The AFL was the largest union grouping in the United States for the first half of the twentieth century, even after the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) by unions that left the AFL in 1938 over its opposition to organizing mass production industries. While the union was founded and dominated by craft unions throughout the first fifty years of its existence, many of its craft union affiliates turned to organizing on an industrial basis to meet the challenge from the CIO in the 1940s.
The AFL represented a conservative "pure and simple unionism" that stressed foremost the concern with working conditions, pay and control over jobs, relegating political goals to a minor role. Unlike the Socialist Party or the even more radical Industrial Workers of the World, it saw the capitalist system as the path to betterment of labor. The AFL's "business unionism" favored pursuit of workers' immediate demands, rather than challenging the rights of owners under capitalism, and took a pragmatic, and often pessimistic, view of politics that favored tactical support for particular politicians over formation of a party devoted to workers' interests.
The AFL grew steadily in the late nineteenth century while the Knights went into decline. The Knights lost a series of large strikes which cost the organization many members. Employer opposition rose (particularly after the Haymarket Riot and Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886), and the organizational structure of the Knights was unsuited to withstanding and countering this opposition. Conflict between the rank and file and leadership in the Knights also worsened. But conflict with the AFL also contributed to the Knights' demise as the trade union federation raided the Knights, affiliated trade unions which had been expelled from the Knights, and challenged the Knights for the right to represent workers.
It took on three major functions that its affiliates could not accomplish alone. First, it organized unorganized workers. It spread information, brought union leaders into contact, and gave financial support to newly organized unions. Out of its national offices it published a periodical, The American Federationist, and employed a staff of organizers and administrators.
During its first years, the AFL admitted nearly anyone. Gompers opened the AFL to radical and socialist workers and to some semiskilled and unskilled workers. Women, African Americans, and immigrants joined in small numbers. But by the 1890s, the Federation had begun to organize only skilled workers in craft unions and became an organization of mostly white men.
Though the Federation preached a policy of egalitarianism in regard to African American workers, it actively discriminated against black workers. In 1895, that policy of egalitarianism also gave way when the AFL admitted the International Association of Machinists. The new affiliate was a merger of one organization which the AFL had previously refused to admit, and the rival union that the AFL had previously chartered. The merged union discriminated against black workers.
The AFL then sanctioned the creation of segregated locals within its affiliates — particularly in the construction and railroad industries — which actively excluded black workers altogether from union membership, and from employment in the industries they had organized. The AFL also actively supported legislation, such as literacy tests, that would reduce unskilled immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe.
In 1901, the AFL lobbied Congress to reauthorize the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and issued a pamphlet entitled "Some reasons for Chinese exclusion. Which shall survive?" The AFL also began one of the first organized labor boycotts when they began putting white stickers on the cigars made by unionized white cigar rollers while simultaneously discouraging consumers from purchasing cigars rolled by Chinese workers.
In most ways, the AFL’s treatment of women workers paralleled its policy towards black workers. The AFL never adopted a strict policy of gender exclusion and, at times, even came out in favor of women’s unionism. But despite such rhetoric, the Federation only half-heartedly supported women’s attempts to organize and, more often, took pains to keep women out of unions and the workforce altogether. Only two national unions affiliated with the AFL at its founding openly included women, and others passed by-laws barring women’s membership entirely. The AFL hired its first female organizer, Mary Kenney O'Sullivan, only in 1892 and after releasing her after five months, and it did not replace her or hire another women national organizer until 1908. Women who organized their own unions were often turned down in bids to join the Federation, and even women who did join unions found them hostile or intentionally inaccessible. AFL unions often held meetings at night or in bars when women might find it difficult to attend and where they might feel uncomfortable, and male unionists heckled women who tried to speak at meetings.
Generally the AFL viewed women workers as competition, as strikebreakers, or as an unskilled labor reserve that kept wages low. As such, the Federation often opposed women’s employment entirely. When it did organize women workers, most often it did so to protect men’s jobs and earning power and not to improve the conditions, lives, or wages of women workers. In response, most women workers remained outside the labor movement. In 1900, only 3.3% of working women were organized into unions. In 1910, even as the AFL surged forward in membership, the number had dipped to 1.5%. And while it improved to 6.6% over the next decade, women remained mostly outside of unions and practically invisible inside of them into the mid-1920s.
