Portrait of Samuel Gompers
During the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, Samuel Gompers was a prominent labor activist in the United States of America.
Gompers was born on January 27, 1850, in London, England. He attended public schools in England until 1860, when he became a cigar maker, his father's profession. Three years later, the Gompers family immigrated to the United States, settling in New York City.
Upon arriving in New York, Gompers continued manufacturing cigars. In 1872, he joined the Cigarmakers' Union, quickly attaining a leadership role. Gompers assumed control of the union in 1877, and he set about reforming it. Under his direction, the Cigarmakers' Union began to charge high dues. These funds were then used to form strike and pension funds for the workers. Gompers also sought to unite local unions into a national organization. He focused the union's activities on improving wages, guaranteeing job security for workers, and increasing other benefits.
In 1881, Gompers took the lead in organizing the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States of America and Canada. This organization became the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886, in Columbus, Ohio. Many members of these two groups were disgruntled members of the Knights of Labor, the most influential labor organization in the United States during the 1870s. Gompers served as the AFL's first president. He remained the organization's president, other than for one year, until his death. Under Gompers's leadership, the AFL became the largest labor organization in the United States. The AFL initially only allowed skilled workers to join the organization. Unskilled laborers initially did not have representation under the AFL. Gompers supported the use of strikes, but he preferred peaceful negotiations to attain fair contracts for workers from their employers. He also sought to keep the AFL out of the political arena, believing that political activity might offend some business owners.
During World War I, Gompers worked closely with President Woodrow Wilson to prevent strikes to maintain the United States' wartime production. Gompers served on the Council of National Defense during the war. He also participated in the Versailles peace talks, which ended the war. Gompers represented the interests of international laborers at the talks.
Gompers died on December 13, 1924.