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Samuel Gompers (1850-1924) played a bigger role in shaping the U.S. labor movement than any other individual. Gompers was born in London and came to America with his family in 1863. He went to work as a cigar maker and by the age of 25 was president of his local union. Considered by all a man of integrity and intelligence, he went on to help form the American Federation of Labor in 1887, and served as its head for many years.

Gompers firmly opposed the radicalism of the Wobblies and socialists like Eugene V. Debs of the American Railway Union. He focused on organizing skilled craft workers and distrusted industrial unionism. He opposed racial discrimination at first, but later blocked black workers from AFL unions. Gompers's vision of accord through negotiation became the foundation of labor-management relations.

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