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Discipline:
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Subject:
American History

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Samuel Gompers A Life of Achievement, Remembered An Editorial by Staff Writer Kevin Dooley

Samuel Gompers would be the eventual leader of the American Federation of Labor. He was born in London England on January 27th, 1850 into a poor Jewish family and dropped out of school at the age of ten to begin an apprenticeship under his father as a cigar maker to support his financially destitute parents. He continued his Jewish studies when possible, usually at night, but lacked intense passion for it. At 13, his family moved to Lower East Side Manhattan in New York City, where he and his father rolled cigars independently for individual buyers until, at 23, he was hired by David Hirsch & Company, an elitist, fine cigar company ran by a socialist German immigrant who valued craftsmanship immensely. Between these two events, he had, at 14, joined the Cigarmakers' Local Union No. 15 (the den representing New York City), at 17 married his 16-year-old coworker Sophia Julian, and produced 6 surviving children of 12 total. In his spare time, he participated in a mock debate club with friends that eventually put him within a network of future business leaders, including future AFoL leaders Peter J. McGuire and Adolph Strasser, along with equipping him with strong leadership skills.

February 7th, 2014 Volume I, Series I, Issue I

On November 15, 1881, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada (FOTLU) was formed, with much initiative on Gompers' part, during a conference with about 60 labor entities (not all were unions, per se), largely aimed against the increasingly political and supposedly dishonest nature of the largely popular labor union aimed at nearly all laborers, the Knights of Labor. Most members of FOTLU, but Gompers especially, disagreed with the KoL's stance on having extremely inclusive unions where consent from unskilled workers and employers were all welcomed. Gompers supported a tight-knit union of skilled workers who organized for the sake of promoting the entire group's overall welfare.

At Hirsch & Co., he learned German and imbibed the socialist, unionistic values of his highly-skilled coworkers and superiors. Only two years later (1875), he was elected president of the Cigarmakers' International Union Local 144, fluctuating among the leadership ranks over a few years, eventually retaining first vice presidency until his death in 1924. During his initial years there, he promoted organization as the only way to fight greedy corporations who reduced wages on a near daily basis. In a definitive socialist move, he used membership dues to fund worker benefits (such as sick-day pay and life insurance) that members' employers did not provide. Under Gompers, CMIU became an eminent entity in the circle of labor unions.

Gompers, aside from being a delegate of his union (CMIU), was ultimately elected executive chairman of FOTLU. FOTLU, as Gompers had envisioned it, was not a labor union in and of itself; it was a body of several unions that organized itself to promote specific goals that all of its members shared. He led the federation almost identical to business, with a board of directors, annual conferences, and a financial pot to fund the federation's interests. Most importantly, however, Gompers emphasized that the main objective of the federation was to solely achieve its goals to improve the labor conditions of skilled workers, and that it should have no political affiliation (other than encouraging its members to elect officials who would pass policies that would benefit the skilled laborers).

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