The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was one of the first federations of labor unions in the United States. It was founded in Columbus, Ohio in May 1886 by an alliance of craft unions disaffected from the Knights of Labor, a national labor association. Samuel Gompers of the Cigar Makers' International Union was elected president of the Federation at its founding convention and was reelected every year except one until his death in 1924. The AFL was the largest union grouping in the United States for the first half of the 20th century, even after the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) by unions that were expelled by the AFL in 1935 over its opposition to industrial unionism. While the Federation was founded and dominated by craft unions throughout the first fifty years of its existence, many of its craft union affiliates turned to organizing on an industrial union basis to meet the challenge from the CIO in the 1940s.
In 1955, the AFL merged with its longtime rival, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, to form the AFL-CIO, a federation which remains in place to this day. Together with its offspring, the AFL has comprised the longest lasting and most influential labor federation in the United States.
The American Federation of Labor (AFL) organized as an association of trade unions in 1886. The organization emerged out of a dispute with the Knights of Labor (K of L) organization, in which the leadership of that organization solicited locals of various craft unions to withdraw from their International organizations and to affiliate with the K of L directly, action which would have taken funds from the various unions and enriched the K of L's coffers.
One of the organizations embroiled in this controversy was the Cigar Makers' International Union (CMIU), a group subject to competition from a dual union, a rival "Progressive Cigarmakers' Union," organized by members suspended or expelled by the CMIU. The two cigar unions competed with one another in signing contracts with various cigar manufacturers, who were at this same time combining themselves into manufacturers' associations of their own in New York City, Detroit, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Milwaukee.
In January 1886, the Cigar Manufacturers' Association of New York City attempted to flex its muscle by announcing a 20 percent wage cut in factories around the city. The Cigar Makers' International Union refused to accept the cut and 6,000 of its members in 19 factories were locked out by the owners. A strike lasting four weeks ensued. Just when it appeared that the strike might be won, the New York District Assembly of the Knights of Labor leaped into the breach, offering to settle with the 19 factories at a lower wage scale than that proposed by the CMIU, so long as only the Progressive Cigarmakers' Union was employed.
The leadership of the CMIU was enraged and demanded that the New York District Assembly be investigated and punished by the national officials of the K of L. The committee of investigation was controlled by individuals friendly to the New York District Assembly, however, and the latter was exonerated. The American Federation of Labor was thus originally formed as an alliance of craft unions outside the Knights of Labor as a means of defending themselves against this and similar incursions.
On April 25, 1886, a circular letter was issued by Strasser of the Cigar Makers and P.J. McGuire of the Carpenters, addressed to all national trade unions and calling for their attendance of a conference in Philadelphia on May 18. The call stated that an element of the Knights of Labor was doing "malicious work" and causing "incalculable mischief by arousing antagonisms and dissensions in the labor movement." The call was signed by Strasser and McGuire, along with representatives of the Granite Cutters, the Iron Molders, and the secretary of the Federation of Trades of North America, a forerunner of the AFL founded in 1881.
Forty-three invitations were mailed, which drew the attendance of 20 delegates and letters of approval from 12 other unions. At this preliminary gathering, held in Donaldson Hall on the corner of Broad and Filbert Streets, the K of L was charged with conspiring with anti-union bosses to provide labor at below going union rates and with making use of individuals who had crossed picket lines or defaulted on payment of union dues. The body authored a "treaty" to be presented to the forthcoming May 24, 1886, convention of the Knights of Labor, which demanded that the K of L cease attempting to organize members of International Unions into its own assemblies without permission of the unions involved and that K of L organizers violating this provision should suffer immediate suspension.
For its part, the Knights of Labor considered the demand for the parcelling of the labor movement into narrow craft-based fiefdoms to be anathema, a violation of the principle of solidarity of all workers across craft lines. Negotiations with the dissident craft unions were nipped in the bud by the governing General Assembly of the K of L, however, with the organization's Grand Master Workman, Terence V. Powderly, refusing to enter into serious discussions on the matter. The actions of the New York District Assembly of the K of L was upheld.
Convinced that no accommodation with the leadership of the Knights of Labor was possible, the heads of the five labor organizations which issued the call for the April 1886 conference issued a new call for a convention to be held December 8, 1886 in Columbus, Ohio in order to construct "an American federation of alliance of all national and international trade unions." Forty-two delegates representing 13 national unions and various other local labor organizations responded to the call, agreeing to form themselves into an American Federation of Labor.
