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The Founding of the
American Federation of Labor

By Paul Le Blanc

The American Federation of Labor came into existence under that name in 1886. In fact, it began with a longer, more cumbersome name, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada. This organization was founded on November 15-18, 1881 at the Turner Hall in downtown Pittsburgh. The Turnverein, or "Turners," were German-American social and athletic societies; many of the pioneers of the American labor movement in this period were German-American, though many others were Irish-American, these being the two largest immigrant groups at the time. In its early incarnation, the Federation called in 1882 for the celebration of Labor Day on the first Monday in September, and also called for work stoppages and demonstrations on May 1, 1886 in favor of the eight-hour workday (initiating May Day) -- in both cases the idea coming from Carpenter's Union leader Peter J. McGuire. But the AFL and its predecessor are best known for organizing the most durable union federation in U.S. history, providing an effective approach for improving wages, hours and working conditions of its members.

Over a hundred delegates attended the founding convention, representing close to half a million members. Represented were eight national and international trade unions: 14 from the Typographical Workers, 10 from the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, 8 from the Molders, 6 from the Glass Workers, 5 from the Cigar Makers, and 5 from the Carpenters. Also represented were the central labor councils of 11 cities, 42 local unions, as well as 3 district assemblies and 46 local assemblies of the Knights of Labor, which at that time was the largest labor organization in the country. The Knights organized workers into reform struggles, social events, and educational efforts as well as trade union activities. For several years many workers belonged both to the Knights and to the Federation -- though eventually the two groups became rivals.

Those in attendance included 68 delegates from Pittsburgh, many of whom were members the Knights of Labor, which included people who were in unions but many other workers who weren't. One controversy arose around whether the new Federation should consist exclusively of people who were already members of labor unions. In this period, and for many years afterward, only skilled workers were able to build and sustain trade unions organized on a specific craft basis. A decision to make the Federation an exclusively union organization would restrict it to skilled workers. Many delegates agreed with the comments of one that "I wish this Federation broad enough to encompass all working people in its folds," and an African-American delegate from Pittsburgh explained: "We have in the city of Pittsburgh many men in our organization who have no particular trade, but should not be excluded from the Federation. I speak more particularly of my own people and declare to you hat it would be dangerous to skilled mechanics to exclude from this organization the common laborers, who might, in an emergency, be employed in positions they could readily qualify them to fill."

The inclusive spirit of these delegates won the day not only in the selection of a name, but also in the preamble -- which was retained in 1886 when the group became the American Federation of Labor: "A struggle is going on in the nations of the civilized world between the oppressors and the oppressed of all countries, a struggle between capital and labor, which must grow in intensity from year to year and work disastrous results to the toiling millions of all nations if not combined for mutual protection and benefit. This history of the wage-workers of all countries is but the history of constant struggle and misery engendered by ignorance and disunion; whereas the history of the non-producers of all ages proves that a minority, thoroughly organized, may work wonders for good or evil. Conforming to the old adage, 'In union there is strength,' the formation of a Federation embracing every trade and labor organization in North America, a union founded upon a basis as broad as the land we live in, is our only hope."

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Samuel Gompers of the Cigar Makers Union was nominated to be President of the Federation, but so was Richard Powers of the lake seaman's union. The Pittsburgh Commercial-Gazette ran an article explaining the contest in this way: "It is thought that an attempt will be made to capture the organization for Gompers as the representative of the Socialists, and if such an attempt is made, whether it succeeds or not, there will likely be some lively work, as the delegates opposed to Socialism are determined not to be controlled by it." In fact, such internal conflict was side-stepped when both Gompers and Powers withdrew from the race in favor of John Jarrett of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (with Gompers and Powers both becoming vice-presidents).

Socialists -- those favoring replacing capitalism by social ownership and democratic control over the economy -- did have influence in the early Federation, but Gompers later explained that the newspaper charge of his being part of a socialist conspiracy was a slander based partly on a misunderstanding. "In those early days not more than half a dozen people had grasped the concept that economic organization and control over economic power were the fulcrum which made possible influence and power in all other fields," he later wrote in his autobiography. "Control over the basic things of life gives power that may be used for good in every relationship of life. This fundamental concept on which the AFL was later founded was at that time not formulated in men's minds, and the lines between Socialists and trade unionists were very blurred."

In fact, when he became President of the AFL in 1886, Gompers became known not as an advocate of socialism but as an advocate of what became known as "pure and simple trade unionism." This meant organizing workers into unions that would focus on struggles at workplace around issues of higher wages, fewer hours of work, and improved working conditions -- to the exclusion of radical social causes, whether socialism or anything else. When asked what the labor movement wanted, Gompers once replied simply: "More." Yet Pennsylvania Federation of Labor president James Maurer has left this record of one of Gompers's "pure and simple" union speeches:

"If a workingman gets a dollar and a half for ten hours' work, he lives up to that standard of a dollar and a half, and he knows that a dollar seventy-five would improve his standard of living and he naturally strives to get that dollar and seventy-five. After that he wants two dollars and more time for leisure, and he struggles to get it. Not satisfied with two dollars he wants more; not only two and a quarter, but a nine-hour workday. And so he will keep on getting more and more until he gets it all or the full value of all he produces."

Nonetheless, the AFL under Gompers (who remained AFL President until his death in 1924) became known for accepting capitalism and rejecting all forms of radicalism, and also for moving away from the Federation's original inclusive ideals -- instead representing predominantly craft unions of skilled workers in which new immigrants, people of color, women, and a majority of the working class were generally not represented. In the 1930s, such limitations resulted in a split in labor's ranks -- with the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) -- that would take twenty years to heal. Yet many of the expansive ideas and ideals expressed at the Federation's Pittsburgh founding were influential in the CIO and have continued to be influential throughout the labor movement down to the present day.


Samuel Gompers, Seventy Years of Life and Labor (E.P. Dutton Co., 1925); John R. Commons and Associates, History of Labor in the United States, Vol. II (New York: Macmillan Co., 1918); Philip S, Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States,Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (New York: International Publishers, 1947, 1955); James Maurer, It Can Be Done (New York: Rand School Press, 1938).

The author:

Paul Le Blanc is Assistant Professor of History at Pittsburgh's LaRoche College and a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO. He has worked as a unionized auto worker, shipyard worker, hospital worker, and teacher. He is author of a number of books, including A Short History of the U.S. Working Class.

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Last updated May 14, 2002