The CIO, 1935-1955

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The CIO: 1933-1935

Robert H. Zieger. The CIO: 1933-1935. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995. Paper: ISBN0807846309


Robert H. Zieger’s The CIO: 1935-1955 follows the growth of the Congress Industrial Organizations (CIO) from its conception by the fiery, although sometimes erratic, John L. Lewis, to its break with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), though its ups and downs during and after World War II, and then to its 1955 merge back with the AFL. Up until the 1930s, the AFL acted as the umbrella organization for unions. Originally established by Samuel Gompers, the AFL organized skilled workers on the basis of their crafts. By the time of Great Depression, the American economy looked very different than it had when Gompers had originally established the AFL in 1886. Skilled workers were becoming the minority in a more industrialized workforce. There was also a push for organization at the plant level. As union membership steadily declined during the Great Depression, a great debate broke out within the AFL.

At the AFL annual convention on October 19, 1935 John L. Lewis, a strong supporter of industrial unionism and the chief of the United Mine Workers (UMW), punched William Hutcheson, the head of more traditional Carpenters Union. The next morning, Lewis called together a meeting of supporters of industrial unionism and the foundations of the CIO were laid. Its leaders were younger and more radical (often times communists) than their AFL counterparts. Hostility between the leaders of the AFL and the CIO eventually drove the two organizations apart.

Throughout the late 1930s, the CIO had a series of major success. Pioneering the “sit-down” strike, where workers took over a factory that produced an integral part of a final product, affiliated CIO unions forced management to grant many compromises. But, but the late 1930s, internal conflict began to tear the CIO apart. The CIO was held together by a tenuous compromise between its radical unions and its more moderate ones. The outbreak of war in Europe would bring these tensions to a head. The conflict was personified by a clash between two of the CIO’s leaders. John L. Lewis was an isolationist and wanted nothing to do with the war in Europe. He was supported by American communists who were adhering to the non-aggression pact signed by Soviet Russian and Nazi Germany in 1939. Lewis and his allies, who up until this point had been strong backers of Roosevelt, turned on the President in the election of 1940. Lewis’s opponent within the CIO was Sidney Hillman, head of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA). Hillman saw the Nazi power as a threat to the United States and believed that mobilization for war could be good for the economy. In the end, Lewis lost, and stepped down as President of the CIO.

Lewis was replaced at the helm by Phillip Murray, who while backing Lewis publically, quietly supported Roosevelt during the election. He proved to be a great successor. “Under Murray’s leadership the CIO became a coherent, fully functioning, and self-financing union entity as it never had been and likely never could have been under Lewis.”(111). Murray would lead the CIO through the ups and downs of World War II.

War mobilization finally put the American economy back on track. “For workers is brought four years of relatively full employment and heftier pay packets.”(141) Ethnic, religious, and sexual divisions were loosened. Workers joined unions by the thousands—with “new” unions surpassing established unions in membership. The CIO set out to exploit the opportunity as best as possible by “increasing production, collaborating with the government in developing and implementing labor relations machinery, expanding CIO membership, and building a permanent structure of labor involvement in national political and economic decision making.”(143)

One of the most notable actions the CIO took during World War II was to adopt a no-strike pledge. While there were plenty of unions that vigorously supported this pledge, “from the beginning of 1942 until September 1945 nearly 7 million workers took part in over 14,000 strikes.” (150) These tended to be small and unorganized. What disturbed CIO leaders the most though was the growing racial tensions within unions. There were hundreds of strikes to prevent the hiring of African American workers. The CIO responded in its 1941 Convention by issuing a declaration of tolerance, which helped to some extent.

The federal government took unprecedented action in the economy during this time. In accordance with the no-strike pledge, the government offered arbitration to work out grievances between workers and managers. Workers also benefited from federal “economic stabilization.” Through some price fixing, wage control, and punishment of black marketing and price gouging, workers were guaranteed some form of fairness. The National War Labor Board (NWLB), the main organ of economic control under Roosevelt, often worked closely with the CIO.


David Houpt, Fall 2008

There is a plethora of information packed into Zieger’s 491 pg. study of the CIO. This works in both ways for the book as a whole. First of all, Zieger does cover just about every angle one could think of. He details the plight of African American and women workers in the CIO. He does a great job at explaining the divisions within the AFL that created the CIO and then the disagreements that formed later in the CIO. Although his writing can be obtuse at points, and the heavy use of acronyms for the various Labor Unions results in confusion, it is a well written and enjoyable book. What is most interesting is that he does not take a particularly positive or negative stance on any part of the CIO movement. Many, if not most, of the labor historians I have come across are usually very opinionated about this time in the history of workers in America. For those that see World War II as a missed opportunity, they damn the no-strike pledge and agreement to let the federal government step in as arbitrators of disputes. They claim that this took the teeth out of the organized labor. Allowing the Federal Government to regulate arbitration meant institutionalization, and inherently limited worker’s options. In short, the CIO and the AFL sold out during World War II and can be blamed for the apathetic state of modern labor. There are others who are critical that the CIO did not make more of an effort to court women or African Americans. There are other labor historians who are critical of the CIO for harboring communists and believe that the strikes that did take place were part of a plot to undermine the American Government. The CIO, they claim, was inherently anti-American, which is why members like John L. Lewis opposed the war effort. These are certainly debatable topics, and it is notable that Zieger manages to stay for the most part out of the fray. The book could have used some more evidence from the actual worker himself. The CIO is essentially a “top-down” book that discusses the major players of the time period. He goes into some detail discussing some of the various unions that made up the CIO at the time, but he rarely discusses how the actions begin taken at the top of the chain effect those at the bottom.

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