Revenue for the new organization was to be raised on the basis of a "per-capita tax" of its member organizations, set at the rate of one-half cent per member per month (i.e. six cents per year). Governance of the organization was to be by annual conventions, with one delegate allocated for every 4,000 members of each affiliated union. The founding convention voted to make the President of the new federation a full-time official at a salary of $1,000 per year, and Samuel Gompers of the Cigar Makers' International Union was elected to the position. Gompers would ultimately be re-elected to the position by annual conventions of the organization for every year save one until his death nearly four decades later.
Although the founding convention of the AFL had authorized the establishment of a publication for the new organization, Gompers made use of the existing labor press to generate support for the position of the craft unions against the Knights of Labor. Powerful opinion-makers of the American labor movement such as the Philadelphia Tocsin, Haverhill Labor, the Brooklyn Labor Press, and the Denver Labor Enquirer granted Gompers space in their pages, in which he made the case for the unions against the attacks of employers, "all too often aided by the K of L."
Headway was made in the form of endorsement by various local labor bodies. Some assemblies of the K of L supported the Cigar Makers' position and departed the organization: in Baltimore, 30 locals left the organization, while the membership of the Knights in Chicago fell from 25,000 in 1886 to just 3,500 in 1887. Factional warfare broke out in the K of L, with Terence Powderly blaming the organization's travails on "radicals" in its ranks, while those opposing Powderly called for an end to what they perceived as "autocratic leadership."
In the face of the steady disintegration of its rival, the fledgling American Federation of Labor struggled to maintain itself, with the group showing very slow and incremental growth in its first years, only cracking the 250,000 member mark in 1892. The group from the outset concentrated upon the income and working conditions of its membership as its almost sole focus. The AFL's founding convention declaring "higher wages and a shorter workday" to be "preliminary steps toward great and accompanying improvements in the condition of the working people." Participation in partisan politics was avoided as inherently divisive, and the group's constitution was structured to prevent the admission of political parties as affiliates.
This fundamentally conservative "pure and simple" approach limited the AFL to matters pertaining to working conditions and rates of pay, relegating political goals to its allies in the political sphere. The Federation favored pursuit of workers' immediate demands rather than challenging the property rights of owners, and took a pragmatic view of politics which favored tactical support for particular politicians over formation of a party devoted to workers' interests. The AFL's leadership believed the expansion of the capitalist system was seen as the path to betterment of labor, an orientation making it possible for the AFL to present itself as what one historian has called "the conservative alternative to working class radicalism."
The AFL faced its first major reversal when employers launched an open shop movement in 1903 designed to drive unions out of construction, mining, longshore and other industries. Membership in the AFL's affiliated unions declined between 1904 and 1914 in the face of this concerted anti-union drive, which made effective use of legal injunctions against strikes, court rulings given force when backed with the armed might of the state.][
Ever the pragmatist, Gompers argued that labor should "reward its friends and punish its enemies" in both major parties. However, in the 1900s (decade), the two parties began to realign, with the main faction of the Republican Party coming to identify with the interests of banks and manufacturers, while a substantial portion of the rival Democratic Party took a more labor-friendly position. While not precluding its members from belonging to the Socialist Party or working with its members, the AFL traditionally refused to pursue the tactic of independent political action by the workers in the form of the existing Socialist Party or the establishment of a new labor party. After 1908, the organization's tie to the Democratic party grew increasingly strong.][
Some unions within the AFL helped form and participated in the National Civic Federation. The National Civic Federation was formed by several progressive employers who sought to avoid labor disputes by fostering collective bargaining and "responsible" unionism. Labor's participation in this federation, at first tentative, created internal division within the AFL. Socialists, who believed the only way to help workers was to remove large industry from private ownership, denounced labor's efforts at cooperation with the capitalists in the National Civic Federation. The AFL nonetheless continued its association with the group, which declined in importance as the decade of the 1910s drew to a close.][
By the 1890s, Gompers was planning an international federation of labor, starting with the expansion of AFL affiliates in Canada, especially Ontario. He helped the Canadian Trades and Labour Congress with money and organizers, and by 1902, the AFL came to dominate the Canadian union movement.
