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The American Federation of Labor, the first successful national alliance of trade unions, was established in 1886 to strengthen ties between trade unionists and to organize the industrial work force. The direct descendent of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, the AFL concentrated on developing labor's economic power and then using that power to achieve shorter hours, higher wages, safe and sanitary working conditions, and labor's right to organize, strike, and bargain collectively with employers. Because these were basic issues that all workers could support, whether they were skilled or unskilled, immigrant or native born, socialist, Democrat, or Republican, the AFL's founders hoped the new organization would grow strong enough to survive employer hostility, cyclical economic depressions, and on-going fights with rival labor organizations.

Throughout its history, the AFL championed trade autonomy, which meant that the Federation did not interfere with national and international union affairs. Socialist critics like Daniel DeLeon believed such autonomy undermined class solidarity -- in fact DeLeon regularly mocked the AFL as the "American Separation of Labor." But Samuel Gompers argued that solidarity could not be imposed from above: Strong international unions, like the Carpenters or the Plumbers, had their own ideas about how to protect their members, and they could not be compelled to join a general strike or support a particular political party, no matter what AFL leaders thought best.

View documents related to the AFL's founding, its trade union philosophy, its political program, and its organizing effort.






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