American Federation of Labor

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Labor unions and racism





The American Federation of Labor or AFL was a confederation of labor unions in the U.S., 1886 to 1955. Its great leader was Samuel Gompers (1850-1924). The rival Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) broke away in 1937, to form a rival federation. The two merged in 1955 as the AFL-CIO ("American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations"). The AFL-CIO has had a cyclical history, with growth spurts around 1900–1910, 1917–20, 1935–60, and declines in the 1920s and in recent years, Politically it has been closely tied to the Democratic Party on the national level since 1910. Likewise the state and city affiliates have usually been tied to the Democrats, with some exceptions. It has strongly opposed socialism and government ownership of business, and has supported capitalism, while at all times seeking higher wages, restricted work rules, pensions, health care, grievance procedures, and seniority for its members, as well as retirement benefits for its retired members. A central theme was that certain jobs "belonged" to union members and non-members must be stopped from taking them, especially during strikes. This often led to dehumanizing of workers on both sides; non-union workers commonly being refereed to as "scabs" and being socially ostracized; violent attacks by both sides were not uncommon. Many violent confrontations took place between AFL/CIO union supporters and the supporters or management/strike breakers. Efforts by unions belonging to the AFL and CIO in the later part of the 19th and early 20th centuries are generally credited with establishing concepts of a 40-hour work week, overtime pay, paid vacations, pensions, and medical benefits for blue-collar working Americans.


It was founded in 1886 by Samuel Gompers (1850–1924), its longtime head. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions formed in 1881 as a coalition of like-minded unions; in 1886 it was reorganized into the AFL, with Gompers as its president. He remained president of the organization until his death (except for 1895). The AFL coalition gradually gained strength, undermining that previously held by the Knights of Labor, which as a result had almost vanished by 1900.

In practice, AFL unions were important in industrial cities, where they formed a central labor office to coordinate the actions of different AFL unions. Most strikes were assertions of jurisdiction, so that the plumbers, for example, used strikes to ensure that all major construction projects in the city used union plumbers. In this goal they were ideally supported by all the other construction unions in the AFL fold. Issues of wages and hours did arise, but were usually less important. Safety issues rarely were at issue in strikes.

Gompers promoted harmony among the different craft unions that comprised the AFL. Focused on higher wages and job security, the AFL fought against socialism and the Socialist party, as well as the radical anti-capitalist union, IWW. After 1907 it formed alliances with the Democratic party at the local, state and national levels. The AFL enthusiastically supported the war effort in World War I, and saw rapid growth in union membership and wage rates.

The AFL strenuously opposed unrestricted immigration from Europe because it lowered wages, and opposed any immigration at all from Asia for the previous reason and also because it brought an alien culture. The AFL was instrumental in passing immigration restriction laws from the 1890s to the 1920s, and seeing that they were strictly enforced. As Mink shows, the link between the AFL and the Democratic Party rested in large part on immigration issues; the owners of large corporations wanted more immigration and thus supported the Republican party.[1]

The AFL lost membership in the 1920s, and did not recover from the doldrums until the New Deal passed the Wagner Act in 1935. The AFL enthusiastically supported the New Deal Coalition led by Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt.

CIO breaks away

Coal mine leader John L. Lewis led a group of industrial unions to break away in the 1930s to form the CIO. The two federations competed furiously, even violently. The AFL was always larger, and added more members in the late 1930s and World War II era, while avoiding the radicalism of the CIO. William Green was president (1925-1952), but after 1940 the dominant leader was William Meany (1894-1980), former head of the New York State Federation of Labor.

The AFL was always hostile to Communists, especially as they were powerful inside the rival CIO. The AFL boycotted the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), formed in 1945, because of it for its decision to admit Soviet trade unions. Attacking them as creatures of the Soviet state, the AFL was instrumental in establishing a rival federation, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), which eventually won the allegiance of all labor federations save those of the Soviet Union and its satellites. The AFL hailed the Truman administration's Cold War policies and strongly supported American military intervention in the Korean War. Corruption in labor unions became a major political issues in the 1950s. Meany convinced the AFL to expel the racketeer-influenced International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) in 1953, and several other corrupt affiliates, most notably the Teamsters Union, several years later.