The AFL made efforts in its early years to assist its affiliates in organizing: it advanced funds or provided organizers or, in some cases, such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Teamsters and the American Federation of Musicians, helped form the union. The AFL also used its influence (including refusal of charters or expulsion) to heal splits within affiliated unions, to force separate unions seeking to represent the same or closely related jurisdictions to merge, or to mediate disputes between rival factions where both sides claimed to represent the leadership of an affiliated union or one seeking affiliation. The AFL also chartered "federal unions"—local unions not affiliated with any international union—in those fields in which no affiliate claimed jurisdiction.
The AFL faced its first major reversal when employers launched an open shop movement in 1903 designed to drive unions out of construction, mining, longshore and other industries. At the same time, employers discovered the efficacy of labor injunctions, first used with great effect by the Cleveland administration during the Pullman strike in 1894. While the AFL sought to outlaw "yellow-dog contracts," to limit the courts' power to impose "government by injunction" and to obtain exemption from the antitrust laws that were being used to criminalize labor organizing, the courts reversed what few legislative successes the labor movement won dick.
While the AFL together with its offspring, the AFL-CIO have comprised the longest lasting and most influential labor federation in the United States, there have been other entities which offered competition. Sometimes the competition has been subsumed through mergers or evolution, other times the actions of government have played a significant role. Competition has come from organizations large and small, but some of the most notable organizations have included the Western Federation of Miners (WFM); the Western Labor Union (WLU), which was later renamed the American Labor Union (ALU); the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW); the CIO; and, after the AFL merged with the CIO, the Change to Win Federation.
These jurisdictional disputes were most frequent in the building trades, where a number of different unions might claim the right to have work assigned to their members. The craft unions in this industry organized their own department within the AFL in 1908, despite the reservations of Gompers and other leaders about creation of a separate body within the AFL that might function as a federation within a federation. While those fears were partly borne out in practice, as the Building Trades Department did acquire a great deal of practical power gained through resolving jurisdictional disputes between affiliates, the danger that it might serve as the basis for schism never materialized.
Affiliates within the AFL formed "departments" to help resolve these jurisdictional conflicts and to provide a more effective voice for member unions in given industries. The Metal Trades Department engaged in some organizing of its own, primarily in shipbuilding, where unions such as the Pipefitters, Machinists and Iron Workers joined together through local metal workers' councils to represent a diverse group of workers. The Railway Employees Department dealt with both jurisdictional disputes between affiliates and pursued a common legislative agenda for all of them. Even that sort of structure did not prevent AFL unions from finding themselves in conflict on political issues. For example, the International Seamen's Union opposed passage of a law applying to workers engaged in interstate transport that railway unions supported. The AFL bridged these differences on an ad hoc basis.
The AFL also encouraged the formation of local labor bodies (known as central labor councils) in major metropolitan areas in which all of the affiliates could participate. These local labor councils acquired a great deal of influence in some cases. For example, the Chicago Federation of Labor spearheaded efforts to organize packinghouse and steel workers during and immediately after World War I. Local building trades councils also became powerful in some areas. In San Francisco, the local Building Trades Council, led by Carpenters official P. H. McCarthy, not only dominated the local labor council but helped elect McCarthy mayor of San Francisco in 1909. In a very few cases early in the AFL's history, state and local bodies defied AFL policy or chose to disaffiliate over policy disputes.
Workers could also form organizations within the AFL to promote their cause in ways the AFL failed to accomplish. Between 1903 and 1917, women organized into a number of unions composed largely or exclusively of women. The most important and largest women’s union was the socialist International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, but women organized independent locals among New York hat makers, in the Chicago stockyards, and among Jewish and Italian waist makers, to name only three examples. Through the efforts of middle class reformers and activists, often of the Womens’ Trade Union League, these unions joined the AFL.
