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This Month in Business History

Labor Leader Samuel Gompers Born

Harris & Ewing, photographer. Samuel Gompers posing for sculptor. 1923. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Samuel Gompers (Samuel Gumpertz) was born in the Spitalfields area of London on January 27, 1850 and spent his early years as a cigar maker. The family immigrated to the United States in 1863 and settled in New York City. Father and son continued in the cigar trade and Samuel joined the Cigar Makers Local Union. In his mid-twenties Gompers was elected president of the local Cigar Makers’ International Union where he continued working his way up through the union ranks.

In 1881, he helped found the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions which became the American Federation of Labor (A. F. of L. or AFL). He became its first president and served as such for most of the rest of his life (except the period when John McBride was president). Under his leadership, the union grew in size and influence. Gompers was witness to, and part of, many of the events that have become part of labor history including the Ludlow Massacre.

After he was nearly jailed for contempt (see Gompers v. Buck’s Stove and Range Co.), he wrote an editorial in the June 1911 edition of the union’s official magazine, the American Federationist, where he ended with the following:

“Justice Wright, you may be controlled by your sense of duty, or you may be woefully mistaken or prompted by a vindictive, and therefore wrongful spirit and purpose; but, be your course what it may, it will be found that long after you are forgotten the cause of labor, the cause of right and justice and humanity will be recognized, established, and enthroned, and that, too, regardless of what you may determine in disposing of the prosecutions and persecutions against the men you seem determined to imprison.” 1

During World War I, Gompers and the AFL were supportive of the war efforts and Gompers was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson to the Council of National Defense and chaired a Labor committee. He also attended the Paris Peace Conference as an official advisor on labor issues and was essential to the establishment of the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Gompers died on December 13, 1924 in Texas and is buried in Sleepy Hollow, New York. His place in labor history is set. The Samuel Gompers Memorial Park, located at the corner of 10th and Massachusetts Avenue NW in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in October 1933 (on the same block as the union’s headquarters) and he was among the first crew of people inducted to the Department of Labor’s Labor Hall of Fame in 1989.

After Gompers' death, the union continued with its mission. The years after WWI were harder for the AFL with the rise of big business and the “open shop” movement, and membership numbers stagnated. In 1935 prominent AFL member John L. Lewis split with the union and established what became the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO). The Great Depression and then the boom brought on by World War II changed labor, but the union and its membership grew quickly.

Changes came to the AFL. In early 1955, the AFL and the CIO met and agreed to merge. The December 11, 1955 Washington’s Evening Star ran a story about the first convention of the new AFL-CIO where George Meany, who had been leader of the AFL, became the new AFL-CIO president. The opening gavel to the convention was held by Meany and CIO president Walter Reuther.

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  1. American Federationist, (June 1911) 8, 12, 166. Back to text