The American Federation of Labor

Samuel Gompers /

Samuel Gompers /

‘Socialism’ or ‘Socialist’ are unclean words in the United States. This is why the other part of their two-party political system is called ‘The Democratic Party’ as opposed to ‘The American Labour (labor) Party’ or the ‘US Social Democratic Party’. Socialism has always been regarded by loyal Americans as ‘un-American’. And yet the divisive word ‘labor’ crept into mainstream language when the craft unions got together in 1881 to found the AFL, and then re-organized it in 1886.

It was seen as a loosely-coordinated federation of national unions, each with its own autonomy, not as a huge and unwieldy, centrally controlled union, something that happened in Britain, where in the 1960s a trade union leader could hold up a card at meetings of the Labour Party, a card representing one million worker’s names. The leader would shout “One million members of the Union of Boilermakers say NO!”, and up would shoot both inflation and unemployment figures.

In America, the AFL was dominated until 1924 by its first president, a man called Gompers. He and his federation were prepared to use strikes as a militant instrument in the process of getting their own way, but they were not aggressive in the way British unions were before the advent of Margaret Thatcher. They did not publicly loathe or criticise the capitalist system, indeed were not prepared to be a threat to it.

By the early Twenties the Federation had more than 3 million members, but by the end of the Great Depression of 1929 – 39 2 million of these had gone. During and after the War however, favourable labour legislation under the ‘New Deal’, aided by the massive wartime boom, meant a membership total of 9 million in 1943; but the Federation had swollen to cumbersome size, and the individual craft unions within it became hostile to each other. It split on numerous occasions, and the rift was not closed until the middle Fifties, when the AFL merged with the ‘Congress of Industrial Organizations’ – claiming 15 million members.

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