American Federation of Labor—Congress of Industrial Organizations

American Federation of Labor—Congress of Industrial Organizations

The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is a voluntary federation of 65 national and international labor unions. It comprises 65 national union affiliates, 45,000 local unions, 51 state federations (including Puerto Rico), 570 central labor councils, and a membership of more than 13 million workers. The organization, which has had enormous political influence since the 1930s, is headquartered in Washington, D.C.

The AFL was formed in 1886 as a loose confederation of 25 autonomous national trade unions with more than 316,000 members. The AFL, renouncing identification with any political party or movement, concentrated on pursuing achievable goals such as higher wages and shorter work hours. Members were encouraged to support politicians who were friendly to labor, no matter their party affiliation.

During the 1930s, the AFL became embroiled in internal conflict. The trade unions that dominated the AFL were composed of skilled workers who opposed organizing the unskilled or semiskilled workers on the manufacturing production line. Several unions rebelled at this refusal to organize and formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). The CIO aggressively organized millions of workers who labored in automobile, steel, and rubber plants. In 1938, unhappy with this effort, the AFL expelled the unions that formed the CIO. The CIO then formed its own organization and changed its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. By the 1950s, the leadership of both the AFL and CIO realized that a unified labor movement was a necessity. In 1955, the AFL and the CIO merged into a single organization, the AFL-CIO.

The AFL-CIO is primarily concerned with influencing legislative policies that affect unions. Its staff members conduct research, set policy, and testify before congressional and state legislative committees. More importantly, the organization provides funds and volunteers to labor-endorsed political candidates. Alhough the AFL-CIO is a nonpartisan organization, it traditionally has supported Democratic Party candidates.

With the 1995 election of John J. Sweeney as president, the AFL-CIO has made increased union membership its highest priority. Despite Sweeney's most recent reelection in 2001, membership in U.S. trade unions has continued to fall over the last several decades, as the manufacturing sector of the U.S. economy has steadily declined. Union membership in 2001 comprised just 13.5 percent of the workforce, compared with a high of 34.7 percent in 1954. Sweeney has pushed the organization to recruit women, minorities, low-paid workers, and white-collar workers. In an effort to strengthen local unions, the AFL-CIO launched the New Alliance initiative in 2001. The purpose of the initiative is to restructure unions at the state and local levels.

The day-to-day work of the federation is carried out by 11 programmatic departments including the Organizing Department; the Field Mobilization Department; the Civil, Human and Women's Rights Department; and the International Affairs Department. Topics of major importance to the AFL-CIO include manufacturing, Civil Rights, the global economy, health care, immigrant workers, minimum-wage issues, pensions, and Social Security.

Further readings

AFL–CIO Website. Available online at <www.aflcio.org> (accessed November 13, 2003).

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