- American Federation of Labor
name= A.F. of L., AFL
full_name= American Federation of Labor
December 8, 1886
New York City; later, Washington, D.C.
December 4, 1955
dissolved_state= Merged into
footnotes= The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was one of the first federations of labor unions in the
United States. It was founded in Columbus, Ohioin 1886 by Samuel Gompersas a reorganization of its predecessor, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. Gompers was the president of the AFL until his death in 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
Congress of Industrial Organizations(CIO) by unions that left the AFL in 1938 over its opposition to organizing mass production industries. While the union 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. [Currarino 2006] Unlike the
Socialist Partyor the even more radical Industrial Workers of the World, it saw the capitalist system as the path to betterment of labor. The AFL's "business unionism" favored pursuit of workers' immediate demands, rather than challenging the rights of owners under capitalism, 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.
AFL was formed in large part because of the dissatisfaction of many trade union leaders with the
Knights of Labor, 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 Riotand Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886), and the organizational structure of the Knights was unsuited to withstanding and countering this opposition. 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. [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.]
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 Federationist", and employed a staff of organizers and administrators.
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
egalitarianismalso 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 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 and after releasing her after five months, and it did not replace her or hire another women national organizer until 1908. [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.] 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. [ Alice Kessler-Harris, “Where Are the Organized Women Workers?” Feminist Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1. (Autumn, 1975), 96. ]
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 Workers, International Ladies' Garment Workers' Unionand the 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 Teamstersand 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 or one seeking affiliation. 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 faced its first major reversal when employers launched an
open shopmovement in 1903 designed to drive unions out of construction, mining, longshore and other industries. At the same time, employers discovered the efficacy of labor injunctions, first used with great effect by the Cleveland administration during the Pullman strikein 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 antitrustlaws that were being used to criminalize labor organizing, the courts reversed what few legislative successes the labor movement won dick.
While the AFL together with its offspring, the
AFL-CIOhave comprised the longest lasting and most influential labor federation in the United States, there have been other entities 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(ALU); the Industrial Workers of the World(IWW); the CIO; and, after the AFL merged with the CIO, the Change to Win Federation.
Conflicts between affiliated unions
From the outset, 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 Unionclaimed 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 Departmentdealt 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 Unionopposed 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 Laborspearheaded 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.
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 Womens’ Trade Union League, these unions joined the AFL. [ Foner, 304-340 ]
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 partyand 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 Partyheaded 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 pickets, boycotts and strikes. The AFL thought that it had achieved the latter with the passage of the
Clayton Antitrust Actin 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 Courtnarrowly 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
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 campaign of
Robert M. La Follette, Sr., and the railroad unions' Conference for Progressive Political Actionsupported the Socialist Party. The campaign failed to establish a permanent Progressive Party, and thereafter the Federation embraced the Democratic Party even though 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. [ Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: A History of Wage Earning Women in the United States. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1982), 200-202 ]
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 after 1915.
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 Depressionsoon 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 Actin 1933 and National Labor Relations Actin 1935. The AFL refused to sanction or participate in the mass strikes led by John L. Lewisof 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 Actin 1947.
In 1955, the AFL and CIO reunited as the
AFL-CIOunder George Meany.
Presidents of the American Federation of Labor, 1886-1955
*William Green 1924-1952
George Meany1952-1955 (afterwards President of the AFL-CIO)
Change to Win Federation
Labor unions in the United States
Knights of Labor
Western Federation of Miners
Industrial Workers of the World
Labor federation competition in the U.S.
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 [http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=62031927 online edition]
* "The Samuel Gompers Papers" [http://www.history.umd.edu/Gompers/index.htm guide] [http://www.history.umd.edu/Gompers/index.htm 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. [http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=9020699 online]
* Commons, John R, et al. "History of Labour in the United States, Vol. II., 1860-1896," New York City:
Macmillan and Co., 1918. [http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=22784998 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). [http://www.indiana.edu/~jah/issues/931.shtml#articles 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 [http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=57135935 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 [http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=107379879 online edition]
* Karson, Marc. "American Labor Unions and Politics, 1900-1918." Carbondale, Ill.:
Southern Illinois University Press, 1958. [http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=10906314 online edition]
* Lee, R. Alton. "Truman and Taft-Hartley: A Question of Mandate." Lexington, Ky.:
University of Kentucky Press, 1966. [http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=99000111 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 [http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=38479584 online edition]
* Mandel, Bernard. "Samuel Gompers: A Biography." Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch Press, 1963. [http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=14119763 online edition]
* Orth, Samuel Peter. "The Armies of Labor: A Chronicle of the Organized Wage-Earners." New Haven, Conn.:
Yale University Press, 1919. [http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=3038 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, 1959.
* [http://www.history.umd.edu/Gompers/index.htm "Bibliography," Samuel Gompers Papers, University of Maryland]
* [http://www.lexisnexis.com/academic/guides/labor_studies/afl/afla.asp Introductory Summary of AFL History, Lexis-Nexis]
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