American Federation of Labor

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American Federation of Labor

United States 1886


Trade unions in the United States remained relatively weak throughout the nineteenth century. Only about 2 percent of the total labor force and less than 10 percent of all industrial workers were members of unions. Leaders of the labor movement realized that a national union was needed, but efforts to establish such a union were marked by difficulties. The National Trades' Union, the National Labor Union, the Order of the Knights of Labor, the Cigar Makers' International Union, and the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada were all early unions that helped to bring about the establishment of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Prominent among those working to form a successful national union was Samuel Gompers, a man who persistently pursued activities that would eventually lead to the founding of the AFL in 1886.


  • 1866: Winchester repeating rifle is introduced.
  • 1871: Chicago fire causes 250 deaths and $196 million in damage.
  • 1876: General George Armstrong Custer and 264 soldiers are killed by the Sioux at the Little Big Horn River.
  • 1878: Thomas Edison develops a means of cheaply producing and transmitting electric current, which he succeeds in subdividing so as to make it adaptable to household use. The value of shares in gas companies plummets as news of his breakthrough reaches Wall Street.
  • 1882: Agitation against English rule spreads throughout Ireland, culminating with the assassination of chief secretary for Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and permanent undersecretary Thomas Burke in Dublin's Phoenix Park. The leader of the nationalist movement is Charles Stewart Parnell, but the use of assassination and terrorism—which Parnell himself has disavowed—makes clear the fact that he does not control all nationalist groups.
  • 1884: Chicago's Home Life Insurance Building, designed by William LeBaron Jenney, becomes the world's first sky scraper.
  • 1886: Bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago, kills seven policemen and injures numerous others. Eight anarchists are accused and tried; three are imprisoned, one commits suicide, and four are hanged.
  • 1886: The Statue of Liberty is dedicated.
  • 1886: Apache chief Geronimo surrenders to U.S. forces.
  • 1888: The Blizzard of 1888 in the United States kills hundreds and causes more than $25 million in property damage.
  • 1892: Bitter strikes in Australia lead to the closing of ports and mines.
  • 1896: U.S. Supreme Court issues its Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which establishes the "separate but equal" doctrine that will be used to justify segregation in the southern United States for the next half-century.

Event and Its Context

Precursors to the AFL

The efforts of several earlier, short-lived national organizations made possible the creation of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Several precursors of this organization paved the way for its creation.

On 17 May 1834 the Workingmen's Advocate of New York City printed an article that told of the benefits of a national union of trade societies in sustaining and promoting the rights of every workingman in the country. The National Trades' Union was born in August 1834 when a convention was called by the General Trades' Union of New York. Delegates from local unions in New York City; Poughkeepsie, New York; Newark, New Jersey; Boston; and Philadelphia were present. The National Trades' Union never possessed more than an advisory capacity; nevertheless, its ideas helped to identify the need for a national trade union in the United States. The economic panic of 1837 ended the National Trades' Union, and no more valid attempts at organizing a national union came until near the end of the Civil War.

The Civil War period strongly boosted unionism. By the end of the war, most large cities had a central labor body that represented organized crafts, such as the molders, stone cutters, hat finishers, machinists, blacksmiths, miners, locomotive engineers, cigar makers, ship carpenters, bricklayers, plasterers, carpenters and joiners, painters, and many others. Union membership was estimated at about 300,000 at this time.

With a strong labor movement developing, delegates from eight trade assemblies met in 1864 in Louisville, Kentucky, with the intention of forming the International Industrial Assembly of North America. They adopted a constitution and generated a general strike fund but could not gain enough support to establish the organization formally. Two years later, in August 1866 in Baltimore, Maryland, the National Labor Union was formed (it actually evolved from the International Industrial Assembly) by agreement of 77 delegates representing local unions, city federations, eight-hour leagues (organizations promoting the eight-hour workday), and national unions.

