The American Federation of Labor was established in 1886, in Columbus, Ohio. Samuel Gompers, who served as the first president of the AFL from 1886-1924 (except for 1895), was born in London in 1850 and immigrated to the United States when he was thirteen years old. The Gompers were a family of Jewish cigar makers, which they maintained when they came to Manhattan during the Civil War. Samuel Gompers worked as a cigar marker, which led to him becoming the leader of the cigar makers’ union, and transforming it into one of the nation’s strongest unions.
In 1881, Samuel Gompers joined the Federation of Organized Trades and the Labor Unions of the United States of America and Canada. The members of these two groups were dissatisfied members of the Knights of Labor. In 1886, the Knights of Labor’s reputation suffered after the events at Haymarket Square. In December of that same year, Gompers met with leaders of other craft unions to form the American Federation of Labor. The AFL was made up of groups of smaller craft unions, including Gompers’ own cigar makers’ union.
The purpose of the AFL was to organize skilled workers into unions consisting of others in the same trade. The focus was members’ wages and working conditions rather than political goals. The AFL only allowed skilled workers to join because Gompers believed that skilled workers had more bargaining power considering that business owners couldn’t as easily replace them as they could with unskilled workers. In 1892, the AFL’s affiliate in the steel industry, protested against wage cuts. After the Homestead strike, the steel industry adopted an open shop policy. Craft unions were able to secure collective bargains on railroads, but their effort collapsed in the Pullman boycott of 1894. Some efforts at unionization were more successful (for example, organizing workers in immigrant sweatshops). The International Ladies’ Garment Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers demonstrated that the new immigrants could be effectively organized.
Unlike the more radical Knights of Labor, the AFL avoided engaging with socialists and anarchists for political gains because he worried that it would offend business owners and worsen a worker’s chance at attaining better conditions. By refusing to pursue a radical program for political change, Gompers maintained the support of the American government and public. Gompers was a capitalist that favored “pure and simple” unionism and his strategy was to use strikes to force concessions from business owners and sought economic gains, such as higher wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions. By using this strategy, the AFL managed to get major workplace improvements, such as establishing shorter working hours. These advances made it the most important labor organization in the United States. He proposed that the agreements contained clauses specifying that employers hire only union members and that employees should pay union dues, but employers favored open shop, which could employ non-union members. During World War I, the amount of members peaked because the federal government granted numerous concessions to workers and unions. The government hoped to avoid strikes by intervening on the behalf of workers with their employers.
By 1920, The AFL had more than 4 million members, but the number of members declined until 1933, and dropped to less than 2 million. Some members wanted the organization to be one that would fight for the rights of unskilled workers, rather than just workers skilled in a particular craft. Because of the issue, in 1935, John L. Lewis, an AFL member, formed the Committee for Industrial Organization. In 1937, the AFL separated from the Committee for Industrial Organization, which became the Congress of Industrial Organizations, but, in 1955, came together as the AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO remained the largest union organization in the United States, but the percentage of unionized workers began declining in the 1950s. In 1953, 32.5% of American workers were union members, but, by 1983, only 20% of American workers belonged to a union.