Samuel Gompers (1850–1924) labor leader
Samuel Gompers was the most influential early labor leader in the United States. The son of Jewish parents who had emigrated from Holland to England in 1844, he and his family immigrated to New York City in 1863. Gompers was apprenticed as a cigar maker and continued this work until the mid-1870s, when he became increasingly concerned with labor organization. During the depression of 1873–77, he was elected president of a local cigar makers’ union in New York City and from that time devoted his life to the labor movement. He helped to organize the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and served as its president almost continuously until his death (1886–94, 1896–1924). He was appointed to the Council of National Defense (1917) and to the Commission on International Labor Legislation at the Paris Peace Conference (1919).
Gompers was an energetic and pragmatic leader who followed the British model of trade union organization. His organization’s high dues, benefits, and tight organization favored skilled workers, whom he viewed as the foundation of the labor movement. Gompers opposed both extreme labor actions and labor involvement in legislation, believing that workers must provide for themselves in organizations under their own control. As a result, he was generally held in esteem by members of the political establishment. Although a Jew by birth, he did not identify with the Jewish community. He worked to limit immigration, fearing that a mass influx of unskilled workers would drive down wages and the standard of living for workers already in the United States.
See also American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.