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American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations


AMERICAN FEDERATION OF LABOR–CONGRESS OF INDUSTRIAL ORGANIZATIONS (AFL-CIO) is the product of a 1955 merger between the two labor federations that represented most trade unions in the United States. The AFL-CIO is not itself a union. Rather, it is an umbrella organization with which some eighty-five national unions affiliate. It rarely bargains with an employer, organizes a worker demonstration, or calls a strike. But it nevertheless constitutes the institutional voice of the labor movement, adjudicating disputes between affiliated unions, coordinating electoral and lobby activities at both the national and state levels, assisting the organizing work of constituent unions, and representing American labor abroad. Appropriately, the AFL-CIO maintains a large headquarters in Washington, D.C., across Lafayette Park from the White House.

The American Federation of Labor

The parent of the AFL-CIO was the American Federation of Labor, founded in 1886. The AFL long considered itself the authentic "house of labor" to which all workers and unions should adhere. Each affiliate therefore would have an "exclusive jurisdiction" within which to organize a given trade or occupation. Under Samuel Gompers, who led the union federation during its formative era (1886–1894, 1896–1924), the AFL developed into the most politically and organizationally conservative trade union center in the industrial world. Gompers and many of his associates had been schooled in the Marxist tradition, and from it Gompers took a firm commitment to working-class, that is, trade union, autonomy; a hostility to middle-class social reform movements; and a fear of the state. The latter was justifiably reinforced by the exceptional hostility of the courts and corporations to strikes, social legislation, and trade unionism in the sixty years that followed the great railroad strike of 1877.

Gompers and most other officers therefore characterized AFL practices as favoring "voluntarism" or "pure and simple unionism." In practice, this meant hostility to socialists, indifference or outright opposition to social reform, and a commitment to an organization largely representing skilled, male craftsmen. AFL affiliates, especially those of seamen, brewers, miners, and metal workers, could be exceptionally militant, but insularity and parochialism proved dominant strands. Although the United Mine Workers (UMW) and the International Longshoremen's Association represented thousands of African Americans, many in the AFL leadership thought of blacks, Mexicans, Asians, and other immigrants as a vast lumpen proletariat, dangerous and unorganizable.

With its membership concentrated in the building trades, on the railroads, in the mines, and in the garment shops, the AFL grew steadily in the years before World War I. Most AFL leaders cooperated with Woodrow Wilson's administration in World War I. The support, bitterly opposed by socialists and by some of Irish or German extraction, seemed to pay off as union membership soared to 5 million. For the first time, AFL affiliates, like the Machinists and the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, organized large numbers of immigrant industrial workers. But disaster soon followed. When the Wilson administration abandoned its wartime effort to advance a cooperative "industrial democracy," the corporations sought to enforce a nonunion "open shop" once again. Millions of workers therefore participated in the 1919 strike wave, the largest in the nation's history. The strikes ended in defeat, disorganization, and substantial membership losses. By the time the Great Depression struck, AFL affiliates enrolled only 3 million workers.

Most AFL leaders were not prepared to take advantage of the labor law reforms enacted during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. Although President William Green (1924–1952) had been a leader of the UMW, a union organized along inclusive, "industrial" lines, he sided with the craft unionists in the AFL hierarchy who insisted that skill-based union jurisdictions must remain inviolate. This put the AFL in opposition to the New Deal's National Labor Relations Board, which initially favored industrial unions and companywide collective bargaining. Moreover, craft unionism seemed dysfunctional to the effort to organize the great mass-production industries of that era, steel, automobiles, rubber, and electrical products, where semiskilled labor was predominant.

The Congress of Industrial Organizations

Late in 1935, under the leadership of John L. Lewis of the UMW and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, dissidents in the AFL founded the Committee for Industrial Organization, which in 1938 became the fully independent Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) after dramatic organizing victories in steel, automobiles, and rubber. Under the presidencies of Lewis (1938–1940) and Philip Murray (1940–1952), the CIO pushed the entire trade union movement to the left and gave American politics something of a social democratic flavor. In contrast with the AFL, the CIO sought to organize factories, mills, and offices, where men and women from European immigrant, Appalachian white, or southern African American backgrounds were plentiful. Socialists and communists were initially welcomed as organizers and union spark-plugs. The radicals Walter Reuther, Harry Bridges, and Mike Quill quickly rose to top posts in the auto workers, longshoremen, and New York transport workers unions. The CIO linked its fortunes closely to the Democrats, especially the New Dealers, who became a more identifiable, labor-liberal faction after 1938. Unlike the Gompers-era leaders of the AFL, CIO leaders fought for social legislation of the most comprehensive sort.

