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date: 02 March 2021

Gompers, Samuelfree

(27 January 1850–13 December 1924)
  • Nick Salvatore

Samuel Gompers

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-102762).

Gompers, Samuel (27 January 1850–13 December 1924), cofounder and first president of the American Federation of Labor, was born in the working-class East End of London, England, the son of Solomon Gompers, a cigar maker, and Sarah Rood, Dutch Jewish immigrants. At age six he attended the Jewish Free School, where he studied Hebrew and French, but four years later the family’s economic needs required that he apprentice himself first to a shoemaker and then a cigar maker. Difficult economic times continued for the Gompers family, however, and with financial aid from his father’s union, Samuel and his family immigrated to the United States, arriving in New York City on 29 July 1863.

At first Samuel, as the oldest son, worked side-by-side with his father rolling cigars in their tenement apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. By 1865 Samuel entered the world of the cigar factory as a skilled worker, where he would remain in a succession of shops into the early 1880s. By Gompers’s own admission, his youthful interests focused little on the labor movement. Rather, he joined with other immigrant working-class youth in a variety of social groups and fraternal orders and undoubtedly shared in that distinctly male world of popular entertainments and saloons. But when Gompers entered the cigar factory to work, he also entered a world of ideas and visions that would, in time, have a transforming influence on this young man. Cigar makers regularly “hired” one of their own to read aloud while the others worked; in return, the reader was paid in cigars at day’s end so that no one lost wages. Through this form of working-class self-education (he “went to school at Hirsch’s shop,” he once remarked), Gompers was introduced to discussions of current political issues, the conditions of labor worldwide, and the work of such political economists as Karl Marx, Ferdinand Lassalle, Edward Kellogg, and Ira Steward. Within a few years Gompers had joined a small group of skilled workers from different trades for regular intense discussions of the current standing and future prospects of labor. Nicknamed Die Zehn Philosophen, or “the ten philosophers,” the group met regularly after work to continue these discussions, exploring the alternative paths of socialist politics and trade unionism. While specific ideas would change over time, Gompers and his comrades maintained a commitment to building the trade union movement for decades to come. In 1878, for example, the 28-year-old Gompers turned down a well-paid position at the Treasury Department in Washington to remain in the labor movement—a striking commitment to an ideal from a young, poorly paid, overworked man with family responsibilities.

Gompers had married Sophia Julian in 1867. They had ten, possibly twelve children (only five of whom lived to adulthood), and the family eked by on Gompers’s salary of about $15 a week. Although Sophia exhibited a fierce loyalty to her husband and to his commitments, their marriage was not without its tensions. The very real poverty, the infant deaths of a number of the children, and her husband’s frequent absences during these times of family crisis all had their effect. Further, it was during the first decade of his marriage that he became increasingly active in the affairs of the Cigarmakers International Union (CMIU).

As a skilled worker, Gompers entered the trade at a time when the process of making a cigar was undergoing a fundamental transformation. In 1868 a mold was perfected that performed mechanically the skilled tasks that had been the core of the cigar maker’s craft. The effect of this transformation was to allow employers to hire unskilled workers, especially recent immigrants and female workers at lower wages, to replace the skilled men. Some in the CMIU urged that the union refuse to organize these workers, but Gompers and his friend, Adolph Strasser, president of Local 15 of the Cigarmakers Union, argued that technological innovation increased efficiency, was potentially beneficial for working people, and was in any case inevitable.

In 1877, when Strasser assumed the presidency of the national union, he and Gompers dramatically altered the internal structure of the CMIU and, in the process, established a model that would be largely followed by future unions of skilled, craft workers. To justify the new, higher dues, the new administration established a series of benefits—for travel in search of work, sick relief, and unemployment compensation—that deserving workers might receive from the union treasury. Second, borrowing from the British union experience, they inaugurated a system of equalization of funds, whereby the national officers could transfer money from financially stronger locals to weaker ones in crisis. Finally, they created a well-financed, centralized strike fund, under the control of the national officers who could and did withhold support in strikes they thought ill advised. Together, these and other new policies created a centralized union structure, with a firm oversight of the finances of the locals, one that acted as a brake on independent rank and file activity.

