Samuel Gompers was born in London, England, on 27th January, 1850. He later wrote: "The first home that I remember was in a three-story brick house in London. Like all the other houses in the neighborhood, ours had worn grey with the passing years. My mother and father lived on the ground floor. My paternal grandparents lived in the second story with their four girls and one boy just ten months older than I."
Gompers emigrated to the United States in 1863 and the family settled in New York City. "New York in those days had no skyscrapers. Horse tram cars ran across town. The buildings were generally small and unpretentious. Then, as now, the East Side was the home of the latest immigrants who settled in colonies making the Irish, the German, the English, and the Dutch, and the Ghetto districts. Father began making cigars at home and I helped him. Our house was just opposite a slaughter house. All day long we could see the animals being driven into the slaughter-pens and could hear the turmoil and the cries of the animals. The neighborhood was filled with the penetrating, sickening odor." Gompers, like his father worked as a cigar maker, after leaving school.
Gompers attended a lecture in 1879 given by Thomas Hughes the British M.P. and Christian Socialist, and A. J. Mundella. In his autobiography he recalled the meeting: "It was late in the fall of 1879 my attention was called to a Cooper Union meeting at which two Englishmen, A. J. Mundella and Thomas Hughes, M.P., were to speak on the scope and influence of trade unions. Mundella was a manufacturer of Nottingham who established the first voluntary board of conciliation and arbitration for the hosiery and glove trades of that locality. My sense of injustice was stirring and I began going to more labour meetings, seeking the way out." Gompers became an active trade unionist and helped to reorganize the Cigarmaker's Union.
In 1881 the Federation of Trades and Labour Unions (ATLU) was founded. This organisation was based on the structure of the Trade Union Congress in Britain. Gompers was the chairman of this new organisation and when it changed its name to the American Federation of Labour in 1886, he was elected its first president.
Gompers was very hostile to socialism. "The Socialists in our organization formed an inner clique for the purpose of controlling elections and voters upon legislation. Socialist publications, Socialist organizers and propagandists spread the poison of hatred and discontent, thus weakening confidence in the integrity of the officers of the union. According to my experience professional Socialism accompanies instability of judgment or intellectual undependability caused by an inability to recognize facts. The conspicuous Socialists have uniformly been men whose minds have been warped by a great failure or who found it absolutely impossible to understand fundamentals necessary to developing practical plans for industrial betterment."
Gompers held conservative political views and believed that trade unionists should accept the economic system. As a result, a rival, more radical organisation, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was formed. However, numbers of members remained small compared to American Federation of Labour.
In 1903 Gompers helped William English Walling, Mary Kenny O'Sullivan, Jane Addams, Mary McDowell, Alice Hamilton, Florence Kelley and Sophonisba Breckinridge to establish the Women's Trade Union League. The main objective of the organization was to educate women about the advantages of trade union membership. It also supported women's demands for better working conditions and helped to raise awareness about the exploitation of women workers.
Gompers supported United States involvement in the First World War and became a member of the Council of National Defense. In 1919 Woodrow Wilson appointed Gompers as a member of the Commission on International Labour Legislation at the Versailles Peace Conference.
Samuel Gompers, who was president of the American Federation of Labour from 1886-1894 and 1896-1924, died in San Antonio, Texas on 13th December, 1924. His autobiography, Seventy Years of Life and Labor (1925), was published after his death.