American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO): Status & Trends in Membership

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  • 0:01 AFL-CIO History
  • 3:21 Current Status
  • 4:24 Trends
  • 5:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

While union membership is in relative decline, unions still represent a powerful force in American labor and politics. This is especially true of the AFL-CIO. In this lesson, you'll learn about the AFL-CIO, its history and current status.

AFL-CIO History

The AFL-CIO is a federation of about 56 labor unions that was created with the merger of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1955. Let's take a brief look at the history of both organizations before the merger.

The American Federation of Labor was established in 1886. It focused on providing member benefits, maintained centralized control over local unions and used collective bargaining to obtain concessions from employees for better wages, benefits and working conditions.

The AFL was based on a craft union model where the union represents workers that possess a specific skill, such as plumbers or electricians. Consequently, the unions under the AFL were organized by occupation. Plumbers belonged to a plumbers' union and dockworkers were in the longshoremen's union. Craft unions were able to gain power by controlling the supply of skilled labor, which is why the AFL used strikes as a tactic against employers.

While effective in the first two decades of the 20th century, the AFL's effectiveness started to wane. The union suffered some important institutional weaknesses. It was permissive of race and gender discrimination and often hostile to immigrant workers. This policy of exclusion failed to recognize the important demographic changes in the labor force.

The AFL was also slow to adapt to the need for industrial unionism, which focuses on organizing all the workers in a given industry into one union, regardless of the individual workers' skills or occupations. For example, an autoworker's union may represent electricians, assembly line workers, machinists and janitors. The power of industrial unions lies in their large numbers acting together as one force. Consequently, the AFL failed to pursue the unionization of millions of relatively unskilled industrial workers.

In fact, we can trace the roots of the Congress of Industrial Organizations back to the AFL's slow reception to industrial unionism. In 1935, an inside group of leaders within the AFL created the Committee for Industrial Organizations with the goal of pursuing industrial unionism. However, the AFL leadership did not support the committee and suspended all unions organized through industrial unionism. These unions left the AFL, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations was formed in 1938. The CIO grew fast and had about three million members that were organized into about 6,000 local unions by the end of the 1930s.

The AFL and CIO mended their fences in 1955 with a merger, creating the AFL-CIO. This merger was possible for a couple of reasons. First, the CIO became less politically radical, which was important during the days of the Cold War and fear of communism. The AFL was also willing to compromise on racial equality and acceptance of industrial unionism. The merger created a 15.5 million member organization.

Current Status

The AFL-CIO is the largest organization of labor in the United States and represents about 12.5 million workers in 2014. Members of the AFL-CIO touch most trades and industries. Nurses, teachers, pilots, writers, actors, plumbers, electricians and even professional football players all belong to unions that are part of the AFL-CIO. Some notable examples include:

  • Air Line Pilots Association
  • American Federation of Government Employees
  • American Federation of Teachers
  • American Postal Workers Union
  • International Association of Fire Fighters
  • International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
  • International Longshoreman Association
  • International Union of Police Associations
  • NFL Players Association
  • National Nurses United
  • Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists
  • United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural Implement Workers of American International Union

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