American Federation Labor

The Industrial Revolution marked a period of extensive growth in the American economy. One of the most prominent impacts of this era was the birth of organized labor and unions. For my post-Reconstruction research paper, I have chosen to explore the dawn of one of these prominent organizations that remain a lasting influence in some sectors of the American economy today. New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore were the first “mercantile” cities in the United States in the mid-17th century (Weil, 1998, p. 1335).

From these cities sprouted the industrial roots of the country. Though American industrialization was really just an offshoot of the industrial revolution in Europe, it is interesting to note the rise of the industrial sector and the struggles of the working class in a country that in a hundred years would become a world superpower. The industrialization and mechanization which took place in United States between 1845 and 1900 gave rise to big businesses and monopolies.

From cotton and textile mills, shipyards and enterprises scattered all over the former British colonies, industries boomed and ascended the market-driven production system to a more competitive level. Through stiffening competitions between local and even foreign manufacturers, these marginal industries turned into industries that would eventually create other industries (Brinkley, 1995, p. 332). Essentially, industrial development brought jobs for immigrants and natives alike but because of a capitalist framework, profits gained were transformed into new industries, expanding the horizons of market productivity.
These also resulted in the concentration of industrial capital and power into few hands. However, capitalism’s inherent feature, that to accumulate profit, several policies were taken to ensure such gain and it was only labor, in the context of political economy, that is flexible enough compared with fixed variables (raw materials, machine, rent). Manufacturers and entrepreneurs reduced labor wages increased their working hours and appointed and dismissed laborers at will.
Child laborers were employed, miserable working conditions were imposed, and wages and benefits were almost disregarded (Kersten, 2006, p. 42). This inevitably forced the laborers to join hands and act collectively. Workers’ campaigns for better working condition surged and deliberately altered the power hold of the ruling class of capitalists such as the Ten Hour movement – calling for ten hours of work a day , free distribution of lands to mitigate labor disputes, reform organizations asking for varying pleas like abolishing child labor, higher wages, and right to organize.
Thus the inevitability of collision with state apparatuses obliged to maintain a social order (Greene, 1956, p. 48) All through the course of the American workingmen’s effort to impinge on humane working conditions, there were various attempts, peaceful and violent, to free themselves from the shackles of unfair labor practices (Graebner, 1988, p. 276). From 1833 to 1834, the first attempts to set up laborers’ national solidarity movements and organizations were witnessed.
In 1833, a political party, Workingmen’s Ticket, was formed to sponsor labor thought; and a national labor federation in New York City named the National Trades Union in 1834; a foremost national union of a particular employment, the National Cooperative Association of Cordwainers, in New York appeared simultaneously when a mechanics, farmers and workers’ convention wrote a Declaration of Rights and organized the Equal Rights Party in Utica in 1936 (Green, 1995, p. 523).
However it would take another fifty years for the workers’ movement to finally assemble of a broad national union of toilers. The strike strategy of Knights of Labor, formed in 1869 by nine tailors in Philadelphia, turned violent (Missouri Pacific strike and the Haymarket Square Riot) and ultimately the collapse of the KOL but it paved the way for a more organized effort for collective action. The KOL fought for eight-hour working day, ending child labor, equal pay for equal work, public land policy, and graduated income tax and to help tame the intemperance of capitalism.
This resulted in the formation of a new organization-the American Federation of Labor (AFL) which was in favor of old federative plan and was opposed to the idea of one big union that in December 8, 1886, gathered in Druids’ Hall in Columbus, Ohio: They represented young unions like the Tailors, Bakers, Iron Molders, Bricklayers, and Printers. At the movement’s head stood three unions: the Cigar Makers…, Federation of Miners and Mine Laborers…, and the Carpenters.
Most delegates had roots both in socialist organizations and in the Knights of Labor. Now, however, they wanted an organization that would place trade unions at the movement’s center, displacing politics and social reform and guaranteeing autonomy to the various trades (Greene, 1956, p. 19). Originally, the Union was set up under the name of “Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of United States and Canada” by a New York cigar maker Samuel Gompers.
