The American Federation of Labor
(AFL) was one of
the first federations of labor unions in the United
. It was founded in Columbus, Ohio in 1886 by Samuel
Gompers as a reorganization of its predecessor, the Federation of
Organized Trades and Labor Unions.
president of the AFL in 1886 and was reelected every year except
one until his death on December 13, 1924.
The AFL was the largest union grouping in the United States for the
first half of the twentieth century, even after the creation of the
(CIO) by unions that left the AFL in
1934 over its opposition to organizing mass production industries.
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
basis to meet the challenge from the CIO in the 1940s.
The AFL represented a conservative "pure and simple unionism" that
stressed foremost the concern with working conditions, pay and
control over jobs, relegating political goals to a minor role.
According to labor historian Melvyn Dubofsky, the AFL also taught
union members to "place their own craft interests before those of
other workers." Unlike the Socialist
or the even more radical Industrial Workers of the
, the AFL saw the capitalist system as the path to
betterment of labor. The AFL adopted "business unionism", the
philosophy that unions could become stronger by emulating
corporations. This philosophy, which had been championed by AFL
President Gompers for years, favored pursuit of workers' immediate
demands, rather than challenging the rights of owners under
, and took a pragmatic, and
often pessimistic, view of politics that favored tactical support
for particular politicians over formation of a party devoted to
workers' interests. The AFL sold itself to employers as "the
conservative alternative to working class radicalism." As a
federation of the most skilled workers, and therefore the best paid
workers, the AFL came to identify its own interests closely with
the interests of the American system.
The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was organized as an
association of trade unions in 1886, growing out of an earlier
Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions founded in 1881.
Gompers (who served nearly every year until 1924), was convinced
that unions open to workers of all types of skills within a given
industry—called industrial unions—were too diffuse and
undisciplined to withstand the repressive tactics that both
government and management had used to break American unions in the
past. The answer, he believed, was craft unions, each limited to
the skilled workers in a single trade. According to Gompers's "pure
and simple unionism," labor should not waste its energies fighting
capitalism; its sole task was to hammer out the best arrangement it
could under the existing system, using strikes, boycotts, and
negotiations to win better work conditions, higher wages, and union
Applying this philosophy to politics, the AFL refused to ally
itself with the Socialist party or with independent labor parties.
Instead, Gompers argued that labor should "reward its friends and
punish its enemies" in both major parties. After 1908, the
organization's tie to the Democratic party grew increasingly
strong, but the AFL continued to concentrate on political
protection for unions, rather than seeking social change through
By 1904, the AFL claimed 1.7 million members. Although the union
represented only the more privileged members of the country's work
force, it gained increasing influence as the recognized voice of
American labor. Its membership declined between 1904 and 1914 in
the face of a concerted open-shop drive by management but rose
again during World War I, when unions were given considerable
government protection. By 1920 the AFL had nearly 4 million
members. After the war, however, business resumed its union-busting
activities, and the AFL lost ground throughout the 1920s.
By the time the New Deal opened the door again to organized labor,
the AFL—now led by William Green (president, 1924-1952)--was facing
increasing dissension within its ranks. Craft unions had proved
ineffective as a way of organizing the huge industries, such as
auto, rubber, and steel, that now dominated the economy. Many in
the AFL believed that only industrial unions fit the modern pattern
of production. In 1935 John L. Lewis led the dissenting unions in
forming a new Committee for Industrial Organization within the AFL.
This group, which became the Congress of Industrial Organizations
(CIO), grew so powerful that the AFL expelled the ten CIO unions in
1937. The AFL and CIO continued as separate organizations during
World War II but were reunited in 1955.
The AFL—CIO was now the nation's dominant labor organization, but
this achievement was already being undermined by changes in the
American economy and work force—most notably, the growing loss of
jobs in the manufacturing sector where unions had been strongest.
In 1945 nearly one-third of American workers belonged to a union;
by 1990 the proportion had fallen to less than one-fifth.
AFL was formed in large part because of the dissatisfaction of many
trade union leaders with the Knights of
, an organization that contained many trade unions and
which had played a leading role in some of the largest strikes
of the era, but whose leadership had
supported several rival unions that had bargained
for lower wages and provided
strikebreakers during other unions' strikes. The new AFL
distinguished itself from the Knights by emphasizing the autonomy
of each trade union affiliated with it and limiting membership to
workers and organizations made up of workers, unlike the Knights
who, according to their producerist
philosophy, also admitted small employers as members.
