Today, union organizations that participate in the AFL range from the Writer’s Guild of America, Plumbers and Pipe Fitters, Machinists, National Nurses United, Unite Here, United Union of Roofers and Waterproofers, and the American Federation of Teachers.  A full list can be found at

The AFL-CIO is a national trade union center. It is the largest federation of unions in the United States, currently composed of 54 national and international unions which amounts to representation of more than ten million workers.

The American Federation of Labor, or AFL, was one of the first federations of labor unions in the United States. It was founded in 1886 by Samuel Gompers who remained its president until his death in 1924.  Samuel Gompers immigrated from East London in 1863.  He was 13 years old.  His family settled in a slum in New York.  The family soon resumed the family business of making cigars.  In 1864, Gompers and his father joined the the small Cigar-makers’ Local Union No. 15.  He immediately rose up the leadership ranks and at 16 was negotiating with the owners for his fellow workers. Despite the push toward mechanizing the cigar process, which lowered the need for the precise and technical expertise of the experienced cigar makers, Gompers built the cigar union into a functioning international organization.

samuel gompers

In 1881, Gompers worked with the leaders of the other craft unions to create a loosely linked organization of unions that officially became the  American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886.  The current union, known as the Knights of Labor, had a socialistic outlook, in which everyone benefited equally from work produced regardless of their role. These socialists tried to take over the AFL in 1864, but were permanently removed in 1865, renewing the AFL’s commitment to the workers daily material and economic success versus an emphasis on politics. Under Gomper’s leadership, the AFL supported the United States government policies for the most part.  During WWI, Gompers persuaded union members not to go on strike as it would hurt the U.S.’s economy which was fragile from the war effort.

In 1935, a faction of the AFL that felt industrial workers were under-represented formed to create a subgroup called the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The unions that made up the CIO were unable to change the AFL policy toward industrial workers and in 1938 they broke away to create their own organization.  This began a long and often violent competition between the two unions. The CIO, or Congress of Industrial Organizations, existed from 1938 to 155. It was a more aggressive and more militant organization than the AFL with membership that was frequently younger. The CIO used more radical tactics. In addition, the group ardently supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal Coalition. The group was notable for its acceptance of African Americans into its ranks.


In 1955, the AFL and CIO, which were two separate union federations, formed together after a period of estrangement. This became the AFL-CIO or American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. The group is a voluntary federation that has little authority over the affairs of member unions. However, the AFL-CIO can expel member unions for corruption. Beyond that, there is very little control though.

Membership in the AFL-CIO is largely unrestricted. The federation likes its reputation as an all-inclusive “House of Labor”, national federation of labor unions. The organization does, however, explicitly bar one type of union. The one restriction is on labor unions whose “policies and activities are consistently directed toward the achievement of the program or purposes of authoritarianism, totalitarianism, terrorism, and other forces that suppress individual liberties and freedom of association.”

The organization is governed by its members in a quadrennial convention. Each union elects or selects delegates from its membership based on a proportional representation system. These delegates then go to the national convention to settle matters that need to be addressed.


The AFL was dunion rooferesigned to be a reorganization of Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. This organization was the largest trade union federation in the United States even after the CIO, or Congress of Industrial Organizations, split off in 1938.




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