Although the CIO was a more dynamic and in its first decade a more politically potent federation than its rival, the AFL remained the largest union group. By the time of the 1955 merger, the AFL enrolled about 8 million workers, 3 million more than the CIO. AFL growth was a product of the 1935 Wagner Act, which made organizing easier; employer preference for unions thought to be less radical or disruptive than those in the CIO; and the postwar boom in trucking, utilities, construction, and retail sales, where AFL unions predominated.

The Merger

The AFL-CIO merger was made possible by a political and organizational alignment of the two federations that began with World War II. Both union groups offered the government a no-strike pledge, and both participated on the War Labor Board that set wages and pushed forward a system of grievance arbitration inside many war plants. The AFL now supported Democrats almost as much as the CIO did. And both groups were frightened by a postwar shift in the political wind, most notably the 1946 failure to unionize the southern textile industry (Operation Dixie); passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which made organizing more difficult; and the 1952 election of Dwight Eisenhower, the first Republican to occupy the White House in twenty years. Equally important, the CIO expelled or defeated its sizable communist wing, so both federations now supported U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. The CIO withdrew from the World Federation of Trade Unions, in which Soviet bloc "unions" participated, and in 1949 joined with the AFL in founding the anticommunist International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).

AFL president George Meany, whose union roots lay in the New York building trades, took the top post in the merged organization, while Reuther, who had served as president of the CIO (1952–1955), became head of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Department. The new AFLCIO eliminated much of the jurisdictional warfare that had irritated the public and marred union politics for more than a generation. It expelled the huge International Brotherhood of Teamsters when a high profile congressional investigation revealed an embarrassing pattern of corruption among top Teamsters officials. And the AFL-CIO developed a powerful and well-focused voter-mobilization apparatus, which backstopped Democratic victories in 1958, 1960, and 1964, and which in 1968 almost turned the tide for the Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey.

But the AFL-CIO was a "sleepy monopoly," to use a phrase coined by the New York Times labor reporter A. H. Raskin. Union resources devoted to organizing new workers declined steadily in the 1950s and 1960s. The surge in public employee unionism that began in the 1960s was offset by an erosion of labor's strength in manufacturing and construction. Although some unionists, notably Reuther of the United Automobile Workers (UAW), wanted the AFL-CIO to play a more active role, complacency characterized the outlook of many on the federation's executive board. Thus, AFL-CIO membership hovered at about 13 million during the entire second half of the twentieth century, even as union density shrank from 33 percent of all wage earners in 1953 to about 14 percent at the beginning of the twenty-first century. "Why should we worry about organizing groups of people who do not want to be organized?" Meany told an interviewer in 1972.

Domestic Affairs

In domestic politics the AFL-CIO moved from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party in the mid–1950s to the center-right in the years after 1968. On issues of fiscal policy and New Deal–style social regulation, the AFLCIO remained steadfastly liberal. It favored social spending on jobs, infrastructure, and education as well as Keynesian-inspired deficits during the series of sharp recessions that began in the late 1950s and extended through the early 1990s. Rejecting the "voluntarism" of the Gompers era, the AFL-CIO lobbied for a higher minimum wage, more plentiful unemployment insurance, generous welfare and old-age retirement benefits, health and safety regulations at work, and a national system of health insurance. Because many industrial unions had negotiated health care benefits under their collective bargaining contracts, the AFL-CIO concentrated its efforts on winning health provisions for retirees and the indigent, enacted as Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.

The AFL-CIO attitude toward racial discrimination and the civil rights movement proved far more equivocal. As the civil rights movement reached a climax early in the 1960s, thousands of union locals still discriminated against African Americans, Hispanics, and women whose skin was black, white, or brown. AFL-CIO leaders wanted to abolish the most overt forms of such discrimination but without a radical transformation of union politics, personnel, or bargaining relationships. During the 1950s, the AFLCIO therefore defended union officials in the South who fought segregation and other forms of de jure discrimination. The AFL-CIO lobbied for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, in particular Title VII, which forbade the most egregious forms of employment discrimination.

