Samuel Gompers was born on January 27, 1850, in London, England, into an impoverished Jewish family originally from Amsterdam, Netherlands. Samuel started school at age six at the Jewish Free School and received a basic education. Three months after his tenth birthday, he was taken out of school and went to work as an apprentice cigar maker in order to provide more money for his poor family. He worked during the day and went to night school where he learned Hebrew and studied the Talmud. He later compared the process to studying law. Even though familiar with the ancient Hebrew language, he did not speak it and was repulsed by Yiddish for his entire life.
In 1863, when Samuel was thirteen years old, the Gompers family immigrated to the United States in hopes of getting out of poverty. They settled in New York City on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His father began a home business of manufacturing cigars, and Samuel assisted him. Samuel became friends with a group of “upwardly mobile young men of the city,” and they formed a debate club. They learned public speaking and parliamentary procedure in their club. One of the young men was Peter J. McGuire, a young Irish-American, who played had a large role in the AFL.
Samuel was fourteen years old when he joined the Cigarmakers’ Local Union No. 15 in 1864. This was “the English-speaking union of cigar makers in New York City. In later years when Samuel told of his cigar making days, he emphasized the craftsmanship in the production process.
Samuel Gompers married his co-worker Sophia Julian on the day after he turned seventeen years old; she was sixteen. The couple became parents of “a series of children in rapid succession” but saw only six survive infancy.
Gompers began working for David Hirsch & Company in 1873. This cigar maker was a “high-class shop where only the most skilled workmen were employed.” He later called this move “one of the most important changes in my life.” Hirsch’s was “a union shop operated by an émigré German socialist, and there “Gompers came into contact with an array of German-speaking cigar makers - `men of keener mentality and wider thought than any I had met before.” He learned to speak German and adopted many of the ideas of the men at work. He particularly admired the ideas of Karl Laurrell who was the former secretary of the International Workingmen’s Association. “Laurrell took Gompers under his wing, challenging his more simplistic ideas and urging Gompers to put his faith in the organized economic movement of trade unionism rather than the socialist political movement.
In 1875 Gompers was elected president of Cigarmakers’ International Union Local 144. This union, along with other union at the time, experienced great difficulty during the financial crisis of 1877. The unemployment skyrocketed and ready availability of desperate workers willing to labor for subsistence wages put pressure upon the gains in wages and shortening of hours achieved in union shops. Gompers and his friend Adolph Strasser used Local 144 as a base to rebuild the Cigarmakers’ Union, introducing a high dues structure and implementing programs to pay out-of-work benefits, sick benefits, and death benefits for union members in good standing.
“Gompers told the workers they needed to organize because wage reductions were almost a daily occurrence. The capitalists were only interest in profits, `and the time has come when we must assert our rights as workingmen. Every one present has the sad experience, that we are powerless in an isolated condition, while the capitalists are united; therefore it is the duty of every Cigar Maker to join the organization…. One of the main objects of the organization,’ he concluded, `is the elevation of the lowest paid work to the standard of the highest, and in time we may secure for every person in the trade an existence worthy of human beings.’”
In 1886, Gompers was elected second vice-president of the Cigarmakers’ International Union and as first vice-president in 1896. In spite of the fact that he headed the American Federation of Labor, he held the position of first vice-president of the Cigarmakers until he died.
Beginning in February 1923, Gompers experienced numerous health problems in addition to diabetes, first influenza sent him to the hospital, and then bronchitis put him down again. By June 1924 he “could no longer walk without assistance; then he suffered from congestive heart failure and uremia.
On Saturday, December 6, 1924, while attending a Pan-American Federation of Labor meeting in Mexico City. Recognizing that he was critically ill and that he might pass away, Gompers was put aboard a special train after he said he desired to die on American soil. He passed away on December 13, 1924. He was buried at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York, just a few yards from the burial site of Andrew Carnegie.