American Federation of Labor

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The American Federation of Labor or AFL was a confederation of trade unions in the U.S.

It was founded in 1886 by Samuel Gompers (1850–1924), its longtime head. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions formed in 1881 as a coalition of like-minded unions; in 1886 it was reorganized into the AFL, with Gompers as its president. He remained president of the organization until his death (except for 1895). The AFL coalition gradually gained strength, undermining that previously held by the Knights of Labor, which as a result had almost vanished by 1900.

In practice, AFL unions were important in industrial cities, where they formed a central labor office to coordinate the actions of different AFL unions. Most strikes were assertions of jurisdiction, so that the plumbers, for example, used strikes to ensure that all major construction projects in the city used union plumbers. In this goal they were ideally supported by all the other construction unions in the AFL fold. Issues of wages and hours did arise, but were usually less important. Safety issues rarely were at issue in strikes.

The AFL strenuously opposed unrestricted immigration from Europe because it lowered wages, and opposed any immigration at all from Asia for the previous reason and also because it brought an alien culture. The AFL was instrumental in passing immigration restriction laws from the 1890s to the 1920s, and seeing that they were strictly enforced. As Mink shows, the link between the AFL and the Democratic Party rested in large part on immigration issues; the owners of large corporations wanted more immigration and thus supported the Republican party.[1]

Gompers promoted harmony among the different craft unions that comprised the AFL. Focused on higher wages and job security, the AFL fought against socialism and the Socialist party. After 1907 it formed alliances with the Democratic party at the local, state and national levels. The AFL enthusiastically supported the war effort in World War I, and saw rapid growth in union membership and wage rates.

The AFL lost membership in the 1920s, and did not recover from the doldrums until the New Deal passed the Wagner Act in 1935. The AFL enthusiastically supported the New Deal Coalition led by Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Coal mining workers leader John L. Lewis led a group of industrial unions to break away in the 1930s to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The two federations competed furiously, even violently. The AFL was always larger, and added more members in the late 1930s and World War II era, while avoiding the radicalism of the CIO. William Green was president (1925-1952), but after 1940 the dominant leader was William Meany (1894-1980), former head of the New York State Federation of Labor.

The AFL was always hostile to Communists, especially as they were powerful inside the rival CIO. The AFL boycotted the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), formed in 1945, because of it for its decision to admit Soviet trade unions. Attacking them as creatures of the Soviet state, the AFL was instrumental in establishing a rival federation, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), which eventually won the allegiance of all labor federations save those of the Soviet Union and its satellites. The AFL hailed the Truman administration's Cold War policies and strongly supported American military intervention in the Korean War. Corruption in labor unions became a major political issues in the 1950s. Meany convinced the AFL expel the racketeer-influenced International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) in 1953, and several other corrupt affiliates, most notably the Teamsters union, several years later.

After years of bitter rivalry the two re-united in 1955 as the AFL-CIO. Another split took place in 2006, as the AFL-CIO steadily lost membership and influence in the private sector. However it has gained in strength with the public sector unions, and continues to be an influential force for liberal policies inside the Democratic party. --- See also


Primary sources

  • AFL, American Federation of Labor: History, Encyclopedia, Reference Book 1919 online edition
  • Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor: An Autobiography (1925) online edition



  1. Gwendolyn Mink. Old labor and new immigrants in American political development: union, party, and state, 1875-1920. (1986).