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1935 - Congress of Industrial Organizations

Labor unrest accompanied the rise of large-scale enterprise, with conflict between skilled workers and managers a major aspect. Unskilled and semiskilled factory hands did not recede into the background. Like their counterparts in an earlier age of industrial development, they engaged in protest focused not on control of production but rather on the grievous conditions under which they worked.

The 1920s witnessed managerial and judicial onslaughts on trade unionism, but still textile hands in company towns in the southern Piedmont risked their jobs by striking in the later years of that decade. Between 1880 and 1930, factory operatives refused to remain silent, but few of their efforts brought either permanent labor organizations or union contracts. Mass production unionism would first become an enduring feature of American manufacture in the 1930s and 1940s.

John L. Lewis, a towering figure in the history of American labor, made numerous contributions to national economic and political affairs. Between 1934 and the 1960s, the planning center and meeting place for some of Lewis's boldest initiatives was the general headquarters of the union in Washington, DC. In 1934, the headquarters was located in the Tower Building at the corner of 14th and K Streets on Franklin Square. In 1936, the UMW moved to the University Club Building at 900 15th Street NW, which then became known as the United Mine Workers’ Building. The headquarters had been relocated to Washington from Indianapolis, marking the increasing distance between the organization's top leaders and the rank-and-file. By all appearances a conventional urban office building, the structure conveys cultural conservatism.

By selection of this building, Lewis, who wore three-piece suits and drove a Cadillac, projected a respectable image of business unionism. In this regard, the UMW president personified a tendency within the national leadership of American unions and within the working class as a whole in the mid-20th century.

In the bituminous segment of the industry, Lewis executed a strategy of market unionism that aimed not only to raise the price of labor but, most remarkably, to rationalize the industry itself. His insistence on high, uniform labor rates drove soft-coal operators to accelerate mechanization. His single-minded devotion to high wage, capital-intensive production fostered employer organization in the chaotic bituminous fields. With the succession of master agreements between the UMW and the soft-coal operators that began in 1933, Lewis's vision of a stable, modernized, unionized industry was gradually achieved. That this accord required the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs and a precipitous deterioration in working conditions was, to the hard-nosed Lewis, the price of progress.

But this conservative could be a militant organizer. The UMW president became increasingly exasperated with the unwillingness of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to organize the mass-production industries. The refusal of the 1935 AFL convention to move decisive1y to recruit less skilled industrial labor precipitated a historic initiative. On November 9, 1935, Lewis met at UMW headquarters with a small group of other dissident labor leaders to found the Committee for Industrial Organization. After three years of frenetic organizing and quarrels with the old guard, this committee broke away to become the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), with an aggregate membership of more than three million. Both architect and master builder of the CIO, John L. Lewis was elected its first president. Basic industries that eluded unionization for decades were largely organized by the end of World War II. Blue-collar workers at last had both a collective voice and some measure of countervailing power against the giant corporations that had dictated the terms and conditions of their employment.

Dissidents demanded that the mainstream association begin organizing the millions of factory hands in the nation's mass production industries who remained outside the craft union fold of the AFL. When the rebels were ousted from the federation in 1935, Lewis and his allies launched a number of union campaigns under the banner of their new CIO.

They first picked the steel industry and no less than the giant in the field, U.S. Steel. Without a fight, executives of the company agreed in early 1937 to recognize the CIO's steel union and signed a contract that advanced favorable wages and benefits to U.S. Steel employees. Next up was General Motors. Here a dramatic confrontation unfolded, featuring the famed sitdown strikes of winter 1937, the most critical occurring in a Flint, Michigan, Chevrolet car assembly plant. Workers tripped the switches, shutting the conveyor belts, and occupied the building. Facing a united front, GM officials agreed in March to recognize the CIO's United Automobile Workers union (UAW).

