Founded in 1886, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was comprised predominantly of craft unions—many of whom had fled the Knights of Labor—that emphasized improving economic conditions for workers rather than eliminating or fundamentally transforming industrial capitalism. Although the national organization claimed to represent all workers, many constituent unions were quite exclusionary in practice, primarily made up of skilled, white male workers. Despite its narrow focus and membership base, the fledgling AFL was not opposed to international labor cooperation. When an international conference of labor leaders convened in Paris in 1889 to create the Second International, AFL President Samuel Gompers solicited its support for the AFL's campaigns on behalf of an eight-hour day. The congress responded favorably and organized May Day labor demonstrations in conjunction with the AFL's eight-hour-day rallies in the United States. The demonstrations marked the beginning of the international trade union tradition of May Day labor celebrations and rallies.
But in the decade following the Paris Congress, the AFL remained largely aloof from the Second International. In part, the AFL failed to develop a relationship with the Second International for pragmatic reasons. Still in its infancy, the AFL could not always afford to send delegates to European conferences. The organization was also preoccupied during its early years with strike activity. Perhaps most importantly, both American and European socialists became increasingly critical of the AFL's conservative orientation. When Gompers tried to arrange an international labor conference at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, only the British Trades Union Congress responded favorably. Gompers subsequently canceled the conference and, while encouraging the exchange of fraternal delegates between the British Trades Union Congress and the AFL, largely eschewed contacts with European socialist and labor leaders.
AFL interest in European labor affairs revived only after 1904, when many individual unions within the AFL began to affiliate with international trade secretariats. These organizations were comprised of national trade unions from the same industry that came together to promote their international interests. For example, miners from France, Germany, and Austria created the International Miners' Federation in 1890. Constituent AFL unions became interested in these secretariats when they realized they could provide valuable information about international conditions in their industries and coordinate activities that would prevent businessmen from importing strikebreakers from other countries. Among the AFL unions that joined secretariats between 1904 and 1908 were the miners, molders, painters, shoemakers, lithographers, bakers, and brewers.
As more AFL unions joined their secretariats, Gompers in turn became more interested in joining the International Secretariat of National Trade Union Centers, which had been formed in 1903 at the behest of leaders of the international secretariats who sought an international trade union organization that would be independent of the Second International. Gompers attended one of its conferences in 1908, and the AFL convention subsequently voted to affiliate with the organization. The AFL was an active member of the International Secretariat of National Trade Union Centers between 1910 and 1913 and successfully promoted an initiative to have the organization's name changed to the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU). After failing in their efforts to use international labor organizations to prevent war in 1914, Gompers and other AFL leaders confidently waited for an end to the conflict, assuming that the AFL would play a predominant role in international labor organizations following the armistice.
The AFL's influence in postwar labor organizations, however, would ultimately be undermined by the corporatist role it had tried to carve for itself in shaping U.S. foreign policy during the previous two decades. The first U.S. foreign policy issue in which the AFL took a systematic interest was the McKinley administration's policies toward the Cuban rebellion against Spain in the 1890s. Like many groups in the United States, the AFL lobbied Congress to recognize Cuban belligerency. A majority of representatives from the constituent unions of the AFL apparently believed it was their responsibility to promote liberty for fellow workingmen. In the minority within the AFL, suggests Delber McKee, were those who warned that labor should avoid committing itself on the question because it might be encouraging a U.S. war with Spain. War, they argued, always disproportionately hurt the workingman, because they were the ones who fought and died. Fewer still were labor leaders like Andrew Furuseth of the Seamen's Union, who questioned whether business and government leaders supporting the Cubans might have imperialist motives of their own. As Furuseth explained, the question over whether to support Cuban belligerency was one of "whether the New York speculator or the Spanish capitalist should skin the Cuban workingman."
AFL President Gompers, for his part, supported proposals to recognize Cuban belligerency but opposed McKinley's decision to declare war against Spain. Yet the AFL did nothing to oppose U.S. mobilization for war. Instead, Gompers focused on opposing annexation of Spanish territories at war's end. Gompers highlighted his reasons for opposing empire in an article entitled "To Free Cuba, Not to Chineize [sic] America Was the War Begun." In part, as McKee has demonstrated, Gompers shared the racial assumptions of many white trade unionists of his day and feared that annexing territories would enable "semibarbaric laborers" to immigrate to the United States and undermine American labor standards. As a former cigar maker, Gompers also sought to prevent goods like cigars produced by sweatshop labor in Cuba and the Philippines from competing with American products in the U.S. market. Finally, the AFL president also hoped to preempt possible American business flight to these low-wage areas by stopping U.S. annexation.
But after the Senate approved a peace treaty with Spain that resulted in the formal annexation of the Philippines, Gompers came to what McKee calls a "tacit compromise" with the State Department. The AFL president toned down his opposition to U.S. imperial policies and even endorsed temporary ward status for the Philippines and Puerto Rico in return for government and business acquiescence in an AFL campaign to build labor unions in these areas. In rationalizing his policies, Gompers argued, "We realized that in order to protect our standards within the states we must help the Island workers to develop their own higher political, social and industrial problems [sic]."
Gompers and the AFL thus began to move away from a policy of opposing government and business imperialism and toward a corporatist partnership between business, labor, and the state in promoting American economic expansion. Gompers and other AFL leaders reasoned that if they could raise labor standards in the new island protectorates, then U.S. imperial control over them might actually benefit U.S. workers. Goods produced there would not undersell those made by U.S. workers for domestic markets and American businessmen would not be tempted to establish low-wage factories on the islands. On the other hand, wealthier island workers might welcome consumer goods from the United States, thereby promoting American economic growth in ways that benefited U.S. business and U.S. workers alike. The islands might also prove to be important strategic outposts for securing access to other markets or raw materials deemed vital to the health of U.S. industry. Lost in such reasoning, of course, were the aspirations of indigenous working-class populations in the islands for economic, political, and cultural independence.
Meanwhile, a more amicable alliance had evolved among labor, business, and state leaders to resolve domestic economic problems during the early twentieth century. In 1900 the National Civic Federation was formed to encourage a "community of interest" among the three groups that would reduce industrial strife and promote the development of a healthy capitalist economic system in the United States. Upon assuming office, President Woodrow Wilson built on the initiatives of the National Civic Federation by creating the Department of Labor and the Commission on Industrial Relations to oversee industrial arbitration and to make recommendations for promoting harmony and efficiency in industry.
But this cooperative agenda—to encourage industrial peace at home and American expansion and hegemony abroad—would fully blossom only during World War I.