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AFL-CIO – A Brief History

Introduction: The AFL–CIO is a federation of international labor unions. As a voluntary federation, the AFL–CIO has little authority over the affairs of its member unions except in extremely limited cases (such as the ability to expel a member union for corruption (Art. X, Sec. 17) and enforce resolution of disagreements over jurisdiction or organizing). As of June 2008, the AFL–CIO had 56 member unions. Membership in the AFL–CIO is largely unrestricted. Since its inception as the American Federation of Labor, the AFL–CIO has supported an image of the federation as the “House of Labor”—an all-inclusive, national federation of “all” labor unions.

Early History: Unions began forming in the mid-19th century. The 1870s and 1880s saw large-scale consolidation, with the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor mushrooming overnight into a major force in the late 1880s; it then collapsed because of poor organization.

In December of 1886, the same year the Knights of Labor was dealt its fatal blow at Haymarket Square, Samuel Gompers met with the leaders of other craft unions to form the American Federation of Labor. The A.F. of L. was a loose grouping of smaller craft unions, such as the masons’ union, the hat makers’ union and cigar makers’ union. Samuel Gompers quickly learned that the issues that workers cared about most deeply were personal. They wanted higher wages and better working conditions. These “bread and butter” issues would always unite the labor class.  Gompers was a committed capitalist and saw no need for a radical restructuring of America. By keeping it simple, unions could avoid the pitfalls that had weakened the National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor.

Gompers had no visions of uniting the entire working class. Tradespeople were in greater demand and already earned higher wages than their unskilled counterparts. Gompers knew that the A.F. of L. would have more political and economic power if unskilled workers were excluded. Although conservative in nature, Gompers was not afraid to call for a strike or a boycott. The larger A.F. of L. 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 was able to maintain the support of the American government and the general public. By 1900, the ranks of the A.F. of L. swelled to over 500,000 tradespeople. Gompers was seen as the unofficial leader of the labor world in America. He served as president of the union every year except one until his death in 1924.

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 A.F. of L. served as the preeminent national labor organization until the Great Depression when unskilled workers finally came together in a variety of industrial unions.

The Congress of Industrial Organizations: The CIO was born out of a fundamental dispute within the labor movement over whether and how to organize industrial workers. Those who favored unionizing skilled crafts believed that the most effective way to represent workers was to defend the advantages they had secured through their skills. They focused on the recruitment and employment of skilled workers, such as masons, hat makers, carpenters, lithographers, and railroad engineers, in an attempt to maintain as much control as possible over the work their members did through enforcement of work rules, and strictly maintaining their jurisdiction to certain types of work, control over apprenticeship programs, and exclusion of less skilled workers from membership.

Within the A.F. of L. in the early 1930s a strong minority faction evolved, advocating the organization of workers in the basic mass-production industries (such as steel, auto, and rubber) on an industry-wide basis. John L. Lewis, President of the United Mine Workers of America led this faction in forming a Committee for Industrial Organization in 1935. This group (changing its name in 1938 to Congress of Industrial Organizations) immediately launched organizing drives in the basic industries where a variety of skills were required (e.g., producing an automobile in an assembly plant required mechanics, painters, electricians, and a variety of other skills). The spectacular success of those drives, particularly in the automobile and steel industries, enhanced the CIO’s prestige to the point where it seriously challenged the A.F. of L.’s power within U.S. organized labor. After fruitless negotiation the parent body revoked the charters of the 10 dissident international industrial unions.

The CIO followed more militant policies than the AFL. For example, the CIO’s Political Action Committee, initially headed by Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, played an active role in the CIO’s attempt to urge its membership into more active political participation. The CIO grew rapidly until its affiliated international unions numbered 32 at the time of the 1955 merger, with an estimated membership of five million. Its growth, however, was marked by internal dissension; the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) withdrew in 1938 and the UMW in 1942. While the AFL was grappling with the problem of gangster-dominated affiliates, the CIO decided in 1948 to bar Communists from holding office in the organization, and in 1949–50 it expelled 11 of its affiliated unions, which were said to be Communist-dominated.

