. Kaufman, Samuel Gompers and the Origins of the American Federation of Labor, 1848-1896 (1973).

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 powerful president from 1886 until his death in 1924. He promoted harmony among the different craft unions that comprised the AFL, minimizing jurisdictional battles. He favored unions comprised of skilled workers and advised against "industrial unions" that included unskilled workers. Calling for union recognition and collective bargaining to secure control of the workplace. shorter hours and higher wages, he opposed most government intervention and rejected socialism or government ownership. The radical wing of the labor movement opposed Gompers at every turn, but seldom prevailed. After 1907, he encouraged the AFL to take political action, usually in alliance with Democrats, to "elect their friends" and "defeat their enemies." A strong supporter of the government during World War I, he achieved rapid growth in membership, rising wage rates, and extensive overtime while minimizing strikes. Gompers was the best-known national spokesman for labor unions and the working class generally. he served on many commissions and made his national headquarters a publicity machine that generated many interviews, speeches and pamphlets to spread the message of prosperity through cooperation between business and labor.

Early life

Gompers was born on January 27, 1850 in London, England into a Jewish family which had recently arrived from the Netherlands. His parents were poor, but both his grandfathers had been successful businessmen, and other ancestors had been scholars and artists. He left school at age 10 to become an apprentice, first as a shoemaker and then as cigar maker. The family immigrated 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 naturalized U.S. citizen in 1872. Gompers attended a free Jewish school in London, but received no more than an elementary school education. He attended night school to further his education.

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. 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.


His philosophy of labor unions centered on economic ends for workers, such as higher wages, benefits, and job security so that they could enjoy an "American" standard of living -- a decent home, decent food and clothing, and money enough to educate their children. 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 viewed unions as the labor's collective voice in the industrial world. He wanted to partner with business to promote higher wages (and higher profits). Gompers viewed unions as the labor component of a business operation, neither superior nor inferior to the management component, but just as essential. Europeans unions were much more confrontational, but Gompers sought a business relationship that would be profitable to both sides. 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. Most 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. Issues of wages and hours did arise, but were usually less important. Safety issues rarely were at issue in strikes.

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..

Fighting radicals

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 unskilled new immigrant workers. Their long-term goal was to destroy capitalism. Gompers vigorously fought the upstarts; they had almost entirely vanished by 1920. He likewise fought the socialists who wanted to use the labor unions to advance their political cause, 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.


Gompers, like most labor leaders, opposed unrestricted immigration from Europe because it lowered wages, and opposed any immigration at all from Asia because it meant low wages and an alien non-union culture. He and the AFL strongly supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that kept out the Chinese. 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. As Mink (1986) shows, the link between the AFL and the Democratic Party rested in large part on immigration issues; the owners of large corporations wanted more immigration and thus supported the Republican party.

He opposed annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines in 1898, fearing an influx of cheap non-white labor.

Political involvement

During the First World War, Gompers was a strong supporter of the war effort. He was appointed by President Wilson to the powerful 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 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. 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. His condition improved slightly as the train reached lower altitudes, but a doctor reported Gompers was still likely to die. The train reached San Antonio, Texas, on the evening of December 12. His long-time nurse, Mathilda May, remained with him at all times. Dr. Lee Rice of San Antonio was summoned to attend him. Gompers' heart rate was 160 beats per minute, and he was suffering from atrial fibrillation. Digitalis was administered. Surrounded by 15 AFL vice presidents, staff and union presidents, he remained awake through the night and spoke occasionally about his funeral arrangements. At 2:30 a.m. on December 13, he began to die. Dr. W. S. Hanson arrived and consulted with Rice about treatment. Epinephrine was injected and a pint and a half of blood removed from Gompers' lungs to ease his breathing. Gompers appeared to rally, but collapsed again. James Duncan, president of the Granite Cutters' International Association, held Gompers' hand. At 3:30 a.m., Dr. Rice informed Gompers that he was likely to die soon. Gompers acknowledged this, but did not respond. Gompers died at 4:10 a.m., with Duncan still holding his hand.

Samuel Gompers was buried at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in North Tarrytown, New York.


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)

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.

  • 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.


The United States Navy destroyer tender USS Samuel Gompers was named in his honor.

A bronze monument honoring Gompers by the sculptor Robert Aitken resides in Gompers Square on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C., ironically located across from the headquarters of the libertarian Cato Institute.

In San Antonio, Texas, a statue (controversial for its design) was dedicated in Gompers' honor near the riverwalk and convention center.

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.

Schools on the far southside of Chicago, Illinois; The Bronx, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; in San Diego, California; and Watts, Los Angeles, California, are named for Gompers, as is an apartment complex of the New York City Housing Authority.



  • Babcock, Robert H. Gompers in Canada: A Study in American Continentalism before the First World War (1974)
  • Berstein, Irving. The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker, 1920-1933. Paperback ed. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1972. (Originally published 1960.) ISBN 0395136571
  • Berstein, Irving. "Samuel Gompers and Free Silver, 1896," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Dec., 1942), pp. 394-400 in JSTOR
  • Buhle, Paul. Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999. ISBN 1583670041, attack from the far left
  • Currarino, Rosanne. "The Politics of 'More': The Labor Question and the Idea of Economic Liberty in Industrial America." Journal of American History. 93:1 (June 2003).
  • Fink, Gary M., ed. Biographical Dictionary of American Labor. Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1984. ISBN 0313228655
  • Foner, Philip S. ''History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol. 1-9 (1947-91), very hostile view of Gompers from the far left.
  • Greene, Julie. Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881-1917. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 0521433983
  • Grubbs, Jr. Frank L. The Struggle for Labor Loyalty: Gompers, the A. F. of L., and the Pacifists, 1917-1920. (1968), 172pp
  • Livesay, Harold C. Samuel Gompers and Organized Labor in America. Boston: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, Inc., 1987. ISBN 0316528730
  • Mandel, Bernard. Samuel Gompers: A Biography. New York: Penguin Group, 1963. ISBN 0873380843, standard scholarly biography
  • Mandel, Bernard. "Gompers and Business Unionism, 1873-90," Business History Review, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Sep., 1954), pp. 264-275 in JSTOR
  • Mandel, Bernard. "Samuel Gompers and the Negro Workers, 1886-1914," Journal of Negro History, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Jan., 1955), pp. 34-60 in JSTOR
  • Mink, Gwendolyn. Old Labor and New Immigrants in American Political Development: Union, Party, and State, 1875-1920. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986. ISBN 0801418631
  • Montgomery, David. The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925. New York: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1987. ISBN 0521225795
  • "Samuel Gompers Statue Unveiled." Press release. Office of Ald. Margaret Laurino, City of Chicago. September 3, 2007. Accessed September 9, 2007.
  • Taft, Philip. The A.F. of L. in the Time of Gompers. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957. ISBN 0374977348
  • Whittaker, William George. "Samuel Gompers, Anti-Imperialist," Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Nov., 1969), pp. 429-445 in JSTOR

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. ISBN 0252015460 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. ISBN 0252011376 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. ISBN 0252017684
  • 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

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