Gompers, Samuel

Samuel Gompers (1850-1924) was born in London of Jewish working-class parents. With his family, he emigrated to New York City in 1863. Gompers helped his father make cigars in their home, and later joined and contributed to the revival of the Cigar Makers Union. He became a member of the Federation of Trades and Labor Unions after its formation in 1881 and was elected president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) at its creation in 1886.

Samuel Gompers met Theodore Roosevelt while campaigning for an 1882 bill to ban cigar manufacturing in New York tenement buildings. A young Republican assemblyman, the future president vociferously opposed the bill until Gompers took him on a tour of the slums of New York City. Roosevelt professed his astonishment that such conditions could exist and changed his mind, becoming a staunch advocate of the bill. The bill died in the senate but moved successfully to the governor’s desk during the next session. Gompers prevailed upon Roosevelt to speak in favor of the bill and he convinced the governor to sign it. The New York Supreme Court eventually found it unconstitutional, a shock to Roosevelt’s faith in the judicial system.

Gompers served as president of the AFL from 1886 to 1894 and again from 1896 until his death in 1924. He was an advocate for “pure and simple” unionism, the idea that labor unions should fight for better working conditions and higher wages for their members. With men like Marcus Hanna, Gompers was a founder of the National Civic Federation. Like Roosevelt, Gompers opposed socialist unions but their relationship deteriorated as Roosevelt grew disenchanted with the labor movement. In 1908 he and Gompers exchanged angry letters about the power of the unions, and in 1912 Gompers instructed the AFL to oppose Roosevelt’s Progressive Party. During World War I, Roosevelt and Gompers both believed in military preparedness and an earlier entry to the war than President Woodrow Wilson desired.

Taken ill while attending a Pan-American Federation of Labor conference in Mexico City, Samuel Gompers died on September 13, 1924, while hospitalized in San Antonio, Texas. He was nationally known as a fighter on behalf of working men and women.