Biography of Samuel Gompers

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



Samuel Gompers (1850 - 1924)


     Samuel Gompers was the Jewish founder, in 1886, of the American Federation  of Labor, which had been previously organized as the Federation of Organized Trades. He remained its president until his death in 1924.

      Gompers was born in England and came to the United States at age 13. Like so many 19th century children, he began work at age ten, when he was apprenticed to a shoemaker. Later he worked alongside his father in a cigar factory. Thousands of young children worked in the New York City sweatshops when Gompers came to this country in 1863.

     In 1864, age 14, Gompers joined the New York cigar makers' union. At age 17 he married Sophia Julian and with her he had 12 children.

     At work, Sam Gompers socialized with older immigrants who had joined various trade unions and who were mainly socialists in politics. In 1877, after an economic collapse, Gompers built up the Cigar Makers Union so as to develop sick leave and pension funds  paid for by high federation membership dues.

     Gompers was self educated. In his day wage reductions occurred almost daily, as millions of European immigrants came to the United States every year.  There were no immigration laws in this country until 1924, when quotas were imposed for all but Mexican immigrants, who are allowed to enter into the United States in an unrestricted manner (Mexico has a population of 111 million).

     Gompers sought to organize labor so as to insure that the lowest paid workers earned the same as the highest paid, that labor organize so as to “secure for every person in the trade an existence worthy of a human being.”

     Gompers sought to increase wages and benefits and to give working people some economic security. He invented the idea of collective bargaining to replace individual hiring. He collected money from members so as to insure that they could survive strikes.

      The AFL was decentralized and consisted of a number of craft unions, meaning skilled labor such as carpenters, electricians, plumbers, etc. The unions were based on a craft, but excluded unskilled labor, which organized later into the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In 1955, these groups merged into the AFL-CIO.

     Gompers championed three principles. First, he advocated trade unionism. Second, he focused on economic reform and stayed out of politics, seeking to be nonpartisan in an effort to gain support from both parties. Third, he tried to mobilize labor union members to vote for candidates of any party favoring the labor agenda.

     This led to the criticism that Gompers developed an “aristocracy of labor” without regard to the millions of unskilled immigrants who were not included in the AFL.

     During the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Gompers to the powerful Council of National Defense. It was most unusual for a Jew to be appointed to anything at that time.

     In 1919, Gompers attended the Versailles Treaty negotiations and there founded the International Labor Organization (ILO) under the League of Nations.

     Gompers has been honored by the naming of a U.S. Navy destroyer named Samuel Gompers and by a monument in Gompers Square in Washington, D.C.

      He is remembered by a number of quotes from his many speeches, including this: “The worst crime against working people is a company which fails to operate at a profit.”

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Criminal Justice System (2010).

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