Curatorial Projects > Battle Emblems (2006)

American Federation of Labor - Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)

In 1881, American and Canadian workers’ organizations formed the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, reorganized by Samuel Gompers in 1886 as the American Federation of Labor (AFL). AFL emphasized organizing workers horizontally, where members are skilled in a certain craft (e.g. plumbing), as opposed to vertically, where members work in the same industry regardless of skill (e.g. the auto industry). AFL secured higher wages, shorter hours, and workers’ compensation for its membership, numbering 10 million by the 1950s. A faction within AFL evolved in the 1930s, advocating vertical organization of workers in mass-production industries, becoming the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1938. CIO’s organizing drives in the auto and steel industries challenged AFL’s hegemony within organized labor. Concern over Eisenhower’s antiunion policies propelled the labor movement to unify, and deaths of both organizations’ presidents in 1952 presaged 1955’s merger. As America's largest labor federation, AFL-CIO came to represent 53 unions and 9 million workers. In 2003, internal debates over the labor movement’s future led to the New Unity Partnership (NUP), a coalition of AFL-CIO's largest unions. After labor-backed candidate John Kerry lost 2004’s presidential election, NUP advocated reducing AFL-CIO’s central bureaucracy and using funds on organizing drives rather than on electoral politics. In 2005, NUP dissolved and Change to Win Coalition formed, threatening to secede from AFL-CIO if demands for reorganization weren’t met. As AFL-CIO prepared for its 50th anniversary, three of the largest unions withdrew: Service Employees International Union, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and United Food and Commercial Workers.

A ritual where two people grasp and shake each other’s hands, a handshake is commonly done upon meeting, departing, offering congratulations, or completing an agreement in order to demonstrate goodwill. Originally a Western European tradition, the handshake in its present form was established by 17th century British Quakers as a simpler alternative to the complex greeting etiquette of higher social classes. In the context of union symbols, the handshake also represents labor solidarity and the traditional completion of collective bargaining sessions. It took on further connotations with the 1955 AFL-CIO merger, literally depicting the joining of the two unions. As early unions gained AFL membership, many adopted the handshake symbol and incorporated it into their own labels, which promoted the idea that union labels guaranteed quality goods. The first union labels used for this purpose were created by a cigar maker’s union in 1880 in San Francisco.