The American Federation of Labor was founded by 26 craft unions on this date in 1886. Samuel Gompers, a Dutch-born Jew and head of the Cigar Makers’ International Union, was elected its president. The AFL was a breakaway movement, established by union activists who had grown disgruntled with the Knights of Labor (K of L), a national association. The K of L was accused of undermining union autonomy and was suspected of conspiring with ownership to provide labor at wages below the going union rate. During Gompers’ 37-year tenure at the AFL’s helm, procedures for collective bargaining and labor-management contracts were established, and trade unionism became part and parcel of the American capitalist system — though the AFL always sought to work within the capitalist system, not challenging the owners’ property rights, nor taking on any broader political goals.
“What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge . . . more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.” —Samuel Gompers