Samuel Gompers: The Cigar Maker Who Led the Labor Movement

Table of Contents

Samuel Gompers
Photograph of Samuel Gompers

source: Library of Congress

Who was Samuel Gompers? 

Samuel Gompers (1850-1924) was a British-born American cigar maker who played a crucial role in forwarding the U.S. labor movement. He founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the first long-standing national labor union, which he ran for 38 years in two separate stints (1886-1894 and 1896-1924)

He promoted harmony among the different craft unions that comprised the AFL, trying to minimize jurisdictional battles. He promoted through organization and collective bargaining, to secure shorter hours and higher wages, the first essential steps, he believed, to emancipating labor. He also encouraged the AFL to take political action to “elect their friends” and “defeat their enemies.”

The Zero Theft Movement, along with our community, is striving to eliminate the rigged parts of the U.S. economy. Samuel Gompers, through the struggles he experienced throughout his life, had an acute awareness of the colossal struggles of the working class. He did much to forward the labor movement by disregarding political partisanship and focusing on the basic rights all workers should have already had.

In this article, we will take a look at his life and work for the labor movement, as well as explain how the struggles of the working class then relate to U.S. citizens today.

Samuel Gompers’ Early Life

Born in London, England in 1850, Samuel Gompers grew up among the working class and urban poor. His father, Solomon Gumpertz, worked as a cigar maker, a trade that paid minimal wages, and grafted to provide for his five children and wife. The Gompers family all lived in a one room apartment.

Gompers showed his academic talents in his early years, graduating at the top of his class at the Jewish Free School in London. Unfortunately his schooling ended there, at the ripe age of ten. Gompers was the eldest child and had reached a working age. The family needed his earnings to boost their income (however slightly) and improve their living conditions. He got his first job as a shoemaker’s apprentice but soon pivoted to his father’s trade of cigar making. Gompers followed in his father’s professional footsteps. 

With famine, job and land shortages, rising taxes, dire economic conditions across Europe compelled people to migrate to the ‘New World’ across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1863, when Gompers was 13, the whole family got on a sailing ship and made the six-week journey to America. His father funded their immigration with financial aid from his union.

Health Inspection of Immigrants at Ellis Island
Health Inspection of Immigrants at Ellis Island

source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

The Gompers in the Big Apple 

Soon enough, the Gompers had settled in New York, and the father and son were rolling cigars in the same factory. Samuel Gompers, although many miles away from London, perhaps realized that life in the crowded slums of New York did not differ all that much from his childhood in London. He witnessed firsthand the sweatshops where adults and children years younger than he all toiled. 

Perhaps the most formative period in his life, Gompers took a job with the cigar maker David Hirsch & Company in 1873. Gompers, in his autobiography, referred to his new employer as a “high-class shop where only the most skilled workmen were employed.” It was at Hirsch’s, an institution run by an émigré German socialist, that Gompers honed his craftsmanship and received the schooling that would inform his contributions to the labor movement.

Gompers’ Hirsch ‘education’ introduced him to topics he’d never considered before: politics, philosophy, labor conditions around the globe, and economics. He learned about the ideas of Karl Marx, Ferdinand Lassalle, Edward Kellogg, and Ira Steward. His early love for learning rekindled, Gompers joined a small collective of craftsmen from different traders nicknamed the Die Zen Philosophen (“the ten philosophers”). They gathered regularly to discuss the troubles of the working class and how they could be addressed going forward.

His learning extended beyond the classroom, when he started participating in the International Workingmen’s Association, the Economic and Sociological Club, and the Workingman’s Part of the United States. During these years in his early adulthood, he’d already begun to develop the leadership skills that would prepare him to head the labor movement.

The Savings and Loan Crisis in the 70s resulted in the failure of nearly a third of 3,234 S&Ls and reportedly cost taxpayers $132 billion. Was economic foul play involved?

Formation of the American Federation of Labor

In 1881, Samuel Gompers helped create the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, the precursor to the AFL. Five years later, the coalition was reorganized into the AFL, and the humble cigar maker sat at the helm. 

