American Federation of Labor (AFL)

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The American Federation of Labor (AFL) began as a conservative response to earlier labor unions in the United States. Late nineteenth-century labor leaders who opposed the socialist ideals of the Knights of Labor, as well as its belief in a centralized labor movement, organized what became the AFL. The organization's founders believed that each member union should have a considerable degree of self-rule and the power to bring its concerns and views to an executive board that would work to implement agreed upon goals. Toward that end, representatives of a number of craft unions met in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1881 and formed the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in the United States and Canada. Five years later at a meeting in Columbus, Ohio, this group reorganized and changed its name to the American Federation of Labor. Samuel Gompers was behind the move of the cigar workers and other craft unions to make a clean break from the Knights of Labor. Gompers became the first president of the AFL and held that post, except for one year (1895), from 1886 until his death in 1924.

Under the AFL's plan of organization, individual workers held membership in craft unions, while those unions belonged to, or were affiliated with, the AFL. These craft unions were made up of skilled workers, such as plumbers or electricians. The AFL resisted organizing or affiliating with industrial unions that were made up of all the workers in a particular industry, such as automobile workers.

In conformity with its conservative nature, the AFL refused to form a labor party, generally refrained from political action, and tended to emphasize its ability to promote labor-management harmony. Because the AFL opposed Socialist and Communist influence, it considered itself a truly American labor movement. The fact that it obtained significantly improved working conditions for its members is undeniable, and the federation pointed to its record of gaining higher wages, shorter hours, workmen's compensation, laws against child labor, an eight-hour workday for government employees, and the exemption of labor from antitrust legislation as proof of the success of its conservatism in comparison with other unions of its day.


During the Great Depression, the AFL began to chart new paths while adapting older approaches to new conditions. At the beginning of the Depression, for example, the AFL called for a broad approach that took into account production, employment, and consumption. The AFL's program called for a federal employment service, public works, and a federal program to stabilize management and labor, with labor input. Moreover, the AFL called for the establishment of a federal bureau of labor statistics to compile accurate unemployment data.

The AFL also called on the president to establish a national relief committee, and supported Herbert Hoover's President's Emergency Committee on Employment. The AFL's member unions donated time and aid to get the relief movement working, and later in the decade the federation supported what became the Wagner Act (National Labor Relations Act, 1935), which protected organization efforts and gave unions federal protection.

Although the AFL initially rejected unemployment insurance, branding it as un-American, member unions supported it and pressed the federation's executive council to do likewise. The council however, repeated its stand that unemployment insurance would foster idleness and retard recovery, citing the experience of Great Britain and Germany to support its opposition. During the year the AFL executive council indicated repeatedly that it would not alter its stand against unemployment insurance. The council's further argument against unemployment insurance was that it would require registration of every worker and lead to control by federal and state governments. This control would, the council argued, lead to a limit on the rights of union workers to fight for better conditions and would weaken unions by forcing workers to take jobs in non-union plants.

The AFL, in sum, had three basic ideas about the Depression: (1) The Depression was caused by the failure of wages and salaries to keep up with industry's power to produce; (2) management caused the Depression because of its failure to maintain a balance between production and consumption; and (3) government had a responsibility to help workers find jobs and should push management toward adopting policies that promoted stability. To combat the effects of the Depression, the AFL urged that working hours be reduced to help stabilize industry. The federation also called for the government to establish a national economic council to maintain economic equilibrium through a national employment system, efficient industry planning for production, public works, vocational guidance and retraining, studies of technological unemployment and relief proposals, and a general program of education to meet the changing needs of industry. The AFL called, additionally, for a five-day workweek and six-hour workday. Finally, the AFL called on Hoover to convene a joint management-labor meeting to develop a plan to end the Depression.

During the Depression, the AFL began to take more notice of industrial unions. There were two major industrial unions in the AFL at the beginning of the Depression, the Brewery Workers and the United Mine Workers. The United Mine Workers, under John L. Lewis, began to push the AFL toward organizing other industrial workers, and the federation was receptive to this stimulus. The problems faced by the railway unions further moved the AFL into support of industrial unionism. The railway unions faced serious problems, including cuts in wages, when the railway industry underwent major reorganization, and railway workers became more radical. The AFL's advocacy of industrial stabilization with governmental aid made it important to foster industrial unionism. Moreover, the AFL changed its policy from one of opposition to government aid in union-management negotiations to one of advocating such government intervention. Federal protection for collective bargaining became one of the AFL's major goals.

During the Depression the AFL did not cling rigidly to conservative positions. Rather, it began to embrace bolder views, reaching out for solutions to various segments of the labor movement. The fact that the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) embraced more radical positions long overshadowed the major changes that the Depression stimulated in the AFL.


From its beginnings, the AFL had opposed industrial unions. Conditions, however, were greatly different in the United States of the 1930s. World War I had changed the country forever, and it had become a great industrial power. The Great Depression further changed social and economic reality, making clear how closely and inextricably social and economic conditions were intertwined.

A large minority of the AFL's members recognized the necessity of organizing industrial workers. The mass-production industries, including steel, automobiles, and rubber, required organization on an industry-wide basis. John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers of America, recognized the need for industrial unions, and he became leader of the group within the AFL that formed a Committee for Industrial Organization in 1935. The CIO left the AFL in 1938, and changed its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations, immediately launching organizing drives in the industrial sector and achieving spectacular success with the aid of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's strong support.

The two confederations of unions remained separated until 1955 when George Meany of the AFL and Walter Reuther of the CIO led a drive to merge them. The new organization, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), elected George Meany as its president. Despite some problems, including Reuther's withdrawal of the automobile workers and the expulsion of the Teamsters Union, the merger has held. The decline in union membership and power since the 1950s has been a major factor in keeping the AFL-CIO together.



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Frank A. Salamone

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American Federation of Labor (AFL)

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American Federation of Labor (AFL)