Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), “The Father of American Unionism,” had perhaps the greatest formative influence on the American labor movement and was its most recognized spokesman. Most of his activities were related to his work with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which was founded in December 1886 as an alliance of craft unions and became the largest union in the United States for the first half of the 20th century. Gompers was elected the AFL’s full-time president at its founding convention and was reelected every year (except for 1894-95) until his death. The AFL was comprised of constituent unions with often divergent views, and Gompers greatest accomplishment may have been his bringing them together to effectively harmonize the goals of the labor movement.
Many contemporary scholars criticize the AFL as the essence of “craft unionism.” Indeed, it considered itself to be a movement of elite skilled workers and it declined to expend effort and material resources to organize minorities, women and factory workers. Similarly, while Gompers was without doubt an effective leader for organized workers, critics suggest that his program had little validity for unorganized workers, the greatest part of the labor force. Thus, they contend, his career was marked by an ironic paradox: he was an able trade unionist but a largely ineffective labor leader.
Gompers believed that socialism was antithetical to unionism and he remained a lifelong advocate of negotiating for improved workers’ conditions within the capitalist system. Although the AFL initially argued the inevitability of class conflict, he maintained a vitriolic hostility to socialism throughout his AFL presidency and, under his leadership, it began to promote the advantages of class harmony and a more benevolent capitalism. He maintained that the greatest crime an employer can perpetrate on his employees is to fail to operate at a profit and, unlike much of the contemporary American labor movement and leftist politicians, he expressly rejected socialist claims that the entire American economic system had to be revamped to promote the workers’ struggle for social justice.
Moreover, he passionately believed that improvement of workers’ wages, hours and employment conditions could only be accomplished through the formation of trade unions independent of controls by politicians and of non-labor sources. He eschewed federal intervention in the workplace to the point that he opposed workers’ compensation laws – which were enacted to protect workers – because it stripped them of their right to sue their employers.
Gompers considered the anthracite coal strike of 1902 by the United Mine Workers, an AFL affiliate founded in 1890 (its president at the time was John Mitchell, who simultaneously served as AFL vice president) to be the single most important development in the history of the American labor movement; “from then on,” he wrote, “the miners became not merely human machines to produce coal, but men and citizens – the strike was evidence of the effectiveness of trade unions.”
In this August 31, 1915, correspondence on his AFL letterhead, which reflects his general view that the unions should work together with the government to the greatest possible extent, Gompers writes to congratulate Van H. Manning on his appointment as Director of the Bureau of Mines (USBM), established 1910 at the Department of the Interior, and advising him of his looking forward to discussing any issues that may arise with respect to the Bureau.
Also exhibited here is “A Dangerous Brew,” an anti-labor political cartoon illustrating Gompers and Mitchell as witches stirring up a dangerous brew in a cauldron labeled “unionism.” The rising steam features menacing human figures and phrases including “boycott,” “mob violence,” “riot,” “anarchy,” “intimidation,” “lawlessness,” and “graft.”
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Born Shmuel Gumpertz in a working-class tenement in the East End of London to poor Sephardic Dutch parents whose ancestors included biblical commentators and Talmudic scholars, Gompers’ earliest memories were of vigorous men desperate for work to support their families. English law during his youth included anti-picket laws and imprisonment for “breach of engagement” – i.e., workers leaving their jobs seeking better employment – and witnessing these indignities firsthand became a driving force in what became his lifelong ambition to champion the working man.
Gompers attended the Jewish Free School on Bell Lane, where he was an excellent student, but his formal secular education ended at age 10 when his financially distressed father removed him from school to serve as an apprentice to a shoemaker. However, his parents were nominally traditional, including some Sabbath observance, and he continued evening studies of Talmud and Hebrew. Ironically, while he appreciated the Hebrew language, he held Yiddish – the primary language of the Jewish Eastern European immigrants whom he would later work to unionize – in low regard.
The Gompers family emigrated to America and settled in “Little Germany” on New York’s Lower East Side in 1863 where, again, the young man witnessed unemployment and extreme poverty. His father taught him cigarmaking, and they worked together at home hand-rolling cigars and selling them by the piece. [Gompers’ extended exposure to tobacco dust in the unventilated tenement may have played a role in his early death.] Only a few years later, at age 14, he was offered employment at an upmarket cigarmaking company that hired only the most skilled laborers, where he was introduced to Marxism by his German Socialist coworkers.
