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The American Federation of Labor: Definition, Goals & History

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  • 0:00 American Industry and…
  • 2:02 Success and Failures…
  • 3:50 Labor, The Great…
  • 5:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason McCollom
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the American Federation of Labor fought for better conditions for skilled workers. Learn about the challenges and triumphs of this workers' organization and test your understanding with a quiz.

American Industry and the Rise of the AFL

The workplace protections we enjoy today did not come without struggle, sacrifice, and sometimes violent confrontation. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, laborers of all stripes fought for better working conditions, more reasonable hours, and the right to organize. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was at the center of the labor movement, and in its present incarnation is the largest union in the country.

After the Civil War, the United States was rapidly industrialized. Factories sprang up across the country, and workers engaged in long hours of hard work in often brutal conditions. Until the 1880s, there were few workers' organizations to advocate for improvement in this situation. Furthermore, business owners resisted change, and there were neither state nor federal regulations covering things like work hours or health and safety conditions. In most instances, factory work was dirty, difficult, and dangerous.

The first labor unions of the 1870s and early 1880s, such as the Knights of Labor, organized unskilled workers. The problem was that such workers could easily be replaced during strikes, and violence associated with the Knights of Labor led its downfall beginning in 1886.

That year, Samuel Gompers helped found the American Federation of Labor. The AFL was a new kind of workers' organization, which only allowed skilled workers to be members. Skilled workers were just that, workers trained in a particular skill, such as machinists or locomotive engineers. Gompers believed that skilled workers had more bargaining power because business owners couldn't easily replace them. Dozens of craft unions, which were groups of skilled workers, formed the loose affiliation of the AFL. Unlike the more radical unions such as the Knights of Labor, the AFL did not engage with socialists or anarchists. President Gompers exclaimed, 'I abhor anarchy.'

Successes and Failures of the AFL

Gompers's strategy was simple: use strikes to force concessions from business owners. The AFL sought tangible economic gains, such as higher wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions. They also made sure that they avoided politics. With this strategy, the AFL scored major workplace improvements, such as when an AFL-affiliated cigar makers' union fought successfully in 1890 for the establishment of an 8-hour day. Until then, the 10-hour day was commonplace. Soon, additional craft unions of printers, granite cutters, and coal miners established shorter working hours. Such AFL-led advances made it the most important labor organization in the United States. At the turn of the century it boasted 500,000 members and by 1914 its membership topped two million.

Such momentum could not last forever. After World War I ended in 1918, the country faced a major economic downturn. In response to hard times, business owners laid off many workers and turned against unions. The year 1919 witnessed massive strikes involving millions of laborers. The AFL initiated a general strike, the largest in history, and it shut down the city of Seattle. Gompers then called for a major strike in the steel industry, and in 1919, over 350,000 workers across the country walked out of their factories.

The AFL-led strikes of the postwar period were less successful than those of the late nineteenth century. Most of the strikes descended into violence, and public opinion soon shifted in opposition to unions. Workers' organizations declined steadily through the 1920s, and AFL membership was down from four million in 1920 to two-and-a-half million at the end of the decade.

Labor, The Great Depression, and AFL

In the early 1930s, the Great Depression descended all over the land. All Americans, workers included, struggled mightily. The AFL, now led by William Green, became more militant. Green proclaimed, 'I warn the people who are exploiting the workers that they can drive them only so far before they will turn on them and destroy them. They are taking no account of the history of nations in which governments have been overturned, Revolutions grow out of the depths of hunger.' In March of 1932, at Henry Ford's automobile factory in Dearborn, Michigan, unemployed workers flooded the property and demanded jobs. They clashed with Ford's security service and four died. The early years of the Depression looked bleak, indeed, for labor unions.

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