The AFL vigorously opposed unrestricted immigration from Europe for moral, cultural, and racial reasons. The issue unified the workers who feared that an influx of new workers would flood the labor market and lower wages. Nativism was not a factor because upwards of half the union members were themselves immigrants or the sons of immigrants from Ireland, Germany and Britain. Nativism was a factor when the AFL even more strenuously opposed all immigration from Asia because it represented (to its Euro-American members) an alien culture that could not be assimilated into American society. The AFL intensified its opposition after 1906 and was instrumental in passing immigration restriction bills from the 1890s to the 1920s, such as the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and the Immigration Act of 1924, and seeing that they were strictly enforced.
Mink (1986) concludes that the link between the AFL and the Democratic Party rested in part on immigration issues, noting the large corporations, which supported the Republicans, wanted more immigration to augment their labor force.
The AFL reached a zenith of sorts during the administration of Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Particularly during the years of World War I, American unions were given considerable government protection and cooperation between capital and labor was actively sought as the best means of rationalizing and increasing American production on behalf of the war effort. Unions, including the AFL itself, welcomed governmental intervention in favor of collective bargaining during World War I. Unions in the packinghouse industry were able to form due to governmental pressure on the largest employers to recognize the unions rather than face a strike. Expansion of the organized labor movement followed and by 1920 the AFL had nearly 4 million members.][
During World War I, the AFL - motivated by fear of government repression, and hope of aid (often in the form of pro-AFL labor policies) - had worked out an informal agreement with the United States government, in which the AFL would coordinate with the government both to support the war effort and to join "into an alliance to crush radical labor groups" such as the Industrial Workers of the World and Socialist Party of America.
In the pro-business environment of the 1920s, business launched a large-scale offensive on behalf of the so-called "open shop", which meant that a person did not have to be a union member to be hired. AFL unions lost membership steadily until 1933.
The organization endorsed pro-labor progressive Robert M. LaFollette in the 1924 presidential election. He only carried his home state of Wisconsin. The campaign failed to establish a permanent independent party closely connected to the labor movement, however, and thereafter the Federation embraced ever more closely the Democratic Party, despite the fact that many union leaders remained Republicans. Herbert Hoover in 1928 won the votes of many Protestant AFL members.
The Great Depression were hard times for the unions, and membership fell sharply across the country. As the national economy began to recover in 1933, so did union membership. The New Deal of president Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, strongly favored labor unions. He made sure that relief operations like the Civilian Conservation Corps did not include a training component that would produced skilled workers who would compete with union members in a still glutted market. The major legislation was the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, called the Wagner Act. It greatly strengthened organized unions, especially by weakening the company unions that many workers belonged to. It was to the members advantage to transform a company union into a local of an AFL union, and thousands did so, dramatically boosting the membership. The Wagner Act also set up to the National Labor Relations Board, which used its powers to rule in favor of unions and against the companies. However, the NLRB was later taken over by leftist elements who favored the CIO over the AFL.][
The AFL — now led by William Green (president, 1924–1952) — faced increasing dissension within its ranks, led by John L. Lewis of the coal miners. Lewis argued that the AFL was too heavily oriented toward traditional craftsmen, and was overlooking the opportunity to organize millions of semiskilled workers, especially those in industrial factories that made automobiles, rubber, glass and steel. In 1935 Lewis led the dissenting unions in forming a new Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) within the AFL. Both the new CIO industrial unions, and the older AFL crafts unions grew rapidly after 1935. In 1936 union members enthusiastically supported Roosevelt's landslide reelection. Proposals for the creation of an independent labor party were rejected.
Unions now comprised a major component of the New Deal Coalition, along with big-city machines, Catholics and Jews, poorer farmers, and the white South. The AFL continued to concentrate its legislative efforts on obtaining political protection for the right of unions to organize and strike, rather than on obtaining social change through legislative action.][
The AFL retained close ties to the Democratic machines in big cities through the 1940s. Its membership surged during the war and it held on to most of its new members after wartime legal support for labor was removed. Despite its close connections to many in Congress, the AFL was not able to block the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947.][
In 1955, the AFL and CIO merged to form the AFL-CIO, headed by George Meany][.
During its first years, the AFL admitted nearly anyone. Gompers opened the AFL to radical and socialist workers and to some semiskilled and unskilled workers. Women, African Americans, and immigrants joined in small numbers. But by the 1890s, the Federation had begun to organize only skilled workers in craft unions and became an organization of mostly white men. Although the Federation preached a policy of egalitarianism in regard to African American workers, it actively discriminated against black workers. The AFL sanctioned the maintenance of segregated locals within its affiliates — particularly in the construction and railroad industries — a practice which often excluded black workers altogether from union membership and thus from employment in organized industries.
