American Federation of Labor Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The American Federation of Labor—the first effective attempt to organize workers in skilled trades at a national level—became one of the most famous and influential labor unions in the United States.

Summary of Event

All indices of industrial production in the United States in the closing decades of the nineteenth century revealed a tremendous rate of growth. Stimulated by the arrival of millions of immigrants, the U.S. population spiraled from fifty million in 1880 to seventy-six million by 1900. With great strides in scientific and technological development, new industries burgeoned with the production of electric lighting equipment, telephones, street railways, adding machines, and typewriters. American Federation of Labor Labor unions;American Federation of Labor Knights of Labor [kw]American Federation of Labor Is Founded (Dec. 8, 1886) [kw]Federation of Labor Is Founded, American (Dec. 8, 1886) [kw]Labor Is Founded, American Federation of (Dec. 8, 1886) [kw]Founded, American Federation of Labor Is (Dec. 8, 1886) American Federation of Labor Labor unions;American Federation of Labor Knights of Labor [g]United States;Dec. 8, 1886: American Federation of Labor Is Founded[5510] [c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 8, 1886: American Federation of Labor Is Founded[5510] [c]Business and labor;Dec. 8, 1886: American Federation of Labor Is Founded[5510] Powderly, Terence V. Gompers, Samuel Foster, William H. Strasser, Adolf McGuire, Peter J.

Older industries consolidated, resulting in the concentration of ownership and control resting increasingly in the hands of relatively few. Trusts, pools, mergers, monopolies, “gentlemen’s agreements,” and other instruments of consolidation became widespread in the coal-mining, railroad, iron and steel, slaughtering and meatpacking, and oil industries. Intimately associated with this development were such captains of industry as J. P. Morgan, James. Jerome Hill, and Jay Gould in railroads; Andrew Carnegie in steel; and John D. Rockefeller in oil.

As industries changed and factories grew in size, workers found themselves increasingly distanced from management and from the control of their work. Unorganized workers and even members of many early labor unions were not effective counterweights to these aggregations of wealth and power. Seemingly powerless to press their claims for higher wages, shorter hours, or safe working conditions, various American labor leaders began to think of combining the existing trade unions into a national federation like the British Trades Union Congress Trades Union Congress (TUC). Like the TUC, this new federation would be able to lobby for legislation, both in Washington, D.C., and in the state capitals. Also like the TUC, it would be composed primarily of craft unions and would allow its constituent members complete autonomy in the operation of their local organizations. These union leaders contended that the first national workers’ organization, the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, founded by Philadelphia garment cutter Uriah Stephens in 1869, was unsuited to advance the material interests of skilled workers.

From its initial membership of only nine men, the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor had grown rapidly into a national organization, but it faced wide opposition from many segments of society. In response to opposition from the clergy and to avoid being linked with alleged terrorist organizations such as the Molly Maguires, the organization formally abandoned much of its ritualistic secrecy at its 1881 general assembly. Terence V. Powderly Powderly, Terence V. , the newly elected master workman, as the Knights called their chief officer, predicted that the new open policies would attract many new members.

For union organizers in the skilled trades, however, the policies of the Knights of Labor were impractical. The Knights of Labor promoted the equality of all workers, skilled and unskilled, black and white, male and female. This mixing of occupations in locals, along with the Knights’ idealistic involvement in political action and reformist movements, were, the skilled-trade organizers believed, not merely unrealistic but also detrimental to the securing of such immediate bread-and-butter goals as improvements in wages and working conditions.

The Knights of Labor believed in organizing workers in assemblies; that is, all the workers in a particular factory or geographic location would be members together. Many craft workers, who believed that their unique skills made them more valuable employees than ordinary laborers, preferred to organize by trade; that is, shoemakers would be in one union and garment cutters in another. At first the Knights of Labor did not oppose the formation of craft unions, as the leadership believed that workers could benefit from both types of organization. Thus, many members of the Knights of Labor were also active in local trade unions. This spirit of cooperation changed dramatically during the 1880’s.

Samuel Gompers.