Though FOTLU achieved victorious struggles proscribing cigar making in residential areas, won passages of legislation outlawing cigar-making in tenement houses, ruling out child labor under twelve years of age, and enforced education and banning prison labor, the union, nevertheless, failed to maintain a sufficient membership and support from various unions mainly because of many organizational setbacks that it lost the initiative of leading the working class. Thus, forming a new alliance of workers and tradesmen was a necessary move (Greene, 1956, p. 95). AFL was not composed of workers.
Instead it was a federation of the national crafts unions. The federation harbored “business unionism” that unions have parts in the issues on business profits and economic growth of the nation (Taft, 1959, p. 84). It was beginning to gain the fruits of workers’ struggles and much like what various movements and reform organization have fought for years before were substantially achieved. But there were, again, some issues that the AFL miscalculated. First, Gompers and some of the founders of the AFL had socialist background but the new federation consequently became conservative.
Distancing itself from the political issues of the labor movement, AFL settled only on the economic aspirations of the working class and has, consciously or not, deferred from the social concerns of the time. It was unable to tackle the racial issues and the state opposition to trade unions in the South which at that time were still decisive issues among the great number of African American and women, and that the issues inside the factories are not separate to the issues of civil rights. Needless to say that the political rift between and among the states were crucial for the activities of the existing unions (Fantasia and Voss, 2004, 172).
Second, AFL was poorly equipped and financed to combat with large and technologically advanced industries, corporations and businesses. The past strategies bent on strikes and factory walkout were still employed, however, industrial firm became sterner, much rigid in dealing with restless workers that these capitalists had more resources to take unionists on their knees. The federation’s strategy mostly relies on lobbying and at some point enveloped in some tactical alliances with parties and politicians lenient to the labor movement like William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1908 (Green, 1995, p.
581). But it survived and serviced through collective action and the charismatic leaderships of its leaders. Various presidents of the AFL were in a battle constantly waged through the actions and participation of member unions and organizations. John McBride (1894-1895), William Green (1924-1952), George Meany (1952-1955), and Samuel Gompers who had served with the longest term as president from 1886-1894 and 1895-1924 guided the AFL in the course of its nascence, wartime and in peace.
The federation’s lifeblood is very much in connection with the fibers of the nation’s economy that at critical times it has to go into agreements with the federal government that has recognized its relevant role and control in the leadership of United States’ working class. During World War I, AFL augmented its strength due to Wilson’s administration approval of unionization in return for their support in the war. It was Gompers who wanted to take into a very serious consideration the state of war readiness.
Despite such positive acclaims, at the turn of the war public opinion was swayed by the business sector that trade unions would eventually incline towards socialism and oppose U. S. wartime interests (Zieger and Gall, 1986, p. 299). The American Federation of Labor achieved various triumphs in the early twentieth-century and its memberships arose in the 1890s with the collapse of the Knights of Labor and from that point it has gained unprecedented primacy in the labor movement since its formation and the success of the AFL can be attributed to its founding leaders and the great leaders after them.
Workers’ interest were inconceivably put forward with dedication that the prestige that the AFL earned will forever be embedded on the pages of the history of the American labor movement. Its triumphs and struggles were, surely, owed to the sacrifices of the workingmen. References Brinkley, A. (1995). American History: A Survey. New York: McGraw-Hill Inc. Fantasia, R. , Voss, K. (2004). Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement. California: University of California Press. Graebner, W. (1988). The American Record: Images of the Nation’s Past. Vol. I: to 1877. New York: Alfred A.
Knopf. Green, J. W. (1995). From Forge to Fast Food: A History of Child Labor in New York State. Troy, New York: Council for Citizenship Education. Greene, J. (1956). Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881-1917. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. Taft, P. (1959). The A. F. of L. : From the Death of Gompers to the Merger. New York: Harper & Brothers. Zieger, R. H. , Gall, G. J. (1986). American workers, American Unions: The Twentieth Century (The American Moment). Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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