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, SamuelGompers in 1886, the American Federation of LaborAmerican Federation of Labor (AFL) was a union limited to skilled craftsmen. This policy distinguished the early AFL from other trade unions such as the Knights of Labor, which admitted semiskilled laborers, employers, and even strikebreakers. Although the early AFL stated that it was open to anyone who wished to join, it was openly hostile to African Americans, women, recent immigrants with limited ability to speak English, Chinese railroad workers, and all workers employed in factories manufacturing mass-produced goods. In the few instances when the AFL did support nonwhite or female workers, it did so in whatever way would help these workers while protecting the jobs and wages of white men.AFL-CIO

Averting Violence

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 Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914Clayton Antitrust Act in 1914, formally granting workers the right to strike. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled that the act did not permit secondary boycotts by sympathetic unions.

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. Lewis, John L.Lewis, to pursue their own agendas. This eventually forced a showdown between these unions and the AFL, leading to the expulsion of many of these unions. The AFL remained nonpolitical, even as it continued to stand up for workers’ rights.

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.

Postwar Developments

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 Taft-Hartley Act of 1947[Taft Hartley Act of 1947]Taft-Hartley Act, which restricted labor union power. President Harry S. Truman vetoed the bill. Congress overrode the presidential veto, and Truman, despite his initial opposition to the bill, invoked the act a dozen times during his eight years in office.

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 Congress of Industrial OrganizationsCongress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Always smaller and much more aggressive in advocating workers’ rights, the CIO was founded in 1932 as the Committee for Industrial Organization by John L. Lewis. The CIO accepted unions whose members were organized along industrial or geographical lines regardless of whether the workers were classified as skilled or semiskilled. The CIO actively pursued involvement in national as well as state and local politics. Lewis and his CIO union members battled AFL procedures and preferences for craft unions during the brief period, 1935-1938, when the AFL and CIO tried to operate as a unified body.

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, Sit-down strike of 1936-1937General Motors employees occupied manufacturing buildings in Flint, Michigan, for forty-four days, despite attempts by the police and National Guard troops to forcibly remove them. As a result of this sit-down strike, the CIO helped workers form the United Auto WorkersUnited Auto Workers (UAW). The CIO-affiliated UAW gained the right to represent General Motors workers. The strike at General Motors caused a national sensation. Chrysler and Ford executives agreed to allow employees to form unions under UAW control. U.S. Steel, a major supplier to the automotive industry, agreed to a collective bargaining agreement with the CIO-affiliated Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) and avoided a strike. The CIO sponsored a West Coast longshoremen’s union in 1937. The formation of unions at other steel companies was unsuccessful, probably because of the violence and deaths of union members that occurred in several strikes during the decade. CIO-sponsored attempts to organize southern textile mill workers during the 1940’s also failed because of systematic legal discrimination against African Americans.

The presence of communists or Communism;AFL-CIOcommunist sympathizers in CIO senior administrative positions was far more damaging to the CIO than unsuccessful attempts to organize workers. In 1940, Congress passed the Alien Registration Act of 1940Alien Registration Act, commonly referred to as the Smith Act. This act allowed for the prosecution of any person threatening violence against the U.S. government. Regardless of whether socialistic or communistic statements made by union leaders were actually threats of violence against the government, these statements made it easy for conservatives to target CIO union leaders and force them out of their jobs. Trying to save its own reputation, the CIO expelled several member unions accused of being communist led or inspired.


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.

Further Reading

  • 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.

Samuel Gompers

International Longshoremen’s Association

Knights of Labor

U.S. Department of Labor

Labor history

Labor strikes

John L. Lewis

National Labor Relations Board

Sit-down strike of 1936-1937

Taft-Hartley Act

United Mine Workers of America

United States Steel Corporation