In 1901, the AFL lobbied Congress to reauthorize the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and issued a pamphlet entitled "Some reasons for Chinese exclusion. Which shall survive?" The AFL also began one of the first organized labor boycotts when they began putting white stickers on the cigars made by unionized white cigar rollers while simultaneously discouraging consumers from purchasing cigars rolled by Chinese workers.
In most ways, the AFL’s treatment of women workers paralleled its policy towards black workers. The AFL never adopted a strict policy of gender exclusion and, at times, even came out in favor of women’s unionism. But despite such rhetoric, the Federation only half-heartedly supported women’s attempts to organize and, more often, took pains to keep women out of unions and the workforce altogether. Only two national unions affiliated with the AFL at its founding openly included women, and others passed by-laws barring women’s membership entirely. The AFL hired its first female organizer, Mary Kenney O'Sullivan, only in 1892, released her after five months, and it did not replace her or hire another woman national organizer until 1908. Women who organized their own unions were often turned down in bids to join the Federation, and even women who did join unions found them hostile or intentionally inaccessible. AFL unions often held meetings at night or in bars when women might find it difficult to attend and where they might feel uncomfortable, and male unionists heckled women who tried to speak at meetings.
Generally the AFL viewed women workers as competition, as strikebreakers, or as an unskilled labor reserve that kept wages low. As such, the Federation often opposed women’s employment entirely. When it did organize women workers, most often it did so to protect men’s jobs and earning power and not to improve the conditions, lives, or wages of women workers. In response, most women workers remained outside the labor movement. In 1900, only 3.3% of working women were organized into unions. In 1910, even as the AFL surged forward in membership, the number had dipped to 1.5%. And while it improved to 6.6% over the next decade, women remained mostly outside of unions and practically invisible inside of them into the mid-1920s.
Attitudes gradually changed within the AFL due to the pressure of organized female workers. Female-domination began to emerge in the first two decades of the 20th century, including particularly the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union. Women organized independent locals among New York hat makers, in the Chicago stockyards, and among Jewish and Italian waist makers, to name only three examples. Through the efforts of middle class reformers and activists, often of the Women's Trade Union League, these unions joined the AFL.
From the beginning, unions affiliated with the AFL found themselves in conflict when both unions claimed jurisdiction over the same groups of workers: both the Brewers and Teamsters claimed to represent beer truck drivers, both the Machinists and the International Typographical Union claimed to represent certain printroom employees, and the Machinists and a fledgling union known as the "Carriage, Wagon and Automobile Workers Union" sought to organize the same employees — even though neither union had made any effort to organize or bargain for those employees. In some cases the AFL mediated the dispute, usually favoring the larger or more influential union. The AFL often reversed its jurisdictional rulings over time, as the continuing jurisdictional battles between the Brewers and the Teamsters showed. In other cases the AFL expelled the offending union, as it did in 1913 in the case of the Carriage, Wagon and Automobile Workers Union (which quickly disappeared).][
These jurisdictional disputes were most frequent in the building trades, where a number of different unions might claim the right to have work assigned to their members. The craft unions in this industry organized their own department within the AFL in 1908, despite the reservations of Gompers and other leaders about creation of a separate body within the AFL that might function as a federation within a federation. While those fears were partly borne out in practice, as the Building Trades Department did acquire a great deal of practical power gained through resolving jurisdictional disputes between affiliates, the danger that it might serve as the basis for schism never materialized.][
Affiliates within the AFL formed "departments" to help resolve these jurisdictional conflicts and to provide a more effective voice for member unions in given industries. The Metal Trades Department engaged in some organizing of its own, primarily in shipbuilding, where unions such as the Pipefitters, Machinists and Iron Workers joined together through local metal workers' councils to represent a diverse group of workers. The Railway Employees Department dealt with both jurisdictional disputes between affiliates and pursued a common legislative agenda for all of them. Even that sort of structure did not prevent AFL unions from finding themselves in conflict on political issues. For example, the International Seamen's Union opposed passage of a law applying to workers engaged in interstate transport that railway unions supported. The AFL bridged these differences on an ad hoc basis.][
The AFL made efforts in its early years to assist its affiliates in organizing: it advanced funds or provided organizers or, in some cases, such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Teamsters and the American Federation of Musicians, helped form the union. The AFL also used its influence (including refusal of charters or expulsion) to heal splits within affiliated unions, to force separate unions seeking to represent the same or closely related jurisdictions to merge, or to mediate disputes between rival factions where both sides claimed to represent the leadership of an affiliated union. The AFL also chartered "federal unions" — local unions not affiliated with any international union — in those fields in which no affiliate claimed jurisdiction.][
