Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

Samuel Gompers, Founder of the American Federation of Labor

"To reduce the burdens of the overworked and find employment for the workless workers," as expressed in his own words, is the life-work of Samuel Gompers. This single aim has been the wellspring of the manifold activities, excitements, vicissitudes, and achievements of a remarkable career. Nearly forty years ago, when Samuel Gompers, a boy of ten, worked fourteen hours a day in a shop in London, the hardships of the working man made an impression on his childish mind, and this impression, and vague ideas that followed it, were the beginnings of his life purpose, —a purpose that kept growing and strengthening during twenty-six years at the cigarmaker's bench, and finally raised him to the position of foremost representative in America of the interests of labor.

Being president of the American Federation of Labor, whose headquarters are in Washington, Mr. Gompers now lives in that city, but not long ago he was in New York as one of the distinguished speakers before a great mass meeting. The following night, in an obscure hall on the "eastside" where a number of his old friends and fellow-workers in the cigarmaker's trade had gathered to discuss their common interests, I had my interview with him.


"He's not here yet," I was informed on my arrival; "but come in and wait. When he comes, anybody will point out Sam to you." The room filled rapidly, and at length there appeared in the doorway a small man with a great head, covered with a luxuriant growth of very black hair. His short, robust figure, his high forehead, deep-set eyes, heavy mustache and short imperial made him look strikingly like some of the portraits of Edwin Forrest. He came in alone and attracted no special attention, but I knew intuitively that it was Samuel Gompers. With such easy and cordial salutations as "Hello, Jack!" "How are you, Herman?" and "Glad to see you, Mac!" he began to greet his old friends, and they responded in the same spirit, almost invariably addressing him as "Sam." This did not imply a lack of dignity on his part, for these were his old shopmates, —men who had for years worked with him at the same benches. They recognized each other as fellow-workmen, with no difference between them, and, indeed, the only difference was that Sam Gompers had thought much and seen much in his mental vision as he sat at the mechanical work of cutting and rolling tobacco leaves, while the others had seen only their own environment and machine-like toil. But this difference has made one a leading citizen of the Republic, while his mates have remained humble cigarmakers, looking to Mr. Gompers as their champion and friend.

"It was just at such meetings as you see here tonight," Mr. Gompers said to me later in the evening, "that I began to try to do something in behalf of the working men. Even when a small boy in London, and working pretty hard for the child I was, I used to attend some of the gatherings of working men, and I remember how I was stirred by the excitement and enthusiasm when the question of recognizing the Confederate States was before the government and there were great meetings of the working classes to show the feeling of British workmen against slavery of any sort. I had already vaguely begun to feel that there was more than one kind of slavery, and that the working men who had protested so vigorously against slaves in America could hardly call themselves free men. I knew little of the matter; I only knew that my own life was hard, while that of many other children was easy."


"When I was ten, I had been put in a factory to learn shoemaking, but a few months afterward was apprenticed to a man in my father's trade, —that of a cigarmaker. I went to school at night, but it was a very meagre foundation for an education that I got this way, and I have been trying ever since to make up for it by reading and study. My lack of early opportunity to learn and develop normally, with schooling and much recreation, as a boy should, has always been a great drawback to me, but it has made me zealous in the cause of keeping the children of the workers out of the workshops and giving them a fair education. College training is not necessary for success in any but scholastic pursuits, but boys must certainly know the rudiments."


"Times were bad in London when I was a child there. Gangs of workmen used to parade the streets, singing mournfully, 'We have no work to do!' This condition led my father to immigrate to this country, in 1863, when I was thirteen. I continued my trade of cigarmaker in New York, and joined the 'Cigarmakers' International Union' when it was organized, in 1864. It now has thirty thousand members, but mine is the longest continued membership; my due card is No, 1. This was the first labor organization I belonged to. I attended its meetings and got into the habit of studying and thinking about labor matters and the many changes in the workingman's condition that would be beneficial to himself and to the commonwealth.