But the AFL-CIO was wary of the civil rights movement itself, as it was of any popular mobilization that out-flanked it on the left. The federation did not officially endorse the 1963 March on Washington, although several individual unions provided logistical support and thousands of union participants. By the late 1960s, when it became clear that patterns of workplace discrimination, many embedded within union seniority and apprentice systems, could not be eliminated without some form of "affirmative action," the AFL-CIO threw its weight against most efforts to establish hiring and promotion quotas or to strengthen the new Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After the divisive 1968 New York City teachers strike, which put the interests of a heavily Jewish teaching corps against that of African American community control advocates, AFL-CIO political culture acquired a definite neoconservative flavor.

Foreign Affairs

The AFL-CIO played an even more conservative role in foreign affairs, where federation policy was long controlled by a small coterie that aligned labor's outlook with that of the most inflexible Cold Warriors. Aside from Meany, the key architects of AFL-CIO foreign policy included David Dubinsky, a former socialist who had fought the communists to near extinction in the New York needle trades; Jay Lovestone, once a secretary of the American Communist Party but after 1938 an anticommunist ideologue of highly sectarian views; and Lane Kirkland, a Meany aide who succeeded him in the AFL-CIO presidency (1979–1995).

In the ICFTU, the growing influence of European and Asian social democrats, who sought some sort of détente with the communist bloc, induced AFL-CIO leaders to sharply downplay their participation in such transnational labor bodies, including the Geneva-based International Labor Organization. Instead, the AFL-CIO set up its own network of government-funded "free labor" institutes in the 1960s. The Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. State Department had a working relation-ship with Lovestone, who was in charge of the AFL-CIO International Affairs Department from 1955 to 1974. In Africa, Latin America, and Asia, the AFL-CIO sought to build anticommunist unions aligned with U.S. foreign policy interests. The AFL-CIO was particularly active in Brazil, Guyana, Kenya, South Africa, the Philippines, and South Korea. In South Vietnam, the AFL-CIO, working closely with the U.S. mission, built an anticommunist labor movement, and in El Salvador it attempted to organize unions that supported the military's war against left-wing insurgents. The AFL-CIO considered communist bloc trade unions mere government-controlled fronts. Thus, when the genuinely independent union federation known as Solidarity burst forward on the Polish political scene in 1980, the AFL-CIO offered much moral and material aid.

The AFL-CIO staunchly backed U.S. policy throughout the Vietnam War. Dovish unionists had no impact on AFL-CIO policy, a circumstance that helped precipitate UAW withdrawal from the federation in 1968. Throughout the 1970s, the AFL-CIO backed the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party identified with the leadership of Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson and fought the liberal, profeminist, multiracial "new politics" forces within the party. During the 1972 presidential campaign, Meany enforced a pro-Nixon neutrality on the AFL-CIO because he considered the Democratic candidate, Senator George McGovern, a man who "advocates surrender." In 1976, Lane Kirkland cofounded the Committee on the Present Danger, which advocated a new arms buildup and an aggressive posture toward both the Soviet Union and the Euro-American nuclear disarmament movement.

Refocusing the Federation

When Kirkland assumed leadership of the AFL-CIO in 1979, the federation faced a crisis. Economically, it was reeling from the rust belt recessions of the 1970s, which slashed membership in the construction trades and manufacturing. Politically, the AFL-CIO soon confronted a Republican administration that was the most overtly antiunion administration in half a century. After President Ronald Reagan broke a strike of federal air traffic controllers in the summer of 1981 (see Air Traffic Controllers Strike), many in management adopted a much tougher line against AFL-CIO affiliates, demanding wage concessions, fighting union organization, and seeking cutbacks in pensions and health benefits.

AFL-CIO steps to confront this crisis were modest. For the first time in its history, the federation actually sponsored a mass demonstration, Solidarity Day, that brought hundreds of thousands of unionists to the Washington Mall in September 1981. Kirkland even called out the troops a second time, albeit a full decade later. The AFL-CIO established a study commission whose report, "The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions," realistically assessed the failure of the nation's labor laws, the potency of employer opposition, and the fragmentary nature of union power. The AFL-CIO also downplayed its war with the "new politics" forces inside the Democratic Party and mobilized effectively if futilely on behalf of Democratic presidential candidates in 1984 and 1988.

