Samuel Gompers was born in January 1850 in London, England. His family emigrated to the US in 1863 and Gompers grew up helping his father in cigar manufacture and joining in debate clubs. In 1864, at the age of 14, Gompers joined and became involved in the activities of Cigarmakers’ Local Union No. 15. In 1873 Gompers moved to a union shop operated by a German socialist. The exposed Gompers to new ideas about Labor. He met the former secretary of the International Workingmen’s Association, Karl Laurrell who convinced him that organized movement of trade unionism was preferable to the socialist political movement.
Gompers was elected president of Cigarmakers’ International Union Local 144 in 1875. Gompers looked around and saw many small unions like his own who struggled during financial downturns when labor was cheap and plentiful and he saw the need to organize. He helped found the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in 1881 as a coalition of like-minded unions. In 1886 it was reorganized into the American Federation of Labor(AFL) with Gompers as its president. During a severe period of severe recession in August 1893 Gompers addressed 25,000 unemployed workers who had massed on the shore of Lake Michigan.
“Why should the wealth of the country be stored in banks and elevators while the idle workman wanders homeless about the streets and the idle loafers who hoard the gold only to spend it on riotous living are rolling about in fine carriages from which they look out on peaceful meetings and call them riots?”
Over the years Gompers has come to peace with Capitalism and offers labor solutions less volatile than socialist labor leaders. He is often at odds with more radical labor organizations like the International Workers of the World as demonstrated in the recent Bread and Roses strike. He still fights for higher wages, shorter hours, and safe working conditions so that the American worker can enjoy a standard of living that guarantees a decent home, decent food and clothing, and money enough to educate their children.
In 1906 workers at the Buck Stove and Range Company in St. Louis, Missouri went on strike for a 9-hour day. The AFL called for a boycott and published a boycott list in the AFL newsletter. The company obtained a sweeping injunction forbidding this boycott. For refusal to obey Samuel Gompers and others were sentenced to prison for contempt. The Supreme Court reversed the first decision on the grounds that the proceedings should have been instituted by the court rather than by Buck’s Stove company. A second contempt trial was held.
On June 24, 1912 Gompers was once again found guilty of contempt and sentenced to one year in prison. Gompers will fight this conviction like he did the first, claiming that this decision was made a month ago but was purposely held back until the Republican National convention had finished.