For a movement that considers common interests above the desires of the few, one would struggle to find a single individual that has accomplished more than Samuel Gompers, founder and longest-serving president of one of the largest unions in American history: the American Federation of Labor (AFL). His disavowal of radical upheaval in support of focused collective action saw the AFL grow in membership from 50,000 in 1886 to almost three million by his death in 1924.
Gompers was born in 1850 to a poor Jewish family in London, where he worked with his father as an apprentice cigar maker starting at the age of 10. His family immigrated to New York City in 1863, and Gompers was able to find work in a cigar shop shortly after. Through his employment, Gompers was introduced to the Cigar Makers’ Local Union No. 15, and he befriended several of its senior members. Gompers credited his older co-workers with inspiring him to pursue trade unionism as a mechanism for achieving fair working conditions.
Following the financial crisis of 1877, the Cigar Makers’ International Union (CMIU) was on the verge of collapse. Gompers—who was elected president of the CMIU’s Local 144 in 1875—was instrumental in reorganizing the union; he fostered support by introducing membership programs such as out-of-work pay, and benefits for sickness and death.
Gompers was also central in founding the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, and he served as the organization’s vice president until 1886. In that year, the FOTLU rebranded itself as the American Federation of Labor and elected Gompers as its first president. His goal was to unite trade unions across the country and transform organized labor into a force strong enough to guarantee workers control over their own social and economic destinies.
As head of the AFL, Gompers viewed the principles espoused by political reformers to be ineffective. After witnessing the anti-union backlash resulting from violent strikes, such as the Haymaker Riot in Chicago, he realized that taking a definitive political stance would only detract from labor’s economic objectives. Instead, Gompers sought to offer the labor movement’s support as a political bargaining piece to those politicians willing to advance their agenda.
To pool skilled workers from the Knights of Labor and other organizations viewed unfavorably by the public, Gompers supported craft unionism, in which membership was exclusive to wage earners and members were sorted into local units based on their trade. He also helped popularize the principles of “voluntarism” and collective bargaining in which workers would strike, picket, and boycott en masse as a coercive strategy. He avoided heavy, impractical demands, advocating instead for simple “bread and butter” objectives, such as better wages, shorter hours, and a safe work environment.
Eventually, Gompers’ efforts caught the attention of president Woodrow Wilson, who appointed him to Council of National Defense during World War I. In his new position, Gompers was able to persuade Wilson to create a wartime labor policy in which the government expressed support for independent trade unions and collective bargaining. As a result, union membership skyrocketed into the millions by the end of the war. Gompers continued his advocacy at the Versailles Peace Conference and was instrumental in setting a foundation for the International Labor Organization, a UN agency devoted to promoting fair labor standards. He remained president of the AFL until succumbing to critical illness in 1924 while attending a meeting of the Pan-American Federation of Labor in Mexico City.