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Gompers was born in London, in 1850, the oldest of five sons.   Although he had been a good student at the Jews' Free School, by age ten he was already learning to make a living, apprenticing first as a shoemaker and then taking up his father's trade, cigar making. In 1863 he moved with his family to New York City.  Settling into an apartment on the Lower East Side, where Gompers and his father made cigars, he joined the Cigar Makers' International Union in 1864.  Before too long he was earning his living in cigar shops around the city.

Married by age 17 and a father by 18,  Gompers was already recognized as a skilled and valuable cigar roller by employers, and an aggressive and confident spokesman by his shop mates. By 1875 he was president of his local union, CMIU 144, and by 1886, vice-president of the international union.

 In the 1870s, he was also a student of socialism. With his mentor, Ferdinand Laurell, a Swedish socialist, Gompers began reading socialist tracts -- like Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and Carl Hillmann’s Practical Suggestions for Emancipation -- that linked trade unionism and the pursuit of immediate gains to the eventual abolition of the wage system. With colleagues like P. J. McGuire, Hugh McGregor, Adolph Strasser, and J. P. McDonnell (all of whom would become longtime associates), he participated in meetings of the International Workingmen's Association, the Economic and Sociological Club, and the Workingmen's Party of the United States. The experience strengthened what came to be called his "pure and simple" approach to trade unionism: that economic class power preceded political class power, and that it would be achieved through trade organization based on practical working-class issues.  


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