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.
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.