Leaders of labor unions, particularly those devoted to improvements in pay and working conditions rather than to social and political revolution, confronted a serious dilemma in deciding how to respond to the trial of the anarchists. Samuel Gompers, pictured here, faced a particularly difficult decision. At the time of the trial, Gompers was thirty-six, and the American Federation of Labor, which he would serve as president for almost forty years, would soon be formed out of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada. The Federation was the driving force behind the revived eight-hour movement of the mid-1880s.

On one hand, Gompers was deeply distressed that the bombing had set back the eight-hour campaign by associating it in the public mind with labor violence. On the other, both on principle and in practice he could not stand back as outspoken advocates of labor received such rough justice. Gompers did not raise his voice during the trial, but he strongly supported the clemency movement, and he joined those who made the trip to Springfield to appeal to Governor Oglesby.

Gompers warned Oglesby, as did many other people with moderate political views—including several prominent attorneys and judges—that to execute these men would make them martyrs. Their deaths would inspire rather than squelch the radical movement and would weaken mainstream labor organizations, further destabilizing the current order. Gompers compared the treatment of the anarchists to the far gentler handling of Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy, who had been released after two years in jail. In contrast to Gompers, Terence Powderly of the Knights of Labor alienated a considerable portion of his membership by remaining opposed to clemency and demanding that his organization follow suit.