Samuel Gompers

Gompers emphasized organizing skilled workers in craft or trade unions and advocated for practical benefits for workers, rather than embracing the radical activism of European labor movements.

Samuel Gompers was born in London to a Dutch Jewish family that had recently immigrated from Amsterdam. As a young man, he learned his father’s trade of cigar making. The family emigrated to New York City in 1863, where Gompers continued working in the cigar trade and eventually became an official in the Cigar Makers International Union.Gompers, Samuel

During the 1870’s, cigar makers were threatened by technological advances that greatly simplified production. In 1871, Gompers was involved in a failed strike against the introduction of this automation. He also joined demonstrations for an eight-hour workday in September, 1871. In 1881, Gompers helped create the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada. This organization sought to bring together many different unions, but it never flourished.

During the late 1880’s, controversy with the Knights of Labor opened the way for the creation of the American Federation of LaborAmerican Federation of Labor (AFL). The Knights of Labor sought to organize all workers, and it included some middle-class workers. Gompers believed the labor movement should concentrate on organizing the working class and focus primarily on skilled workers. Labor leaders meeting in December, 1886, disbanded the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions and created the new American Federation of Labor. Gompers would be the president of the AFL from its beginning until his death, except during one year, 1895.

Gompers rejected the socialist agenda of many early labor activists. He believed labor’s goals should be practical and attainable benefits for workers–higher wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions–an approach called “bread and butter unionism.” Gompers also advocated craft or trade unionism–organizing skilled workers according to their craft or specialization. Skilled craftsmen could not be replaced by business owners as easily as unskilled craftsmen, and the emphasis on a separate union for each craft built solidarity among the workers. The AFL provided leadership and coordinated the activities of the various craft and trade unions that made up the organization.

Samuel Gompers.

(Library of Congress)

Initially, Gompers put little emphasis on political activity, and he tried to keep the AFL politically neutral until 1908. That year, the AFL supported Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, because his platform called for an end to judicial injunctions against union activism. Under the leadership of Gompers, the AFL quickly became the major labor organization in the United States, with more than 24 million members by the time of his death.

During World War I, Gompers initially called for the United States to remain neutral, but when the country entered the war, he worked to prevent strikes that would disrupt war production. After the war, he participated in the peace talks at Versailles, France.

Further Reading

  • Gompers, Samuel. The Samuel Gompers Papers. 9 vols. to date. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986-2003.
  • Greene, Julie. Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881-1917. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Livesay, Harold. Samuel Gompers and Organized Labor in America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1978.


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