The unions represented by the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) fought for and won American workers’ rights to collective bargaining, employer-sponsored health care plans, the eight-hour workday, workplace safety provisions, pensions and other retirement plans, and the procedures for dealing with grievances arising from workplace issues. The AFL-CIO influences local and national political elections by endorsing candidates sympathetic to worker-friendly policies and laws.
Founded by Samuel
Gompers and other high-ranking members of the AFL saw the damage that violent labor strikes organized by the Knights of Labor inflicted on company profits and reputations as well as on those participating in the strikes. He vowed that the AFL would not engage in any tactics that might lead to the deaths of striking workers. He believed that physical confrontations during strikes led to legislation designed to criminalize labor organizing activities. Gompers preferred the AFL to pursue less antagonistic policies. For decades, the AFL concentrated on basic workplace issues such as job safety and security, as well as wage stabilization. One of the AFL’s most significant early achievements was the passage of the
Gompers was not particularly interested in political issues. The AFL did not make attempts to form a third political party at any point in its history, although the AFL-CIO became strongly aligned with the Democratic Party in the latter part of the twentieth century and has endorsed candidates in national political races. Before his death in 1924, Gompers organized the AFL to be largely a national-level administrative body that would provide visibility as well as organizational and fund-raising skills for unions under its umbrella. At one time, more than fifty separate unions, with member rolls numbering in the tens of millions, belonged to the AFL. The AFL is supported by a portion of the dues that union members pay. The unions in the AFL pursue their own policies to benefit each union’s members.
Beginning early in the twentieth century, the AFL began to accept unions representing industrial (semiskilled) workers, although the AFL continued to prefer craft unions representing skilled workers. The AFL’s reluctance to fully support the concerns of industrial unions created room for much more militant unions affiliated with the AFL, such as the United Mine Workers of America led by John L.
During the Great Depression, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Union membership grew in both unions represented by the AFL and those outside it. Unemployment benefits became a much more common employee benefit.
After the start of World War II, most unions cooperated with government policies to limit strikes and demands for higher wages. Many union workers were exempt from military conscription because their labor was considered essential for the war effort. After the war, however, union workers struck for increased wages and removal of restrictions on union activities. Congress, however, was in no mood to negotiate. In 1947, Congress passed the
The AFL has always been the largest union administrative body and generally the most conservative. Its rival union administrative body, and sometime partner, is the
Being expelled from the AFL freed the CIO to focus on organizing efforts in the rubber, automotive, and steel industries, as well as among electrical and radio workers. By the end of 1936, the United Electrical Workers claimed more than 600,000 dues-paying members. In 1936-1937,
The presence of communists or
In 1952 and 1953, both the AFL and the CIO lost their longtime presidents. Walter Reuther of the CIO and George Meany of the AFL realized that both groups could be more effective in organizing and increasing union membership if the two groups reunited, which they did in 1955. From 1955 until 2005, the AFL-CIO represented the vast majority of craft and industrial workers in the United States. During the 1970’s, the AFL-CIO claimed more than 23 million dues-paying members. However, beginning during the 1980’s, manufacturing jobs traditionally held by union members began to be outsourced, as manufacturing facilities and jobs were transferred to countries with lower labor costs and less restrictive environmental controls. The AFL-CIO lost members. Union organizers began to target workers in service industries, particularly teachers; government employees at the city, county, and state levels; and employees in the hotel and tourism industry. Industrial workers and service industry workers sometimes had opposing concerns. By 2005, several of the largest service industry unions had left the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win Federation, an organization more focused on service worker concerns. In 2008, the AFL-CIO claimed a worldwide membership of 10.5 million members among fifty-six national and international labor unions.
Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Joseph McCartin, eds. American Labor: A Documentary Collection. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. This collection of essays focuses on gender and ethnic issues within American labor history. Forbath, William. Law and the Shaping of the American Labor Movement. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. The author discusses American legal history as it relates to the history of labor in the United States. Leab, Daniel. The Labor History Reader. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985. Covers the development of labor movements in the United States since colonial times. Lichtenstein, Nelson. State of the Union: A Century of American Labor. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. The author’s thesis is that labor movements are essential to ensure a functioning democracy. Sinyai, Clayton. Schools of Democracy: A Political History of the American Labor Movement. Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 2006. Examines the intermingled history of labor activism and American politics.
International Longshoremen’s Association
Knights of Labor
U.S. Department of Labor
John L. Lewis
National Labor Relations Board
Sit-down strike of 1936-1937
United Mine Workers of America
United States Steel Corporation