In 1955 the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) joined to create the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). The 54 national and international federated labor unions within the AFLCIO are located in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama, and U.S. dependencies. Membership in the United States as of 2005 was over 9 million.
The major functions of the AFL-CIO are to lobby for the interests of organized labor and to mediate disagreements between member unions. A long-standing campaign of the federation is against the right-to-work laws that ban closed or union shops. A related issue is repeal of the Taft-Hartley Labor Act, which authorized right to work half a century ago. The AFL-CIO also works against other antilabor legislation and candidates.
The first leader of the AFL was Samuel Gompers, who modeled the AFL on the British Trade Union Congress. He was conservative politically and believed that unions should work within the economic system as it was rather than trying to alter it. Gompers was followed by William Green and George Meany. Under their guidance, the AFL grew to over 10 million members by the time of its merger with the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1955. The union’s early accomplishments were significant. Union men gained higher wages, a shorter work week and work day, workers’ compensation, laws regulating child labor, and exemption from antitrust laws.
The CIO dates only to the 1930s. Green had replaced Gompers as leader of the AFL in 1924, but he maintained Gompers’s business unionism, based on crafts. By then the old crafts approach seemed outdated to some AFL members. The United States had industrialized, and mass production had replaced craftsmanship. Production workers in major industries such as steel, rubber, and automobiles lacked union protections. A strong minority of the AFL wanted the federation to begin organizing industrially. Within the AFL was a union leader with experience organizing an industry, John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers (UMW) of America. In 1935 Lewis led the dissidents in the formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization. With the sympathetic New Deal Democrats in the White House, the unions had a rare opportunity to organize American labor with the government on their side. The committee organized, winning significant victories in automobiles and steel. The CIO challenged the authority of the AFL, and the AFL revoked the charters of the 10 CIO unions. The CIO became the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1938.
The independent CIO, under Lewis until 1940 and then under Philip Murray until 1952, was more militant than the AFL. It had a Political Action Committee, led by Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, that encouraged membership political activism. The CIO attempted a major southern organizing campaign that proved fruitless in the 1940s and internal discord led to the loss of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in 1938 and the mine workers in 1942. Still, in 1955, the CIO had 32 affiliated unions with approximately 5 million members.
Both unions had internal difficulties in the 1940s. The AFL had member unions dominated by organized crime. The CIO’s radicalism brought into its member unions a number of communists. The CIO expelled 11 supposedly communist-dominated unions in 1949–50.
The end of World War II was the end of the close relationship with the federal government that had allowed the AFL to grow during the 1930s. The Republicans in Congress reversed that relationship, covering unions as well as employers under unfair labor practices legislation and prohibiting the closed shop as well as the organization of supervisors and campaign contributions by unions. Union leaders had to swear that they were not communists. Passed over Truman’s veto, Taft-Hartley was a major blow to unionism. Clearly, the union leaders had reason to worry about the new Republican administration, and repeal of Taft-Hartley was an ongoing desire of the AFL-CIO.
Throughout the period of separation, at least some within both unions retained an interest in reuniting the two. After the election of Eisenhower, the two leaderships agreed that the first Republican administration in 20 years would probably be unfavorable to labor. Unity was desirable. George Meany, as head of the AFL, and Walter P. Reuther, as head of the CIO, worked to bring about a merger, which occurred in 1955.
The first AFL-CIO convention elected Meany as president. In 1957 it enacted anti-racket codes and expelled the Teamsters Union for failure to meet ethical standards. In 1961 the AFL-CIO implemented mandatory arbitration of internal disputes. That failed to prevent a dust-up between Meany and Reuther, who regarded Meany as dictatorial and wanted the AFL-CIO to involve itself in civil rights and social welfare issues. Reuther wanted to be president of the AFL-CIO and felt that Meany had outlived his usefulness.
Reuther’s United Automobile Workers (UAW) left the AFL-CIO in 1968. In 1969 the UAW and the Teamsters formed the Alliance for Labor Action (ALA), which sought to organize the unorganized, students, and intellectuals. Reuther died in a plane crash in 1970. Without his strong leadership, the ALA disbanded in December 1971 after proving unsuccessful as an alternative to the AFL-CIO.
Meany retired in 1979, and his replacement was Lane Kirkland, the secretary-treasurer. Kirkland inherited a union in decline in an economy turning away from organized labor. It brought the UAW back into the fold in 1981, the Teamsters in 1988, and the UMW in 1989. The tide would not turn, however, and Kirkland retired under pressure in 1995.
Thomas R. Donahue, secretary-treasurer become interim president, was challenged by John J. Sweeny of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), who won the first contested election in AFL-CIO history. Sweeny and United Mine Workers president Richard Trumka represented a new generation of activist union leaders, potentially a force for changing the decline of organized labor. Under Sweeny the AFL-CIO supported Democratic candidates, including Bill Clinton, and gained a sympathetic ear in the White House. Sweeny proved unable to reverse the decline in unionism due to deindustrialization and the loss of high-paying or skilled jobs in traditional union industries. Critics charged that Sweeny was exhausting the union’s funds without anything substantial to show for it.
In 2005 Andrew Stern of the SEIU led an effort to force Sweeny’s retirement. Stern proposed consolidating the AFL-CIO’s member unions into 20 super unions organized by sector of the economy. He also wanted reemphasis on the organization of unrepresented workers. Failing to reform the AFL-CIO or force Sweeny out, the SEIU left the federation and created the Change to Win Federation.
- Buhle, Paul. Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999;
- Goldfield, Michael. The Decline of Organized Labor in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993;
- Zieger, Robert H., and Gilbert Gall. American Workers, American Unions. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
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