"I began to realize that, in the struggles of the ages, lords and nobles have lost their gold lace and velvet, but that they survive as the economic lords of the means of life, and that their aggressions must be opposed by combinations of labor—by trade unions. I began to appreciate the true dignity of labor and the importance to the state of fair conditions for workingmen. The older I grew, the more essential seemed the strong organization of labor. I felt that Wendell Phillips expressed in these words: 'I rejoice at every effort workingmen make to organize. I hail the labor movement. It is my only hope for democracy. Organize and stand together. Let the nation hear a united demand from the laboring voice.'


"Of course the idea of organized labor is a very old one. Trade unions have been in existence since the Middle Ages, but what they needed in this country was more cohesive strength. There were a great number of separate unions and some general organizations, but they were not strong enough. A new plan was needed, and we published a call which resulted in a convention at Pittsburg, in 1881, at which the American Federation of Labor was formed. Most of the delegates to that convention were strongly opposed to our project for an organization on broader lines than had been before attempted, but we carried the point, and at present the Federation has six hundred and fifty thousand members."

It is a matter of history that Samuel Gompers was the founder of the American Federation of Labor. The first impulse came from him. While sitting at his bench in New York rolling cigars, he conceived the plan that has made the Federation the largest and most important and useful labor organization that has ever existed.


Mr. Gompers declined the presidency at the first convention, but he was obliged to accept it at the second great gathering, held in Cleveland, in 1883. For some time after his election he remained at work at his trade, but the growing number and importance of his duties at length made it necessary for him to devote all his time to the Federation, which he does for a salary that many clerks would scoff at. Mr. Gompers has received offers for nominations to congress from both the Republican and Democratic parties in his New York district, and has been asked by several presidents of the United States to accept important and highly salaried offices, but he has declined them all, feeling that his present position gives him greater opportunities of usefulness to the working man.

The laws whose place on the statute books are due to the efforts of Mr. Gompers make a long list. They include sanitary inspection for factories, mills, mines, etc., the age limit law, employers' liabilities for damages to life and limb, wage-lien laws, uniform carcoupling laws, anti-sweatshop legislation, the anti-conspiracy law, the state-board-of-arbitration law, laws restricting the hours of labor, and the enactment making the first Monday in September a holiday.


"At present," said Mr. Gompers, "one of our chief slogans is,—'An Eight-Hour Workday!' There is more in this than one might think at a first glance. With a little leisure, the workingman has an opportunity to read and cultivate his mind and devote himself to his home and family. It makes him expand intellectually and think more, and with this new life come new desires. He wants to have his home more comfortable than it has been. He wants a few books, a few pictures, a little recreation for himself and family, and for these things he makes outlays of money which are very modest in individual cases, but which, in the aggregate, amount to vast sums and have a stimulating effect on all trades. This makes an increased demand for labor. It has a tendency to raise wages and diminish the number of the unemployed. These important benefits to be derived from shorter hours of labor constitute the reason why I am making an issue of the eight-hour workday. We have already done much and expect to do more. Yet you have no idea how hard it sometimes is to procure the passage of a measure. When the uniform car-coupling bill was before the senate, the senators would run into the coatroom to avoid voting, and I stood at the door in a half-frantic condition, sending my card to this senator and that senator, and telling each that he simply must support the measure. It was hard work, but we carried it through."


Strikes are not favored by Mr. Gompers except under certain circumstances and as a last resort. During the great Chicago strike, the most intense pressure was brought to bear upon him to issue an order calling out all the working men in the country. It took high moral courage to resist the many strenuous appeals, but Samuel Gompers possessed this courage and the country was saved from an experience which might have proved most calamitous.

"I firmly believe in arbitration," said Mr. Gompers, "but to arbitrate, the power must be equal, or nearly so, on both sides; therefore labor must be strongly organized."

I asked him to what he attributed his success in his life-work.

"Well," he answered slowly, "I learned both to think and to act, and to feel strongly enough on these great questions of labor to be willing to sacrifice my personal convenience for my aims. I have felt great devotion to the common cause of the manual workers, and I can say nothing better to young men than, —'Be devoted to your work.' "

When I asked a very intelligent workingman why Samuel Gompers is so highly respected by the workers, he replied: — "Why, because, —because he's Sam Gompers, —but that doesn't explain much, does it? Well, I will say because he has done more for labor than any other man in this country, because we can trust him down to the ground, and because he's in his work heart and soul."

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