In 1886, the American Federation of Labor was organized. Samuel Gompers, a former cigarmaker, was elected to be its president. With the exception of one year, he remained in this position until he died in 1924.
Gompers was the son of Solomon and Sarah, nee Rood, Gompers. He was born in a London tenement on January 27, 1850. Both of his parents were originally from Holland. When Gompers was six years old, he attended a tuition-free Jewish school. At the age of 10, he was taken out of school to become an apprentice shoemaker since his family was struggling to make a living.
The family immigrated to New York during the Civil War. Gompers' cigarmaker father taught him the trade. At the age of 17, after he became a cigarmaker in his own right, he met and married Sophia Julian. He joined the Cigarmakers' Union and became very active- In 1877, his union's strike collapsed because of no money or member discipline. Following the strike, Gompers reorganized the cigarmakers and remained as president of their union. Lessons were to be learned from the strike. The international officers became supreme over the local unions. The dues were raised to build up a strike fund. Benefits were established for sickness, accident or unemployment.
In 1881, after other unions had emulated the Cigarmakers' Union program, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada was formed. Gompers was chairman of the Constitutional Committee. The federation was reorganized in 1886. It was renamed the American Federation of Labor. Gompers was its first elected president. What made this federation unique was that there could only be one affiliated craft union.
Gompers felt that labor could not displace capitalists in the management of business. He was criticized for being vice-president of the National Civic Federation, which sought to promote stable labor relations through collective bargaining and personal contact between labor leaders, industrialists and bankers.
In World War 1, he supported President Woodrow Wilson's policies and organized the War Committee on Labor. The committee included representatives of labor and business. After the war, Wilson appointed him as a member of the Intemational Labor Legislation. He fought those who would erode the gains that labor had made during World War 1.
In 1894, Gompers became the editor of the official journal of the federation. He maintained the journal until he died. He wrote many articles on labor for the publication. During all of his years as president of the federation, Gompers had time for his family. He was family-oriented and believed in family loyalty. He had five children: three sons and two daughters. His wife died in 1920. A year later, he married Grace Gleaves Neuscheler.
Gompers was elected president for the last time at the 1924 convention. He had come to the convention knowing that he didn't have much time to live. He died on December 13, 1924. For almost four decades, Gompers had been the dominant figure in the American labor movement. He had broadened the horizons of the working man and his trade union. He was a pioneer in making the American labor movement free and strong.
This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes and Heroines of America, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.
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Last updated 18 October 2006