The delegates elected J. C. C. Whaley of Washington, D.C., as the union's first president. The agenda of the National Labor Union was to promote arbitration (instead of strikes), regulation of apprenticeship, the eight-hour workday, a national labor statistics bureau, a federal labor department, and the abolition of contract prison labor. The union held annual congresses between 1866 and 1872 that were attended by most of the existing labor organizations. Although only in existence for a short time, the union helped to establish the concept of the worker as a viable economic group with national interests. Labor historians generally agree that the National Labor Union was the first "permanent" national association of unions that had a substantial impact on the national labor environment. Most historians also conclude that its failure was due to such factors as its inconsistent organizational characteristics, its preoccupation with politics, and its inadequate perception of the goals of the labor movement.

The Knights of Labor

Between 1873 and 1880 three diverse organizations—one composed solely of skilled workers, another group emphasizing the social reforms of the National Labor Union, and a third one composed of immigrant workers with a socialist intent—prevented any national labor union from being formed. In December 1877, however, the Socialist Labor Party formed as a response to the railroad strikes of 1877 and to the interest in labor politics that was spreading across the country. This union was followed on 1 January 1878 by the founding of the Order of the Knights of Labor (KOL) in Reading, Pennsylvania. The 33 delegates present adopted a constitution that established the general assembly as the authority of the KOL. The KOL became a truly national organization, unlike its predecessors, in that its members joined individually rather than through affiliated unions.

The KOL organized itself around district assemblies (of the KOL) and independent local assemblies. It expressed its intent to serve all workers, both skilled and unskilled, and to be different from craft and trade unions. The KOL recognized the importance of workers in the emerging industrial system and felt that the broader-based labor (industrial) union was better equipped than the small trade (craft) union. The KOL emphasized the solidarity of labor and promoted the idea of a centralized association that would represent the workers in all industries and occupations. Its charter granted the power to elect officers; decide policy matters; make, amend, or repeal laws and regulations; issue charters; decide controversies; and tax members. Although the KOL only lasted from 1878 to 1886, the organizational structure and policies established during those years are considered the foundation that ultimately formed the American Federation of Labor. Historian Norman J. Ware remarked that the KOL "tried to teach the American wage-earner that he was a wage-earner first and a bricklayer, carpenter, miner, shoemaker, after, that he was a wage-earner first and a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, white, black, Democrat, Republican after."

Gompers and the Cigar Makers

During the late 1870s Samuel Gompers—who would later help to establish the AFL—assisted a small craft union in New York City. In 1875 Gompers was the head of Local 144 in New York City, the largest affiliate to the Cigar Makers' Union (a prominent trade union of skilled workers). Along with Adolph Strasser, president of the Cigar Makers' Union, and Ferdinand Laurrell, Gompers led a movement that eventually held a national convention of cigar makers in 1879. At that time they reestablished the Cigar Makers' International Union, which had grown very weak during the economic panic of 1873. They adopted the popular British trade union system into their new organization and also adopted, with the urging of Gompers, a set of sound and efficient business practices. The leaders of the international had complete authority over the local unions. A membership increase helped to build up a large monetary reserve fund, a system of sickness and death benefits for its members, and a plan for lending money to members who were searching for work. Later, various other national and international trade unions modeled their organizations after this structure. These practical methods adapted well to their struggle for higher wages and shorter workdays.

At this time, growth increased in other craft unions that had survived the depression of 1873. As conditions improved, trade unionists again considered the creation of a national organization. The KOL from Indiana joined with the Terre Haute Amalgamated Labor Union for a conference on 2 August 1881, in Terre Haute, Indiana. With only a few delegates in attendance, they agreed to meet again in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During 15-18 November 1881 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada (FOTLU) was founded at Turner Hall in downtown Pittsburgh. (The name was specifically intended to exclude political labor organizations but to include both skilled and unskilled labor.) Over 100 delegates representing nearly half a million members attended the founding convention. Members from many national and international trade unions attended, including the Typographical Workers, the Iron and Steel Workers, the Glass Workers, the Iron Molders, the Cigar Makers, and the Carpenters. Also represented were the central labor councils of 11 cities, 42 local unions, and 3 district assemblies and 46 local assemblies of the KOL, which at that time was the largest labor organization in the country.

