American Federation of Labor

Trade Unions in the United States remained weak throughout the 19th century. Only 2 per cent of the total labour force and less than 10 per cent of all industrial workers, were members of unions. In 1881 the Federation of Trades and Labor Unions was founded. Five years later the organization changed its name to the American Federation of Labor. Based on the Trade Union Congress in Britain, the AFL's first president was Samuel Gompers. He held conservative political views and believed that trade unionists should accept the economic system.

The decision of attorney-general, Richard Olney, to use the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, against the trade unionists involved in the Pullman Strike in 1894, made some workers to question the AFL's moderate approach. One of those imprisoned as a result of Olney's action, Eugene Debs, president of the American Railway Union, was converted to socialism and believed that capitalism should be replaced by a new cooperative system. In 1905 representatives of 43 groups, who opposed the policies of American Federation of Labor, formed the radical labour organization, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

In 1921 John L. Lewis, leader of the United Mine Workers of America, failed in his attempt to challenge Samuel Gompers for the presidency of the American Federation of Labor. Gompers finally left in 1924 and was replaced by William Green.

In 1935 John L. Lewis joined with the heads of seven other unions to form the Congress for Industrial Organization (CIO). Lewis became president of this new organization and over the next few years attempted to organize workers in the new mass production industries. This strategy was successful and by 1937 the CIO had more members than the American Federation of Labor.

William Green remained president of the AFL until 1952 when he was replaced by George Meany. In 1955 the CIO merged with the American Federation of Labour. Walter Reuther, the president of the CIO became vice-president of the AFL-CIO. Meany became president of this new organization that now had a membership of 15,000,000.

Walter Reuther found George Meany conservative and dictatorial and in 1968 led the out of the AFL-CIO federation. The following year he joined with the Teamsters Union to form Alliance for Labor Action.

Primary Sources

(1) Samuel Gompers, evidence given before a Senate Committee (1913)

With the power of wealth and concentration of industry, the tremendous development in machinery, and power to drive machinery; with the improvement of the tools of labor, so that they are wonderfully tremendous machines, and with these all on the one hand; with labor, the workers, performing a given part of the whole product, probably an infinitesimal part, doing the thing a thousand or thousands of times over and over again in a day - labor divided and subdivided and specialized, so that a working man is but a mere cog in the great industrial modern plant; his individuality lost, alienated from the tools of labor; with concentration of wealth, concentration of industry, I wonder whether any of us can imagine what would be the actual condition of the working people of our country today without their organizations to protect them.

What would be the condition of the working men in our country in our day by acting as individuals with as great a concentrated wealth and industry on every hand? It is horrifying even to permit the imagination full swing to think what would be possible. Slavery!Slavery! Demoralized, degraded slavery. Nothing better.

To say that the men and women of labor may not do jointly what they may do in the exercise of their individual lawful right is an anomaly.

Gentlemen, the individual working men accept conditions as they are, until driven to desperation. Then they throw down their tools and strike, without experience, without the knowledge of how best to conduct themselves, and to secure the relief which they need and demand. But the working men know where to go. It may be true that there are some workers who are opposed to organizations of labor, but they are very, very few. Those that do not come to us are either too helpless or too ignorant. But let no man fool himself. When in sheer desperation, driven to the last, where they can no longer submit to the lording of the master, they strike, they quit, and all the pent up anger gives vent in fury - they then come to us and ask us for our advice and our assistance, and we give it to them, whether they were indifferent to us or whether they were antagonistic to us. They are never questioned. We come to their assistance as best we can.

I do not pretend to say that with organizations of labor that strikes are entirely eliminated. I do not fool myself with any such beliefs, and I would not insult the intelligence of any other man by pretending to believe, much less to make, such a statement. But this one fact is sure: That in all the world there is now an unrest among the people, and primarily among the working people, with the present position they occupy in society - their unrequited toil; the attitude of irresponsibility of the employer toward the workers; the bitter antagonism to any effective attempt on the part of workers to protect themselves against aggression and greed, and the failure of employers to realize their responsibilities.

The demand of the workers is to be larger sharers in the product of their labor. In different countries they have unrest and this dissatisfaction takes on different forms. In our own country it takes on the form of the trade-union movement, as exemplified by the American Federation of Labor - a movement and a federation founded as a replica of the American governments, both the Federal Government and the State and city governments. It is formed to conform as nearly as it is possible to the American idea, and to have the crystallized unrest and discontent manifested under the Anglo-Saxon or American fashion; to press it home to the employers; to press it home to the lawmakers; to press it home to the law administrators, and possibly to impregnate and influence the minds of judges who may accord to us the rights which are essential to our well-being rather than guaranteeing to us the academic rights which are fruitless and which we do not want.