(Library of Congress)

Meeting in Pittsburgh in November, 1881, the national trade unions formed the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada. The federation grew slowly, hindered at first by the economic recession of 1883-1885 and then by defeats in a number of labor disputes. As economic conditions improved, however, membership soared. However, it was also during these years that the rift between the federation and the Knights of Labor widened, primarily because the leadership of the Knights of Labor opposed striking to secure the eight-hour day. Powderly Powderly, Terence V. adamantly opposed the use of a work stoppage to advance workers’ causes. Rather than striking, the Knights promoted the use of boycotts Boycotts;and labor[Labor] to pressure manufacturers into raising wages or improving working conditions. The federation, at its 1884 convention, had adopted a resolution asserting that after May 1, 1886, eight hours should constitute a working day. Appealing to trade unionists, many of the rank-and-file members of the Knights of Labor, and radical socialists, the eight-hour agitation mounted as May, 1886, approached and workers anticipated a nationwide strike to secure this goal.

May, 1886, was a momentous month for the American labor movement. On May 4 in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, police attempted to disperse a group of workers demonstrating for labor causes when a dynamite bomb was thrown into the crowd. The blast killed seven police officers. In the resulting melee with the crowd, known since as the Haymarket Riot Haymarket Riot (1886) , the police shot and killed a number of demonstrators. More than one hundred people were injured. This bloodshed precipitated a wave of antiradicalism that almost fatally damaged the eight-hour movement.

A special meeting of the federation convened in Philadelphia. Called by William H. Foster Foster, William H. , the federation’s secretary, and by officers of the national unions, including Adolf Strasser Strasser, Adolf of the Cigarmakers’ International Union, its purpose was “to protect our respective organizations from the malicious work of an element [in the Knights of Labor] who openly boast that trade unions must be destroyed.” The delegates drafted a “treaty” for presentation to the Knights of Labor, who, according to this proposal, should not, except with the consent of the federation, organize trades in which there were unions, and should not intervene in strikes involving federation members.

The Knights of Labor rejected the “treaty” in October, 1886. The trade unions then convened another meeting on December 8 for the purpose of drawing “the bonds of unity much closer together between all the trade unions of America” by means of “an American federation or alliance of all national and international trades unions.” At that convention the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was born. Samuel Gompers Gompers, Samuel of the Cigarmakers’ International Union was elected the AFL’s president, a post he held almost continuously until his death in 1924. Peter J. McGuire McGuire, Peter J. was its first secretary.


With the birth of the American Federation of Labor, skilled workers gained their own, forceful voice on the national stage. This meant that such skilled labor had greatly increased power, both in the market and in politics, but it also meant that the wedge between skilled and unskilled labor was formalized and strenghtened. By eschewing utopianism and promoting practical objectives, however, the AFL was able to survive the disastrous strikes of the early 1890’s. It emerged from that decade’s great depression in 1897 with 265,000 members and uncontested dominance in the American labor movement.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buhle, Paul. Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999. A radical attack on Gompers and other American labor leaders. Buhle charges that labor leaders allied with corporate executives and government officials instead of representing the best interests of workers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fink, Leon. In Search of the Working Class: Essays in American Labor History and Political Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Historical work that provides a good overview of the labor movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foner, Philip S. Women and the American Labor Movement: From the First Trade Unions to the Present. New York: Free Press, 1979. Thorough examination of the roles women played in the growth of unions both in the skilled trades and in factories.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gompers, Samuel. The Samuel Gompers Papers. 9 vols. to date. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986-2003. Serious readers in labor history will enjoy reading Gompers’s own thoughts on the rise of organized labor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greene, Julie. Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881-1917. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. A study of the AFL under Gompers’s leadership, examining the organization’s political participation during the Progressive Era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laurie, Bruce. Artisans into Workers: Labor in Nineteenth Century America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989. Accessible analysis of the transformation of work in America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meltzer, Milton. Bread and Roses: The Struggle of American Labor, 1865-1915. New York: Facts On File, 1991. Definitive history of the labor movement in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Voss, Kim. The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. Fascinating study of the Knights of Labor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yellowitz, Irwin. Industrialization and the American Labor Movement, 1850-1900. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977. Examines the relationships between the growth of industry and the growth of organized labor.

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Categories: History