Identification: English-born American labor activist
Born: January 27, 1850; London, England
Died: December 13, 1924; San Antonio, Texas
Significance: Undeniably one of the leading figures in labor history, Gompers was already an ardent unionist prior to leaving London for New York City in 1863. The giant union he cofounded in 1881, the American Federation of Labor, was based on the pragmatic principles he had learned in England.
At a young age, Samuel Gompers was immersed in working-class culture, toiling as an apprentice shoemaker and cigar maker in London. Upon his arrival in the United States, he rose quickly through the ranks of union leadership and became an American citizen in 1872. His decision to immigrate was based on a desire for higher wages and freedom from European anti-Semitism, as he had been born a Jew. In 1881, he cofounded what became the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and, except for one year, served as president until his death. He rose to the rank of first vice president of the Cigar Makers’ International Union in 1896.
Gompers displayed his British cultural origin by repudiating the class hatred that plagued continental unions. The beliefs he had embraced in England—for example, that union policy should be practical and nationalistic—served him well in the United States. By accepting only skilled labor, he guaranteed substantial bargaining clout. However, he strongly supported immigration restrictions because he felt that immigrants bidded down the price of labor, a view many saw as hypocritical. Also, his policies were of little use to unskilled laborers, who were excluded from the AFL.
Samuel Gompers and his wife, Sophia, in 1908. (Library of Congress)
Thomas W. Buchanan
See also: British immigrants; Davis, James John; Industrial Workers of the World; Jewish immigrants; Labor unions.