Gompers union work revolved around four principles. One, that unions should be organized by trade and membership be restricted to skilled workers of specific crafts. Secondly, that unions should strive towards purely economical goals, securing political goals in the wake of economic progress instead of advocating political change as a means of economic change. Lastly he advocated that unions should take a nonpartisan stance when forced to deal with the government, keeping these fundamental ideals in mind when deconstructing his policies leaves us with an understanding of his motives and reasoning and gives explanation to his actions. Learning how Gompers came to have these views gives insight into the kind of person he was.
Samuel grew up with unions. As a young cigar maker in England he was part of a union. It was the union he and his father belonged to that helped pay for his family’s ticket to the U.S. In America once he was working for a shop and not with his father in their home he joined Local No. 15 of the National Cigar Makers Union. It was 1864 and he was fourteen. Being part of various unions from a young age may have educated him as to the social appeal of the union, but it was in the didactic atmosphere of the cigar shop (cigar making being very mechanical in nature left the craftsman with the cognitive freedom to talk with his counterparts) that gave Samuel the basis of his ideals.
Cigar makers, generally, were made up of Europeans. As industry had been in Europe longer, so had Europe’s union movement been around longer then in America. Coupled with this was the political unrest in Europe at the time as Socialist, Anarchist and Communist ideas were gaining support. Many of the cigar makers’ who worked in the various shops Samuel was employed at were well versed in the labor movements of Europe and some were even political refugee’s who fled from there respective countries because of their activism. In this environment Samuel learned about Socialism and European Union organization. He was surrounded by many socialists but instead of that transforming him into one it seemed to have hardened his thinking regarding a practical approach to fixing the problems of labor rather than the utopian ideas of socialism. He attributes his resistance to joining the socialist movement to one his shop mates, Ferdinand Laurell, A Swedish immigrant who had been exposed to many forms of radical uprisings and who advised Samuel to study everything around him but to stick true to union principles.
In the early 1870's the Cigar makers International Union was not doing well and membership was at dismal levels. Gompers own Local held only 30 something members and nationally the Union had a little over three thousand. A major reason for low numbers was the international rules of the Union that only allowed English peoples to join, leaving out a great proportion of New York's cigar makers. Gompers and other prominent members of his Local, such as Adolph Strasser and Ferdinand Laurell, decided that in order to survive and thrive, the union must be reorganized. They decided to create United Cigar makers, a New York Union that opened its membership to all members of the cigar making trade, regardless of sex or country of origin. The union was perhaps the first example of Gompers ideals in action. It operated similarly to British trade unions, with a strong central body, high dues and entrance fees to fund sickness and death benefits as well as strikes. All strikes had to be confirmed by the central body before being approved. The general theme of the union was practicality. It wasn’t created to pursue utopian ideals, but rather lobby for simple right, a fair working day and working wage. This was the foundation of three guiding principles Gompers employed
Soon after Gompers and friends applied for a charter from International which was issued to them and there local became Local No. 144. Gompers was elected president of No. 144 and held the position from 1875 to 1878 and again from 1880 to 1886.