Samuel Gompers Biography: From Cigar Roller to Labor Union Hero

Gompers (center) with President Woodrow Wilson (left) and US Secretary of Labor William Bauchop Wilson (right) at a Labor Day Rally
Gompers (center) with President Woodrow Wilson (left) and US Secretary of Labor William Bauchop Wilson (right) at a Labor Day Rally. PhotoQuest / Getty Images

Samuel Gompers (January 27, 1850 – December 13, 1924) was a key American labor union leader who founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and served as its president for nearly four decades, from 1886 to 1894, and from 1895 until his death in 1924. He is credited with creating the structure of the modern American labor movement and establishing many of its essential negotiating strategies, such as collective bargaining.

Fast Facts: Samuel Gompers

  • Known for: Influential American labor union organizer and leader
  • Born: January 27, 1850, in London England (migrated to the U.S. in 1863)
  • Parents’ Names: Solomon and Sarah Gompers
  • Died: December 13, 1924, in San Antonio, Texas
  • Education: Left school at age 10
  • Key Accomplishments: Founded the American Federation of Labor (1886). President of the AFL for four decades from 1886 until his death. Created procedures for collective bargaining and labor negotiations that are still used today
  • Wife: Sophia Julian (Married in 1867)
  • Children:  From 7 to 12, names and dates of birth not recorded
  • Interesting Fact: Though his name sometimes appears as "Samuel L. Gompers", he had no middle name.

Early Life and Education

Samuel Gompers was born on January 27, 1850, in London, England, to Solomon and Sarah Gompers, a Dutch-Jewish couple originally from Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Though his name sometimes appears as “Samuel L. Gompers,” he had no recorded middle name. Despite being extremely poor, the family managed to send Gompers to a free Jewish school at age six. There he received a brief basic education, rare among poor families of the day. At age ten, Gompers left school and went to work as an apprentice cigar-maker. In 1863, at age 13, Gompers and his family migrated to the United States, settling in the slums of the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City. 

Marriage

On January 28, 1867, the seventeen-year-old Gompers married sixteen-year-old Sophia Julian. They remained together until Sophia’s death in 1920. The reported number of children the couple had together varied from seven to as many as 12, depending on the source. Their names and birth dates are not available.

Young Cigar Maker and Budding Union Leader

Once settled in New York, Gompers' father supported the large family by making cigars in the basement of their home, assisted by young Samuel. In 1864, the 14-year-old Gompers, now working full time for local cigar-maker, joined and became active in the Cigar Makers’ Local Union No. 15, a union of New York cigar makers. In his autobiography published in 1925, Gompers, in recounting his cigar-rolling days, revealed his budding concern for workers’ rights and suitable working conditions.

“Any kind of an old loft served as a cigar shop. If there were enough windows, we had sufficient light for our work; if not, it was apparently no concern of the management. Cigar shops were always dusty from the tobacco stems and powdered leaves. Benches and work tables were not designed to enable the workmen to adjust bodies and arms comfortably to [the] work surface. Each workman supplied his own cutting board of lignum vitae and knife blade.”

In 1873, Gompers went to work for cigar maker David Hirsch & Company, which he later described as a “high-class shop where only the most skilled workmen were employed.” By 1875, Gompers had been elected president of the Cigar Makers’ International Union Local 144.

Founding and Leading the AFL

In 1881, Gompers helped found the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which reorganized into the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886, with Gompers as its first president. With a year-long break in 1895, he would continue to lead the AFL until his death in 1924.

As directed by Gompers, the AFL focused on securing higher wages, better working conditions, and a shorter work week. Unlike some of the more radical union activists of the day, who were trying to reshape the fundamental institutions of American life, Gompers provided a more conservative style of leadership to the AFL.

In 1911, Gompers faced jail for his participation in publishing a “boycott list” of companies that AFL members would not patronize. However, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Gompers v. Buck’s Stove and Range Co., overturned his conviction.

Gompers vs. the Knights of Labor, and Socialism

Led by Gompers, the AFL steadily grew in size and influence, until by 1900, it had largely taken over the position of power previously held by the older Knights of Labor, American's first labor union. While the Knights publicly denounced socialism, they sought a cooperative society in which the laborers owed the industries for which they worked. Gompers’ AFL unions, on the other hand, were concerned only with improving the wages, working conditions, and daily lives of their members.

Gompers detested socialism as supported by his rival labor organizer Eugene V. Debs, head of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Throughout his forty years as AFL president, Gompers opposed Debs’ Socialist Party of America. “Socialism holds nothing but unhappiness for the human race," Gompers said in 1918. “Socialism has no place in the hearts of those who would secure the fight for freedom and preserve democracy.”

Gompers’ Death and Legacy

Having suffered from diabetes for years, Gompers’ health began to fail in early 1923, when influenza forced him into the hospital for six weeks. By June 1924, he was unable to walk without assistance and was temporarily hospitalized again with congestive heart failure.

Despite his increasingly frail condition, Gompers traveled to Mexico City in December 1924 to attend a meeting of the Pan-American Federation of Labor. On Saturday, December 6, 1924, Gompers collapsed on the floor of the meeting hall. When told by doctors that he might not survive, Gompers asked to be put on a train headed back to the U.S. saying he wanted to die on American soil. He died on December 13, 1924, in a San Antonio, Texas hospital, where his last words were, “Nurse, this is the end. God bless our American institutions. May they grow better day-by-day." 

Gompers is buried in Sleepy Hollow, New York, just yards away from the grave of famed Gilded Age industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.  

Today, Gompers is remembered as a poor European immigrant who went on to pioneer a distinctly American brand of unionism. His accomplishments have inspired later labor leaders, like George Meany, founder and longtime president of the AFL-CIO. Many of the procedures for collective bargaining and labor contracts created by Gompers and used by the unions of his AFL are still commonly used today. 

Notable Quotes

Though he left school at age ten and never completing a formal education, as a young teen, Gompers formed a debate club with several of this friends. It was here that he developed and honed his skills as an eloquent and persuasive public speaker. Some of his better-known quotes include:

  • “What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.”
  • “The worst crime against working people is a company which fails to operate at a profit.”
  • “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.”
  • “No race of barbarians ever existed yet offered up children for money.”
  • “Show me the country that has no strikes and I'll show you the country in which there is no liberty.”

Sources

  • Gompers, Samuel (autobiography) “Seventy Years of Life and Labor.” E. P. Dutton & company (1925). Easton Press (1992). ASIN: B000RJ6QZC
  • “American Federation of Labor (AFL).” The Library of Congress
  • Livesay, Harold C. “Samuel Gompers and Organized Labor in America.” Boston: Little, Brown, 1978