Champion of the Working Class
Shmuel Gompers (1850-1924) was born in London to a Jewish family that immigrated from the Netherlands. At age 10 he was taken out of school and sent to work as a cigarmaker to help his struggling family make a living. After a long day’s work, Gompers would continue his Jewish studies, focusing on the Talmud, which he later compared to studying civil law. Still struggling, the family moved again when Samuel was 13, to Manhattan. The childhood poverty he experienced inspired him to be a champion for the little guy. At 14 he joined the local cigarmakers’ union, while starting a debate club to hone his political skills. By age 25, Gompers was elected president of the local union, and later vice-president of the international union. Under his tenure, sick benefits and death benefits were introduced, along with a shorter (8 hour) work day, fair wages and safe working conditions. Gompers co-founded and headed the American Federation of Labor until his death, by which point it had over 3 million members, making it the largest such federation in the world. During this time, the AFL supported the implementation of a holiday for workers – now celebrated as Labor Day. For the first six years, he did not receive a salary for his work! His extensive knowledge got him appointed to the Council of National Defense during World War I, and in 1919 he participated in the post-war peace process as an official adviser on labor issues. At his death in 1924, Gompers was given a state funeral with thousands coming to mourn his passing. His life-long goal was giving every worker the opportunity for “a decent home, decent food and clothing, and money enough to educate their children”. He served as the central inspiration for generations of labor leaders after him. Across the US, countless streets, parks and squares are named after him, along with a class of navy ships. At his funeral it was said: “his idealism, his unfaltering courage, and love of his fellow-men were nurtured by his Jewish past… He was the pioneer of the American Labor movement and he played a great and honorable part in liberating men from bondage.”
Words of the Week
The desire to be good to all with no restrictions – not in the quantity of those to whom we are good, nor in the quality of the good we perform – that is the essence of the soul of Israel.
– Rabbi Avraham Itzhak Kook