2014 Labor History Month (1/4)

Categories: Labor, Civil Rights

Founded in the darkest depths of the Great Depression, AFGE came to life when the American Federation of Labor gave the little group of 562 members its charter on August 18, 1932. From these humble beginnings, AFGE began building an empowered workforce and a government that was empowered to meet the needs of the American people.

These goals would not come easy, however. At the time working conditions were steadily declining and wageworkers the country over saw nothing but bleak poverty and hopelessness. Workers both public and private were enveloped in the economic storm that swept across the globe. Rather than sit on its hands, AFGE rolled up its sleeves and set off to prevent the federal government from balancing its budget on the worker’s backs.

At a time when other employee groups were doing little to stop the bleeding of jobs and resources, AFGE was making its presence felt. Our union boldly called for restoration of pay. On every side "advisers" appeared to say it couldn't be done, but AFGE went ahead and did it anyway. Shortly after the government employees' pay was restored, railroad employees received a similar pay increase, and boosts for bakery workers soon followed. Private industry, which had followed the government's lead in pay cutting, also followed it "when unions could bring strong pressure" in restoring pay. But AFGE would not stop there.

In its first ten years, AFGE helped create the Government Employees Sick Benefit Association; made improvements in the Civil Service Retirement and Classification Acts; participated in the movement to press through laws to improve working conditions for federal employees, including the establishment of the 40-hour work week; achieved the right to organize; drew up a Bill of Rights for African Americans in federal and local government (AFGE Local 383 was founded by African Americans in 1937) and grew its membership to upwards of 37,000.

Part II of our four part series AFGE: A History of Progress and Innovation will be published next Monday, May 12.

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