After losing his job shortly after his marriage at age 17, Gompers moved from shop to shop and, although he worked in terrible conditions, he always took pride in his craft. He was respected by both his shop mates, whom he served as unofficial leader and spokesman, and by his employers, who considered him an elite cigarmaker; one of his employers even remarked “he is an agitator, but I don’t give a damn, for he makes me good cigars.” His union activism commenced when he joined the Cigarmakers Union, which all but collapsed when the financial crisis of 1873-1877 caused skyrocketing unemployment and put legions of desperate workers out on the street. Elected president of his local (1875), he inaugurated a high dues structure, established a strike fund, and instituted worker benefits for unemployment, illness and death. He was elected second vice president of the International Cigarmakers Union (1886) and then first vice president (1896), a position he held for the rest of his life, even while serving as AFL president.
Even at an early age, Gompers was a rebel and nonconformist who resisted the very idea of blind obedience to religion. His final turn away from Orthodoxy was prompted by Felix Adler, who had a critical influence upon modern “Humanistic Judaism” and founded the Ethical Culture movement, which rejected Jewish practice and, indeed, any belief in the Jewish G-d. Particularly appealing to Gompers, who maintained that his personal religion was “the brotherhood of man and service in the humanitarian cause of labor,” was Adler’s teaching that man’s duty to his fellow man was far more important than his duties to some alleged deity. [In their deep ignorance, Adler, Gompers, and so many countless millions of others simply do not understand that Torah-true Judaism teaches that the mitzvot of bein adam l’chavero – commandments “between man and his fellow man” – are inseparable from a Jew’s duties to G-d].
Gompers never observed any Jewish holidays, nor did he ever attend a synagogue, except to deliver a sermon on the labor movement. His wife, Sophia, whom he met in a tobacco shop and married in a civil ceremony, was a London-born Jew who, like Gompers, had come to America in her youth and was wholly unobservant.
Gompers always identified first and foremost as an American and, although he never attempted to hide the coincidence of his Jewish birth, he did not consider himself to be a Jew. Because he made only one reference to his Judaism in his more than 30 years as a public personality – he once observed later in his life that he no longer felt that he had any obligation to demonstrate to anyone that his Judaism was not a disqualification for serving as an effective union leader – leading journalists and correspondents continued to assert that he was not Jewish. In a revealing correspondence to David Lubin, a close friend who initiated the International Institute of Agriculture, he wrote:
You say that your chief glory is that you are a Jew. Mine is that I have a heart, a mind and a conscience, that I have struggled with my fellow men, and yearn to struggle on for a better day when the ridiculous divisions, questions which make man an enemy to man instead of his brother, shall be eliminated . . . Jefferson placed this as a test of Americans: “Is he honest, is he true, is he faithful to the Constitution?” I am willing that the test be applied to me as far as the labor movement of our country and the struggles of the people are concerned . . .
When thousands of East European Jewish immigrants began streaming to the United States during the last decades of the nineteenth century, the Jewish labor movement became one of the most essential and prominent institutions in American Jewish life, not only by helping them in their struggle against rapacious employers but also by connecting them with mainstream American society. The United Hebrew Trades was established in New York in 1888 with the purpose of fostering union organization within the garment industry and other Jewish trades, but one of the foremost issues of the nascent American labor movement was whether such “Jewish unions” should be recognized. Gompers, who believed that the only specialized groups to be accepted should be different trade groups, initially opposed the United Hebrew Trades as inherently divisive. However, in time he made a concession to Jewish unions because he came to accept that organizing these trade unions was an important first step in bringing Jewish immigrants into the American labor movement.
Although he worked regularly with Jewish mutual immigrant aid societies, Gompers did not identify with the Jewish community and, in fact, he often worked against it in pursuing the goals of the labor movement. For example, at a time of grave persecution of the Jews of Europe – particularly Russian Jews, who were desperate to immigrate to the United States – Gompers worked to limit immigration, fearing that a mass influx of unskilled workers would drive down wages and the standard of living for American workers already here. Under his leadership, the AFL played a leading role in helping to pass immigration restriction laws, including the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and the Immigration Act of 1924, which sharply limited Jewish immigration. In personally writing to Congress in support of these Acts and warning about the United States being “overwhelmed with lowest possible wage workers,” he pointedly ignored Jewish complaints that these laws were antisemitic.
