Exploring Labor’s History Through the AFL-CIO Poster Collection: A Blog Series (Part 1)

The American Federation of Labor was founded just about 150 years ago in 1886. Continuing today, the AFL-CIO and its member unions and organizations have traveled together through a tumultuous history of social challenges and changes: worker’s rights, child labor, segregation, World War II, Apartheid, the 40 hour work week, communism, LGBT rights, and so much more. During the past year, I have been inventorying the AFL-CIO poster collection here at the University of Maryland’s Special Collections and University Archives’ Labor Collections. This inventory will enable researchers and staff to find and access these posters and facilitate future digitization projects. As I finish up inventorying the collection, I thought I would share my experience with the collection.

This AFL-CIO Posters collection contains over 900 items ranging from broadsides, circulars, posters, and clipsheets. It spans the early days of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) up to the present-day AFL-CIO. It contains items from a variety of unions and organizations, international and American, and in a variety of languages including: French, Spanish, Finnish, German, Hungarian, Polish, Chinese, Korean, Icelandic, Hebrew, and Arabic. My time with this collection truly has been a journey through time and place. From late 19th century shipyards to contemporary, global struggles for human rights.


This item was one of the first items that really caught my attention. This broadside advertises a rally a for employees of the Miami Shipbuilding Company hosted by the AFL, but what is at the bottom was what caught my eye: the rally was segregated. The labor movement has been rightly identified as an important actor in the civil rights movement in America, so it was quite a surprise for me to see that the AFL hosted segregated rallies. Often photographs are used as evidence for America’s history of segregation, where the brutality of the situation is highlighted by the frames of the photograph. On this broadside, however, the reality of segregation seems far more banal; it was the social reality, the everyday. While the labor movement would later feature pillars of equality like A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King, Jr, when this was printed, the AFL was subject to and participated in the social reality of the time just like almost everyone else.


This poster is quite the blast from the past. In the mid 1930’s an organization developed within the American Federation of Labor called “the Committee for Industrialized Organizations,” bringing together industrialized unions, and it was led by John L. Lewis. These unions organized workers of an entire industry rather than just organizing members of a particular trade (such as craft unions). During this period the United Auto Workers (UAW) was formed and became a part of the CIO. In 1938, however, the AFL and the CIO officially divided and the CIO changed its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. In this poster we can see the AFL responding to a demonstration organized by Lewis and the CIO. While the AFL and CIO were divided, the two organizations maintained some ideological differences which this item really highlights, in particular the Lewis and the CIO grew apart from FDR and opposed the The United States’ involvement in World War II. Here we can see the AFL did not share the same opinion. While the AFL and the CIO’s rivalry may have been bitter, in 1955 the CIO (led by Walter Reuther) and the AFL (led by George Meany) merged to form the AFL-CIO.

Contact us at askhornbake@umd.edu for more information about this collection in our Labor Collections.


Benjamin Bradley is a second year MLIS student in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. He works in the Labor Collections at UMD’s Special Collections and University Archives. You can also find him over in McKeldin Library where he is the GA for Electronic Resources.

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