Samuel Gompers emigrated in 1863 to New York, where he followed his father's trade of cigar making and became a naturalized citizen in 1872. As a labour leader, Gompers gained a worldwide reputation for conservatism. In a period when the U.S. was bitterly hostile to labour organizations, he evolved the principles of "voluntarism," which stressed that unions should exert coercion by economic actions, i.e., strikes and boycotts.
In 1886 Gompers led the national organization of cigar makers from the Knights of Labor to form the American Federation of Labor (AFL), of which he was president from 1886 to 1924 (except for one year, 1895). He distrusted the influence of intellectual reformers, fearing any activity which would divert labour's energy from economic goals. To make unionism respectable as a bulwark against radicalism and irresponsible strikes, he encouraged binding, written trade agreements and advocated the primacy of national organizations over both local unions and international affiliations.
Gompers kept the AFL politically neutral until pressed by employer tactics, including an open-shop drive, and by federal court injunctions which greatly weakened labour's economic weapons, the strike, picket line, and boycott. Even in the lowest paying jobs, the influx of immigrants to the American workforce was deeply resented. The resentment extended to self-described champions of the working man, such as Samuel Gompers, the leader of the American Federation of Labor.
"Both the intelligence and the prosperity of our working people are endangered by the present immigration. Cheap labor... ignorant labor...takes our jobs and cuts our wages."
Samuel Gompers was one of many who made a plea on behalf of Joe Hill. On the evening of November 16th, Wilson's special political assistant, Joseph Tumulty received a telegram from Gompers.
"May I not prevail upon you to exercise your great influence to at least help in saving the life of Joseph Hillstrom, when there is so much doubt concerning his case?"
While far from the political power it would one day achieve, the AFL represented organized workers spanning America. The AFL was too large of a voting block to ignore. On the morning of November 17th, Tumulty dashed off a return telegram to Gompers.
"The president has received your telegram, and has this morning telegraphed the governor of Utah urging the justice and advisability of a thorough reconsideration of the case."
Gompers received word even before the telegram was sent to Governor Spry.