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What is the American Federation of Labor?

By Jan Hill
Updated May 17, 2024
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The American Federation of Labor (AFL) is a labor union in the United States. It originally consisted of skilled workers from several smaller craft unions who may have become dissatisfied with their allegiance to another labor union, the Knights of Labor. Among the first American labor union federations, the AFL was formed in 1886 in Columbus, Ohio, and led by Samuel Gompers. Members of the AFL commonly wanted higher wages and better working conditions and found strength through uniting together to further their causes.

The AFL's predecessor, the Knights of Labor, was founded in 1869 by a group of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, tailors. The Knights of Labor fell into disfavor with workers after the failure of the Missouri Pacific strike and the Haymarket Square riot in Chicago, Illinois, in 1886. Membership in the Knights of Labor fell to under 100,000 by 1900, while AFL membership ballooned to over 500,000 workers. The American Federation of Labor was extremely popular during World War I, when the US government sought to avoid strikes and was relatively generous to both workers and labor unions.

Under the leadership of Samuel Gompers, the American Federation of Labor became the largest labor union in the US. In its early years, the AFL offered membership to skilled workers only and prohibited women, African-Americans, and other ethnic minorities from joining its ranks. Under Gompers, the AFL supported strikes, or boycotts, believed to be peaceful negotiating techniques and was extremely opposed to socialism. Gompers attempted to keep the AFL out of the political arena, although the group became aligned with the Democratic party in the early 1900s. Gompers was re-elected president of the American Federation of Labor every year except one until his death in 1924.

By the 1920s and 1930s, members of the AFL had begun to support the inclusion of unskilled workers in the union. The AFL began to experience great tension regarding this issue. In 1935, AFL member John L. Lewis formed the Committee for Industrial Organization, or the CIO. The CIO was a part of the AFL until 1937, when the AFL voted to expel all members affiliated with the new group. Eventually, the CIO came to stand for the Congress for Industrial Organizations.

The American Federation of Labor and the CIO remained separate until 1955, when they united to form the AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO remains the largest labor union in the US, despite the fact that membership in labor unions has fallen significantly since the 1950s. By the 1980s, only 20 percent of American workers belonged to a labor union.

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Discussion Comments
By oasis11 — On Sep 18, 2011

I know that there was a bill floating around referred to as Card Check that the AFL-CIO supported. The official name of the bill was the Employee Free Choice Act.

I read that union membership had declined to a little less than eight percent of the United States population and this union wanted to revive interest in their organization again. The bill was a little controversial because the union votes would no longer be private.

I don’t know how I would feel about this because on the one hand I would want my vote private so that people that did not agree with me would not bother me, but on the other hand when you join a union you are sort of joining a family of sorts so I don’t think that there should be any secrets.

I can see that both sides of this argument have a lot of merit.

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