Samuel Gompers

Samuel Gompers

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.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Samuel Gompers, Seventy Years of Life and Labour (1925)

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. On the top floor lived Mr. Lellyveld, who had two sons, Ascher and Barnett.

Just across the street from our house was a silk factory. That section of London is known as Spitalfields, then about a mile from the London Ghetto. Our apartment consisted of one large front room and a little back room which we used in the winter for storage and for things which had to be kept cool. In the summertime father constructed bunks in the little room and we children slept there. In the wintertime we all slept in the big room - father and mother in the big bed that had a curtain around it, and we children on the floor in a trundle bed that was rolled under the big bed in the daytime. I was the oldest. Beside me there were Henry, Alexander, Lewis and Jack. The front room was sitting-room, bedroom, dining-room, and kitchen the centre of our busy little lives as we learned the ways of childhood in East Side, London.

My parents were both Hollanders born in Amsterdam. On the paternal side the family name Gompers, came originally and many years before, from Austrian origin where it was spelled Gompertz and, in some instances, Gomperz. On the maternal side the family name was Rood. During the Napoleonic rule in Holland, a French soldier fell in love with a Dutch girl. They were married, lived and died in Holland, surrounded by a large family. That was the beginning of our Dutch branch of Roods.

(2) Samuel Gompers left school when he was ten years old.

When six years of age I was sent to the Jewish Free School in Bell Lane and learned rapidly all that was taught there - reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history. Mr. Moses Angel was head teacher. My immediate teacher was Mr. Speyer. When I was ten years and three months I had to go to work. When I left school I stood third to the highest in my classes. As I made rapid progress in my studies, the teacher told father that it was wrong to rob me of an education, particularly as I showed ability. But father could not do otherwise. My father found it extremely difficult to support a family of six children on the scanty wages earned at the cigarmaking trade.

(3) Samuel Gompers, Seventy Years of Life and Labour (1925)

It became harder and harder to get along as our family increased and expenses grew. London seemed to offer no response to our efforts towards betterment. About this time we began to hear more and more about the United States. The great struggle against human slavery which was convulsing America was of vital interest to wage-earners who were everywhere struggling for industrial opportunity and freedom. My work in the cigar factory gave me a chance to hear the men discuss this issue. Youngster that I was, I was absorbed in listening to this talk and made my little contribution by singing with all the feeling in my little heart the popular songs, "The Slave Ship" and "To the West, To the West, To the Land of the Free".

The sympathy of English wage-earners was with the cause of the Union which was bound up with the anti-slavery struggle. We heard the story from the Abolitionists. This was true of all the workers of Great Britain even though their own industrial welfare was menaced as was that of the textile workers who were dependent upon cotton shipped from our southern ports. Even against their own economic interests the British textile workers were opposed to the Palmerston diplomatic policy of recognition for the Confederacy and the plan of the British and French governments to raise the blockage of the cotton ports.

(4) Samuel Gompers and his family emigrated to the United States in the summer of 1863.

The Cigarmakers' Society Union of England, whose members were frequently unemployed and suffering, established an emigration fund - that is, instead of paying the members unemployment benefits, a sum of money was granted to help passage from England to the United States. The sum was not large, between five and ten pounds. This was a very practical method which benefited both the emigrants and those who remained by decreasing the number seeking work in their trade. After much discussion and consultation father decided to go to the New World. He had friends in New York City and a brother-in-law who proceeded us by six months to whom father wrote we were coming.

There came busy days in which my mother gathered together and packed our household belongings. Father secured passage on the City of London, a sailing vessel which left Chadwick Basin, June 10, 1863, and reached Castle Garden, July 29, 1863, after seven weeks and one day.

Our ship was the old type of sailing vessel. We had none of the modern comforts of travel. The sleeping quarters were cramped and we had to had to do our own cooking in the gallery of the boat. Mother had provided salt beef and other preserved meats and fish, dried vegetables, and red pickled cabbage which I remember most vividly. We were all seasick except father, mother the longest of all. Father had to do all the cooking in the meanwhile and take care of the sick. There was a Negro man employed on the boat who was very kind in many ways to help father. Father did not know much about cooking.

When we reached New York we landed at the old Castle Garden of lower Manhattan, now the Aquarium, where we were met by relatives and friends. As we were standing in a little group, the Negro who had befriended father on the trip, came off the boat. Father was grateful and as a matter of courtesy, shook hands with him and gave him his blessing. Now it happened that the draft and negro rights were convulsing New York City. Only that very day Negroes had been chased and hanged by mobs. The onlookers, not understanding, grew very much excited over father's shaking hands with this Negro. A crowd gathered round and threatened to hang both father and the Negro to the lamp-post.

(5) Samuel Gompers and his family settled in New York after arriving in 1863.

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.

(6) Samuel Gompers, Seventy Years of Life and Labour (1925)

I remember very vividly the morning that brought the news of President Lincoln's death. It was Saturday. Like some cataclysm came the report that an assassin had struck down the great Emancipator. It seemed to me that some great power for good had gone out of the world. A master mind had been taken at a time when most needed. I cried and cried all that day and for days I was so depressed that I could scarcely force myself to work. I had heard Lincoln talked about in London. In the minds of the working people of the world Lincoln symbolized the spirit of humanity - the great leader of the struggle for human freedom.

(7) Samuel Gompers began involved in the National Union of Cigarmakers soon after arriving in the United States in 1863.

There was a vast difference between those early unions, and the unions of today. Then there was no law or order. A union was a more or less definite group of people employed in the same trade who might help each other out in special difficulties with the employer. There was no sustained effort to secure fair wages through collective bargaining. The employer fixed wages until he shoved them down to the point where human endurance revolted. 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.