Taking charge immediately, Gompers organized the AFL’s first major initiative: a nationwide general strike on May 1, 1886 (named the ‘May Day Strike’) in order to secure an eight-hour workday. Laborers were commonly working over 12 hours every single day. 350,000 citizens across the nation participated in the strike. 

The AFL thrived under Gompers’ leadership, gradually attracting followers and pushing out the old guard. The coalition’s membership grew from 50,000 in 1886 to nearly 3 million by 1924. A main labor group before the AFL, the Knights of Labor almost vanished by 1900 due in major part to Gompers’ refusal to join forces with them. 

The Three Principles of the AFL

Samuel Gompers hoped to build a national federation of trade unions that protected all workers. To achieve his dream, he worked from three fundamental principles.

1. Craft or Trade Unionism

Rather than advocating for one huge union or open-membership unions, Gompers pushed for unions specific to each trade or craft. He further grouped workers by their geographical location. This meant that each union shared the same profession, understanding the unique struggles or difficulties of the job, perhaps specific to the locality. 

Trade unionism is somewhat common in the U.S. today, although participation has been on the decline since the 1980s. You’ve likely heard about at least one union, from teacher unions to carpenter unions to athlete unions

2. Economic Reform > Political Reform

Gompers grew disillusioned with the legislative process in the 1880s, when the New York Supreme Court overturned two laws regulating tenement production of cigars. He felt he could not depend on a system that could give and take away of its own accord. 

Gompers wrote the following in a pamphlet advocating an 8-hour workday: “If the workers surrender control over working relations to legislative and administrative agents, they put their industrial liberty at the disposal of state agents. They strip themselves bare of the means of defense–they can no longer defend themselves by the strike. To insure liberty and personal welfare, personal relations must be controlled only by those concerned.”

The labor leader decided to focus on economic reform led by the people, believing that to be the most reliable way of securing workers’ rights and welfare. Gompers reckoned If laborers recognized that they were majorly contributing to their employers’ profits, they would understand just how much power they collectively held. 

3. Political Nonpartisanship

Gompers eventually softened his stance in regards to the second principle. In his older years, he recognized that the labor movement needed to take some political action. He argued that the labor movement’s agenda did not involve partisanship whatsoever. Worker protections and welfare, he thought, were basic human rights. 

The AFL supported government officials on both parties. What was more important was that the lawmaker showed genuine commitment to championing the labor movement. 

The Zero Theft Movement actually works in much the same way. We do not deal in partisan politics, as the economic rigging simply has no place in our country. It doesn’t matter where you stand on the political spectrum, the rigged economy (in concept alone) hurts everyone. Granted, whether a potential problem area is rigged is definitely up for investigation and debate, but no honest lawmaker, no proper representative of the public, can support, ignore, or allow bad actors to unethically maximize their profits at our expense.

The subprime mortgage crisis has reportedly cost upwards of $20 trillion, per a Better Markets report. Do you think investment banks knowingly took on way too much risk to boost their profits at all costs? Did regulators fail the public? 

Success Before Death

samuel gompers speech

source: Library of Congress

The AFL and Gompers arguably found their greatest success during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency (1912-1920). Perhaps it had much to do with the country being deep into the Progressive Era, a period of trust-busting leaders who sought to end monopolies and the plutocracy of the Gilded Age

President Wilson had much respect for the leader of the labor movement and proved quite receptive to trade unionism. Gompers, for example, convinced Wilson to create a wartime labor policy, which explicitly expressed government support for trade unionism and collective bargaining. The President also appointed Gompers to the Commission on International Labor Legislation at the Versailles Peace Conference, where he contributed to the formation of the International Labor Organization (ILO)

After a string of health complications, Samuel Gompers passed away in San Antonio, Texas. The labor movement experienced major setbacks after the Wilson administration ended, but Gompers’ strong foundation had set trade unionism up for success with the New Deal in the 1930s. 

