On December 13, 1924, Samuel Gompers, the cigar-maker who became the father of the mainstream American labor movement, died, at the age of 74. From 1886, when he forged the creation of the American Federation of Labor, until his death – with the exception of a one-year break – Gompers headed the organization, which became the nation’s largest labor collective.
Samuel Gompers was born in London on January 27, 1850, to Jewish parents whose families had both come to England, from Amsterdam. Of his father, Solomon Gompers, it is known that a great-great-grandfather was of French-Jewish origin, and had come to the Netherlands as a soldier during the Napoleonic Wars. His mother was the former Sarah Rood, and Samuel was the oldest of her five sons.
Solomon Gompers made a meager living in the cigar-rolling industry. Although Samuel was able to study for several years at London’s Jewish Free School, when he turned 10, he began an apprenticeship in a cigar factory, after a brief period of working with a shoemaker. In the evenings, he continued with informal studies.
In 1863, the hope of a better life drove the family to sail to the United States. There, they settled, like millions of other Jewish immigrants, on New York’s Lower East Side.
During the first year and a half, Samuel assisted his father in rolling cigars from home, before he took a job in a factory, and joined Cigarmakers Local Union No. 15.
The day after he turned 17, Gompers married Sophia Julian, a co-worker, who was 16. The couple had 12 children, six of whom survived infancy.
Cigar-rollers had time to think
Rolling dried tobacco leaves by hand into proper cigars is skilled work. But once it is mastered, the process becomes mechanical and the worker’s mind can focus on other things.
In Gompers’ cigar factory, there was plenty of discussion about politics and social issues, and it was here that his worldview crystallized.
In 1870, New York’s cigar-makers encountered modernity, when a machine was introduced to the workplace that would make many workers redundant. The union resisted the move and even went on strike, but eventually was forced to accept the partial automation of the industry.
For Gompers, the lesson was clear: He understood the futility of resisting technological advances, but saw the union as a means for pressuring management to not make their employees pay the price for such developments.
In general, after a youthful flirtation with socialism, Gompers had an approach that was practical and moderate: He wasn't looking to overthrow capitalism. He felt strongly that the labor movement should be comprised of individual unions based on membership in a particular trade or craft. Also, he thought the labor movement should limit its purview to economic issues, rather than overall social change. One of his principal goals was the eight-hour workday.
Later, as a national union leader, he also resisted the temptation to have the movement become directly involved in politics. This position would also become modified, during World War I, when he guided the AFL in cooperating with the war effort. That in turn earned him influence in the Wilson White House, which sent him to the Paris Peace Conference in 1920 as an adviser on labor issues.
He stuck however to his belief that the unions should not be affiliated with a particular party.
An initial attempt at a national union, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, was of limited success. Gompers pushed for its reformulation as the American Federation of Labor, in 1886. From then, until his death, with a one year break, in 1895, Gompers was its president.
In 1924, after the Mexican Revolution, Gompers went to great lengths to encourage the labor movement in Mexico to affiliate with the AFL, rather than with the European movement, which was trying to make inroads in the Americas. In this context, he helped the government of President Plutarco Elias Calles win recognition from Washington.
Late that year, after attending the new president's inauguration, in Mexico City, Gompers took ill. He was moved back across the border, and died in San Antonio on this day in 1924.
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