A Time Line of Labor History in the United States

1676 Bacon’s Rebellion of servants and slaves in Virginia

1677 First recorded prosecution against strikers in New York City 1765 Artisans and laborers in Sons of Liberty protest oppressive British taxes

1770 British troops kill five dock workers in Boston Massacre 1773 Laborers protest royal taxation in the Boston tea Party

1786 Philadelphia printers conduct first successful strike for increased wages

1791 First strike in building trades by Philadelphia carpenters for a 10-hour day bill of Rights adopted

1834 First turnout of “mill girls” in Lowell, Mass., to protect wage cuts

1835 General strike for 10-hour day in Philadelphia

1842 Commonwealth v. Hunt decision frees unions from some prosecutions

1843 Lowell Female Labor Reform Association begins public petitioning for 10-hour day

1847 New Hampshire enacts first state 10-hour-day law

1860 Great shoemakers’ strike in New England

1866 National Labor Union founded

1869 Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor and Colored National Labor Union formed

1877 National uprising of railroad workers Ten Irish coal miners (“Molly Maguires”) hanged in Pennsylvania; nine more subsequently were hanged

1881 Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions formed 1882 First Labor Day parade in New York City

1885 Successful strike by Knights of Labor on the Southwest (or Gould) System: the Missouri Pacific; the Missouri, Kansas and Texas; and the Wabash

1886 American Federation of Labor founded

1887 Seven “anarchists” charged with the bombing in Chicago’s Haymarket Square and sentenced to death

1890 Carpenters President P.J. McGuire and the union strike and win the eight-hour day for some 28,000 members

1892 Iron and steel workers union defeated in lockout at Homestead, Pa. Integrated general strike in New Orleans succeeds 1894 Boycott of Pullman sleeping cars leads to general strike on railroads 1898 Erdman Act prohibits discrimination against railroad workers because of union membership and provides for mediation of railway labor disputes

1924 Samuel Gompers dies; William Green becomes new AFL president

1925 A. Philip Randolph helps create the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

1926 Railway Labor Act sets up procedures to settle railway labor disputes and forbids discrimination against union members

1931 Davis-Bacon Act provides for prevailing wages on publicly funded construction projects

1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act prohibits federal injunctions in most labor disputes

1934 Upsurge in strikes, including national textile strike, which fails

1935 National Labor Relations Act and Social Security Act passed Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) formed within AFL 1936 AFL and CIO create labor’s Non-Partisan League and help President Roosevelt win re-election to a second term

1937 Auto Workers win sit-down strike against General Motors in Flint, Mich. Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters wins contract with Pullman Co.

1938 Fair Labor Standards Act establishes first minimum wage and 40-hour week Congress of industrial Organizations forms as an independent federation

1940 John L. Lewis resigns and Philip Murray becomes CIO president

1941 A. Philip Randolph threatens march on Washington to protest racial discrimination in defense jobs

1941 National War Labor Board created with union members

1943 CIO forms first political action committee to get out the union vote for President Roosevelt

1946 Largest strike wave in U.S. history

1947 Taft-Hartley Act restricts union members’ activities

1949 First two of 11 unions with Communist leaders are purged from CIO

1952 William Green and Philip Murray die; George Meany and Walter Reuther become presidents of AFL and CIO, respectively 1955 AFL and CIO merge; George Meany becomes president

1957 AFL-CIO expels two affiliates for corruption

1959 Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (Landrum-Griffin) passed

1962 President John Kennedy’s order gives federal workers the right to bargain

1963 March on Washington for jobs and Justice: Equal Pay Act bans wage discrimination based on gender

1964 Civil Rights Act bans institutional forms of racial discrimination

1965 AFL-CIO forms A. Philip Randolph Institute; César Chávez forms AFL-CIO United Farm Workers Organizing Committee

Note: For a more detailed and up-to-date history of the AFL-CIO visit

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