Exhibited here is “The Story Repeats Itself (A Chanukah Motif),” a December 23, 1921, riff on the defilement of the Beit Hamikdash and a lovely example of Jewish enmity for Gompers and his support for anti-immigration laws. “Reaction,” pulling from the left, and Gompers, pushing from the right, are shown forcing a pig captioned “anti-immigration edicts” which will be sacrificed on the altar of hate. The four pillars of the Temple are labeled “Humanity,” “Justice,” “Freedom,” and “Hospitality.”
However, to be clear, Gompers’ opposition was not specific to Jewish immigrants but, rather, to the unskilled mass of immigrants in general and he bragged in his autobiography that he was among the first to identify immigration as a labor issue. If anything, he bore particular animus against Chinese immigrants and he was a leading proponent of the bigoted and xenophobic Chinese Exclusion Law of 1882, in support of which he wrote an editorial titled “Why We Will Win Without Coolies [sic].” He testified on behalf of the AFL before Congress that the Chinese and Japanese were alien cultures that could never assimilate into the American mainstream.
In the 1915 AFL National Convention in San Francisco, the delegates called upon the working classes “to cease discrimination wherever it exists and is now practiced against the Jewish people” and, in the following years, Gompers and labor leadership firmly denounced “the injustice and the discrimination inflicted upon the Jewish people.” Labor’s position on the “Jewish question” was a reflection of its general opposition to religious and ethnic prejudice – although, as we have seen, that munificent attitude did not extend to various immigrant groups – and its support for Jews was motivated, at least in part, to generate support by the Jewish trade unions for President Wilson.
Wilson and Gompers maintained a symbiotic relationship whereby Gompers mobilized important labor support for Wilson during World War I and Wilson became the first president to support independent trade unions and collective bargaining. In appreciation of Gompers’ role in leading the labor movement’s backing his war effort, Wilson designated January 27, 1916 – Gompers’ birthday – as “Jewish Relief Day.”
At its convention in Buffalo, N.Y., the AFL passed a resolution on November 19, 1917, embracing the Balfour Declaration. It recognized “the legitimate claims of the Jewish people for a national homeland in Palestine on the basis of self-government” and urged President Wilson to include the right of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael in negotiating a peace agreement ending WWI, a remarkable action for several reasons. First, this marked the first time that an important non-Jewish American institution not only advocated for Jewish self-determination but also determined Eretz Yisrael as the situs of the Jewish homeland. Second, the AFL advocated for a Jewish state notwithstanding the fact that most of its Jewish leaders were vehemently anti-Zionist. Third, most American Jews had, at best, little interest in a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael; in fact, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the governing body of Reform Judaism which included the overwhelming majority of American Jews, issued an official July 4, 1918, resolution opposing the Balfour Declaration and condemning Zionism.
Gompers, who had actively encouraged representatives of the Zionist movement to attend the convention with the hope that they would sway their fellow delegates, condemned the majority of the Jewish delegates who voted against the resolution. While, as discussed above, he did not support the Jewish community or work to advance its objectives, he became an active advocate for Zionism. Although he had earlier supported Jewish aims for a state, he did not initially support a Jewish homeland specifically in Eretz Yisrael because he believed that America provided all the haven that the Jews could ever need and that “Zion” was, in any event, “a condition, a relation that may be established in any land where the heart and spirit are free.”
However, by the time of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, he had come full circle and had become was a strong advocate for a nation of the Jews in the land of their forefathers. Some critics contend that Gompers’ turn to Zionism was neither heartfelt nor altruistic, nor did it arise out of any support for his coreligionists or was due to any great affection for Eretz Yisrael. Rather, it was based upon two extraneous considerations: first, his hope that European Jewish immigrants would flock to Eretz Yisrael rather than create a glut on the American labor market and depress workers’ wages and, second, his support for President Wilson’s war policies, which only happened to include the goals of the Balfour Declaration.
Gompers’ refusal to have anything to do with Jewish tradition in life extended to his death, as he specifically prescribed a wholly secular funeral, which became a national event. According to the legend on the verso of the photograph exhibited here, “The Funeral of Samuel Gompers:”
Above, from left to right, are shown James Duncan, Frank Morrison, and Matthew Woll (the latter being most prominently mentioned to succeed Gompers) as they stood in front of the Gompers’ funeral car when it arrived in Washington. These men are the “Big Men” of the American Federation of Labor.
Notwithstanding speculation that Woll would be Gompers’ successor, he was succeeded by William B. Green, who served as AFL president from 1924 to 1952. Green was vociferous in condemning the treatment of Jews in Germany pre-World War II and led the AFL effort to boycott German goods.