The constitution of the FOTLU was modeled almost entirely from the British Trades Union Congress because most of the member craft unions had been greatly influenced by the British. The wording of the constitution gave control of the FOTLU to the skilled workers rather than the unskilled workers. Gompers was nominated to be president of the FOTLU, along with Richard Powers of the Lake Seaman's Union. The members of the FOTLU were sharply divided over these two candidates, so for the good of the union they stepped aside. John Jarrett of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers became the president, with Gompers and Powers both serving as vice presidents.

During the next four years the FOTLU and the KOL became rivals. Also during this period, a wave of labor unrest developed as a result of (1) generally unsafe and unhealthy working conditions in the rapidly growing industries of the United States, (2) increased replacement of labor by machines, and (3) increasing numbers of immigrants, especially from the eastern and southern parts of Europe. In 1884 alone, the cigar makers, longshoremen, miners, steel workers, printers, railroad shipmen, and textile workers staged numerous strikes. Without the backing of strong labor unions, most of these strikes were unsuccessful. Workers, however, found that boycotts were effective weapons against abusive employers and discovered that the KOL were eager to help all types of workers by funding the strikes, intervening in disputes, and negotiating with employers.

Within a year of its birth, the FOTLU had been reduced to an insignificant labor organization. Only 19 delegates attended its second convention assembled in Cleveland in November 1882. The strongest trade union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, withdrew its support, and only a few unions, namely the International Cigar Makers' Union, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, and the International Typographical Union, showed any serious backing. Gompers was one of the few who remained active in the FOTLU. However, increasing numbers of craft unions began to favor the stronger KOL and to distance themselves from the weakening FOTLU.

The Haymarket Incident

Beginning in 1885, relations between the KOL and the trade unions began to change for the worse. The KOL was expanding rapidly, and many craft unions felt lost within the growing organization. The KOL was also becoming more aggressive in its tactics as it secured more successes in strikes, boycotts, and collective bargaining. The final break between the craft unions and the KOL came in 1886, when the FOTLU called a universal strike for an eight-hour day. The leadership of the KOL opposed the eight-hour workday (although the KOL members favored it, and the public perceived the KOL to be in favor of it) and tried to disrupt the strike. By 1 May 1886 around 350,000 workers were on strike, with some of the most violent actions taking place in Chicago in the form of a bomb explosion at Haymarket Square on 4 May 1886. About 125 workers and police were killed or seriously injured. Although the weak FOTLU had initiated the strike, the strong KOL was seen as publicly supporting the eight-hour day; it received the most negative publicity and public hostility. The entire labor movement suffered as a result of the Haymarket incident. The resulting public outrage ultimately contributed to the dissolution of the KOL.

After the Haymarket incident the KOL continued to be hindered by infighting and by struggles with employers and various trade unions. The situation worsened with the New York Cigar Manufacturers Association announcement of a reduction in wages on 1 January 1886. Progressive Union No. 1 rejected the change, but Local 144 accepted it. The manufacturers ordered a lockout that involved 10,000 workers. The Progressives eventually agreed with the manufacturers. However, when the KOL met on 4 October 1886 in Richmond, Virginia, it admitted the Progressive Cigar Makers' Union and expelled the International Cigar Makers' Union, of which Local 144 was a member. This event, and the activities leading up to it, helped to build a sense of cooperation within the trade unions against the KOL. As a result, Samuel Gompers, head of Local 144, who had regularly opposed the KOL, was selected by the Cigar Makers' Union to oppose the actions of the KOL. The FOTLU condemned the acts instigated by the KOL and often ordered that its unions not support the KOL. Gompers's actions resulted in the gathering of delegates that ultimately formed the AFL and led to the eventual ascendancy of Gompers as its leader.

The Formal Beginnings of the AFL

A committee of the various trade unions announced on 10 November 1886 that a convention would be held in Columbus, Ohio, on 8 December 1886 for the purpose of drawing "the bonds of unity much closer together between all the trades unions of America" by means of "an American federation or alliance of all national and international trades unions." As a result, delegates from various affiliates of both the KOL and the FOTLU as well as from certain unaffiliated unions met to organize a national trade union movement. Delegates hoped that the new national organization would be more enduring than any of its predecessors. In all, 42 delegates from 25 labor organizations assembled, claiming to represent over 315,000 members. The FOTLU itself was also meeting at that same time and decided to merge with the newly formed organization. Thus, the AFL was born in 1886. Gompers was elected unanimously as its founding president (with a salary of $1,000 per year plus travel expenses). After electing Gompers as president, the delegation elected P. F. Fitzpatrick of the iron molders as first vice president; J. W. Smith, of the journeymen tailors as second vice president; P. J. McGuire of the carpenters as secretary; and Gabriel Edmonston, also of the carpenters, as treasurer. This executive council would be responsible for the direction of the new organization.

