American Federation of Labor (AFL)

As president of the federation, Gompers actively promoted harmony among the different craft unions that made up the AFL. Primarily focused on higher wages and job security, the AFL was against socialism and the Socialist Party of America. Gompers was no fan of capitalism, yet he vehemently demanded a fair share for labor. The federation lobbied for “a pure and simple unionism . . . better wages, hours and working conditions” (Bailey 539 ). After 1907 the union formed alliances with the Democratic Party at the local, state, and national levels. The AFL actively supported the United States’ war effort in World War I and saw rapid growth in membership and a rise in the wages of its affiliated workers. The AFL was always hostile to communists, primarily because they were a powerful force inside the rival Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The AFL boycotted the World Federation of Trade Unions due to its decision to admit Soviet labor unions. The AFL established a confederation of free trade unions, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which eventually garnered the support of all labor confederations with the exception of those of the Soviet Union and its satellites. The AFL increased and added more members during the very rapid growth period of the late 1930s and the World War II period, yet it avoided the radicalism of the CIO.

The principle method of agitation advocated by the federation was the strike, which was employed to win concessions from employers and to attract recruits. Commenting on the mission of the AFL, Gompers once told a left-wing French politician, “I have my own philosophy and my own dreams, but first and foremost I want to increase the workingman's welfare year by year. . . . The French workers waste their economic force by their political divisions” (Carnes 627 ). As president of the AFL from 1886 until his death in 1924, Gompers encouraged members to make “intelligent use of the ballot” to further their interests. The AFL's approach to labor issues proved highly successful. Unions with membership of nearly 150,000 workers made up the federation in 1886. In 1892, the federation's membership had risen to 250,000, and by 1901 it had surpassed the 1 million mark.

Christopher Allan Black

See also: Gompers, Samuel (1850–1924) ; Haymarket Riot (1886) ; Knights of Labor


Carnes, Mark C., and John A. Garraty. American Destiny: Narrative of a Nation. Vol. 2. New York: Penguin, 2003.

Livesay, Harold C. Samuel Gompers and Organized Labor in America. Boston: Little Brown, 1978.

Mandel, Bernard. “Gompers and Business Unionism, 1873–90.” Business History Review 28 (3): 264–75.