After years of bitter rivalry the two re-united in 1955 as the AFL-CIO. Another split took place in 2006, as the AFL-CIO steadily lost membership and influence in the private sector. However it has gained in strength with the public sector unions, and continues to be an influential force for liberal policies inside the Democratic party.


see also CIO Bibliography

  • Arnesen, Eric, ed. Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-Class History (2006), 2064pp; 650 articles by experts excerpt and text search
  • Beik, Millie, ed. Labor Relations: Major Issues in American History (2005) over 100 annotated primary documents excerpt and text search
  • Boris, Eileen, Nelson Lichtenstein, and Thomas Paterson. Major Problems In The History Of American Workers: Documents and Essays (2002)
  • Brody, David. In Labor's Cause: Main Themes on the History of the American Worker (1993) excerpt and text search
  • Browne, Waldo Ralph. What's what in the Labor Movement: A Dictionary of Labor Affairs and Labor (1921) 577pp; encyclopedia of labor terms, organizations and history. complete text online
  • Commons, John R. History of Labour in the United States - vol 1 and Vol. 2 1860-1896 (1918) vol 2 online edition
  • Dixon, Marc. "Limiting Labor: Business Political Mobilization and Union Setback in the States," Journal of Policy History, Volume 19, Number 3, 2007, pp. 313–344 in Project Muse explains failure to organize in South after WW2 in terms of stronger efforts by corporations.
  • Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Foster Rhea Dulles. Labor in America: A History (2004), textbook
  • Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Warren Van Tine, eds. Labor Leaders in America (1987) biographies of key leaders, written by scholars excerpt and text search
  • Galenson, Walter. The CIO Challenge to the AFL: A History of the American Labor Movement, 1935-1941 (1960) online edition
  • Greene, Julie. Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881-1917 (1998) online edition
  • Karson, Marc. American Labor Unions and Politics, 1900-1918 (1958)
  • Kersten, Andrew. Labor's Home Front: The American Federation of Labor during World War II (2006) excerpt and text search
  • Lichtenstein, Nelson. State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (2003) excerpt and text search
  • Livesay, Harold C. Samuel Gompers and Organized Labor in America (1993), short biography
  • McCartin, Joseph A. ’Labor's Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modern American Labor Relations, 1912-1921 (1997) excerpt and text search
  • McKelvey, Jean Trepp. AFL Attitudes toward Production, 1900-1932 (1952) online edition
  • Mandel, Bernard. Samuel Gompers: A Biography (1963) online edition
  • Mink, Gwendolyn. Old Labor and New Immigrants in American Political Development: Union, Party, and State, 1875-1920 (1986)
  • Morris, James Oliver. Conflict Within the AFL: A Study of Craft Versus Industrial Unionism, 1901-1938, 1958 - 319 pages
  • Nelson, Daniel. " New Deal and Labor: The Regulatory State and the Unions, 1933-1940," Journal of Policy History,olume 13, Number 3, 2001, pp. 367-390 in Project Muse
  • Perlman, Selig. A History of Trade Unionism in the United States 1922 - 313 pages online edition
  • Zieger, Robert H., and Gilbert J. Gall, American Workers, American Unions: The Twentieth Century(3rd ed. 2002) excerpt and text search
  • Zieger, Robert H. For Jobs and Freedom: Race and Labor in America Since 1865 (2007) excerpt and text search

Primary cources

  • AFL, American Federation of Labor: History, Encyclopedia, Reference Book 1919 online edition
  • Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor: An Autobiography (1925) online edition

See also


  1. Gwendolyn Mink. Old labor and new immigrants in American political development: union, party, and state, 1875-1920. (1986).