If the AFL-CIO could do little to stem the antilabor tide, Kirkland did manage the union retreat with a certain organizational tidiness. By the early 1990s, the AFL-CIO was once again an inclusive "house of labor." Although the National Education Association remained independent, the UAW rejoined the AFL-CIO in 1981 after a thirteen-year absence. The UMW, isolated even before the merger, joined under a new reform leadership, and the Teamsters again began paying dues in the late 1980s, albeit in a vain effort to win some institutional shelter against the government's racketeering probe of the union's corrupt top leadership. An important element of this AFL-CIO regrouping encouraged union mergers designed to streamline the leadership apparatus, avoid costly jurisdictional disputes, and generate a sufficient flow of dues to service the membership and organize new workers. By the end of the twentieth century, the AFL-CIO had one-third fewer affiliates than in 1955.

Kirkland and most of his backers believed that the revitalization of the labor movement depended on political and legal forces largely outside AFL-CIO control. His leadership therefore was plunged into crisis late in 1994, when conservative Republicans swept to power in the House of Representatives, sealing the fate of initiatives backed by the AFL-CIO that would have facilitated both organizing and collective bargaining. The most important element of this debacle was the collapse of the Bill Clinton administration's health care plan, whose enactment would have lifted from the bargaining table many of the health benefit conflicts that had generated strikes in the late 1980s. The AFL-CIO also saw a labor law reform commission chaired by the former secretary of labor John Dunlop end in stalemate, and the federation failed to win enactment of a law prohibiting the "striker replacements" that management deployed with increasing frequency to break strikes.

Although no incumbent president of the AFL, the CIO, or the AFL-CIO had been ousted from power in a century, an insurgent faction led by John Sweeney of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) forced Kirkland to resign in 1995 and then handily defeated the election of his heir apparent, Tom Donahue. Like Lewis, who had challenged the AFL hierarchs sixty years before, Sweeney was not a radical. He was a middle-aged Irish Catholic from the Bronx, New York, who sought to forge a social compact with the corporations and the state. Thus, he helped torpedo AFL-CIO adherence to single-payer health insurance and backed the Clinton plan, which favored employer mandates. The SEIU was not a model of internal union democracy. Many of its older, urban affiliates, like New York City's big hotel and apartment house Local 32B–32J, were classic fiefdoms ruled in an autocratic fashion.

But Sweeney represented a wing of the trade union leadership, largely composed of the old industrial unions and those institutions organizing service and government workers, whose most clear-sighted elements had come to understand that labor's capacity to actually make a social contract required that the unions once again demonstrate their willingness to play a disruptive, insurgent role in society. The SEIU had grown to more than a million members because it poured a quarter of all dues income into organizing (5 percent was the union norm). Consequently, the union deployed hundreds of organizers, who used direct action and communitywide mobilizations to unionize janitors, health care workers, and private sector clericals.

The agenda of the Sweenyite AFL-CIO leadership was not far different from that of those who revived the labor movement in the 1930s: open the door to students and radicals, welcome the new immigrants, carve out a distinctive political presence somewhat independent of the Democrats, and above all "organize the unorganized." Some skeptics labeled the Sweenyite strategy "bureaucratic militancy," but whatever its limitations, it was a clear step to the left. For the first time in two generations, America's top trade union leadership stood, in fact and in imagination, on the progressive side of the nation's political culture.

The new AFL-CIO executive board finally expanded to include a substantial number of women and people of color. And the AFL-CIO staff was marbled with New Left veterans long frozen out of responsible posts by the Cold War culture that had lingered within the AFL-CIO even after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Thus, the AFL-CIO endorsed demonstrations seeking to make the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund democratically accountable, and it encouraged a sometimes disruptive student movement that fought against sweat-shop labor abroad and in favor of living wages at home. By the start of the twenty-first century, the new AFL-CIO leadership had been unable to make the organizational breakthrough it so desperately sought, but the labor federation was a more politically potent force both within the liberal community and in the electoral arena.


Buhle, Paul. Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999.

Carew, Anthony. "The American Labor Movement in Fizzland: The Free Trade Union Committee and the CIA." Labor History 39 (February 1998): 25–42.

Dark, Taylor E. The Unions and the Democrats: An Enduring Alliance. Ithaca, N.Y.: IRL Press, 1999.

Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Warren Van Tine. John L. Lewis: A Biography. New York: Quadrangle Books, 1977.

Gall, Gilbert J. The Politics of Right to Work: The Labor Federations as Special Interests, 1943–1979. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.

Gottschalk, Marie. The Shadow Welfare State: Labor, Business, and the Politics of Health Care in the United States. Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 2000.

Goulden, Joseph C. Meany. New York: Atheneum, 1972.

Greene, Julie. Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881–1917. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Kaufman, Stuart Bruce. Samuel Gompers and the Origins of the American Federation of Labor, 1848–1896. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973.

Lichtenstein, Nelson. State of the Union: A Century of American Labor. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

McCartin, Joseph A. Labor's Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modern American Labor Relations, 1912–1921. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Phelan, Craig. William Green: A Biography of a Labor Leader. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

Tomlins, Christopher L. The State and the Unions: Labor Relations, Law, and the Organized Labor Movement in America, 1880–1960. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Zieger, Robert H. The CIO, 1935–1955. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.


See alsoLabor ; Labor Legislation and Administration ; Strikes ; Trade Unions ; andvol. 9:Ford Men Beat and Rout Lewis .

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American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations

American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), a federation of autonomous labor unions in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama, and U.S. dependencies, formed in 1955 by the merger of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). As of 2010, the AFL-CIO included 58 national and international unions that had a U.S. membership of 11.5 million. Heavily involved in politics, the AFL-CIO's primary function is to lobby on behalf of organized labor and mediate disputes between its member unions. The AFL-CIO has campaigned actively against the so-called right-to-work laws, which outlawed union shops (see closed shop), has worked to repeal the Taft-Hartley Labor Act, and has fought other legislation deemed inimical to organized labor's interests.

The organization has five operating levels. Ultimate authority is vested in those attending its biennial convention, but between conventions the organization is run by an executive council, which is composed of the executive officers (president, secretary-treasurer, and executive vice president) and 51 vice presidents. Executive officers handle the day-to-day operations of the organization, and they are advised by a general board consisting of the executive council members, a chief officer of each affiliated union and of each programmatic department within the AFL-CIO, and four regional representatives from the 51 state federations. In addition to these levels of authority, the AFL-CIO carried over autonomous departments from the AFL (such as the Building Trades Dept.) and added an Industrial Union Dept. to handle the problems of the former CIO unions. The union's 13 programmatic departments handle the work of the federation, including labor organizing, political education, legislation, civil rights, and worker safety and health.


American Federation of Labor

In 1881 representatives of workers' organizations, meeting in Pittsburgh, formed the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in the United States and Canada. In 1886 at another conference in Columbus, Ohio, this group reorganized as the American Federation of Labor. Opposed to the socialistic and political ideals of the Knights of Labor, the AFL was, instead, a decentralized organization recognizing the autonomy of each of its member national craft unions. Individual workers were not members of the AFL but only of the affiliated local or national union. From its inception the AFL emphasized organization of skilled workers into craft unions (composed of a single occupation such as painters or electricians), as opposed to industrial unions (where all the workers in the automobile or steel industry would belong to one union).

Opposed to the idea of a labor party, the AFL was a relatively conservative political force within the labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th cent. But the union did help secure for its members higher wages, shorter hours, workmen's compensation, laws against child labor, an 8-hr day for government employees, and the exemption of labor from antitrust legislation (see Clayton Antitrust Act). Under the leadership of Samuel Gompers, William Green, and then George Meany, the AFL became the largest labor federation in the United States, with a membership of over 10 million at the time of its merger with the CIO in 1955.

Congress of Industrial Organizations

Within the AFL in the early 1930s a strong minority faction evolved, advocating the organization of workers in the basic mass-production industries (such as steel, auto, and rubber) on an industry-wide basis. John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers of America led this faction in forming a Committee for Industrial Organization in 1935. This group (changing its name in 1938 to Congress of Industrial Organizations) immediately launched organizing drives in the basic industries. The spectacular success of those drives, particularly in the automobile and steel industries, enhanced the CIO's prestige to the point where it seriously challenged the AFL's hegemony within U.S. organized labor. After fruitless negotiation the parent body revoked the charters of the 10 dissident international unions.