Encouraged by these early victories, CIO organizers targeted other steel and automobile manufacturers and other industries—rubber, electronics, meatpacking, and aviation. They faced stiff opposition. Smaller and less heeled companies than U.S. Steel in the steel industry held the line against the CIO. There would be a number of violent confrontations in organizing drives, such as the so-called Memorial Day Massacre in 1937, when police in Chicago broke up a demonstration of Republic Steel Company workers. In the auto industry, Chrysler followed GM in recognizing the UAW, but crusty Henry Ford resisted any dealings with the union until 1941.

The struggle with Ford would include fierce fighting outside the mammoth River Rouge plant in Detroit built by Ford in the late 1920s. An attack by Ford guards on UAW leader Walter Reuther on an overpass at the plant gained national attention. Still, the CIO persisted and by the middle of World War II, the new federation had effected a greater unionization of the nation's mass production industries.

The extraordinary success of the CIO is often attributed to the federal protections afforded the trade union movement in the National Labor Relations Act passed in 1935. The federal government's assistance to labor played an important role, but there are other significant factors.

The changing attitudes of some corporate executives are one consideration. Faced with difficult business times during the 1930s, they chose not to forfeit any market advantages with crippling strikes. Dealing on a total plant basis with the CIO brought stability to the shop floor, and corporate managers were well aware that, with politicians sympathetic to labor in national and local offices, they could not count on government help in quelling unrest.

A young group of labor leaders, eager to escape the influence of their conservative elders in the AFL, saw an opportunity to make history and elevate their own careers in new organizing drives. Under them was a cadre of skillful shop floor organizers, many of them Socialists and Communists, whose political convictions fueled their dedication and work. With them were millions of mass production workers educated and politicized by the Great Depression. Many were second- and third-generation immigrants who, unlike their parents and grandparents, never entertained notions of returning to their homelands. They were in the U.S. to stay, citizens who wanted their families to enjoy a proper American standard of living, which included the fringe benefits lost during the depression (benefits guaranteed by union contract rather than made available through the good graces of their employers).

These workers were able to overcome ethnic and racial divisions that had stymied union campaigns in the past. During and after World War I, African Americans surged out of the South to seek jobs in northern industry, often to find the factory gates closed to them, or positions made available by employers who deliberately were dividing their work forces racially to forestall unionization. CIO union drives succeeded in the 1930s and 1940s. Radical organizers and CIO leaders organized black workers to overcome their suspicions of a labor movement that previously had stood in their way of advancement, and white workers accepted unity, albeit grudgingly in many instances.

From 1935 to 1945, organized labor enjoyed its greatest growth in American history. Membership among non-farm workers rose from 3.6 to 14.3 million (38.5 percent of non-farm workers) nationally. Union membership grew in the South, but through the 1960s the proportion of organized workers in the region was half the rate for the remainder of the nation. Textiles, the largest and most important manufacturing industry in the region, remained largely nonunion. The overall result was a critical weakness in the South for organized labor, which in turn had significant implications for the national economy and southern politics.

In the 1940s, the South emerged as a haven for industries seeking low-wage, nonunion, unskilled labor. Southern politicians, eager to bring needed jobs to communities suffering from the continuing agricultural crisis, offered tax incentives, subsidies, and other forms of assistance to companies that located manufacturing plants in the South. The crusade for southern industrial development, commonly known as “the selling of the South,” was made possible in large part because southern workers displayed little interest in organizing.

To understand the CIO’s success is to peel away at such layers of answers. Yet, nothing was assured. Managerial and conservative political backlashes to the gains made by the CIO before and during World War II would bring legislation, specifically the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 that curbed organized labor’s thrust and powers. The purging of radical organizers with the Cold War Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s sapped further energies from the movement. The growth of union bureaucracies and removing conflict from the shop floor and into negotiating rooms with union and management officials, government mediators, federal agencies, and courts dampened local worker insurgency and involvement. Stultification in industrial unionism would set in during the 1950s.

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Page last modified: 06-10-2017 19:05:47 ZULU