Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 9. Segment 7
Finally, A Statesman

By 1900, American labor laws still lagged far behind those of almost every other industrial nation. Working conditions were often unsafe, factory pay unfair, and workers had few if any benefits. In 1900, only one worker in twelve belonged to a union. Many labor leaders seemed too radical for everyday Americans. Some of them were anarchists. But no one could accuse Samuel Gompers of being an anarchist Check The Source - Imperialism—Its Dangers and Wrongs: A Speech by Samuel Gompers . Gompers used corporate business methods to organize and negotiate for labor. He said: "The labor of a human being is not a commodity or an article of commerce. You can't weigh the soul of a man with a bar of pig iron."

Sam Gompers came to this country from Europe when he was thirteen. His family were Dutch Jews; his father was a cigarmaker. Sam was a bright boy and did well in school, but the family was desperately poor, and he went to work for his father, rolling cigars at home in their New York tenement. He took courses at Cooper Union, a free school. When he was sixteen, he got a job in a cigar factory. While the cigarmakers rolled, they liked to have someone read to them. The reader had to be smart. The cigarmakers kept up with the latest news, had lively discussions, and listened to literature. Sometimes Sam Gompers did the reading.

After Gompers got married and started a family, he got interested in the Cigarmakers Union. Gompers was short and square-jawed, with a bushy mustache. He was a good-humored, no-nonsense person who got results. He became president of the Cigarmakers Union, and in 1886 he persuaded other craft unions to join them and form the American Federation of Labor—a kind of mega-union. Gompers was named president, and for the next thirty-eight years he worked for the A.F. of L. and made it a major force in the industrial world See It Now - Samuel Gompers  at the White House.

Sam Gompers had only one goal—to improve working conditions in America. If workers earned good pay, he believed they would make everyone prosperous. He was a practical man. He stayed out of politics—he thought it would divide the workers. Before men like him came along, employers had almost unlimited power. That changed as unions became stronger. Workers began to reap the benefits of their own productivity. It might not have happened without leaders like Samuel Gompers .

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