The CIO, under the presidency of Lewis until 1940 and then of Philip Murray until his death in 1952, followed more militant policies than the AFL. The CIO's Political Action Committee, headed by Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, played an active role in the CIO's attempt to urge its membership into more active political participation. The CIO grew rapidly until its affiliated international unions numbered 32 at the time of the 1955 merger, with an estimated membership of five million. Its growth, however, was marked by internal dissension; the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) withdrew in 1938 and the UMW in 1942. While the AFL was grappling with the problem of gangster-dominated affiliates, the CIO decided in 1948 to bar Communists from holding office in the organization, and in 1949–50 it expelled 11 of its affiliated unions, which were said to be Communist-dominated.

Merger to the Present

During the entire period of the alienation of the CIO from the AFL, the idea of merger was being considered by elements in both federations, and labor's concern over the apparent antiunion policies of President Eisenhower's administration (the first Republican administration in 20 years) gave new impetus to the movement for labor unity. The death in 1952 of the presidents of both organizations and the appointment of George Meany to head the AFL and Walter P. Reuther to run the CIO paved the way for a merger in 1955.

At its first convention the merged organizations, now called the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), elected Meany as its president. In 1957 the AFL-CIO adopted antiracket codes, and the convention expelled the Teamsters Union for alleged failure to meet the parent organization's ethical standards. The AFL-CIO took a major step in 1961 in the direction of settling internal disputes by setting up a mandatory arbitration procedure.

A submerged dispute between George Meany and Walter Reuther, who opposed the AFL-CIO's conservative approach to civil rights and social welfare programs, finally erupted in 1968 and the United Automobile Workers (UAW) withdrew from the union. The AFL-CIO supported the Democratic presidential candidates in 1956, 1960, 1964, and 1968. In 1972 however, Meany led the AFL-CIO into a neutral stance, supporting neither major candidate. Meany decided not to run for reelection in 1979 and Lane Kirkland, who had been secretary-treasurer for the AFL-CIO, was elected president.

From the start of Kirkland's term, the AFL-CIO was forced to adapt to a number of adverse economic trends. Union membership dropped from 33% of all U.S. workers in 1960 to 14% in the late 1990s. To shore up organized labor's declining influence, the AFL-CIO concentrated on organizing service workers and public employees and improving labor unity. In 1981 the UAW rejoined the union; the Teamsters (1988) and United Mine Workers (1989) later followed.

Kirkland retired under pressure in 1995. Thomas R. Donahue, the AFL-CIO's secretary-treasurer, was named interim president, but Donahue was challenged for the federation's presidency by John J. Sweeney, who won the first contested election for president in the AFL-CIO's history. In 2005, heads of some of the organization's largest and most active unions, led by Andrew Stern of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), unsuccessfuly attempted to secure Sweeney's retirement and to implement other organizational changes, such as the merging of the ALF-CIO's member unions into 20 large unions, each representing a segment of the economy, and the refocusing of its energies to stress the unionization of unrepresented workers. The SEIU, Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, Laborers' International, and Unite Here subsequently left the AFL-CIO, and with several other unions formed the Change to Win Federation. Sweeney retired in 2009 and was succeeded as president by Richard L. Trumka, who had previously led the United Mine Workers and then served as AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer. Unite Here rejoined the AFL-CIO in 2009, and Laborers' International rejoined in 2010.


See W. Galenson, The CIO Challenge to the AFL (1960); S. Gompers, Seventy Years of Life and Labor (1925, repr. 1967); P. Taft, The A. F. of L. from the Death of Gompers to the Merger (1959, repr. 1970); M. Dubofsky, Industrialism and the American Worker (1975); U.S. Dept. of Labor, A History of the American Worker (1983); F. R. Dulles, Labor in American History (1984); M. Goldfield, The Decline of Organized Labor in the United States (1987); K. Moody, Injury to All (1988).

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American Federation of Labor—Congress of Industrial Organizations


The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is a voluntary federation of 65 national and international labor unions. It comprises 65 national union affiliates, 45,000 local unions, 51 state federations (including Puerto Rico), 570 central labor councils, and a membership of more than 13 million workers. The organization, which has had enormous political influence since the 1930s, is headquartered in Washington, D.C.

The AFL was formed in 1886 as a loose confederation of 25 autonomous national trade unions with more than 316,000 members. The AFL, renouncing identification with any political party or movement, concentrated on pursuing achievable goals such as higher wages and shorter work hours. Members were encouraged to support politicians who were friendly to labor, no matter their party affiliation.