Contrary to the opinion of many later critics, in urging these changes Gompers was not looking to create a conservative, hierarchical union sympathetic to the business community’s needs. Just the opposite was in fact the case. In the late 1870s, as Gompers looked back on more than a decade of his own trade union activism, what impressed him most was the fragility of America’s union movement. Economic depressions such as had occurred in 1837–1842 and 1873–1879 devastated these unions, as many members of necessity placed basic survival for themselves and their families above union membership. Then, too, major strikes, such as the recent 1877 national railroad strike (toward which Gompers was sympathetic), frequently resulted in the further leveling of the trade union movement as employers, often working in consort with state and national elected officials, took the opportunity to eliminate the weakened unions. Gompers’s emphasis on a strong centralized union was a response to such realities.

So too was his insistence that working people themselves achieve their own independence. Gompers, a profoundly political creature, nonetheless resisted the temptation to commit the unions officially in political campaigns for a given candidate or party. Influenced by the Marxist analysis of the International Workingmen’s Association, Gompers held that until workers came to a consciousness of themselves as a class—a process that could occur only through the experience of work itself—political action would be premature. Individually, workers could and should be politically active, as Gompers himself had been in his public support for Henry George in New York City’s 1886 mayoralty campaign. But, Gompers argued, a broader, work-derived group identity was a prerequisite to any effort to orchestrate working-class political behavior; otherwise, such political action would pit workers against each other, with disastrous implications for the union movement. This was true whether the politicians appealing for workers’ votes were Democrats or Republicans, Socialists or independents associated with the Knights of Labor. Political action without a clear class perception would only reinforce the utopian hope that workers might escape their class standing without transforming the larger economic system.

To further these ideas Gompers, who now possessed a growing national reputation in labor circles, joined with others in 1881 in Pittsburgh to found the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. Elected president despite a series of disagreements with the majority Knights of Labor delegates concerning the composition of the organization, Gompers worked hard that first year to establish the organization and to diminish the influence of the Knights. At the Federation’s second convention in Cleveland in 1882, it quickly became evident that he was more successful in achieving the latter aim than he was the former. The Knights were all but formally excluded from the Federation, but the organization itself remained underfunded, without a clear focus, and institutionally weak. It did engage in efforts to influence legislation of benefit to working people, especially in various state legislatures.

In 1886 Gompers and his allies among the organized skilled workers in the union movement transformed the rather ineffective Federation into a new institution they called the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Their intent was to distance themselves from the public image of unionists as wild-eyed anarchists that had become so prevalent in the aftermath of the recent Haymarket bombing in Chicago and to provide a sure institutional structure for the union movement that, in contrast with the Knights, would focus primarily on organizing skilled craft workers. Samuel Gompers was elected president of the AFL in 1886, as he would be every year after, save one, until his death.

The two guiding principles of the AFL reflected the intentions of Gompers and his supporters. Voluntarism, in regard to the institutional structure of the AFL, reaffirmed the right of the individual unions to join (and therefore to leave) at will this national umbrella organization of the trade unions. But there was another meaning as well to that term. Gompers and other AFL leaders formally rejected a role for the state in establishing either the general boundaries or the specific conditions of industrial relations. Employers and workers through their unions, Gompers held, were the only legitimate actors, and in 1883 he informed a Senate committee that the U.S. Constitution “does not give our National Government the right to adopt a law which would be applicable to private employments.” The second principle, trade union autonomy, reasserted the independence of the national unions within their craft jurisdictions and affirmed their right to order their own internal affairs without interference from other national unions or from the AFL itself. These principles ensured a constitutionally weak office of the president for the new organization.

Gompers’s enthusiastic support of these ideas was not capricious. In part, his objection to government regulation reflected his longheld belief that only workers themselves could effectively wage their struggles—an idea that owed much to Karl Marx. But there was another factor as well. As president of the Federation in 1884, Gompers had spent long hours in Albany, lobbying New York state legislators of both parties to pass a bill regulating the conditions of work in the tenement buildings in the state’s major cities. His elation when a strong bill was enacted crumbled the next year when the state court (in In re Jacobs) declared the law unconstitutional. With the power of the judiciary in this and many other cases so consistently utilized on behalf of employers, Gompers and his associates turned even more emphatically to organizing workers, in the belief that the resulting collective power was the only reliable force when confronting employers.

