Trade Unions in the United States remained weak throughout the 19th century. Only 2 per cent of the total labour force and less than 10 per cent of all industrial workers, were members of unions. In 1881 the Federation of Trades and Labor Unions was founded. Five years later the organization changed its name to the American Federation of Labor. Based on the Trade Union Congress in Britain, the AFL's first president was Samuel Gompers. He held conservative political views and believed that trade unionists should accept the economic system.
The decision of attorney-general, Richard Olney, to use the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, against the trade unionists involved in the Pullman Strike in 1894, made some workers to question the AFL's moderate approach. One of those imprisoned as a result of Olney's action, Eugene Debs, president of the American Railway Union, was converted to socialism and believed that capitalism should be replaced by a new cooperative system. In 1905 representatives of 43 groups, who opposed the policies of American Federation of Labor, formed the radical labour organization, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
In 1921 John L. Lewis, leader of the United Mine Workers of America, failed in his attempt to challenge Samuel Gompers for the presidency of the American Federation of Labor. Gompers finally left in 1924 and was replaced by William Green.
In 1935 John L. Lewis joined with the heads of seven other unions to form the Congress for Industrial Organization (CIO). Lewis became president of this new organization and over the next few years attempted to organize workers in the new mass production industries. This strategy was successful and by 1937 the CIO had more members than the American Federation of Labor.
William Green remained president of the AFL until 1952 when he was replaced by George Meany. In 1955 the CIO merged with the American Federation of Labour. Walter Reuther, the president of the CIO became vice-president of the AFL-CIO. Meany became president of this new organization that now had a membership of 15,000,000.
Walter Reuther found George Meany conservative and dictatorial and in 1968 led the out of the AFL-CIO federation. The following year he joined with the Teamsters Union to form Alliance for Labor Action.