The CLEVELAND FEDERATION OF LABOR, the craft wing of the Cleveland AFL-CIO, was the first successful coalition of tradesmen in the city. Chartered by the American Federation of Labor in 1887, the organization was called the Central Labor Union (CLU). Before that time, trade unionists had loosely allied in the 1870s as the Industrial Council, which evolved into the KNIGHTS OF LABOR TRADES & LABOR ASSEMBLY 47. By 1886, Local 47 was composed of 50 locals which loosely subscribed to the reform unionism promoted by the Knights. Shortly after the AFL was formed in 1881, organizers were in Cleveland to gain support for the new union movement, and as a result, many Cleveland trade unionists seceded from the Knights. In Oct. 1887 the Typographical Union #54, Cigar Makers #7, Iron Molders #218, Typographical #6 (German), Amalgamated Carpenters, Brewery Workers #17, and Bakery Workers #19 received an AFL charter, and the Central Labor Union was formed. Through the efforts of ROBERT BANDLOW, the CLU contained 26 locals by 1890; within 10 years the number grew to 71.
In 1902 the CLU merged with the Building Trades Council to become the United Trades & Labor Council, which became the Cleveland Federation of Labor (CFL) in 1910. Dominated by the building trades, the CFL reflected the conservative line of the national AFL. The Cleveland branch, however moderate, faced an uphill battle in gaining acceptance from the largely anti-union Cleveland business community, although it enjoyed some success with a low level of violence through the 1920s. The CFL fought hard to establish loyalty and discipline among its members when masses of less skilled, unorganized workers sought to negotiate better wages, hours, and working conditions under Sec. 7A of the National Industrial Recovery Act passed in 1933.
Beginning in 1935, the craft orientation of the federation was challenged by a group led by United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis, who favored the mass organization of workers by industry rather than by trade. There were membership raids on the CFL unions, and several industrial unions left the national AFL and formed the separate Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO). In the face of competition from the CIO, the CFL itself was split by internal disputes between the dominant Building Trades Council and the rapidly growing TEAMSTERS UNION. In 1936 antagonism spilled over into the federation, and construction in the city was threatened as the warring unions controlled completion of various projects. EDWARD MURPHY of the teamsters worked out a truce that minimized jurisdictional fights and secured the election of Thomas Lenahan as executive secretary in 1938, replacing Building Tradesman Albert Dalton. By this time, Clevelanders had formed the CLEVELAND INDUSTRIAL UNION COUNCIL (CIUC), the local branch of the CIO.
Throughout the 1940s, the CFL supported the war effort by discouraging strikes and promoting conservation. The federation effort to maintain a united front with the CIUC during wartime undercut the council's initial condemnation of the war and continuing raids on AFL unions by CIO organizers. By 1948 it was clear to CFL leaders that the federation needed more vigorous leadership and William Finegan was elected as executive secretary. Finegan led the organization until it merged with the Cleveland Industrial Union Council in 1958, and the Cleveland AFL-CIO was formed.