Samuel Gompers & the U.S. Economy in the 21st Century

Most of us have enjoyed, or are enjoying, vastly better working conditions due to Gomper’s work. 19th century laborers had to deal with grueling hours, hazardous equipment, and poor wages. While things are objectively better for many, that does not mean the U.S. economy actually affords most workers their just rewards. 

Since the 1970s, the GDP has steadily increased while worker wages have remained stagnant

To cite just one of the many possible reasons why this is the case, the regulations limiting stock repurchases remain relaxed at best. Corporations, instead of using their profits to innovate, create job opportunities, or simply pay their employees more, can boost its own value by buying back its stock. 

According to a 2018 report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), “More than 2 out of 5 public companies (42.2 percent) spent over half of their profits on buybacks over this period. This figure is even higher for non-financial, insurance, and real estate companies, with almost 60 percent (59.6 percent) spending over half of their total profits on buybacks.”

If you read the report, you can see how major retailers could be increasing worker wages by thousands of dollars if stock buybacks were under strict(er) regulations. And we’re talking about fast food workers who are making minimum wage here. Do you think they’re living a reasonably comfortable life, in reality? 

Fight the Rigged Economy with the Zero Theft Movement

“To be free, the workers must have choice. To have choice they must retain in their own hands the right to determine under what conditions they will work.”

As Samuel Gompers showed, it’s up to us to fight for what we deserve. 

What we showed above does not even scratch the surface of all the potentially unethical and even illegal economic rigging going on in the U.S. today. We need our economic markets free and competitive, taxes fair and well spent, and wages that allow every citizen to live a healthy and dignified life. 

So how can you help? 

We at the Zero Theft Movement are working to achieve economic justice by holding Congress accountable with facts and evidence. On our independent voting platform, our community collaborates to calculate the best estimate for the monetary costs of corruption in the U.S.

Citizens investigators research potential cases of ‘theft’ (unethical, not necessarily illegal, actions that have ripped off the public) and author proposals. The community votes on  whether (1) theft is or isn’t occurring in a specific area of the economy, and (2) how much is being stolen or possibly saved. Through direct democracy, we can collectively decide where the problem areas are and start working on addressing them systematically. 

Many ethical businesses and corporate executives exist. The Zero Theft Movement just wants to eliminate the ill-gotten gains that should be going directly to citizens or indirectly to them through proper, high-quality government services.

Standard Disclaimer

The Zero Theft Movement does not have any interest in partisan politics/competition or attacking/defending one side. We seek to eradicate theft from the U.S economy. In other words, how the wealthy and powerful rig the system to steal money from us, the everyday citizen. We need to collectively fight against crony capitalism in order for us to all profit from an ethical economy.   

Terms like ‘steal,’ ‘theft,’ and ‘crime’ will frequently appear throughout the article. Zero Theft will NOT adhere strictly to the legal definitions of these terms (since congress sells out). We have broadly and openly defined terms like ‘steal’ and ‘theft’ to refer to the rigged economy and other debated unethical acts that can cause citizens to lose out on money they deserve to keep.  

The public has spoken! See how much the rigged economy is ripping off from you

Explore the Problem Hierarchy

We have primers on potential problem areas of the economy. Before you start voting, it’s important you get a basic understanding of the issues at hand, so you can be as helpful as possible to other community members. Take a few minutes and come prepared.

Serve your fellow citizens as a citizen investigator

The success of our movement rests in your hands, the leaders willing to dedicate time to conduct investigations into potentially rigged areas of the economy. Lead the movement and help create an ethical economy.

Heroism made easy

Twenty minutes! That’s all the time you need to contribute to our effort. Just review a proposal and vote. Our reports will only gain legitimacy and power with your contributions.

Commitment to nonpartisanship

The rigged layer causes all of us to suffer, regardless of our political allegiances. If we wish to eliminate rigged economy theft, we have to set aside our differences and band together against crony capitalists and corrupt officials. 

Beyond Samuel Gompers…

An educated public is an empowered public. 

We regularly publish educational articles on ZeroTheft.net, just like this one on Samuel Gompers. They teach you all about the rigged layer of the economy in short, digestible pieces.