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(1850-1924), cofounder and first president, American Federation of Labor. Born into a Jewish working-class family in London, Gompers migrated with his family to New York City in 1863. Taught both the cigar trade and union principles by his father, Gompers thrived in the heady atmosphere that surrounded New York's labor movement during the 1870s. Advocates of Marxist and utopian socialism, anarchism, communalism, and a host of other reform programs jostled for support. Influenced by British trade union principles and by the Marxist emphasis on the primacy of economic organization of workers, Gompers favored the creation of strong, centralized trade union institutions that would foster the growth and direct the activity of local unions. In conjunction with Adolph Strasser and others, Gompers restructured the Cigar Makers International Union along such lines.
Although never an avowed Marxist himself, Gompers's approach to organizing workers owed much to two ideas advanced by Marxists. He agreed with them that it was only through the trade union that awareness of a broad class interest among workers could emerge. And it followed from this that Gompers and such early American Marxist labor leaders as Friedrick Sorge and J. P. McDonnell looked upon political activity with suspicion. The state had proved hostile to workers in both Europe and America; any gains won through political reform, they argued, could be enforced only by the concentrated power of organized workers in the factories and shops across the nation. In an era when craft workers still controlled important aspects of production, Gompers and his associates insisted upon craft organization as the foundation for the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (1881) and its successor organization, the American Federation of Labor (afl; 1886).
The afl grew over its first two decades until in 1904 it accounted for some 10 percent of all nonagricultural wageworkers. But the emphasis on skilled craft workers created a de facto exclusion of the less skilled at a time when these workers were becoming an increasingly important sector of the work force. This resulted in an organization of workers deeply divided along racial, gender, and ethnic lines. The weak position of the president of the afl (its constitution ensured the autonomy of the constituent unions) largely precluded Gompers from broadening organizing efforts.
As government regulation of industrial relations grew, the afl felt compelled to seek political alliances and in 1912 actively supported the successful Democratic candidate for president, Woodrow Wilson. During Wilson's two terms, Gompers helped shepherd through Congress the Clayton Anti-Trust Act and the Seamen's Act. With the advent of World War I, the Wilson administration pressured business to negotiate with union leaders in order to guarantee production, and the union's membership grew impressively. During the postwar years, however, neither governmental nor business connections (developed largely through Gompers's leadership position in the National Civic Federation) defended labor during the steel strike of 1919, the machinists' strike of 1922, or the nationwide anti-union campaign known as the "American Plan."
At Gompers's death the afl's weakened membership and narrow organizational structure underscored both the fragility of labor's position in American society and the necessity of expanding organizing efforts. In the following decade the afl and recently formed industrial unions would address those problems anew.
Samuel Gompers, Seventy Years of Life and Labor, 2 vols. (1925); Stuart Kaufman, Samuel Gompers and the Origins of the American Federation of Labor, 1848-1896 (1973).
The Reader's Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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Teacher's Guide to a powerful retelling of the Homestead Strike and its consequences for American society.