Skip to main content

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

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"American Federation of Labor (AFL)." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . 23 Jun. 2018 <>.

"American Federation of Labor (AFL)." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . (June 23, 2018).

"American Federation of Labor (AFL)." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Retrieved June 23, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.