The AFL grew steadily in the late nineteenth century while the
Knights went into decline. The Knights lost a series of large
strikes which cost the organization many members. Employer opposition
rose (particularly after the Haymarket Riot and Great Southwest Railroad
Strike of 1886), and the organizational structure of the
Knights was unsuited to withstanding and countering this
Conflict between the rank and file and
leadership in the Knights also worsened. But conflict with the AFL
also contributed to the Knights' demise as the trade union
federation raided the Knights, affiliated trade unions which had
been expelled from the Knights, and challenged the Knights for the
right to represent workers.
It took on three major functions that its affiliates could not
accomplish alone. First, it organized unorganized workers. It
spread information, brought union leaders into contact, and gave
financial support to newly organized unions. Out of its national
offices it published a periodical, The American
, and employed a staff of organizers and
Early membership and exclusion
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.
Though the Federation preached a policy of egalitarianism in regard
to African American workers, it actively discriminated against
black workers.In 1895, that policy of egalitarianism
also gave way when the AFL
admitted the International
Association of Machinists
. The new affiliate was a merger of
one organization which the AFL had previously refused to admit, and
the rival union that the AFL had previously chartered. The merged
union discriminated against black workers.
The AFL then sanctioned the creation of segregated locals within
its affiliates — particularly in the construction and railroad
industries — which actively excluded black workers altogether
from union membership, and from employment in the industries they
had organized. The AFL also actively supported legislation, such as
literacy tests, that would reduce unskilled immigration from
Eastern and Southern Europe.
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
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
, only in 1892, released her after five months, and
it did not replace her or hire another women 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.
Expansion and competition
The AFL was left as the only major national union body after the
demise of the Knights of Labor in the 1890s. It subsequently
brought in a number of unions formed on industrial union lines,
including the United Mine
Ladies' Garment Workers' Union
United Brewery Workers
. Even so, the craft unions within the
AFL maintained power within the Federation.
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
, 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 or one seeking
affiliation. The AFL also chartered "federal unions
not affiliated with any international union—in those fields in
which no affiliate claimed jurisdiction.
The AFL faced its first major reversal when employers launched an
movement in 1903 designed to
drive unions out of construction, mining, longshore and other
industries. At the same time, employers discovered the efficacy of
, first used with great
effect by the Cleveland
administration during the Pullman
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
were being used to criminalize labor organizing, the courts
reversed what few legislative successes the labor movement
While the AFL together with its offspring, the AFL-CIO
have comprised the longest lasting and most
influential labor federation in the United States, there have been
which offered competition
. Sometimes the competition has been
subsumed through mergers or evolution, other times the actions of
government have played a significant role. Competition has come
from organizations large and small, but some of the most notable
organizations have included the Western Federation of Miners
(WFM); the Western Labor Union
(WLU), which was later renamed the American Labor Union
Industrial Workers of
(IWW); the CIO
; and, after the AFL
merged with the CIO, the Change
to Win Federation
Conflicts between affiliated unions
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
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
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
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 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
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.
, 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
Workers could also form organizations within the AFL to promote
their cause in ways the AFL failed to accomplish. Between 1903 and
1917, women organized into a number of unions composed largely or
exclusively of women. The most important and largest women’s union
was the socialist International
Ladies Garment Workers’ Union
, but 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
, these unions joined the AFL.
While the organization was founded by socialists
such as Gompers and Peter J. McGuire
, it quickly became more
conservative. 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.
The AFL showed no interest in supporting a labor party
and found itself in conflict with
the socialist organizations of the day. It resolved in 1894 not to
affiliate itself with any political party, and distanced itself
from the Socialist Labor Party
headed by Daniel De Leon
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
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
, boycotts and strikes.
The AFL thought that it had achieved the latter with the passage of
the Clayton Antitrust Act
1914 — which Gompers referred to as "Labor's Magna Carta
". But in Duplex Printing Press Co.
, 254 U.S.
(1921), the United States Supreme Court narrowly read the Act and codified the federal
courts' existing power to issue injunctions rather than limit
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
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
Unions, including the AFL itself, also 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. The AFL endorsed the 1924 Presidential
of Robert M.
La Follette, Sr.
