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Thumb nail sketch of the career of the founding president of the AFL-CIO.

1850-1924, First President of the American Federation of Labor, 1886-1924

Samuel Gompers, for whom Gompers Park on Chicago's Northwest Side was named, was one of the founders of the American Federation of Labor in 1886. He was elected president, a position he held, except for one year, until his death 38 years later.

Under his leadership, the organization grew from a handful of struggling labor unions to become the dominant organization within the Labor Movement in the United States and Canada.

Gompers was born in London, England, on January 26, 1850. His parents were poor immigrant Jews from Holland. In London the young Sam was apprenticed to a shoemaker at age 10. He soon changed trades and became a cigar maker, a trade he brought with him to New York when his family emigrated to America in 1863.

Life was difficult in the crowded slums of New York. There were a few relatively large cigar making shops, perhaps, with as many as 75 employees; but much of the work was done in a thousand or more sweatshops, often the same crowded apartments where the workers lived. Thousands of little children worked in New York sweatshops and factories, as they helped their parents eke out a living.

By 1885, Sam Gompers had become highly skilled at his trade and was employed in one of the larger shops. He was respected by his fellow workers, mostly Germans, who elected him as president of Cigar Makers Union Local 144. He and the other officers were unpaid as they struggled to keep the union together in the face of mechanization and the flooding of the labor market by scores of new immigrants, largely Bohemian.

In 1881 Gompers was sent as the delegate of the Cigar Makers to a conference of various unions which created a loose confederation to be called the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Councils. Although without the title of President, as head of the legislative committee, Gompers became its leader, practically speaking; but the organization was structurally weak and ineffective.

 

gompers

Nevertheless, the need for close cooperation among like-minded labor organizations was abundantly evident; so the organization was reconstituted in 1886 as the American Federation of Labor. This time Gompers was the President. His office was not much more than an 8x10 room in a shed. His son was the office boy. There was $160 in the treasury. As Gompers said, it was "much work, little pay, and very little honor."

Four years later, the AFL represented 250,000 workers. In two more years the number had grown to over one million. Under Gompers, the guiding principle was to concentrate on collective bargaining with employers, and on legislative issues directly affecting the job. Broad social goals and political entanglements were left to others.

Gompers did have an interest in international labor issues. At the conclusion of World War I, he attended the Versailles Treaty negotiations, where he was instrumental in the creation of the International Labor Organization (ILO) under the League of Nations.

He was a supporter of trade unionism in Mexico and, though elderly and in failing health, he went to Mexico City to attend the inauguration of Mexico's reform President Calles; and, also, the Congress of the Pan-American Federation of Labor. It was at the Congress that his final collapse occurred. He was rushed to a hospital in San Antonio, Texas where he died on December 13, 1924.


Some questions to explore:

If the AFL was the "dominant" organization, what were the names of others, and what was their role?

What did/does the International Labor Organization do?

The Cigar Makers were an interesting early union. What can you find out about the trade and their organization? (The Cigar Makers in Chicago owned a large number of gravesites in Forest Home Cemetery (Waldheim) in Forest Park, ILL. There is a large memorial stone and many graves of union members.)

What are Bohemians?

"And I long to see the day when Labor will have the destiny of the nation in her own hands and she will stand as a united force and show the world what the workers can do." --- Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, 1830-1930

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