After several attempts in the 1890s to form a statewide organization, including an 1898 convention, the Texas State Federation of Labor officially organized in January 1900 at Cleburne, where some twenty-three delegates represented 8,475 union members from seven cities. Its first president was James P. Grimes. During the initial two decades of its existence the federation espoused a moderately liberal program of social and economic reforms, which were more closely associated with the Knights of Labor, the Populist heritage, and Henry George's single tax theory, than with policies of the American Federation of Labor. Federation accomplishments during its early years corresponded with the moderately successful progressive movement in Texas. Texas workers and the TSFL considered themselves important participants in Texas progressivism and consequently supported and contributed to the reforms of the Thomas M. Campbell, Oscar B. Colquitt, and James E. Ferguson administrations. Objectives set forth at the 1903 convention included: support for compulsory education, the initiative and referendum, income tax and state-owned utilities, the eight-hour day, equal pay for equal work, and opposition to the use of convict labor in competition with free labor and of child labor from state orphanages. The first legislative action toward meeting the federation's demands was the 1905 passage of law making checks, merchandise, or scrip payment of employees illegal. After 1903 joint legislative efforts of railroad workers and others were coordinated through the Joint Labor Legislative Committee of Texas.
By the 1920s, the combined effects of a leadership with closer ties to the AFL, the "Red Scare," a new open-shop movement, and the continued adherence to craft unionism by the labor establishment, led to a decade of decline marked by a growing elitism in the ranks of the craft unions and futile attempts to preserve the status quo. On occasion members of Texas labor during the 1920s actually joined businessmen's organizations and developed cordial relationships with business and civic organizations. The Great Depression and the New Deal instigated conditions favorable for union growth and legislative gains from which the Texas labor establishment benefited, although most of the legislation was at the national level. Conflict with industrial unionists and the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, however, split union ranks in Texas, as on the national scene (see TEXAS STATE INDUSTRIAL UNION COUNCIL). While World War II brought financial prosperity and a growth in membership, the TSFL and the labor movement in general faced almost constant attacks from politicians, the general public, newspapers, and the Texas legislature. The postwar years witnessed a series of strikes, inflation, state and national regulatory laws, and new attacks on labor accompanied by the McCarthy hysteria and allegations of communist infiltration of unions.
Throughout its history, the chief function of the TSFL had been legislative activity. The federation attempted to propel affiliated locals and city trades assemblies to coordinate their goals into a common legislative program before attempting the formidable task of mobilizing public and legislative opinion. By the late 1940s the federation became openly involved in Texas politics; in 1948 it supported Roger Evans for governor and Coke Stevenson rather than Lyndon B. Johnson in the senatorial primary. In 1952 the federation endorsed the Democratic presidential ticket, but Ralph Yarborough's election to the United States Senate, initially in a 1957 special election, represented the TSFL's most important political victory. Although political candidates, both statewide and local, began to seek labor support, there were those who believed that such support was a mixed blessing in the anti-union Texas environment. On most policy matters the federation served as a liaison between state and local unions and the AFL, and an important part of its activities involved disseminating information and policy to the general membership, local unions, and central labor bodies. By the 1950s the federation had expanded its non-legislative functions to include such diverse activities as legal defense, aid to the labor press, educational activities, economic reports, increased attention to public relations, and publication of weekly newsletters. The federation refused, however, to undertake an active campaign to organize state teachers. Membership in the federation was voluntary, which accounted for the its reluctance to become involved in jurisdictional disputes, and, on occasion, its actions resulted in a union's withdrawal. By the mid-1950s, total union membership in Texas numbered approximately 375,000, representing only about 17 percent of the state's nonagricultural workers. Of these, about 235,000 were affiliated with AFL unions, over 100,000 in CIO affiliated unions, and there were about 40,000 unaffiliated unionized workers in the state. Nationally, the AFL and CIO merged in December 1955, but jurisdictional disputes and other differences delayed a Texas merger until July 1957, at which time the Texas State Federation of Labor joined the Texas State CIO Council to form the Texas State AFL-CIO. See also LABOR ORGANIZATIONS.