The AFL-CIO represents the merger of two labor unions: the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organization. The AFL began in 1881 as the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the U.S. and Canada, a collection of workers from different skilled trades. In 1886 the group was renamed the American Federation of Labor. The CIO started in 1935 from dissatisfaction with the AFL. Later, in 1955, the two groups came back together.
Membership in the AFL grew from the 1880’s through the first two decades of the 20th century. During that period there were a number of strikes including major ones against railroads, the anthracite coal mining industry (the Molly Maguires), shirtwaist manufacturers, and the Bread and Roses strike in Massachusetts. World War I, with the heavy need for industrial capacity, led to concessions and wider approval of unions. By the end of WWI there were more than four million members in the AFL. In 2006 there were ten million members.
Labor unions have been around at least since the 18th century. Early types represented groups of craft workers. Industrial unions represent workers in specific industries. While craft unions had an interest in maintaining standards, labor unions came into being to balance the power of corporations in controlling workers lives and income. In many industries, working conditions were dangerous and workers lived in poverty. Unions brought the ability to pressure companies into making improvements either through negotiation or strikes.
Samuel Gompers provided the inspiration for the formation of the first Federation and later the AFL. Gompers’ view of labor unions omitted unskilled workers and minorities. His narrow views of unionization led to John L. Lewis starting a new union originally called the Committee for Industrial Organization, which was more inclusive than the AFL. Members of this second organization were expelled from the AFL in 1937 and eventually the group was renamed the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
According to statistics published by the AFL-CIO and citing as sources the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics “Union Members in 2007, “National Compensation Survey,” and the Economic Policy Institute union wages are 30 percent higher than non-unionized employees. Guaranteed pensions cover 68 percent of union members but only 14 percent of non-members. Female union workers wages are 33 percent higher than non-union. Minority groups, depending on the minority, earn from 4 percent to 51 percent more than counterparts in non-unionized companies.
From the days of bitter and violent union strikes in the early history of unions, a generally more peaceful working relationship has developed in most cases in current-day America. There have been significant and long-lasting effects of some major strikes, such as the air traffic controllers strike of 1984. However, while hard-fought strikes still exist, labor laws passed in the 20th century have equalized the disparity between company control and workers and ended the worst abuses.