1886. 'The Gilded Age', as Mark Twain satirically termed it, was in full swing. Coming back from the devestation of the Civil War stronger than ever, the North was becoming the industrial powerhouse of the world. For those in on the game, the profits were obscene. A corrupt government and prime conditions for expansion into the innocent lands of the west as well as lands of new investment in financial markets made those with the know-how and an ample amount of luck rich beyond their wildest dreams. A Gospel of Wealth, preaching the inherant superiority of the haves over the have-nots soothed any remaining guilty consciences. For those out of it, though, dark times brooded. The National Labor Union, so envigorated by the Civil War, quickly lost steam under its own increasing irrelevancy and racism. The secretive Knights of Labor were blown up by the Haymarket Square bombing of 1886, throwing their activites into the most negative light possible. Conditions for poor workers were not improving, with low wages, long hours, abusive employment of women and children, and the ever present threat of catastrophe if some remote investor decided layoffs were necessary. The labor movement was flagging, with little to show for its efforts, and dangerous discontent was brewing for more violent means of redress in a small, but growing minority of workers.

The American Federation of Labor, following up where the earlier Knights of Labor left off in the growth of unions in American industry, was an organization founded by a Jewish cigar-maker named Samuel Gompers in 1886, Columbus, OH. A great aid to his rise to the top position of this organization was his extremely strong voice, which he began using when he was thirteen to read informational literature to other cigar-makers in the immigrant factory he worked for. Gompers' vision for the American Federation of Labor was not as any sort of nation-wide union as other luminaries of the labor movement had called for before. Rather, the A. F. of L. was designed to be exactly as it was named, a federation of self-governing national sister unions united by an overall strategy. Unions joined the A. F. of L., not individual laborers. He did not wish to promote socialism, in fact Gompers' was a bitter foe of the movement, rather he wanted a capitalistic organization to promote fair pay for fair work, wht he called "pure and simple" unionism.

The American Federation of Labor was an extremely pragmatic organization. They used efficient, effective methods to promote their goals. A major component of the overall strategy were trade agreements enforcing an all-union closed shop. This was the first time anyone had the audacity to suggest something so outrageous to the laisseiz faire company big wigs, so the idea was at first scoffed at. The A. F. of L. was not impotent, however, it had teeth in the form of walkouts, boycotts, and collectivized guilty-tripping through such techniques as "We do not patronize" signs. A pooled warchest from the diverse national unions gave the A. F. of L. effective power to ride out strikes. They were a factory owner's worst nightmare.

There were some disadvantages to the organization. It tried to reach out to all workers, but the nonpolitical nature of the organization drove many away, and its main base of support was skilled crafts which weren't in nearly as dire straits of poor pay and work environment as the unskilled jobs ladled out to incoming streams of immigrants during the late 1800s. Acting as an effective NGO with a little money in the right pocketbooks, the A. F. of L. worked through Congress when it could not convince factory owners. The organization was so effective that some bitterly termed it the "labor trust," not wholly innacurate. It had an extremely powerful influence over industry practices at the turn of the century, and paved the way for other union activities to come.

Activities of the A. F. of L. soon moved beyond mere lobbying. In the presidential election of 1908, the A. F. of L. threw its weight behind the candidacy of William Jennings Bryant, a populist of old most famous for his tirades against the gold standard. The campaign did not succeed, but activities of the union continued and expanded under their commitment to 'pure and simple' trade unionism. Serving as president every year except one from 1886 to 1924, Samuel Gompers' died in his position, replaced by William Green. Significant developments in the union's policies included the Committee for Industrial Organization within the ranks of the A. F. of L. in 1935, which also engaged in political advocacy and aided the electon of Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency.

After successful promotion of labor interests throughout the highly accelerated industrialization of World War II, the A. F. of L. faced a series of scandals. Growing Communist hysteria and the connection of labor to socialism caused increased scrutiny and hostility towards the organization. There were several purges within the ranks of suspected Communist Party members in order to stave off criticism of being a tool for the eventual overthrow of the government. To strengthen unity, the A. F. of L. disbanded itself and merged with the CIO to become the AFL-CIO in 1955.


Baily, Thomas A. Kennedy, David M. Cohen, Lizabeth. The American Pageant: A History of the Republic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

http://www.aflcio.org

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