Samuel Gompers, who ushered in a new era of organized labor in the United States, was born on January 27, 1850, in London. At the age of 13 he emigrated and settled on Houston Street, New York. He was interested in trade union activities and joined the local United Cigar Makers in 1864.
He became the president of the Cigar Makers' International Union (CMIU) in New York City at the age of 25. Gompers was very much concerned with the plight of labor at a time when labor unions were not very strong.
A man of conservative outlook, he preferred to work within the capitalist system. He was not in favor of independent political action and radicalism, was opposed to violence, advocated a moderate approach, and hesitated to call strikes. His agenda was provision of basic needs for workers: shorter work hours, more wages, safe working environments, and union protection.
He became one of the founding members of the Federation of Trades and Labor Unions (ATLU), which was established in 1881. Gompers was the chairperson and remained the vice president for five years. In 1886 it changed its name to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and Gompers was its president for 40 years.
The governing philosophy behind the AFL was similar to that of the ATLU. Gompers was convinced that craft unions were far better organizations for extracting maximum concessions than industrial unions. The former were restricted to skilled workers in one particular trade, whereas the latter could organize workers of any skill in a particular industry.
For Gompers, economic organization was essential. Persons were employed to recruit new members from nonunion shops. An emergency fund was created for the workers in case of a strike. Under the leadership of Gompers, the AFL swelled in membership. From a membership of 250,000 in 1890, the AFL increased to 1.7 million by 1904. Gompers also helped to establish the Women's Trade Union League in 1903.
Although Gompers was not aligned with any political party, under his stewardship the AFL supported prolabor candidates in elections. The AFL also was instrumental in enacting measures in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures that were favorable to labor.
President Woodrow Wilson appointed Gompers a member of the advisory committee to the Council of National Defense, which was created by Wilson to outline areas of the economy vital in a time of war. Gompers was instrumental in mobilizing labor support for the war effort. He also joined the National War Labor Board, created in April 1918, which gave the workers an eight-hour day, equal pay for women doing equal work, and a minimal living standard.
Gompers was at the Paris Peace Conference after the end of World War I as a member of the Commission on International Labor Legislation for creating an organization with international dimensions under the League of Nations. As chairperson, he was responsible in a substantial way for the creation of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
Gompers helped various labor federations in Latin American countries. In 1921 he attended the congress of the Pan-American Federation of Labor in Mexico City despite deteriorating health. He had to be taken to the hospital in San Antonio, Texas, where he died on December 13, 1924.
Gompers's efforts had resulted in a definite wartime labor policy of the U.S. government, and this policy was the foundation of the labor rights stipulated in the New Deal. Gompers had left a lasting impression not only in the history of the AFL, but also on the whole of the U.S. labor moment.