Samuel Gompers was the first and longest-serving president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL); it is to him, as much as to anyone else, that the American labor movement owes its structure and characteristic strategies. Under his leadership, the AFL became the largest and most influential labor federation in the world. It grew from a marginal association of 50,000 in 1886 to an established organization of nearly 3 million in 1924 that had won a permanent place in American society. In a society renowned for its individualism and the power of its employer class, he forged a self-confident workers' organization dedicated to the principles of solidarity and mutual aid. It was a singular achievement.
Born in 1850 into a Jewish family in London, Gompers began making cigars alongside his father at the age of 10. In 1863, the entire family immigrated to New York City. Settling into a tenement apartment on Houston Street, Gompers continued rolling cigars at home with his father until he found work in one of the local shops. In 1864, he joined Local 15 of the United Cigar Makers; two years later, he married Sophia Julian, with whom he would have 12 children. At his job and in his local union, Gompers socialized with a group of older émigré socialists and labor reformers whom he would always credit for his commitment to trade unionism as the essential vehicle for bringing about social reform.
In 1875, Gompers was elected president of the reorganized Local 144 of the Cigar Makers' International Union (CMIU) in New York City, a post he held from 1875 to 1878 and again from 1880 to 1886. He then served as second vice president of the CMIU from 1886 to 1896, when he was elevated to first vice presidency. In the 1880s, Gompers was also instrumental in establishing the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which he served as vice president from 1881 to 1886. When the FOTLU re-organized in 1886 as the American Federation of Labor, Gompers was elected its first president, a position he held for nearly 40 years.
As a local and national labor leader, Gompers sought to build the labor movement into a force powerful enough to transform the economic, social and political status of America's workers. To do so, he championed three principles. First, he advocated craft or trades unionism, which restricted union membership to wage earners and grouped workers into locals based on their trade or craft identification. This approach contrasted with the effort of many in the Knights of Labor to organize general, community-based organizations open to wage earners as well as others, including employers. It also contrasted sharply with the "one big union" philosophy of the Industrial Workers of the World.
Second, Gompers believed in a pure-and-simple unionism that focused primarily on economic rather than political reform as the best way of securing workers' rights and welfare. Gompers's faith in legislative reform was dashed in the 1880s after the New York Supreme Court overturned two laws regulating tenement production of cigars that he had helped pass. Gompers saw that what the state gave, it could also take away. But what workers secured through their own economic power in the marketplace, no one could take away.
Third, when political action was necessary, as Gompers increasingly came to believe in his later years, he urged labor to follow a course of "political nonpartisanship." He argued that the best way of enhancing the political leverage of labor was to articulate an independent political agenda, seek the endorsement of existing political parties for the agenda and mobilize members to vote for those supporting labor's agenda.
With his election as president of the AFL in 1886, he sought to build a national federation of trade unions dedicated to these principles. He immediately threw himself into the organization's first big effort—a nationwide general strike on May 1, 1886— in support of an eight-hour workday.
At the end of the 1890s, the AFL's membership began to soar-faster than in any other period in the history of the U.S. union movement. But the anti-union hostility of many employers halted the AFL's rapid growth in the early 1900s and forced Gompers and the AFL to adopt a more political stance. Employers had long sought to use the nation's new anti-trust laws as a legal basis for court-issued injunctions against strikes and boycotts. And in 1906, after nonunion employers sued the hatters' union and each individual member for triple damages in compensation for the losses they had suffered in a union boycott, Gompers concluded that the movement had to seek legislative relief. The Danbury Hatters' case, he wrote, "threatened the very existence of organized labor." It was "of paramount importance that labor unions be specifically removed from the application of anti-trust law and that injunction use be defined and regulated."
To secure the rights of labor to organize and engage in economic action, the AFL and its affiliates launched a far-reaching and ultimately successful campaign to elect union members and other labor-friendly candidates to political office.
The high point of the AFL's new, more political strategy came during the administration of President Woodrow Wilson (1912–1920), when Gompers and the federation enacted much of their program and enjoyed their greatest influence. During World War I, Wilson appointed Gompers to the Council of National Defense, where he helped mobilize labor support for the war. Gompers also was crucial in convincing Wilson to craft a wartime labor policy that for the first time in U.S. history explicitly articulated government support for independent trade unions and collective bargaining. Labor union membership soared by the end of the war, reaching into the millions. At the war's end, Wilson appointed Gompers to the Commission on International Labor Legislation at the Versailles Peace Conference, where Gompers helped create what would become the International Labor Organization (ILO). Although labor suffered considerable reverses in the 1920s, with the war crisis over and Wilson's administration at an end, the labor policies forged in this period laid the basis for the New Deal endorsements of labor rights in the 1930s.
Gompers died in December 1924 in San Antonio, Texas, where he had been rushed after falling ill in Mexico City while attending the inauguration of the new president of Mexico.