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American Federation of Labor (AFL)

AMERICAN FEDERATION OF LABOR (AFL)


The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was originally founded in 1881 as the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions. Trade union leaders representing some fifty thousand members in the United States and Canada formed the group in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a part of reorganizing in 1886, the association of unions changed its name to the American Federation of Labor and elected their president, Samuel Gompers (18501924). For nearly forty-years he shaped the AFL by fostering a policy that allowed member unions autonomy.

Unlike the open-membership policy of the Knights of Labor (from whom the AFL gained numerous members in 1886), the AFL decided to organize by craft. This decision, however, was no inhibition to growth, since its member unions included a total of 140,000 skilled laborers. Similarly, the AFL departed from pursing long-term, abstract goals such as Knights leader Terence Powderly's objective of making "every man his own masterevery man his own employer." Instead, the AFL focused its efforts on specific, short-term goals such as higher wages, shorter hours, and the right to bargain collectively (when an employer agrees to negotiate with worker representatives, usually labor union representatives).

In the 1890s the AFL was weakened by labor violence which raised public fears over labor unions. A July, 1892, strike at the Carnegie Steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, turned into a riot between angry steelworkers and Pinkerton guards. The militia was called in to monitor the strike; five months later, the strike ended in failure for the AFL-affiliated steel-workers. Nevertheless, membership of the AFL grew to more than one million by 1901 and to 2.5 million by 1917. At that time the AFL included 111 national unions and 27,000 local unions.

The AFL inaugurated many important advances on behalf of laborers. By collecting dues from its members, the federation was able to create a fund to aid striking workers. By avoiding party politics, they were able to seek out and gain the support of labor advocates regardless of political affiliation. The AFL worked to support the establishment of the U.S. Department of Labor (1913) which, in turn, administered and enforced statutes promoting the welfare and advancement of the American work force. The AFL also supported the passage of the Clayton AntiTrust Act (1914), an important piece of legislation which protected the interests of organized labor in three important ways. Price fixing was outlawed (the practice of pricing below cost to eliminate a competitive product). Executives could no longer manage two or more competing companies (a practice called interlocking directorates). And corporations were prohibited from owning stock in a competing corporation.

See also: Clayton Anti-Trust Act, Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), Samuel Gompers,

Homestead Strike, Knights of Labor, Labor Movement, Labor Unionism, Trade Unions

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