Despite the obstacles presented by both government and employers, the AFL survived and grew modestly in its early years. Gompers was indefatigable, answering letters, traveling incessantly, and giving speeches to organize workers and to alter the public’s impression of the labor movement. Despite his agreement with the AFL’s emphasis on organizing skilled workers (it was thought that skilled workers, more difficult to replace, could more effectively strike to gain their ends), Gompers’s letters and talks during that first decade reveal a persistent effort on his part to urge the affiliated unions to organize all workers regardless of skill. Most dramatically, Gompers used his limited constitutional power and his more considerable unofficial influence to deny for a number of years membership in the AFL to the International Association of Machinists on account of its white-only membership requirement. Although Gompers ultimately had to accept a compromise that allowed machinist locals to determine membership qualifications (in effect retaining a segregated union), in other areas his influence was more effective. Rejecting his earlier Marxism as unrealistic in an expanding, democratic American society, Gompers waged unrelenting war on socialists of every stripe who sought to influence AFL policy, and he sharply distanced the organization from the populist movement as well. In the early 1890s he courted the railroad brotherhoods and their charismatic leader, Eugene V. Debs, but then publicly dismissed Debs as a labor leader in the aftermath of the Pullman strike of 1894. Although he lost his bid for reelection as president of the AFL in large part as a result of these actions, in the long run the AFL remained inoculated against these tendencies that Gompers and others found so disturbing.

Despite the internal dissension, the adverse court decisions, continued political hostility on the part of many elected officials, and yet another major depression between 1893 and 1897, the AFL under Gompers achieved what no other national labor organization in America had ever done: it survived and continued to grow. From a largely paper organization in 1886, the AFL counted some 250,000 members in 1893; a little more than a decade later, in 1904, that figure reached 1.7 million. Not surprisingly, the organizing budget rose accordingly, from $450 to over $83,000 in 1904, and full-time organizers became a permanent feature of AFL strategy in 1899.

As important as these achievements were, Gompers recognized that serious obstacles yet confronted the AFL. Most employers remained implacably opposed to cooperating with unions, while a string of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the first decade of the century (the most important of which were Buck’s Stove and Range Co. v. American Federation of Labor and Loewe v. Lawlor, the famous Danbury Hatters case) severely restricted the labor movement. Then, too, the regulatory power of the state, dramatically evident after the Civil War in the enactment of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1888, continued to grow sharply in ways that affected organized workers. The manner in which Gompers and his closest advisers addressed these problems largely structured organized labor’s responses during his lifetime and even decades after his death.

In an effort to offset the fierce employer resistance to unionization, particularly that organized by the local and regional businessmen in the National Association of Manufacturers, Gompers aligned with the National Civic Federation (NCF). A quondam reform group composed of the leaders of the nation’s largest corporations, the NCF sought to win worker loyalty by providing a variety of benefits (stock sharing and pensions, for example), all the while firmly preserving the full range of management rights and prerogatives. Yet Gompers and others in the AFL, in the face of withering criticism from dissident labor activists, asserted a value to this association nonetheless. NCF meetings provided access to the nation’s business leaders and encouraged nonbinding mediation efforts in times of crisis. Through these businessmen’s contacts in government, Gompers hoped to at least soften potentially hostile legislative and regulatory action. The results were at best mixed, as most NCF executives rejected their own organization’s involvement in disputes within their own corporations.

Gompers and his AFL advisers developed another approach in their effort to defend against the prevalent antiunion animus, and this strategy altered the very core of the AFL’s position on political involvement. The AFL had long thought that lobbying for specific legislation could be consonant with its theory of voluntarism; thus, in 1906 Gompers presented labor’s Bill of Grievances to President Theodore Roosevelt and the Congress. Following two years of inaction, Gompers addressed the platform committees of both major political parties for the first time and increased efforts to defeat labor’s worst legislative opponents, regardless of their party affiliation. But political realities quickly eroded the AFL’s voluntarist, nonpartisan stance. The Republicans were generally cool toward Gompers, while the Democrats responded generally more favorably. By 1912 this led Gompers and the AFL into new understandings concerning political life. Despite formal statements to the contrary, Gompers now acknowledged the legitimate right of the state to intervene in broad areas of labor’s concern, although he always maintained an opposition to government setting the hours of work or to funding unemployment compensation or social security. Recognizing Republican party opposition, he dropped all pretense of nonpartisanship and actively supported the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, in the 1912 campaign. In a few short years Gompers had led the AFL well along the path from partisanship toward an actual partnership with the Democratic party.

The actions of Wilson and of the Democrats in Congress suggested to Gompers and other AFL leaders the value of these efforts. The president appointed a former coal miner and union official, William B. Wilson, to head the Department of Labor, and in quick succession a host of bills were enacted that addressed some of labor’s key concerns: the Clayton Anti-Trust Act (1914), which Gompers proudly proclaimed as “Labor’s Magna Carta” for its presumed exemption of unions from antitrust prosecution; the Seamen’s Act (1915), establishing basic standards of work on American ships; and the Adamson Act (1916), which established the eight-hour day for railroad employees. Despite the fact that Gompers opposed the Adamson bill—to cede to government the power to set hours of work butted against even his expanded understanding of voluntarism—it was widely popular among railroad workers and their union officials. More to the point for Gompers, he had been able to express his opinion on a bill directly to the president, as he had done so many times since Wilson’s inauguration.

