The AFL Canadian: Labor, National Identity, and Transnational Discourse 1936-1955
“The American Federation of Labor is an American organization,” declared William Green, president of the AFL, in his 1947 keynote speech, “It believe[d] in American, the fundamental law of the United States, the Constitution, freedom, liberty and democracy. We will have nothing to do with Communism in any shape, or form ... This sixty-sixth convention will redeclare its opposition to Communism and to Communist philosophy, and ... to [those who would] attempt to establish it among the organized labor of our country.” Though Green declared “Communism abhorrent to American labor” not all the members of the AFL were American. Indeed, Canadians and their unions had been part of the AFL since its inception in 1881.
Craft unions in Canada were primarily organized under the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada (TLC), which had been a subdivision of the AFL since 1910. However the power relation between these two groups had been hotly contested over that time. Should the Trades and Labor Congress be able to act independently of the AFL leadership? After all, as Green said in his 1947 speech, “The American Federation of Labor is an American organization.” Canada was a sovereign state, yet its labor organizations were dominated by a foreign power.
At the 1939 American Federation of Labor convention in Atlantic City, NJ, this issue of Canadian labor sovereignty in regards to the AFL came to the fore. The executive council of the AFL recommended giving the Trades and Labor Congress sole authority to grant central labor body charters. Although primarily an economically unimportant act, as central labor bodies did not arbitrate wages or work conditions, it was culturally significant as it symbolized Canadian autonomy. This would have constituted a modification of the 1910 agreement governing the relationship of the TLC and the Executive Council of the AFL, and there was a strong reaction from the floor delegates against such a proposal. The resulting Resolution 15 demanded “that every Central Labor Union in Canada MUST hold a charter from the A. F. of L. in addition to any charter they may hold from the Canadian Trades and Labor Congress [and the TLC additionally] CANNOT issue charters of any kind without such application for charter first having received the approval of the Executive Council.” There was a perception that TLC-chartered unions were coming under the control of Communists and the CIO, both direly opposed by the AFL. Thus the reaction of the delegates was both economic and political; they opposed the dual-unionism, that is, two unions representing the same industry, of the CIO, and the expansion of the Communist influence in North America. Yet from the perspective of many Canadian unionists, the greater threat was not Communism or the CIO, but that a foreign labor organization, primarily constituted of, and entirely led by Americans, could dictate the...