Childhood & Early Life
Samuel Gompers was born on January 27, 1850, in London to Solomon and Sarah Gompers. His family was originally from Amsterdam and lived in England for a few years.
At the age of six he was enrolled in a Jewish Free school to receive basic elementary education. His school life was short-lived as at the age of ten he had to leave school to work and support his family. His first job was of an apprentice with a shoe maker. Thereafter he worked with his father in the latter’s cigar making business.
He joined night schools to continue his studies and took lessons on Hebrew. He learned Talmud, a process which he later recollected as similar to studying law.
In 1863, his family moved to the U.S. and settled in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in New York. As the family expanded to eleven members, he again started working as a cigar maker.
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In New York, his father manufactured cigars at home and he helped his father for the first one and a half year in cigar making.
He formed a debate club along with his friends, which helped him gain practical experience in speaking in public and on parliamentary procedures. He met numerous high class young men of New York through the club including Peter J. McGuire a young Irish-American who later made immense contribution to the ‘American Federation of Labour’.
In 1864, he and his father joined an English speaking union of cigar makers, the ‘Cigarmaker’s Local Union No. 15’ in New York and became an active member.
In 1873 he joined ‘David Hirsch & Company’, a high class cigar maker shop operated by an émigré German socialist. He later considered this job change as one of the most significant changes of his life.
At ‘David Hirsch & Company’, he came across various German cigar makers. He was deeply interested about their ideas and was especially enthusiastic about the ideas of Karl Laurrell, former secretary of ‘International Workingmen's Association’.
Karl Laurrell involved Samuel Gompers in his group and encouraged Gompers to instil trust in organised trade unionism rather than applying simplistic ideas involving political and socialist movements.
In 1875, he was elected as president of the ‘Cigarmakers' International Union Local 144’. During the 1877 financial crisis which witnessed escalation of unemployment following desperation of labourers to work with minimal wages, the union almost collapsed like any other. Samuel Gompers along with his friend Adolph Strasser rebuilt the union initiating programs including sick benefits, death benefits and out-of-work benefits for its members.
In 1881, he was involved in setting-up of ‘Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions’, a coalition of unions having similar viewpoints. The federation was re-structured in 1886 as the ‘American Federation of Labour’. He became the president and remained so till his death (except for a year in 1895).
In 1886, he was elected as the second vice-president of ‘Cigarmakers' International Union’.
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In 1896, he was elected as the first vice-president of ‘Cigarmakers' International Union’ and remained so till his death.
As he had links with America based Cuban cigar workers, he pushed for American interference in Cuba and supported the subsequent war (1898) with Spain. But at the end of the war he opposed President William McKinley’s plan of annexing Philippines and joined the ‘Anti-Imperialist League’.
In 1901, he became a co-founder of ‘National Civic Federation’ which was a coalition between businessmen and labour unions.
He planned to expand the ‘American Federation of Labour’ in Canada with a broader view of forming an international federation of labour. In this pursuit he aided ‘Canadian Trades and Labour Congress’ with organizers and money. His effort succeeded and by 1902 the Canadian union movement was dominated by the ‘American Federation of Labour’.
In 1911, he was almost jailed in the ‘Gompers v. Buck's Stove and Range Co.’ case for producing a boycott list along with John Mitchell.
At the time of World War I, President Wilson appointed him the chairman of the ‘Labor Advisory Board’ in the ‘Council of National Defence’.
In 1919, he was present at the ‘Paris Peace Conference’ as an official advisor on labour problems.
Gompers and the ‘American Federation of Labour’ fought strongly with the more radical organisation ‘Industrial Workers of the World’ (IWW) due to difference in their views. They considered IWW was more inclined to destroy capitalism rather than aiding workers. Following IWW’s belligerent opposition to the World War, he helped the government in widespread arrests of its union leaders. In 1920 it became almost defunct.
He was averse to unrestricted immigration from Europe and any immigration from Asia and was a staunch supporter of the ‘Chinese Exclusion Act’ of 1882 banning the Chinese to immigrate. The ‘American Federation of Labour’ played a prominent role in passing of various immigration restriction laws including the ‘Emergency Quota Act’ (1921) and the ‘Immigration Act’ (1924).
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His only book (an autobiography) ‘Seventy Years of Life and Labour’, was published in 1925.
Personal Life & Legacy
At the age of seventeen he married sixteen year old Sophia Julian who was his co-worker. His first child was born after a year. Although the couple had a number of children in quick succession, six of the infants survived.
His health started deteriorating from February 1923 after he was hospitalised with severe influenza. This was followed by various other ailments including bronchitis, diabetes, congestive heart failure and uraemia.
On December 6, 1924, he collapsed in the middle of a meeting of ‘Pan-American Federation of Labour’ in the Mexico City. As per his desire he was boarded on a special train to reach America.
On December 13, 1924 he died in San Antonio, Texas, and was buried at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York.
A bronze monument by sculptor Robert Aitken was built in the ‘Gompers Square, Massachusetts Avenue, Washington D.C to honour him.
Local unions of Chicago contributed money and their time to build his life-size statue, the first of its kind of any labour leader in Chicago, which was unveiled on September 3, 2007.
A class of U.S. Navy destroyer tenders and a U.S. Navy support ship have been named after him.
A public housing development located at the Lower East Side of New York is named after him as the ‘Samuel Gompers Houses’.