The AFL also encouraged the formation of local labor bodies (known as central labor councils) in major metropolitan areas in which all of the affiliates could participate. These local labor councils acquired a great deal of influence in some cases. For example, the Chicago Federation of Labor spearheaded efforts to organize packinghouse and steel workers during and immediately after World War I. Local building trades councils also became powerful in some areas. In San Francisco, the local Building Trades Council, led by Carpenters official P. H. McCarthy, not only dominated the local labor council but helped elect McCarthy mayor of San Francisco in 1909. In a very few cases early in the AFL's history, state and local bodies defied AFL policy or chose to disaffiliate over policy disputes.][
Though Gompers had contact with socialists and such as AFL co-founder Peter J. McGuire, the AFL adopted a philosophy of "business unionism" that emphasized unions' contribution to businesses' profits and national economic growth. The business unionist approach also focused on skilled workers' immediate job-related interests, while ignoring larger political issues.][. This approach was set by Gompers, who was influenced by a fellow cigar maker (and former socialist) Ferdinand Laurrel. Despite his socialist contacts, Gompers himself was not a socialist.][
In some respects the AFL leadership took a pragmatic view toward politicians, following Gompers' slogan to "reward your friends and punish your enemies" without regard to party affiliation. Over time, after repeated disappointments with the failure of labor's legislative efforts to protect workers' rights, which the courts had struck down as unconstitutional, Gompers became almost anti-political, opposing some forms of protective legislation, such as limitations on working hours, because they would detract from the efforts of unions to obtain those same benefits through collective bargaining.][
Employers discovered the efficacy of labor injunctions, first used with great effect by the Cleveland administration during the Pullman strike in 1894. While the AFL sought to outlaw "yellow dog contracts," to limit the courts' power to impose "government by injunction" and to obtain exemption from the antitrust laws that were being used to criminalize labor organizing, the courts reversed what few legislative successes the labor movement won.][
The AFL concentrated its political efforts during the last decades of the Gompers administration on securing freedom from state control of unions — in particular an end to the court's use of labor injunctions to block the right to organize or strike and the application of the anti-trust laws to criminalize labor's use of pickets, boycotts and strikes. The AFL thought that it had achieved the latter with the passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act in 1914 — which Gompers referred to as "Labor's Magna Carta". But in Duplex Printing Press Co. v. Deering, 254 U.S. 443 (1921), the United States Supreme Court narrowly read the Act and codified the federal courts' existing power to issue injunctions rather than limit it. The court read the phrase "between an employer and employees" (contained in the first paragraph of the Act) to refer only to cases involving an employer and its own employees, leaving the courts free to punish unions for engaging in sympathy strikes or secondary boycotts.][
The AFL's pessimistic attitude towards politics did not, on the other hand, prevent affiliated unions from pursuing their own agendas. Construction unions supported legislation that governed entry of contractors into the industry and protected workers' rights to pay, rail and mass production industries sought workplace safety legislation, and unions generally agitated for the passage of workers' compensation statutes.][
At the same time, the AFL took efforts on behalf of women in supporting protective legislation. It advocated fewer hours for women workers, and based its arguments on assumptions of female weakness. Like efforts to unionize, most support for protective legislation for women came out of a desire to protect men’s jobs. If women’s hours could be limited, reasoned AFL officials, they would infringe less on male employment and earning potential. But the AFL also took more selfless efforts. Even from the 1890s, the AFL declared itself vigorously in favor of women’s suffrage. It often printed pro-suffrage articles in its periodical, and in 1918, it supported the National Union of Women’s Suffrage.
The AFL relaxed its rigid stand against legislation after the death of Gompers. Even so, it remained cautious. Its proposals for unemployment benefits (made in the late 1920s) were too modest to have practical value, as the Great Depression soon showed. The impetus for the major federal labor laws of the 1930s came from the New Deal. The enormous growth in union membership came after Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933 and National Labor Relations Act in 1935. The AFL refused to sanction or participate in the mass strikes led by John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers and other left unions such as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. After the AFL expelled the CIO in 1936, the CIO undertook a major organizing effort. The AFL responded with its own massive organizing drive that kept its membership totals 50 percent higher than the CIO's.][