American Federation of Labor

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was one of the first federations of labor unions in the United States. It was founded in 1886 by Samuel Gompers as 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 also personified a conservative "pure and simple unionism" that contrasted with the more radical aims of unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World. 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.


Early years

The 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 also admitted employers as members.

The AFL grew steadily in the late nineteenth century while the Knights disappeared. Although Gompers at first advocated something like industrial unionism, he retreated from that in the face of opposition from the craft unions that made up most of the AFL. That emphasis on craft unionism also made it difficult for the AFL to put its egalitarian principles into practice: while the AFL did not exclude workers on the basis of their race or nationality, and refused to grant charters to those unions that formally excluded African-Americans, its emphasis on representing skilled workers excluded most black and foreign-born workers.

That policy of egalitarianism also gave way, however, in 1895, when the AFL admitted the International Association of Machinists, a merger of one organization which the AFL had previously refused to admit and the rival union it had chartered, even though the new union also discriminated against black workers. The AFL sanctioned creation of segregated locals within its affiliates and many affiliated unions, particularly in the construction and railroad industries, actively excluded black workers altogether from both union membership and employment in the industries they had organized.

The AFL took a similar stance on foreign-born workers: while nominally opposing any formal restrictions on their right to join an affiliated union, the Federation's leaders looked down on them as unskilled and therefore not organizable. The AFL also supported legislation that would cut off immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. Many affiliates excluded immigrant workers by carefully tailored membership requirements and high initiation fees.

In 1901, the AFL under Samuel Gompers lobbied Congress to reauthorize the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act in a pamphlet entitled "Some reasons for Chinese exclusion. Meat vs. rice. American manhood against Asiatic coolieism. Which shall survive?"

Expansion and retreat

The AFL was left as the only major national union body with 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' Union and 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 International Brotherhood of 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 that both 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 in the first decade of the twentieth century, when employers launched an open shop movement designed to drive unions out of construction and other organized industries, such as mining and longshore. At the same time, 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 anti-trust laws that were being used to criminalize labor organizing, the courts reversed what few legislative successes the labor movement won.

The Industrial Workers of the World was created in 1905 as an alternative to the AFL: it would organize all workers on industrial union principles into a single union. Rather than accommodating capitalism, it sought to overthrow it. While the IWW had some successes in organizing the largely foreign-born women workers of the woolen industry in Lawrence, Massachusetts and longshore, lumber and agricultural workers elsewhere, it was largely destroyed by government prosecution and vigilantism after the end of World War I.

Conflicts between affiliated unions

From the outset the unions affiliated with the AFL found themselves in conflict when both unions claimed jurisdiction over the same group of workers: both the Brewers and the Teamsters claimed to represent beer truck drivers, both the Machinists and the International Typographical Union represented certain printroom employees, and the Machinists claimed the right to represent some of the employees whom the fledgling union known as the "Carriage, Wagon and Automobile Workers Union" sought to organize even though it had not made any actual efforts to organize or bargain for those employees. In some cases the AFL mediated the dispute, usually favoring the larger or more influential union which might change 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.

Other affiliates within the AFL formed other departments: the Metal Trades Department, which 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, and the Railway Employees Department, which 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: the International Seamen's Union, for example, opposed passage of a law applying to workers engaged in interstate transport that railway unions supported. The AFL was forced to bridge these differences on an ad hoc basis.

The AFL also encouraged the formation of local labor bodies, primarily 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: as an example, the Chicago Central Labor Council 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: the San Francisco Building Trades Council, led by a Carpenters official, P.H. "Pinhead" 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.


The craft unions that had founded the AFL also kept tight control over its policies for its first fifty years. Relatively small unions, such as the Photoengravers Union led by Matthew Woll, steered the Federation into an increasingly conservative direction, forming political alliances with organizations such as the National Civic Federation and opposing any efforts to organize the mass production industries where millions of unskilled and semi-skilled workers, many foreign-born, worked.

The craft unions within the AFL opposed industrial organizing for reasons of self-interest: they claimed, for example, that any attempt to organize automobile factory workers had to recognize their separate craft jurisdictions. Thus General Motors tool and die workers would have to belong to the Machinists union, while those who worked on electrical systems within the plant would belong to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the employees who painted the vehicles would be assigned to the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. Those demands effectively ruled out any possibility of organizing the industry.

While the AFL did try to meet the demands of unions within the federation to begin organizing on an industrial basis by allowing some mass production workers to in "federal unions" affiliated directly with the AFL, it offered no guarantees that these unions would be allowed to continue in that form, rather than face dismemberment and reassignment to craft unions. The AFL, in fact, dissolved several hundred such federal unions in late 1934 and 1935.

