American Federation Of Labor

In 1881, a Dutch immigrant cigarmaker named Samuel Gompers and some other leading craftsmen organized the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada -- the predecessor of the American Federation of Labor. Unlike the Knights of Labor, it included only wage earners. In 1886 it was reorganized and changed its name to the American Federation of Labor. Gompers became the AFL's first president.

Gompers' three-point program of union strategy served the AFL movement throughout its history. First, he insisted on working for practical benefits in the form of higher wages and better working conditions, rather than engaging in a philosophical class struggle. Second, he committed the AFL to the principle of federalism within the movement, allowing each union considerable internal freedom to organize and operate according to its own style. Third, he did what he could to keep government out of collective bargaining, while favoring rewards to political friends and defeat of members of Congress who opposed labor's position. Gompers also insisted that no more than one union should try to organize the same workers at the same time.

Despite the successful beginning of the AFL, labor organizers faced a number of difficulties. For the most part, employers had never fully accepted the legitimacy of unions, much less their right to strike or bargain collectively. Management, which preferred to discuss issues separately with each worker, often sought to circumvent the union, firing or "blacklisting" (agreeing with other companies not to hire) those workers who were in favor of unions, or by signing workers to "yellow dog" contracts, which prohibited them from joining unions.

Employers also sought court injunctions against unions to stop them from engaging in strikes. For most of the years between 1880 and 1932, the government and the courts were generally sympathetic or, at best, neutral to the position of management. In fact, it was often the government, in the name of public order, that provided the force necessary to put down a strike. For example, when employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike in 1894 to protest a wage cut, joined by members of the American Railway Union in a sympathy strike, the U.S. government sent federal troops to end the strike, declaring that it interfered with mail trains. There were other violent strikes during this era, some of which resulted in numerous deaths.

Another major setback for the labor movement occurred in 1905 with the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Lochner v. New York. The Court held that a law limiting the number of working hours was unconstitutional because it restricted the right of an individual to contract for employment. The Court's reasoning was based on the principle that individuals have "liberty of contract" as derived from the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

By the close of World War I, the AFL had some 5 million members and was growing both in numbers and in influence. However, growth slowed during the 1920s when labor met determined opposition from business groups like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). One fierce battle was over the principle of the "open shop," the right of a worker not to be forced to join a union. Additionally, because the 1920s tended to be prosperous years with high employment, workers felt relatively secure without union support. After Gompers' death in 1924, William Green was elected president of the AFL as a compromise candidate.