Let's start with a couple of quotes.
" 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."
"Show me the country that has no strikes and I'll show you the country in which there is no liberty."
Samuel Gompers was the cofounder and first president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Elected in 1886 he held on to this position, except for one year, until his death some 38 years later.
Born to a Jewish working class family in London, he migrated to New York City in 1863. He learned the cigar making craft and trade from his father, from whom he also inherited his belief in union principles. At the time, New York City was a hotbed of union activity. Marxist, socialist, anarchist and communist as well as numerous other reform programs were all competing for support amongst the workers.
Gompers became highly skilled and respected among the cigar makers and was eventually employed by one of the larger shops. He was elected president of Cigar Makers Union Local 144. It was at this time that he joined with other local presidents as they struggled to keep the union afloat in the face of mechanization and the flooding of the labor market with new immigrants who were willing to work for lower wages.
Although Gompers was never an avowed, his approach to organizing worker was embedded in two Marxist principles. The first was that it was only through trade unions that awareness of a broad class interest among workers could emerge. From this principle, it followed that Gompers and other labor leaders looked upon political activity with suspicion. The state had already taken hostile views on organizing efforts both in Europe and America. Gompers an his associates argued that any gains won through political reform could only be enforced by the power of organized workers in the factories and shops across the nation.
In 1881, Gompers was sent as the delegate of the Cigar Makers Union to a conference of various union representatives. It was here that they decided to break away from the Knights of Labor and founded the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, later to became the American Federation of Labor in 1886.
Four years later, the AFL represented about 250,000 workers. Two years after that, the number had grown to over a million. His guiding principles were that the union was to concentrate on collective bargaining with employers and on legislative issues affecting jobs. Social goals and politics were left off the agenda.
Gompers interest in labor was not confined to the United States. At the end of WWI he attended the Versailles Treaty negotiations and was instrumental in the creation of the International Labor Organization under the League of Nations.
In 1924, while attending a conference on trade unionism in Mexico, Gompers collapsed. He was rushed to a hospital in San Antonio, Texas, where he died on December 13, 1924.