Samuel Gompers

Samuel Gompers

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Labor leader and advocate of legislative labor reform, Samuel Gompers was globally recognized for being a cornerstone in the sustaining legacy that is the American Federation of Labor. Gompers was born to a Jewish working class couple in London on the 27th of January in 1850. His childhood was short lived, for he was forced to mature early on. After only four years of receiving an elementary school education, Gompers was taken in and apprenticed to a shoemaker at the age of ten. He would quickly switch off trades and become apprenticed to a cigar maker in the east end of London; Gompers would continue with the cigar trade for a quarter of a century.
     Samuel arrived in New York armed with a solid trade skill and a series of British union principles, which stemmed from his father’s teachings. He would further develop these vital tools and skills through active involvement in social clubs, fraternal orders, and labor unions. These affiliations were taken as a measure to endure and possibly find some success in the slums in the lower eastside of New York.
     Samuel gained much respect from his coworkers for he became highly skilled in his profession. He was also praised for his organizational skills and leadership potential. This prompted Gompers to join the Cigar Maker’s International Union in 1864. Ten years later, he help founded the local 144 of the International Union, of which he was a lifelong member. He was also easily elected as President of that particular chapter of the union.
     During the labor movement of the 1870’s, Gompers set some time aside to find tune his ideologies on organized labor. He sought an approach to organizing workers through utilizing influences from several different angles. The major influences that provided a large impact on Gompers were that of British trade union principles and certain aspects of the Marxist perspective. Gompers never claimed to be a true Marxist, but he agreed with their emphasis on establishing strong centralized trade unions that can promote growth and structure. He also believed this was the only way to enforce any legislative gains. With this particular revelation in mind, Gompers started from the “ground up” by restructuring the International Cigar Maker’s Union.
     As Samuel established a firm ideology, it was around this particular time that labor unions abroad called for unity. He was sent as a delegate of the International union to a conference of fellow skilled labor unions.

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All of those involved agreed that craft organization was essential to the foundation of a broad labor institution. The end result of this conference in 1881 was the establishment of a loose organization known as the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States of America and Canada. The sole purpose of this confederation was to influence national legislation on behalf of the institution of labor. Gompers was a founding member as well as head of the legislative committee. He soon realized that this organization was structurally flawed and ineffective. The federation would be in decline by 1886. A fellow organization, the Knights of Labor, would meet the same misfortune.
     In the years following the inception of the Federation, Gompers started a movement to bring about a federation of craft labor unions on a national level. In December of 1886, various affiliates of the Knights of Labor and the Federation sent respective delegates to a conference in Columbus, Ohio. The key purpose was to establish a trade union movement that would surpass its predecessors in staying power and effectiveness. Thus a successor organization arose from the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. This institution was known as the American Federation of Labor. Gompers was elected the first leader of the AFL.
The AFL under Gompers’ guidance represented a labor philosophy known as “business unionism”. Instead of an integrated organization, the AFL consisted of a confederation of autonomous craft unions that had exclusivity in each particular field of labor. Unions would have the right to deal with workers and employers in a manner that best suited them. This of course was a sharp contrast to the broad-based unionism that the previous Knights of Labor adopted.
Gompers help achieved a stronghold with the AFL. He helped lay out sturdy guidelines, objectives, and the like. Its primary objectives were “unionization of skilled workers, supports of legislation beneficial to labor, reduction of working hours, and improvement of working conditions and wages (“Gompers,” 2000, p. 2).” Samuel also made sure that the AFL also showed its stance as far as the political spectrum was concerned. “Gompers was the chief exponent of the policies that gave the AFL its character as a conservative federation of autonomous craft unions. He resisted efforts of socialist infiltration and control of the federation and fought the openly antagonistic and more militant Industrial Workers of the World (“American Federation of Labor,” 2000, p. 2).” He also promoted the doctrine of providing support to politicians who were in favor of labor, regardless of party affiliation.
The platform through which the movement was to conduct policy was established, thus allowing the American Federation of Labor room to expand. The AFL initially started with twenty-five unions consisting of about 140,000 members. Growth however was stunted due to hostility against labor unions that stemmed from popular sentiment. Historic events such as the Pullman and Homestead strike further enforced national feelings against organized labor. Injunctions by the Sherman-Antitrust act provided companies a choice weapon to defeat the labor unions as well. Gompers was yet to be deterred by these setbacks. Support for the labor movement still continued, and by the turn of the century, the AFL had reached over one million members.
Samuel Gompers was a man who practiced what he preached. He followed the doctrine of political support and in turn established political alliances. In 1912, the AFL actively supported democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson and his campaign. The Wilson administration met with success in office for two consecutive presidential terms.
Gompers and the AFL would change gears by exercising more focus on sweeping reform rather than pursuing specific, attainable goals as they did in the past. A major concern on the AFL’s agenda was an amendment to the Sherman-Antitrust Act, for it was considered a detriment to organized labor. The Wilson administration shared the same sentiment, and thus promoted the passing of the Clayton-Antitrust Act. The Clayton Act was taken as a measure to strengthen antitrust provisions and limit restrictions placed upon labor unions. The law forbade illegal corporate practices such as price discrimination and affirmed organized labor’s right to boycott and strike. Gompers utilized the growing influence of the AFL masterfully. Not only did he help push through Congress the Clayton Act, but the Seaman’s Act as well. Wilson respected the conservative stance of Samuel. Gompers subsequently was appointed on the committee to the council of national defense during World War I.
     After the war, Gompers conducted a tour of the war- ravaged Europe. He was met with praise after praise from various heads of state. They applauded his “statesmanlike” attributes as a labor leader. He used these characteristics as an active legislative figure at the Peace Conference of 1919. Towards the end of his life, Gompers still continued to create influence of the American Federation of Labor in Latin America.

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