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Organized Labor

37d. American Federation of Labor

Gompers poster
University of Maryland Department of History
Poster announcing American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers' visit to Ouray, Colorado, in 1899

Keeping it Simple

Keep it simple. That was the mantra of labor leader Samuel Gompers. He was a diehard capitalist and saw no need for a radical restructuring of America. Gompers quickly learned that the issues that workers cared about most deeply were personal. They wanted higher wages and better working conditions. These "bread and butter" issues would always unite the labor class. By keeping it simple, unions could avoid the pitfalls that had drawn the life from the National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor.

Samuel Gompers was born in London in 1850 to a family of Jewish cigarmakers. Coming to Manhattan at the height of the American Civil War, the Gompers family maintained that trade. An effective organizer and speaker, Gompers became the head of the local cigarmakers' union at the age of only twenty-seven.

A Union for the Skilled

In December of 1886, the same year the Knights of Labor was dealt its fatal blow at Haymarket Square, Gompers met with the leaders of other craft unions to form the American Federation of Labor. The A.F. of L. was a loose grouping of smaller craft unions, such as the masons' union, the hatmakers' union or Gompers's own cigarmakers' union. Every member of the A.F. of L. was therefore a skilled worker.

Gompers had no visions of uniting the entire working class. Tradespeople were in greater demand and already earned higher wages than their unskilled counterparts. Gompers knew that the A.F. of L. would have more political and economic power if unskilled workers were excluded. He served as president of the union every year except one until his death in 1924.

Although conservative in nature, Gompers was not afraid to call for a strike or a boycott. The larger A.F. of L. could be used to support these actions, as well as provide relief for members engaged in a work stoppage. By refusing to pursue a radical program for political change, Gompers maintained the support of the American government and public. By 1900, the ranks of the A.F. of L. swelled to over 500,000 tradespeople. Gompers was seen as the unofficial leader of the labor world in America.

Simplicity worked. Although the bosses still had the upper hand with the government, unions were growing in size and status. There were over 20,000 strikes in America in the last two decades of the 19th century. Workers lost about half, but in many cases their demands were completely or partially met. The A.F. of L. served as the preeminent national labor organization until the Great Depression when unskilled workers finally came together. Smart leadership, patience, and realistic goals made life better for the hundreds of thousands of working Americans it served.

On the Web
Gompers, et al. v. Buck's Stove & Range Company
Samuel Gompers was found in contempt of court for violating an injunction related to boycotting Buck's Stove & Range Company. The case was finally heard by the United States Supreme Court which reversed the decision. Here is the full text of the high court's decision.
Joseph Labadie: Anarchist and Labor Agitator
One of early labor's most influential activists, the Detroit anarchist involved himself in an astounding array of social reform movements: Knights of Labor, Socialist Labor Party, Greenbackism, the eight-hour-day movement, Haymarket defense effort, single tax movement, and American Federation of Labor.
Samuel Gompers, 1850-1924
The Illinois Labor History Society put together this brief biography of Samuel Gompers, founder and president for 38 years of the American Federation of Labor.
Samuel Gompers
This article written shortly after Samuel Gomper's death by Emma Goldman is certainly no eulogy. It offers the anarachist's perspective on the man and on leaders of men.
The Samuel Gomper Papers
Imagine gathering important documents related to Samuel Gompers and the early labor movement from dozens of locations across the country and bringing them all together in one publication. This website from the University of Maryland gives an overview of the project which began in 1974, a biography of Gompers, and pictures and documents to view.
Voices of World War I: Samuel Gompers
The highlight of this page from the Library of Congress is a few lines of a recording of Samuel Gompers' speech, Labor's Service to Freedom, delivered during the Great War.
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