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co-founder of the American Federation of Labor
Samuel Gompers was born in London, England, on January 27, 1850, into a family of cigar makers. Although his family was poor he was able to attend the Jewish Free School in London, from which he graduated at the top of his class at the age of ten. His schooling had to end, however, so he could go to work to supplement the family's income. Initially apprenticed to a shoemaker, he soon joined his father in the cigar making trade. Both father and son continued in that trade after the family immigrated to New York City in 1863.
Gompers joined the Cigar Makers International Union (CMIU), Local 15, in 1864, and even though he was only fourteen at the time he soon became its unofficial leader. In 1874 he helped found Local 144 of the CMIU and became its unofficial president; he remained a member of Local 144 the rest of his life, even after he had "moved up" in the labor ranks.
Throughout the 1870's Gompers was active in the International Workingman's Association, the Economic and Sociological Club, and the Workingman's Party of the United States.
In 1881, as a delegate for the CMIU, Gompers attended a conference of various small labor unions which resulted in the founding of the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions (FOTLU), of which he quickly became the leader. Between 1881 and 1886 he tirelessly lobbied for compulsory school attendance laws, the regulation of child labor, establishment of an eight-hour work day, higher wages, safe and sanitary working conditions, and workplace democracy.
In 1886, the FOTLU was reconstituted as the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Gompers subsequently became the AFL's first president, and served in that capacity until his death (except for a one-year sabbatical, 1894-1895). During the AFL's early years Gompers worked out of an office in a small shed, his son acted as office boy, and there was only $160 in the treasury. Even though he was the AFL's president, Gompers was not paid for the first several years of his tenure. Within four years of its founding, however, the AFL represented some 250,000 workers; that number grew to over one million within six years.
As president of the AFL, Gompers often testified before the U.S. Congress and state legislatures on various labor issues. Although he always stressed cooperation between labor and management as the best means of achieving gains, he wasn't afraid to use the strike as a bargaining tool when cooperation and negotiation failed. Throughout his tenure he was well respected by government officials, business leaders, and labor alike for his integrity, generosity, and willingness to stand up to power. In 1901 he helped found the National Civic Federation, an alliance of businessmen willing to work with unions.
During World War I Gompers did all he could to prevent AFL strikes that could in any way hamper the U.S.'s war effort. After the war he served as president of the International Commission on Labor Legislation at the Versailles Peace Conference, which ultimately led to creation of the International Labor Organization.
In the early 1920's, despite being in failing health, Gompers became the leading spokesman for Mexico in Washington, and was instrumental in gaining American recognition of the government of President Plutarco Elias Calles.
In 1924 Gompers was attending the Congress of the Pan-American Federation of Labor in Mexico City when he suddenly collapsed. He was rushed to a hospital in San Antonio, Texas, where he died on December 13, 1924.
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This page was last updated on October 24, 2017.