Monday, September 4, 2017

Samuel Gompers, Labor Leader

In honor of Labor Day, Jewish Treats presents a brief biography of Samuel Gompers, a man who helped transform the early American Labor Movement.

Born in London, England, in January 1850, Gompers was the son of a family of Sephardic Jews whose families had settled in Amsterdam. He was educated at the Jewish Free School until he was ten years old, when he began learning the skills of cigar making from his father. In the evenings, he continued his basic Jewish education, learning Hebrew and studying Talmud.

In 1863, the Gompers family came to America and settled on the Lower East Side. Gompers worked at home with his father until he secured a position in a shop. Once employed (at age 14), he joined the Cigarmakers Local Union #15. Several years later, he received a unique education in politics and labor from his new coworkers when he began working at the more upscale David Hirsch & Company These cigarmakers were mostly German Socialists who introduced him to the works of Karl Marx and explained to him the significance of labor unions.

Gompers political career began in 1875, when he was elected president of his local Cigarmakers Union. Over time, he introduced a high dues structure along with special benefit programs for loss of work, illness and death. In 1886, he was elected Second Vice President of the International Cigarmakers Union, and, ten years later, First Vice President, a position he held for the rest of his life.

In 1881, Gompers helped create what would become (in 1886) the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a coalition of like-minded unions. The AFL, which became one of the largest and most influential organizations in the American Labor Movement, smoothed over union disputes and was able to advocate for the collective good of all workers. Gompers himself was not a Socialist, Communist or Anarchist. In fact, he tried to keep the AFL politically neutral in order to work better with government agencies.

Samuel Gompers passed away on December 13, 1924, a few days after falling ill at a Pan-American Federation of Labor meeting in Mexico City.



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