Samuel Gompers was born on January 26, 1850, in London, England, where he was raised until 1863. As a child, Gompers's father apprenticed him to a shoemaker; however, he could not handle the noise of that craft and eventually began working as a cigarmaker. Gompers later stated that he preferred the trade of cigarmaking because there was a society among them that was not present among the shoemakers. While in London, Gompers attended the Jew's Free School from 1856 to 1860, which was, at the time, one of the largest elementary schools in Great Britain. Although he ranked third in his class, the financial situation of his family required him to leave the school. Gompers continued his education through night classes as well as in the cigar factory, where he listened to coworkers debate current events.
Due to import duties levied against Europe by the United States, Gompers and his family decided to emigrate to the United States. They were able to emigrate with the assistance of the Cigarmakers’ Society of England. They left England on June 10, 1863, and arrived in New York, New York, on July 29, 1863. The Gompers family regularly changed residences throughout the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and Samuel moved from job to job due to lockouts and strikes. In addition to his work as a cigarmaker, Gompers helped form and become the president of the Arion Base Ball and Social Club as well as continuing his education with free classes at the Cooper Union. In the summer of 1866, Gompers met a London-born tobacco stripper, and they were married on January 28, 1867.
Although Gompers joined the Cigarmakers’ Local Union in 1864, he stated that his interest in the labor movement began in 1873 when he started working in a cigar factory owned by a socialist immigrant named David Hirsch. While at Hirsch's factory, Gompers met Ferdinand Laurrell, who was affiliated with the Scandinavian section of the International Workingmen's Association. Laurrell translated Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto and inspired Gompers to learn to read the German language. A pamphlet by Carl Hillmann titled Praktisch Emanzipationswinke proposed the idea that trade unions functioned as the catalyst of fundamental social and political change and that they were natural, historically based instruments for advancing the working class. Hillmann's ideas inspired Gompers throughout his entire life.
The cigar-manufacturing workplace was one that encouraged the exchange of ideas; the introduction of the cigar mold and increased regulations threatened not only the cigarmakers but also the craft of cigarmaking itself. Inspired by the railroad strikes of 1877, many of the New York City cigar-shop workers struck because of pay cuts and the newly imposed factory limitations on conversation and smoking; more than 10,000 workers, including Gompers, joined the Great Strike. The Great Strike solidified Gompers's belief that a union's financial security and stability should outweigh political party activity. While Gompers advocated a diminished role for politics, he did acknowledge there was importance to political lobbying as well as to publications. Gompers attended a hearing by a federal committee headed by Henry Blair of New Hampshire on the relations between labor and capital. In the hearing, Gompers voiced support for the creating of the Federal Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the abolition of the contract labor system, the enforcement of the federal eight-hour law, and the incorporation of trade unions. In his battle with the tenement-house cigar production system, Gompers published his findings for an antitenement campaign in the New Yorker Volkzeitung and the Cigar Maker's Official Journal. The anti-tenement-house campaigns and lobbying caused a split in the Cigarmakers’ International Union Local 144 between the leadership and the union's socialist members.
Gompers's emphasis on financial stability was the platform that allowed the American Federation of Labor to be an attractive option to nonaffiliated labor unions. Due to his platform of financial stability Samuel Gompers was elected president of the AFL at its founding convention in 1886. Although he did not approve of political affiliations being the forefront of the union's priorities, Gompers did encourage union members to be politically aware and active. The difference in ideas between Gompers and the socialist members proved to be a perpetual issue as Gompers's ideologies sided with capitalism. As a result of his willingness to work with businesses and his conservative approach, Gompers and the AFL witnessed a split between some of their members, similar to the split in the Cigarmakers’ International Union Local 144.
While attending a Pan-American Federation of Labor meeting in Mexico City, Mexico, Gompers fell ill and was rushed to San Antonio, Texas. Shortly after arriving in San Antonio, Gompers died at the age of 74 on December 14, 1924. Throughout his life Gompers was able to have a significant impact on the development of the AFL while maintaining his goal of a unified group of workers that spanned across race, class, trades, and political affiliations.
See also: American Federation of Labor (AFL) ; Baseball and Populism ; Debs, Eugene (1855–1926) ; Gilded Age ; Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) ; McBride, John (1854–1917) ; Progressivism ; Pullman Strike (1894)
Gompers, Samuel. The Samuel Gompers Papers. 10 vols. Edited by Stuart B. Kaufman. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor: An Autobiography. 2 vols. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1925.