, and the
railroad unions' Conference for
Progressive Political Action
supported the Socialist Party
. The campaign
failed to establish a permanent Progressive Party, and thereafter
the Federation embraced the Democratic Party
many union leaders remained Republicans
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.
Some unions within the AFL also 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 destroy capitalism, denounced any
cooperation with capitalists in the National Civic Federation. The
AFL nonetheless continued its association with the group, even
after the National Civic Federation became much less important
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
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
in 1933 and National Labor Relations Act
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.
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.
The AFL was not able to block the Taft-Hartley Act
In 1955, the AFL and CIO reunited as the AFL-CIO
Presidents of the American Federation of Labor, 1886-1955
- Currarino 2006
- Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All, University of Illinois Press,
2000, page 5.
- William Philpott, The Lessons of Leadville, Colorado Historical
Society, 1995, page 120.
- Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All, University of Illinois Press,
2000, page 5-6.
- Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All, University of Illinois Press,
2000, page 6.
- Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States.
Vol. 2: From the Founding of the American Federation of Labor to
the Emergence of American Imperialism, 1955, pp. 157-170.
- Phillip Foner, Women and the American Labor Movement from
Colonial Times to the Eve of World War I (New York: the Free
Press, 1979), 214.
- Alice Kessler-Harris, “Where Are the Organized Women Workers?”
Feminist Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1. (Autumn, 1975), 96.
- Foner, 304-340
- Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: A History of Wage Earning
Women in the United States. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1982), 200-202
Additional primary sources
- American Federation of Labor. Some reasons for Chinese
exclusion. Meat vs. rice. American manhood
against Asiatic coolieism. Which shall survive?
Washington, D.C.: American Federation of Labor, 1901.
- Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor: An
Autobiography. Nick Salvatore, ed. Rev. and reprinted ed.
Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell
University Press, 1984 (originally published 1925). ISBN
0875461123 online edition
- The Samuel Gompers Papers guide index vol 1-10, to 1918
Additional secondary sources
- Bornet, Vaughn Davis. Labor Politics in a Democratic
Republic. Washington, D.C.: Spartan Books, 1964.
- Brooks, George W.; Derber, Milton; McCabe, David A.; and Taft,
Philip, eds. Interpreting the Labor Movement. Madison,
Wisc.: Industrial Relations Research Association, 1952. online
- Commons, John R, et al. History of Labour in the United
States, Vol. II., 1860-1896, New York City: Macmillan and Co., 1918. online edition
- Currarino, Rosanne. "The Politics of 'More': The Labor Question
and the Idea of Economic Liberty in Industrial America."
Journal of American
History. 93:1 (June 2006). abstract
- Dubofsky, Melvyn and Van Tine, Warren. John L.
Lewis: A Biography. Reprint ed. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press,
1992. ISBN 081290673X
- Foner, Philip S. History of the Labor Movement in the
United States. Vol. 2: From the Founding of the
American Federation of Labor to the Emergence of American
Imperialism. New York: International Publishers, 1955. Cloth
ISBN 0-7178-0092-X; Paperback ISBN 0-7178-0388-0
- Galenson, Walter. The CIO Challenge to the AFL: A History
of the American Labor Movement. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960.
ISBN 0674131509 online edition
- Greene, Julie. Pure and Simple Politics: The American
Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881-1917. New
York City: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 0521433983
- Karson, Marc. American Labor Unions and Politics,
1900-1918. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University
Press, 1958. online edition
- Lee, R. Alton. Truman and Taft-Hartley: A Question of
Mandate. Lexington, Ky.: University of Kentucky Press,
1966. online edition
- McCartin, Joseph A. Labor's Great War: The Struggle for
Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modern American Labor
Relations, 1912-21. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina
Press, 1997. ISBN 0-8078-4679-1 online edition
- Mandel, Bernard. Samuel Gompers: A Biography. Yellow
Springs, Ohio: Antioch Press, 1963. online edition
- Orth, Samuel Peter. The Armies of Labor: A Chronicle of the
Organized Wage-Earners. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1919. online edition
- Taft, Philip. The A.F. of L. in the Time of Gompers.
Hardback reprint. New York: Harper
& Brothers, 1957. ISBN 0-374-97734-8
- Taft, Philip. The A.F. of L. From the Death of
Gompers to the Merger. New York: Harper & Brothers,