The debate within the AFL over industrial unionism resulted in the formation of the Committee on Industrial Organizing by John L. Lewis of the Mine Workers and a number of other leaders in 1935, followed by the split of five member unions to found the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1938. The CIO proceeded to organize mass production workers in many basic industries, such as steel, auto, and meatpacking, on an industrial basis.

The AFL's response to the challenge from the CIO was twofold: both fighting a rearguard action before the National Labor Relations Board to preserve its right to represent the skilled trades in many of the plants that the CIO was organizing and attempting to emulate it. Thus, within a decade of the founding of the CIO, unions that had been primarily craft unions, such as the International Association of Machinists, originally a railroad union with much of its membership in the construction industry, began to make serious efforts to organize on an industrial basis as well. Even the Carpenters began organizing sawmill workers, although they continued to treat them as second-class members until those workers seceded to form the International Woodworkers of America in 1937.

While the CIO succeeded in organizing millions of workers, it never matched the AFL in membership. In 1955 the CIO rejoined the AFL, forming the AFL-CIO.

Political activities

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 sought to establish stable labor organizations, based on enduring craft distinctions, that would avoid the volatility of groups such as the Knights of Labor, whose membership and power rose and fell mightily with business downturns and political victories and defeats. This business unionist approach 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 very early in its existence in 1894 not to affiliate itself with any political party a decision to distance 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 collective bargaining.

The AFL concentrated its political efforts during the last decades of the Gompers administration instead on securing freedom from state control of unions in particular an end to the court's use of labor injunctions to block union's right to organize or strike, or what opponents termed "government by injunction", and the application of the anti-trust laws to criminalize labor's use of picketing, boycotts and strikes to support workers' demands. The AFL thought that it had achieved the latter result by the passage of the Clayton Act in 1914 which Gompers referred to as "Labor's Magna Carta" only to be disappointed again by the Supreme Court's narrow reading of the Act in Duplex Printing Press Co. v. Deering, Template:Ussc, in which it ruled that the Act codified the federal courts' existing power to issue injunctions, rather than limiting it, and that it the phrase "between an employer and employees" contained in the first paragraph of the amendment only referred to cases involving an employer and its own employees, leaving the courts free to punish unions for striking in sympathy with the demands of another employer's employees or engaging in boycotts of secondary employers in order to win a strike against the primary employer.

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, railroad and mass production industries sought workplace safety legislation, and unions generally agitated for the passage of workers' compensation statutes.

Unions, including the AFL itself, also welcomed governmental intervention in favor of collective bargaining during World War I, when 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. That also marked the end of the AFL's policy of neutrality between political parties, as the Federation embraced the Democratic Party from that point forward, even though many of its leaders remained Republicans.

At the same time, some unions within the AFL had participated in the formation of the National Civic Federation, a group led by more forward-looking employers who sought to avoid the violent conflicts figured in the largest labor disputes of the turn of the century by fostering collective bargaining on the one hand and the promotion of "responsible" unionism on the other. Labor's participation in this federation, at first tentative, created a good deal of internal division within the AFL, as Socialist labor leaders denounced this sort of accommodation as the type of class collaboration that would ultimately defeat labor. The AFL nonetheless continued its association with it, even after the National Civic Federation took a sharp swing rightward after World War I and became as anti-union as other employer organizations. The AFL finally directed its affiliates to cut off any dealings with it in 1935, by a resolution sponsored by John L. Lewis widely seen as a slap against his enemy, Matthew Woll, the most conservative voice within the AFL at the time.

The AFL relaxed its rigid policy concerning labor protective 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 any practical value, as the Great Depression soon showed. The impetus for the major federal labor laws of the 1930s came from the mass strikes that the AFL itself had little to do with in or from left unions within the AFL, such as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. The AFL was even more recalcitrant when it came to attempts to outlaw racial discrimination by federal contractors, since many of its own affiliates were complicit in those practices.

Presidents of the American Federation of Labor, 1886-1955

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External sources

Further reading

  • American Federation of Labor. Some reasons for Chinese exclusion. Meat vs. rice. American manhood against Asiatic coolieism. Which shall survive? Washington, DC: American Federation of Labor, 1901.
  • Foner, Philip. History of the Labor Movement in the United States. New York: International Publishers, 1975. ISBN 071780092X
  • Taft, Philip. The A.F. of L. in the Time of Gompers. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957.
  • Taft, Philip. The A.F. of L. from the Death of Gompers to the Merger. New York: Harper & Brothers, (Gewerkschaft)

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