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two men standing on either side of a clay bust on the left is the sculptor with his arm raised as if the use his tool on the bust on the right is Gompers wearing a suit
Samuel Gompers posing for a bust. (Harris & Ewing)

Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor

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Samuel Gompers (Samuel Gumpertz) was born in the Spitalfields area of London on January 27, 1850 and spent his early years as a cigar maker. The family immigrated to the United States in 1863 and settled in New York City. Father and son continued in the cigar trade and Samuel joined the Cigar Makers Local Union. In his mid-twenties Gompers was elected president of the local Cigar Makers’ International Union where he continued working his way up through the union ranks.

Samuel Gompers is standing on steps in front of columns wearing a dark suit and coat with a dark hat
Samuel Gompers. (Harris & Ewing, photographer)

In 1881, he helped found the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions which became the American Federation of Labor (A. F. of L. or AFL). He became its first president and served as such for most of the rest of his life (except the period when John McBride was president). Under his leadership, the union grew in size and influence. Gompers was witness to, and part of, many of the events that have become part of labor history including the Ludlow Massacre.

After he was nearly jailed for contempt (see Gompers v. Buck’s Stove and Range Co [pdf]), he wrote an editorial in the June 1911 edition of the union’s official magazine, the American Federationist, where he ended with the following:

“Justice Wright, you may be controlled by your sense of duty, or you may be woefully mistaken or prompted by a vindictive, and therefore wrongful spirit and purpose; but, be your course what it may, it will be found that long after you are forgotten the cause of labor, the cause of right and justice and humanity will be recognized, established, and enthroned, and that, too, regardless of what you may determine in disposing of the prosecutions and persecutions against the men you seem determined to imprison.” (p. 461)

Reply to congratulatory messages on the Supreme Court Decision. Dar Sir and Brother: On behalf of Messrs. Mitchell, Morrison and myself, I thank you for your recent congratulatory messages up on the decision of the Supreme Court in our appeal case, that is the court having decided that the alleged contempt was a civil proceeding and that the lower court could not, therefore, impose a jail sentence. The case was remanded to the lower court with power to commence proceedings for criminal contempt. I apprehend, therefore, that the congratulations of yourself and our other friends and well-wishers are premature as Justice Wright has appointed a commission consisting of Messrs. Darlington, Davenport and Beck, the original attorneys for the Anti-Boycott Association prosecution against us, "to investigate" whether Messrs. Mitchell, Morrison and I are guilty of contempt, so that the court itself may try us and punish us for criminal contempt. I have partly discussed the decision of the Supreme Court in an editorial in the June issue of the American Federationist. It is commended to your consideration. Again thanking you for your kindly expression
May 25, 1911 Letter from AFP president Samuel Gompers. (American Federation of Labor Records)

During World War I, Gompers and the A. F. of L. were supportive of the war efforts and Gompers was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson to the Council of National Defense and chaired a Labor committee. He also attended the Paris Peace Conference as an official advisor on labor issues and was essential to the establishment of the International Labor Organization (ILO).

The years after the War were harder for the AFL with the rise of big business and the “open shop” movement and membership numbers (see pages 31 and 32) stagnated. In 1935 John L. Lewis split with the union and established what became the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO).

Gompers died on December 13, 1924 in Texas and is buried in Sleepy Hollow, New York. His place in labor history is set. The Samuel Gompers Memorial Park, located at the corner of 10th and Massachusetts Avenue NW in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in October 1933 (on the same block as the union’s headquarters) and he was among the first crew of people inducted to the Department of Labor’s Labor Hall of Fame in 1989. The union continued with its mission. The Great Depression and then the boom brought on by World War II changed labor, but the union and its membership grew quickly.

Changes came to the AFL. In early 1955 the AFL and the CIO met and agreed to merge. The December 11, 1955 Washington’s Evening Star ran a story about the first convention of the new AFL-CIO where George Meany, who had been leader of the AFL, became the new AFL-CIO president. The opening gavel to the convention was held by Meany and CIO president Walter Reuther.

two photos of memoral that features a seated Samuel Gompers and above and behind him are symbolic statues representing labor, the home, education, (left) justice, and liberty (right). Two statues representing both side shake hands. Left wall says "So long as we have held fast to voluntary principles and have been actuated and inspired by the spirit of service, we have sustained our forward progress and we have made our labor movement something to be respected and accorded a place in the councils of our republic. Where we have blundered into trying to force a policy or a decision, even though wise and right, we have impeded, if not interrupted the realization of our own arms." Right wall says Right wall "No lasting gain has ever come from compulsion. If we seek to force, we but tear apart that which united is invincible. There is no way whereby our labor movement may be assured sustained progress in determining its policies and its plans other than sincere democratic deliberation until a unanimous decision is reached. This may seem a cumbrous, slow method to the impatient but the impatient are more concerned for immediate triumph than for the education of constructive development."
Samuel Gompers Memorial. (Ellen Terrell/Library of Congress)

The Library has resources for those studying Gompers and labor history. Of course, there are books about Gompers, labor related biographies, histories of unions, a guide with resources related to Labor Day, and posts from Inside Adams and other blogs around the Library. There are also photographs of Gompers and other labor related images.

While the University of Maryland has the papers of Gompers, the Library has the papers from the American Federation of Labor. If you want a peek into the collection, the Manuscript Division has written about that collection, and back in 2020 I also wrote a post about a telegram from 1914 that referred to the Ludlow Massacre. But there are other interesting gems. I found a letter from Gompers to the Wall Street Journal written in response to an editorial he took exception to. In it, he included details on the organization’s Receipts and Expenses. Another from 1920, listed all of the tobacco related unions that were affiliated with the AFL. This is a rich collection worth exploring.

I’ll leave you with Albert Morgan singing “Union Man” that is part of the George Korson Recordings of Pennsylvania Coal Miners Collection.

Post Script and opportunity to get involved: The Library’s By the People! project has just announced a campaign to transcribe the AFL collection! I am super excited about this project because it will really open up the collection for anyone wanting to learn about the AFL, events in Labor history, and the history of the United States.

This is your opportunity to help the Library make this collection more accessible to future researchers and leave your own mark. If you are interested, go take a look at the campaign and if you are ready to contribute, the Library has a page to help you get started.

This is a great opportunity to learn, volunteer, and contribute and I hope a few of you will help out.

screenshot showing of the AFL By the People that has a photo of four women wearing long dresses and big hats that area all sporting a banner that says PICKET LADIES TAILORS STRIKERS

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