The American Federation of Labor (AFL)


In 1881, representatives of a number of existing craft unions formed the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada. Five years later, in 1886 when it was officially formed, it changed its name to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and it soon became the most important and enduring labor group in the country. This organization came before the Knights of Labor began to decline. Rejecting the Knights’ idea of one big union for everybody, the Federation was an association of essential autonomous craft unions and represented mainly skilled workers. It was generally hostile to organizing unskilled workers, who did not fit comfortably within the craft-based structure of existing organizations. Instead of trying to reshape the fundamental institutions of American life, as some of the more radical union activists were trying to do, the AFL focused on securing for its members higher wages
, better working conditions, and a shorter work week.And while it hoped to attain its goals by collective bargaining, it was ready to use strikes if necessary.

As one of its first objectives, the AFL demanded a national eight hour day and called for a general strike if workers did not achieve the goal by May 1, 1886. On that day, strikes and demonstrations calling for a shorter workday took place all over the country, most of them staged by AFL unions but a few by more radical groups. Samuel Gompers, founder of the federation, was not afraid to call for a strike or a boycott. The larger AFL could be used to support these actions, as well as provide relief for members engaged in a work stoppage. By refusing to pursue a radical program for political change, Gompers maintained the support of the American government and public. By 1900, the ranks of the AFL swelled to over 500,000 tradespeople. Gompers was seen as the unofficial leader of the labor worked in America. es, better working conditions, and a shorter work week.And while it hoped to attain its goals by collective bargaining, it was ready to use strikes if necessary.
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Although the bosses still had the upper hand with the government, unions were growing in size and status. There were over 20,000 strikes in America in the last two decades of the 19th century. Workers lost about half, but in many cases their demands were completely or partially met. The AFL served as the preeminent national labor organization until the Great Depression when unskilled workers finally came together. Smart leadership, patience, and realistic goals made life better for the hundreds of thousands of working Americans it served.


The AFL had emerged out of a dispute with the Knights of Labor organization, in which the leadership of that organization solicited locals of various craft unions to withdraw from their International organizations and to affiliate with the KL directly. This would have taken funds from the various unions and enriched the KL’s coffers. The KL was formed to create a genuinely national labor organization to include all workers and most business and professional people. The only excluded groups were lawyers, bankers, liquor dealers, and professional gamblers. One of the other organizations embroiled in this controversy was the Cigar Makers’ International Union (CMIU), a group subject to competition from a dual union, a rival “Progressive Cigarmakers’ Union”. Competition existed in signing contracts with various cigar manufacturers, who were at this same time combining themselves into manufacturers’ associations of their own in NYC, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Chicago.

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In January 1886, the Cigar Manufacturer’s Association of New York City announced a 20% wage cut in factories. The Cigar Makers’ International Union refused to accept the cut and a four week strike went on. Just when it appeared that the strike might be won, the New York District Assembly of the Knights of Labor interrupted, offering to settle with factories at a lower wage scale than that proposed by the CMIU, so long as only the Progressive Cigarmakers’ Union was employed. The leadership of the CMIU was enraged and demanded that the New York District Assembly be investigated and punished by the national officials of the KL. The American Federation of Labor was originally formed as an alliance of craft unions outside the Knights of Labor as a means of defending themselves against this and similar incursions.
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On May 18th, 1886 a conference was held to address all national trade unions. The KL was charged with conspiring with anti-union bosses to provide labor at below going union rates and with making use of individuals who had crossed picket lines or defaulted on payment of union dues. The body authored a treaty to be presented, which demanded that the KL cease attempting to organize members of International Unions into its own assemblies without permission of the unions involved and that KL organizers violating this provision should suffer immediate suspension.

The heads of the five labor organizations which issued the call for May conference issued a new call for a convention to be held in December 1886 in order to construct an American Federation of alliance of all national and international trade unions. Forty two delegates who represented 13 national unions and various other local labor organizations agreed to form themselves into an American Federation of Labor. Revenue would be raised on the basis of a “per-capita tax” of its member organizations, set the rate of six cents per year. The organization would have annual conventions with one delegate allocated for every 4,000 members of each affiliated union. Samuel Gompers of the Cigar Makers’ International Union was made president of the AFL and would be re-elected to the position of the organization for every year until his death.

Samuel Gompers

Click on the link below to look at an interview with Samuel Gompers!