During the 1930s, the AFL became embroiled in internal conflict. The trade unions that dominated the AFL were composed of skilled workers who opposed organizing the unskilled or semiskilled workers on the manufacturing production line. Several unions rebelled at this refusal to organize and formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). The CIO aggressively organized millions of workers who labored in automobile, steel, and rubber plants. In 1938, unhappy with this effort, the AFL expelled the unions that formed the CIO. The CIO then formed its own organization and changed its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. By the 1950s, the leadership of both the AFL and CIO realized that a unified labor movement was a necessity. In 1955, the AFL and the CIO merged into a single organization, the AFL-CIO.

The AFL-CIO is primarily concerned with influencing legislative policies that affect unions. Its staff members conduct research, set policy, and testify before congressional and state legislative committees. More importantly, the organization provides funds and volunteers to labor-endorsed political candidates. Alhough the AFL-CIO is a nonpartisan organization, it traditionally has supported democratic party candidates.

With the 1995 election of John J. Sweeney as president, the AFL-CIO has made increased union membership its highest priority. Despite Sweeney's most recent reelection in 2001, membership in U.S. trade unions has continued to fall over the last several decades, as the manufacturing sector of the U.S. economy has steadily declined. Union membership in 2001 comprised just 13.5 percent of the workforce, compared with a high of 34.7 percent in 1954. Sweeney has pushed the organization to recruit women, minorities, low-paid workers, and white-collar workers. In an effort to strengthen local unions, the AFL-CIO launched the New Alliance initiative in 2001. The purpose of the initiative is to restructure unions at the state and local levels.

The day-to-day work of the federation is carried out by 11 programmatic departments including the Organizing Department; the Field Mobilization Department; the Civil, Human and Women's Rights Department; and the International Affairs Department. Topics of major importance to the AFL-CIO include manufacturing, civil rights, the global economy, health care, immigrant workers, minimum-wage issues, pensions, and social security.

further readings

AFL–CIO Website. Available online at <> (accessed November 13, 2003).

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Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)


Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was an organization of trade unions that represented all workers in major mass-production industries. Formed in 1935 by John L. Lewis (18801969), the CIO was initially called the Committee for Industrial Organizations, a collection of eight unions within the American Federation of Labor (AFL). But differences soon presented themselves between the AFL and the CIO. Except for miners and textile workers, the AFL was divided into craft unions. Boilermakers, machinists, upholsters, painters, and other trades were separated into local unions by the type of skills required to make their products. The CIO advocated an industrial unionism, whereby workers would be organized according to the nature of their products (their industry). Steel-workers would have one union, for example, and the building trades another. The CIO also had an open-door policy to African Americans and other classes of society rejected by the AFL. In 1938 the eight unions represented by the Committee for Industrial Organizations left the AFL, and reorganized themselves under the name Congress of Industrial Organizations. The CIO faced formidable opposition in its early days. The AFL collaborated with local unions and state and federal legislators to brand the CIO a communist organization. Employers murdered, gassed, beat, and intimidated their workers to demoralize the CIO's unionizing efforts. World War II (19391945) pulled the AFL and CIO closer together, as both organizations supported governmental efforts to mobilize industry for military production. During the Korean War (19501953) the AFL and CIO formed a joint committee to deal with federal labor policies. This committee facilitated the formal merger of the two organizations in December 1955.

See also: American Federation of Labor, Labor Movement, Labor Unionism

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"Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

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American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations

American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO US labour organization, the largest union in North America. It is a federation of individual trade unions from the USA, Canada, Mexico, Panama, and some US dependencies. It was formed in 1955 by the merger of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Although each union within the federation is fully autonomous, the ultimate governing body of the AFL-CIO is an executive council made up of president, vice presidents and secretary-treasurer. In recent years, the reduction of union membership (c.15% of US workers in 1995) has seen the AFL-CIO concentrate on recruiting public sector workers.

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Congress of Industrial Organizations


CONGRESS OF INDUSTRIAL ORGANIZATIONS. SeeAmerican Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations .

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"Congress of Industrial Organizations." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from

Congress of Industrial Organizations

Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) See American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)

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Congress of Industrial Organizations

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"Congress of Industrial Organizations." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

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