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The American Federation

of Labor


 
History of the AEF:
 
In 1886, the founding convention of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) elected five men to lead an
organization of fewer than two hundred thousand members. Sixty-nine years later, on the eve of another
convention, nineteen men--seventeen vice presidents, a secretary treasurer, and President George
Meany--studied the proposed constitution of the unified American Federation of Labor-Congress of
Industrial Organizations (AFL- CIO) and discussed whether it met the needs of the federation membership,
now numbering well over nine million. The AFL had grown from a weak and financially strapped
organization, whose prospects of surviving its first year seemed dim, to a large, well- funded bureaucracy
and influential political lobby.
 
During the period in which the United States became the world's leading industrial power, home to the
international economy's leading megacorporations, and the globe's dominant power, the AFL alone claimed
to speak for and represent American workers. Despite recurrent challenges from more radical and
revolutionary organizations on its left, only the AFL survived the periodic economic depressions and spasms
of political repression to embody the broader interests of American labor. Even after another national labor
center, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), emerged in 1935 as a competitor, the AFL
withstood this new challenge to its hegemony in the labor movement.
 
From 1886 to 1955, the AFL discussed and acted on virtually all the major problems confronting American
labor, most often through its Executive Council. The council directed the process by which labor's agenda
was set, and it led the drive to overcome legal and legislative obstacles to union success. As the central
coordinating body for the federation, the Executive Council interpreted the AFL constitution and
implemented convention decisions. In the minutes of council meetings and in its vote books (which contain
the decisions of council members on matters arising between meetings, along with related correspondence
and supporting documents), the researcher finds unique and important insights into the growth,
transformation, successes, and failures of the modern American labor movement.
 
The survival of the AFL in its difficult first years resulted in large part from the work of the Executive
Council, in particular the diligent and committed efforts of its president, Samuel Gompers. Those who
served on the council found themselves divided between service to the particularistic needs and interests of
their own craft and service to an organization that asked them to put aside narrower concerns. This tension,
clearly evident in council records, persisted from the founding convention of the federation to the 1955
merger with the CIO.
 

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