The AFL needed help from other organizations to form itself. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Teamsters, and the American Federation of Musicians helped form the union. The AFL also advanced funds and provided organizers for those organizations. The influence the AFL had helped to heal splits within affiliated unions and to force separate unions seeking to represent the same jurisdictions to merge. The AFL also chartered “federal unions” – local unions not affiliated with any international union, in those fields in which no affiliate claimed jurisdiction.
The formation of local labor bodies was also encouraged by the AFL where all of the affiliates could participate. The Chicago Federation of Labor was formed to organize packinghouse and steel workers during and after World War I. The local Building Trades Council in San Francisco was also created.
The AFL’s philosophy was based off of “business unionism” which emphasized unions’ contribution to businesses’ profits and national economic growth. The business unionist approach also focused on skilled workers’ immediate job-related interests, while ignoring larger political issues. Toward politicians they adopted Gompers’ slogan – “reward your friends and punish your enemies”. Eventually though Gompers became almost anti-political due to the repeated disappointments with the failure of labor’s legislative efforts to protect workers’ rights, which the courts had struck down as unconstitutional. Gompers opposed some forms of protective legislation, such as limitations on working hours, because they would detract from the efforts of unions to obtain those same benefits through collective bargaining.

AFL’s View on Women

Toward women, the AFL adopted an apparently contradictory policy. On the one hand, the male leaders of the AFL were essentially hostile to the idea of women entering the paid work force. Because women were weak, they believed, employers could easily take advantage of them by paying them less than men. As a result, women workers drove down wages for everyone. “It is the so-called competition of the unorganized, defenseless woman worker, the girl and the wife, that often tends to reduce the wages of the father and husband,” Gompers once said. He talked often about the importance of women remaining in the home, and argued (incorrectly) that “There is no necessity of the wife contributing to the support of the family by working.” More than that, female labor was, the AFL newspaper wrote, “the knife of the assassin, aimed at the family circle.” Gompers himself believed strongly that a test of a man’s worth was his ability to support a family, and that women in the work force would undermine men’s positions as heads of their families.
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Although hostile to the idea of women workers, the AFL nevertheless sought equal pay for those women who did work and even hired some female organizers to encourage unionization in industries dominated by women. These positions were, in fact, less contradictory than they seem. By raising the pay of women, the AFL could make them less attractive to employers and, in effect, drive them out of the work force.
Gompers accepted the basic premises of capitalism; his goal was simply to secure for the workers he represented a greater share of capitalism’s material rewards. Gompers rejected the idea of fundamental economic reform; he opposed the creation of a worker’s party; he was generally hostile to any government efforts to protect labor or improve working conditions, convinced that what government could give it could also take away. The AFL concentrated instead on the relationship between labor and management. It supported the immediate objectives of most workers: better wages, hours, and working conditions.
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Haymarket Square

In Chicago, a center of labor and radical strength, a strike was already in progress at the McCormick Harvester Company when the general strike began. City police had been harassing the strikers, and labor and radical leaders called a protest meeting at Haymarket Square. When the police ordered the crowd to disperse, someone threw a bomb that killed seven officers and injured sixty seven other people. The police, who had killed four strikers the day before, fired into the crowd and killed four more people. Conservative, property-conscious Americans, frightened and outraged, demanded retribution, even though no one knew who had thrown the bomb. Chicago officials finally rounded up eight anarchists and charged them with murder, on the grounds that their statements had incited whoever had hurtled the bomb. All eight scapegoats were found guilty after a remarkably injudicious trial. Seven were sentenced were death. One of the condemned committed suicide, four were executed, and two had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.
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To most middle class Americans, the Haymarket bombing was an alarming symbol of social chaos and radicalism. “Anarchism” now became a code word in the public mind for terrorism and violence, even though most anarchists were relatively peaceful visionaries dreaming of a new social order. For the next thirty years, the specter of anarchism remained one of the most frightening concepts in the American middle class imagination. It also became a constant obstacle to the goals of the AFL and other labor organizations, and it was particularly devastating to the Knights of Labor, which, as the most radical fo the major labor organizations, never recovered from the post-Haymarket hysteria. However much they tried to distance themselves from radicals, unions were always vulnerable to accusations of anarchism, as the violent strikes of the 1890s occasionally illustrated.

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