The initial membership of the AFL was estimated at about 140,000 workers grouped in 25 national unions. Its constitution was based on many features of the earlier FOTLU and had as its three main objectives the protection of jurisdictions, the encouragement of legislation favorable to wage earners, and the assistance to constituent groups in organizing. It was financed initially by a per capita tax of one-half cent per month and by charter fees.

The AFL began as a decentralized organization that recognized the autonomy of each of the national craft unions that were its members. Individual workers were not members of the AFL but only of the affiliated local or national union. The AFL emphasized the organization of skilled workers into craft unions (composed of a single occupation such as carpenters or electricians), as opposed to industrial unions (in which all the workers in a particular industry, such as steel, would belong to one union). The AFL was structured as a loose confederation of autonomous unions, each with exclusive rights to deal with the workers and employers in its own field. Each autonomous union had its own leadership, which was determined by its own specific requirements and needs. The AFL had no powers except those that were authorized by the organizations that composed it.

The AFL concerned itself primarily with organizing skilled workers and with the pursuit of specific, attainable goals such as higher wages and shorter working hours. The AFL renounced identification with any political party or movement and adopted instead the policy of urging its members to support federal, state, and local candidates for public office who were considered friendly to labor, regardless of party affiliation, and to vote against those regarded as hostile. Gompers felt that the primary tactics of the AFL should be (1) lobbying the existing political parties, (2) actively improving the public image of unions, and (3) collective bargaining as the primary way to gain benefits for members. Gompers also believed that the goals of the AFL should come from the members themselves. He believed that the union should work with industry, rather than fight against it, so as to improve the economic state of union members. He believed that as capitalism improves, so does the lot of union members. He held conservative political views and believed that trade unionists should accept America's capitalist economic system.


Opposed to the idea of a labor political party, the AFL was a relatively conservative political force in the labor movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The union, however, did help secure higher wages, shorter workdays, workmen's compensation, additional legislation against child labor, and the exemption of labor from antitrust legislation. At the annual AFL convention in 1893, Gompers was proud to say, "It is noteworthy that while in every previous industrial crisis the trade unions were literally mowed down and swept out of existence, the unions now in existence have manifested, not only the powers of resistance, but of stability and permanency."

Key Players

Gompers, Samuel (1850-1924): Gompers was an American labor leader, who, as president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), believed in cooperation between management and labor as a means of obtaining labor demands, with the strike used only as a last resort. After only four years of elementary school education in London, Gompers was apprenticed to a London cigar maker. In 1863 he and his family moved to New York City, where he became active in the social clubs, fraternal orders, and labor unions of the Lower East Side. Gompers became a member of the Cigar Maker's International Union in 1864 and 10 years later helped found Local 144 of the international union. He remained a member of the Local 144 for the rest of his life and was elected its president in 1874. In 1881 Gompers was one of the chief founders and the first president of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States of America and Canada. When the AFL was founded in 1886, Gompers was elected its founding president and reelected each year afterwards (except in 1895) until his death.

See also: Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada (FOTLU); General Trades' Union; Haymarket Riot; Knights of Labor; National Labor Union; National Trades Union.



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Dulles, Foster Rhea, and Melvyn Dubofsky, eds. Labor in America: A History. 5th ed. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1984.

Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor: An Autobiography. New York: Dutton, 1957.

Harvey, Rowland Hill. Samuel Gompers, Champion of the Toiling Masses. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, and London: Oxford University Press, 1953.

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

Livesay, Harold C. Samuel Gompers and Organized Labor in America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1978.

Lorwin, Lewis Levitzki. The American Federation of Labor: Policies and Prospects. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1933.

—William Arthur Atkins

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