The AFL showed no interest in supporting a labor party and found itself in conflict with the socialist organizations of the day. It resolved in 1894 not to affiliate itself with any political party, and distanced itself from the Socialist Labor Party headed by Daniel De Leon.
In some respects the AFL leadership took a pragmatic view toward politicians, following Gompers' slogan to "reward your friends and punish your enemies" without regard to party affiliation. Over time, after repeated disappointments with the failure of labor's legislative efforts to protect workers' rights, which the courts had struck down as unconstitutional, Gompers became almost anti-political, opposing some forms of protective legislation, such as limitations on working hours, because they would detract from the efforts of unions to obtain those same benefits through collective bargaining.
The AFL concentrated its political efforts during the last decades of the Gompers administration on securing freedom from state control of unions — in particular an end to the court's use of labor injunctions to block the right to organize or strike and the application of the anti-trust laws to criminalize labor's use of pickets, boycotts and strikes. The AFL thought that it had achieved the latter with the passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act in 1914 — which Gompers referred to as "Labor's Magna Carta". But in Duplex Printing Press Co. v. Deering, 254 U.S. 443 (1921), the United States Supreme Court narrowly read the Act and codified the federal courts' existing power to issue injunctions rather than limit it. The court read the phrase "between an employer and employees" (contained in the first paragraph of the Act) to refer only to cases involving an employer and its own employees, leaving the courts free to punish unions for engaging in sympathy strikes or secondary boycotts.
The AFL's pessimistic attitude towards politics did not, on the other hand, prevent affiliated unions from pursuing their own agendas. Construction unions supported legislation that governed entry of contractors into the industry and protected workers' rights to pay, rail and mass production industries sought workplace safety legislation, and unions generally agitated for the passage of workers' compensation statutes.
Unions, including the AFL itself, also welcomed governmental intervention in favor of collective bargaining during World War I. Unions in the packinghouse industry were able to form due to governmental pressure on the largest employers to recognize the unions rather than face a strike. The AFL endorsed the 1924 Presidential campaign of Robert M. La Follette, Sr., and the railroad unions' Conference for Progressive Political Action supported the Socialist Party. The campaign failed to establish a permanent Progressive Party, and thereafter the Federation embraced the Democratic Party even though many union leaders remained Republicans.
At the same time, the AFL took efforts on behalf of women in supporting protective legislation. It advocated fewer hours for women workers, and based its arguments on assumptions of female weakness. Like efforts to unionize, most support for protective legislation for women came out of a desire to protect men’s jobs. If women’s hours could be limited, reasoned AFL officials, they would infringe less on male employment and earning potential. But the AFL also took more selfless efforts. Even from the 1890s, the AFL declared itself vigorously in favor of women’s suffrage. It often printed pro-suffrage articles in its periodical, and in 1918, it supported the National Union of Women’s Suffrage.
Some unions within the AFL also helped form and participated in the National Civic Federation. The National Civic Federation was formed by several progressive employers who sought to avoid labor disputes by fostering collective bargaining and "responsible" unionism. Labor's participation in this federation, at first tentative, created internal division within the AFL. Socialists, who believed the only way to help workers was to destroy capitalism, denounced any cooperation with capitalists in the National Civic Federation. The AFL nonetheless continued its association with the group, even after the National Civic Federation became much less important after 1915.
The AFL relaxed its rigid stand against legislation after the death of Gompers. Even so, it remained cautious. Its proposals for unemployment benefits (made in the late 1920s) were too modest to have practical value, as the Great Depression soon showed. The impetus for the major federal labor laws of the 1930s came from the New Deal. The enormous growth in union membership came after Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933 and National Labor Relations Act in 1935. The AFL refused to sanction or participate in the mass strikes led by John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers and other left unions such as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. After the AFL expelled the CIO in 1936, the CIO undertook a major organizing effort. The AFL responded with its own massive organizing drive that kept its membership totals 50 percent higher than the CIO's.
The AFL retained close ties to the Democratic machines in big cities through the 1940s. Its membership surged during the war and it held on to most of its new members after wartime legal support for labor was removed.
The AFL was not able to block the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947.