Samuel Gompers, 1850-1924: The Grand Old Man of Labor
Editor’s Note: This is a copy of a radio program produced for the VOA Special English Program, PEOPLE IN AMERICA. It was reported by Phoebe Zimmerman and Steve Ember.
Samuel Gompers was born in London, England in eighteen fifty. His parents were poor people who had moved to England from the Netherlands to seek a better life. Sam was a very good student. However, when he was ten years old, he was forced to quit school and go to work to help feed the family. He was the oldest of five sons. Like his father, Sam became a tobacco cigar maker. He liked the cigar-making industry because it had a group of members. During meetings, workers could talk about their problems. This is where young Sam began to develop an interest in labor issues.
But life was difficult for the Gompers family in London, even with both Sam and his father working. They soon decided to move to the United States to again try to make a better life for themselves. In eighteen sixty-three, the Gompers family got on a ship and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. Seven weeks later, the ship arrived in New York City. The Gompers settled in a poor part of New York where many immigrants lived.
Sam soon learned that life in America was not easy. At that time, most people worked many hours each day for little money. They worked making goods in factories. Often these factories had poor working conditions. New York was known for these so-called “sweatshops.” Whole families, including young children, worked fourteen hours a day in sweatshops for just enough money to stay alive.
Sam hated the sweatshops and refused to work there. Instead, he and his father became cigar makers again. Soon Sam joined the Cigarmakers International Union. In those days, labor unions were not strong or permanent. They did little to help workers in their struggle for better working conditions and a better life. Sam believed this needed to change.
Sam Gompers was married at the age of seventeen. He became a father one year later. He earned a living making cigars in shops around New York City. Employers recognized him as a skilled and valuable worker. The men he worked with recognized him as an effective labor activist.
Sam also became a student of socialism. In eighteen seventy-three, he started working for an old German socialist, David Hirsch. Most of Mr. Hirsch’s workers were also socialists from Germany. These men became Samuel Gompers’ teachers. They taught him much about trade unions.
One teacher was Karl Laurrell, who had been the leader in Europe of the International Workingman’s Association. Mr. Laurrell taught Sam Gompers what labor unity meant. He also taught him about “collective bargaining.” This is how representatives of labor groups meet with the people they work for and negotiate an agreement. For example, labor and management might negotiate for more money, fewer hours and cleaner working places for workers.
In time, Samuel Gompers used his knowledge of labor issues to help cigar makers throughout New York form a single, representative union. It was called the Cigarmakers’ Local Number One Hundred Forty-Four. Each cigar shop in New York had its own small union that elected a representative to sit on the council of a larger union. In eighteen seventy-five, this council elected Mr. Gompers as president of Cigarmakers’ Local Number One Hundred Forty-Four.
The union’s constitution was like the constitution of a democratic government. All people in the union had a representative voice. Experts say the organizing of Cigarmakers’ Local Number One Hundred Forty-Four was the beginning of the American labor movement.
Sam Gompers believed that one day all working men and women could belong to organized trade unions. He believed workers should not be forced to sell their labor at too low a price. He also believed each person must have the power to improve his or her own life. A person can get this power by joining with others in a union. He believed a democratic trade union can speak and act for all its workers. This is the same way a democratic government speaks for the people because voters elect officials to represent them.
Labor organizations began to grow stronger in America during the late nineteenth century. At the same time, Sam Gompers started to speak of new ideas. He dreamed of bringing all trade unions together into one big, nation-wide organization that could speak with one voice for workers throughout the country.
In eighteen eighty-one, Mr. Gompers was sent as the delegate of the cigar makers union to a conference of unions. The delegates agreed to organize an alliance called the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada. The alliance held yearly meeting of national union and local labor councils. It was designed to educate the public on worker issues, prepare labor-related legislation, and pressure Congress to approve such bills. Sam Gompers was an officer in the alliance for five years.
During that time, he worked for several measures to improve the lives of workers and children. These included proposals to reduce the work day to eight hours, limit child labor and require children to attend school. He soon learned, however, that the alliance of unions had neither the money nor the power to do much more than talk about these issues. So, in eighteen eighty-six, Sam Gompers helped organize a new union for all labor unions. It was called the American Federation of Labor.
Sam Gompers was elected president of the American Federation of Labor in eighteen eighty-six. He held that position, except for one year, for thirty-eight years until he died. In eighteen ninety, the A.F.L. represented two hundred fifty thousand workers. Two years later, the number had grown to more than one million workers. Under his leadership, the A.F.L. grew from a few struggling labor unions to become the major organization within the labor movement in the United States.
As leader of the A.F.L. Mr. Gompers had enemies both within and outside the labor movement. Some opponents believed Mr. Gompers was more interested in personal power than in improving the rights of workers. They believed his ideas about strikes and collective bargaining could not stop big business. They believed the American Federation of Labor was a conservative organization designed to serve skilled workers only.
Other opponents considered Sam Gompers a foreign-born troublemaker who wanted to destroy property rights. At the same time, opponents in industry and business feared that the labor leader was demanding too much for workers. They said his talk violated the law, and that he excited workers and urged them to strike.
Sam Gompers was not troubled by any of these attacks. He argued that because there was freedom of speech in America, he would not be afraid to speak freely. He said that no one hated strikes more than he did because workers suffered the most in a strike. However, he said that in a democracy, strikes were necessary. After a strike, he said, businessmen and workers understood each other better and this was good for the nation. He said: “I hope the day will never come when the workers surrender their right to strike.”
Sam Gompers also had an interest in international labor issues. At the end of World War One, he attended the Versailles Treaty negotiations. He was helpful in creating the International Labor Organization under the League of Nations. He also supported trade unionism in Mexico.
Samuel Gompers died in nineteen twenty-four. He is remembered as “the grand old man of labor.” He worked during his whole life for one cause – improving the rights of workers. He led the fight for shorter working hours, higher pay, safe and clean working conditions and democracy in the workplace.
In nineteen fifty-five, the American Federation of Labor joined with the Congress of Industrial Organization to form the A.F.L.-C.I.O. This organization has become an influential part of American economic and political life. It has also helped improve the lives of millions of American workers.
Note: This Special English Program was written by Jill Moss. It was produced by Cynthia Kirk. I’m Phoebe Zimmerman. And I’m Steve Ember.
Republished from: ManyThings.org – Activists & People Important to Social Reform: manythings.org/voa/people/Samuel_Gompers.html
(Accessed: November 20, 2015)
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Moss, J. (n.d.). Samuel Gompers, 1850-1924: The grand old man of labor. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/organizations/labor/gompers-samuel-1850-1924/