In 1881 representatives of workers' organizations, meeting in Pittsburgh, formed the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in the United States and Canada. In 1886 at another conference in Columbus, Ohio, this group reorganized as the American Federation of Labor. Opposed to the socialistic and political ideals of the Knights of Labor, the AFL was, instead, a decentralized organization recognizing the autonomy of each of its member national craft unions. Individual workers were not members of the AFL but only of the affiliated local or national union. From its inception the AFL emphasized organization of skilled workers into craft unions (composed of a single occupation such as painters or electricians), as opposed to industrial unions (where all the workers in the automobile or steel industry would belong to one union).
Opposed to the idea of a labor party, the AFL was a relatively conservative political force within the labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th cent. But the union did help secure for its members higher wages, shorter hours, workmen's compensation, laws against child labor, an 8-hr day for government employees, and the exemption of labor from antitrust legislation (see Clayton Antitrust Act). Under the leadership of Samuel Gompers, William Green, and then George Meany, the AFL became the largest labor federation in the United States, with a membership of over 10 million at the time of its merger with the CIO in 1955.
Within the AFL in the early 1930s a strong minority faction evolved, advocating the organization of workers in the basic mass-production industries (such as steel, auto, and rubber) on an industry-wide basis. John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers of America led this faction in forming a Committee for Industrial Organization in 1935. This group (changing its name in 1938 to Congress of Industrial Organizations) immediately launched organizing drives in the basic industries. The spectacular success of those drives, particularly in the automobile and steel industries, enhanced the CIO's prestige to the point where it seriously challenged the AFL's hegemony within U.S. organized labor. After fruitless negotiation the parent body revoked the charters of the 10 dissident international unions.
The CIO, under the presidency of Lewis until 1940 and then of Philip Murray until his death in 1952, followed more militant policies than the AFL. The CIO's Political Action Committee, headed by Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, played an active role in the CIO's attempt to urge its membership into more active political participation. The CIO grew rapidly until its affiliated international unions numbered 32 at the time of the 1955 merger, with an estimated membership of five million. Its growth, however, was marked by internal dissension; the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) withdrew in 1938 and the UMW in 1942. While the AFL was grappling with the problem of gangster-dominated affiliates, the CIO decided in 1948 to bar Communists from holding office in the organization, and in 1949–50 it expelled 11 of its affiliated unions, which were said to be Communist-dominated.
During the entire period of the alienation of the CIO from the AFL, the idea of merger was being considered by elements in both federations, and labor's concern over the apparent antiunion policies of President Eisenhower's administration (the first Republican administration in 20 years) gave new impetus to the movement for labor unity. The death in 1952 of the presidents of both organizations and the appointment of George Meany to head the AFL and Walter P. Reuther to run the CIO paved the way for a merger in 1955.
At its first convention the merged organizations, now called the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), elected Meany as its president. In 1957 the AFL-CIO adopted antiracket codes, and the convention expelled the Teamsters Union for alleged failure to meet the parent organization's ethical standards. The AFL-CIO took a major step in 1961 in the direction of settling internal disputes by setting up a mandatory arbitration procedure.
A submerged dispute between George Meany and Walter Reuther, who opposed the AFL-CIO's conservative approach to civil rights and social welfare programs, finally erupted in 1968 and the United Automobile Workers (UAW) withdrew from the union. The AFL-CIO supported the Democratic presidential candidates in 1956, 1960, 1964, and 1968. In 1972 however, Meany led the AFL-CIO into a neutral stance, supporting neither major candidate. Meany decided not to run for reelection in 1979 and Lane Kirkland, who had been secretary-treasurer for the AFL-CIO, was elected president.
From the start of Kirkland's term, the AFL-CIO was forced to adapt to a number of adverse economic trends. Union membership dropped from 33% of all U.S. workers in 1960 to 14% in the late 1990s. To shore up organized labor's declining influence, the AFL-CIO concentrated on organizing service workers and public employees and improving labor unity. In 1981 the UAW rejoined the union; the Teamsters (1988) and United Mine Workers (1989) later followed.
Kirkland retired under pressure in 1995. Thomas R. Donahue, the AFL-CIO's secretary-treasurer, was named interim president, but Donahue was challenged for the federation's presidency by John J. Sweeney, who won the first contested election for president in the AFL-CIO's history. In 2005, heads of some of the organization's largest and most active unions, led by Andrew Stern of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), unsuccessfuly attempted to secure Sweeney's retirement and to implement other organizational changes, such as the merging of the ALF-CIO's member unions into 20 large unions, each representing a segment of the economy, and the refocusing of its energies to stress the unionization of unrepresented workers. The SEIU, Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, Laborers' International, and Unite Here subsequently left the AFL-CIO, and with several other unions formed the Change to Win Federation. Sweeney retired in 2009 and was succeeded as president by Richard L. Trumka, who had previously led the United Mine Workers and then served as AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer. Unite Here rejoined the AFL-CIO in 2009, and Laborers' International rejoined in 2010.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.