Samuel Gompers: A Half Century in Labor's Front Rank

By Yellowitz, Irwin | Monthly Labor Review, July 1989 | Go to article overview

Samuel Gompers: A Half Century in Labor's Front Rank


Yellowitz, Irwin, Monthly Labor Review


Irwin Yellowitz is a professor of history at The City College of the City University of New York.

'I want to live for one thing alone-to leave a better labor movement in America and in the world than I found it when I entered, as a boy. . . '

In the formative years of the modem American labor movement, Samuel Gompers stood out as spokesman and advocate, organizer and leader, conciliator and promoter-and, above all, as a seemingly tireless representative of organized labor. For over a half century, he devoted himself completely to the labor movement, first within the Cigarmakers' International Union and after 1886 as president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

Gompers never accepted any problem as beyond solution, be it personal or political. Although he had a stammer as a young man, he learned to speak effectively, and although his formal education ended at age 10, he learned to write clear, if somewhat ponderous, prose. Gompers persisted where others lost heart. He believed that the weak and limited set of trade unions of the 1880's could grow in strength and become the means by which workers would significantly advance their interests. He also believed that the AFL could be the national organization of these often fractious unions-chartering trade unions, adjusting disputes among them, lobbying at the national and State levels, and, perhaps most important, legitimizing the institution of the trade union and its right to organize workers and bargain for them. Samuel Gompers became the personification of the AFL, and clearly the best known and most influential labor leader of his time.

The formation of the AFL

Gompers was born in 1850 in London of a Jewish family who had emigrated from Amsterdam several years earlier. Although he attended the Jewish free school from age 6, the family's poverty forced him to begin work at age 10. His father was a cigarmaker, and Samuel quickly found his way into this trade as an apprentice. Although he did swdy further at a free night school, essentially his formal education had ended. In 1863, the Gompers family emigrated to the United States, settling in New York City. Samuel continued his work as a cigarmaker. His father had been a union member in London, and Gompers and his father soon joined a cigarmakers' local. However, Sam Gompers did not participate in any real way for almost 10 years. During this time, he married, sought to support his growing family, and devoted his free time to fraternal activities.'

Events in the early 1870's helped form several of Gompers' key lifelong beliefs. About 1870, the skill of the cigarmaker was threatened by the mold, a tool that allowed for some subdivision of the work and simplified a major step in the production process. Gompers joined in a futile strike against this innovation. Other strikes also failed, and in 1875, the Cigarmakers' Union allowed less skilled workers to join-an acknowledgment the mold was here to stay. Throughout his later career, Gompers accepted the inevitability of technological change. He believed workers had to respond to industrial change by mitigating its negative impact through work rules, and by ensuring that union members became the workers on any new machinery.

Gompers also joined in the 8-hour day demonstration of September 1871. From this time on, he believed in the primacy of shorter hours as an objective for workers. Not only would the 8-hour day provide more leisure, but it promised to offset the unemployment that almost every labor leader believed resulted from mechanization. Fewer hours of labor meant that more workers would be needed to maintain production. With full employment, wages would rise and union organizing would be more effective. It was not until the early 20th century that Gompers acknowledged that technological innovation might increase production per hour of labor, thus offsetting the gain in employment that he anticipated. …

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