American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)
The AFL-CIO is the largest labor organization in the United States, comprising some 66 self-governing national and international labor unions with a total membership of 13 million workers (2002). The quadrennial American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations convention is the supreme governing body, electing the executive council, which determines policy. There are some 60,000 affiliated local unions. Throughout most of its history, the AFL-CIO opposed immigration, though its policy began to change in the 1990s.
The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was one of the earliest labor organizations in the United States, founded in 1881 as the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada. It encouraged the organization of workers into craft unions, which would then cooperate in labor bargaining. Under the energetic leadership of Samuel Gompers, an English Jewish immigrant, the American Federation of Labor gained strength as it won the support of skilled workers, both native and foreign born. The official policy of the AFL was to represent all American workers, without reference to race, ethnicity, or gender. In practice, however, Japanese and Chinese workers were excluded, and after 1895, many affiliated unions began banning African-American workers. Despite the egalitarian language of the AFL and its affiliated unions, in practice they represented the skilled workers of America, most of whom were either native born or first- or secondgeneration immigrants from northern and western Europe. By the turn of the 20th century, the American Federation of Labor was staunchly defending the prerogatives of skilled workers against threats from the “new immigration.” In 1896, the organization first established a committee on immigration and in the following year passed a resolution calling on the government to require a literacy test as the best means of keeping out unskilled laborers. The American Federation of Labor also continued to oppose Chinese and Japanese immigration and supported the Immigration Act of 1917, which required a literacy test and which barred virtually all Asian immigration.
In 1935, the AFL broke with tradition by encouraging the organization of unskilled workers, particularly those in mass-production industries. Disagreements in the leadership led to the breakaway Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1938. The two organizations merged in 1955 to form the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. Two years later, the Teamster’s Union, the largest union in the United States, was expelled from the AFL-CIO for unethical practices. In 1963, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations passed a resolution supporting “an intelligent and balanced immigration policy” based on “practical considerations of desired skills.” The organization applauded the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, particularly for its tough sanctions on employers of illegal immigrants. As labor membership continued to decline, the organization moved further toward support of immigration, in 1993 explicitly stating that immigrants were not the cause of labor’s problems and encouraging local affiliates to pay special attention to the needs of legal immigrant workers. In February 2000, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations made the historic decision to reverse its position and to support future immigration. The Executive Council emphasized three areas: elimination of the “I-9” sanctions process, tougher penalties for employers who take advantage of undocumented workers, and a new amnesty program for undocumented workers. On July 25, 2000, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations president John J. Sweeney openly endorsed the Restoration of Fairness in Immigration Act, formally introduced in March 2002, which expanded amnesty provisions for long-term workers who entered the country illegally. It is unclear how vigorously this policy will be pursued, and if it will be adopted generally by organized labor, particularly in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
See also labor organization and immigration.