(8) Samuel Gompers was a staunch opponent of socialism. He explained his views in his book, Seventy Years of Life and Labour (1925)

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.

(9) Samuel Gompers, letter to Judge Peter Grossup concerning the imprisonment of Eugene Debs during the Pullman Strike (14th August, 1894)

You know, or ought to know, that the introduction of machinery is turning into idleness thousands faster than the new industries are founded, and yet, machinery certainly should not be either destroyed or hampered in its full development. The labourer is a man, he is made warm by the same sun and made cold - yes, colder - by the same winter as you are. He has a heart and brain, and feels and knows the human and paternal instinct for those depending upon him as keenly as do you.

What shall the workers do? Sit idly by and see the vast resources of nature and the human mind be utilized and monopolized for the benefit of the comparative few? No. The labourers must learn to think and act, and soon, too, that only by the power of organization and common concert of action can either their manhood be maintained, their rights to life be recognized, and liberty and rights secured.

(10) In 1903 Samuel Gompers was involved in helping William Walling and Mary Kenny O'Sullivan in establishing the Women's Trade Union League.

William English Walling - a longtime friend - came to the Boston convention full of enthusiasm for a league of women workers. Mary Kenny O'Sullivan's quick mind caught the possibilities of the suggestion. When they submitted to me a proposal, I gave it most hearty approval and participated in the necessary conferences. Under the leadership of Jane Addams and Mary McDowell, the movement became of national importance. In more recent years, Mrs. Raymond Robins, as president of the league, exercised good influence in promoting the organization of women workers into trade unions.

(11) Samuel Gompers, Schemes to Distribute Immigrants (1912)

More than 2,00,000 Italians have come to the United States in the last ten years: 1901-1905, 974,236; 1906-1910, 1,129,975. Here from a single nationality has been the revenue of $70,000,000 to the steamships. If a million Italians have gone back, they have paid for transportation thirty to forty million dollars more. The advertisements in the New York daily Italian newspapers, of which there are no less than six, are a revelation of the financial interests which are maintained by the Italians in the metropolis who are not yet sufficiently Americanized to depend on American newspapers for their daily reading. The revenues of any one of these newspapers would be reduced by a good percentage, perhaps below the sustaining point, if the steamship advertisements were withdrawn. The bankers, the doctors, the transportation agents, the dealers in Italian food supplies are all enterprising advertisers.

(12) Samuel Gompers, evidence given before a Senate Committee (1913)

With the power of wealth and concentration of industry, the tremendous development in machinery, and power to drive machinery; with the improvement of the tools of labor, so that they are wonderfully tremendous machines, and with these all on the one hand; with labor, the workers, performing a given part of the whole product, probably an infinitesimal part, doing the thing a thousand or thousands of times over and over again in a day - labor divided and subdivided and specialized, so that a working man is but a mere cog in the great industrial modern plant; his individuality lost, alienated from the tools of labor; with concentration of wealth, concentration of industry, I wonder whether any of us can imagine what would be the actual condition of the working people of our country today without their organizations to protect them.

What would be the condition of the working men in our country in our day by acting as individuals with as great a concentrated wealth and industry on every hand? It is horrifying even to permit the imagination full swing to think what would be possible. Slavery!Slavery! Demoralized, degraded slavery. Nothing better.

To say that the men and women of labor may not do jointly what they may do in the exercise of their individual lawful right is an anomaly.

Gentlemen, the individual working men accept conditions as they are, until driven to desperation. Then they throw down their tools and strike, without experience, without the knowledge of how best to conduct themselves, and to secure the relief which they need and demand. But the working men know where to go. It may be true that there are some workers who are opposed to organizations of labor, but they are very, very few. Those that do not come to us are either too helpless or too ignorant. But let no man fool himself. When in sheer desperation, driven to the last, where they can no longer submit to the lording of the master, they strike, they quit, and all the pent up anger gives vent in fury - they then come to us and ask us for our advice and our assistance, and we give it to them, whether they were indifferent to us or whether they were antagonistic to us. They are never questioned. We come to their assistance as best we can.

I do not pretend to say that with organizations of labor that strikes are entirely eliminated. I do not fool myself with any such beliefs, and I would not insult the intelligence of any other man by pretending to believe, much less to make, such a statement. But this one fact is sure: That in all the world there is now an unrest among the people, and primarily among the working people, with the present position they occupy in society - their unrequited toil; the attitude of irresponsibility of the employer toward the workers; the bitter antagonism to any effective attempt on the part of workers to protect themselves against aggression and greed, and the failure of employers to realize their responsibilities.

The demand of the workers is to be larger sharers in the product of their labor. In different countries they have unrest and this dissatisfaction takes on different forms. In our own country it takes on the form of the trade-union movement, as exemplified by the American Federation of Labor - a movement and a federation founded as a replica of the American governments, both the Federal Government and the State and city governments. It is formed to conform as nearly as it is possible to the American idea, and to have the crystallized unrest and discontent manifested under the Anglo-Saxon or American fashion; to press it home to the employers; to press it home to the lawmakers; to press it home to the law administrators, and possibly to impregnate and influence the minds of judges who may accord to us the rights which are essential to our well-being rather than guaranteeing to us the academic rights which are fruitless and which we do not want.

(13) Samuel Gompers, Seventy Years of Life and Labour (1925)

The next big issue between the Socialists and the trade unionists grew out of the World War. Socialists were doctrinaire internationalists who declared that the ties which bound together the working class of the world were stronger than the ties of country. They were everywhere on record against war. They were always against their own government. Germany was the home of Socialism, and Socialists were adverse to making war on Germany. They refused to believe the stories of German atrocities and started pro-German propaganda.