With a federal policy more supportive of labor than ever before in American history, the membership of the AFL continued to grow, reaching approximately 2.4 million in 1917. The advent of American involvement in World War I spurred that growth even further and deepened organized labor’s ties to both this Democratic administration and to the idea of an expanded government role in industrial relations. Gompers, for example, strongly supported the American war effort and dealt harshly with antiwar unionists and socialists within the AFL. When Wilson proposed the National War Labor Board in an effort to reduce strikes and industrial tension to assure continuous production of war material, Gompers was elated. Composed of representatives of labor, management, and the public, the Board formally acknowledged labor’s right to organize—something no administration had ever done before—and threatened employers with penalties if they refused to comply. Under such a strong governmental aegis, the AFL’s membership soared to more than 4 million by 1920. For Gompers, his involvement with the Board, coupled with his subsequent participation (as an adviser on the labor sections of the treaty) in the Versailles Peace Conference following World War I, represented the height of both his personal and organizational prominence and influence. In 1920, however, Sophia Gompers died. The following year he married Gertrude Annesley Gleaves Neuscheler.

The last years of this proud man’s life dealt harshly with his expectations of continued prominence for the labor movement. During the last year of his administration, Wilson was quite sick and thus politically ineffective; and the 1921 inauguration of the new Republican president, Warren G. Harding, brought no friend of organized labor to the White House. Simultaneously, the nation was caught in a paroxysm of fear concerning the influence of the recent Bolshevik revolution on American institutions. The wave of postwar strikes in 1919 and the anti-immigrant feelings unleashed by wartime propaganda (ironically something Gompers and the AFL helped to foster in their own propaganda activities on behalf of the American effort) obliterated for many the distinctions between communists, socialists, trade unionists, and immigrant working people, with the result that labor found itself under sustained suspicion and attack. The nation’s employers, including some of those formerly affiliated with the NCF, recognized the moment as opportune as well. Chafing from the forced recognition of labor during the war, they now took advantage of the new political conditions to break unions where possible and to reduce labor’s political influence at every level. By 1924 AFL membership had fallen to 2.9 million, a decline that would continue throughout the decade.

Although Gompers never publicly acknowledged labor’s dramatic decline in influence as well as its loss of members, one of his last efforts suggests how serious he thought the situation was. In 1924 Gompers openly supported the independent presidential candidacy of Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette in an effort to revive the progressive alliance that had proved so beneficial but a few short years before. The results, from Gompers’s perspective, were dismal: not only did the Republican, Calvin Coolidge, win, but the majority of even working-class voters rejected La Follette. A month later, following a meeting of the Pan American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers died in San Antonio, leaving behind a legacy that, in both its victories and its failures, would profoundly influence the American labor movement for decades yet to come.

Bibliography

The most important archival collections of Samuel Gompers’s papers can be found in the Library of Congress; the President’s Office File, AFL, at the State Historical Society, Madison, Wis.; and at the George Meany Memorial Archives, Silver Spring, Md. A microfilm collection, “The AFL Records in the Gompers Era,” is also available. As his correspondents included a wide variety of individuals, there are numerous other collections in archives across the nation with Gompers material. A superb, multivolume letterpress edition of Gompers’s papers, under the editorship of Stuart B. Kaufman, is The Samuel Gompers Papers (1986–). The key published text on Gompers is his own Seventy Years of Life and Labor (2 vols., 1925); an edited version of the autobiography, with an introduction by Nick Salvatore, was published in 1984. Earlier works still of interest include Louis S. Reed, The Labor Philosophy of Samuel Gompers (1930); Philip Taft, The A. F. of L. in the Time of Gompers (1957); Bernard Mandel, Samuel Gompers, a Biography (1963); and William M. Dick, Labor and Socialism in America: The Gompers Era (1972). Kaufman’s insightful study, Samuel Gompers and the Origins of the American Federation of Labor, 1848–1896 (1973), covers approximately half of Gompers’s life. A useful introduction to the AFL and politics remains J. David Greenstone, Labor in American Politics (1969). An obituary is in the New York Times, 14 Dec. 1924.