Samuel Gompers was born in London, England and migrated with his family to New York City in 1863, settling on the Lower East Side. He began working in the cigar business, and in 1864 became involved in the Cigar Makers' International Union. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1872.
Gompers developed a system of labor organization which was heavily influenced by his reading of the works of Karl Marx (although he did not become a Marxist per se) and by the socialism popular with contemporary immigrant labor groups. In 1877 he put this plan into action in the Cigar Makers' Union, introducing a hierarchical structure, and implementing programs for strike and pension funds, paid for by charging high membership dues.
His philosophy of labor unions centered on economic ends for workers, such as higher wages, benefits, and job security. His goal was to achieve these without political action or affiliation by the union, but rather through the use of strikes, boycotts, etc. Gompers viewed unions as simply the labor component of a corporation, neither superior nor inferior to the corporate structure. This belief led to the development of procedures for collective bargaining and contracts between labor and management which are still in use today.
The success of Gompers' approach to union organizing led to its adoption by many other unions throughout the late 1800s. As a way to mitigate the central control at the time of the Knights of Labor, Gompers helped found in 1881 the Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States of America and Canada. In 1886 this was reorganized into the American Federation of Labor, with Gompers as its president. He would remain president of the organization until his death (with the exception of one year, 1895).
Under Gompers' tutelage the AFL gradually gained strength, undermining that previously held by the Knights of Labor, which as a result had almost vanished by 1900.
Gompers' insistence against political affiliation and radicalism in the AFL, combined with its tendency to cater to skilled labor over unskilled, led indirectly to the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World organization in 1905, filling the vacuum for unskilled workers.
During the First World War Gompers was appointed by President Wilson to the Council of National Defense, where he instituted the War Committee on Labor. He was an attendee at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 as a labor adviser.
Gompers, however, was not without controversy as he contributed to the yellow peril of the era claiming, in reference to the Chinese Exclusion Act, "The superior whites had to exclude the inferior Asiatics, by law, or, if necessary, by force of arms."