American Federation of Labor (A.F.L.) Letters in the Progressive Era

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Completed Pages: 32,268

Registered Contributors: 1,589

Launched April 26, 2023.

The records of the American Federation of Labor (A.F.L.) reflect the tumultuous and contested first decades of the twentieth century in the United States. Demographic change due to immigration from abroad and migration within reshaped American cities and small towns. At the same time, women’s suffrage reached its pinnacle achieving the vote by 1919, while the labor movement incorporated greater numbers of women into its ranks, though often on unequal footing with their male counterparts. Similarly, African Americans pressed for greater rights and economic opportunity while Asian, Asian Americans, and Latino/a Americans also searched for employment and work.

As the largest union of its day, the A.F.L. attempted to balance the interests of workers and its growing political power in Washington D.C. The organization served as the fulcrum upon which industrialization, urbanization, and civil rights hinged. The correspondence in the A.F.L. records reveal a union struggling with its own internal contradictions and biases while attempting to expand workers rights.

Many pages in this campaign come from the letter books of Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), who emigrated with his family to the United States in 1863 and worked as a cigar maker. He emerged as a dominant voice in labor in the late nineteenth century, leading the A.F.L. for nearly every year from its establishment in 1886 until his death in 1924.

In 2021, Archives, History and Heritage Advanced Internship Program intern Mills Pennebaker conducted research in the A.F.L. collection on the International Ladies Garment Workers Union Strike, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, and Red Summer to document A.F.L. engagement, or lack thereof, on gender, race, and ethnicity. Pennebaker examined over 6,000 pieces of correspondence and her work served as a catalyst for this transcription project.

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