AFL, CIO Merge

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AFL, CIO Merge

United States 1955


The merger of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) formed the AFL-CIO and was the culmination of a process that occurred in each of the two organizations for a number of years. The AFL majority had become more open to organizing efforts among unskilled workers and more tolerant of affiliates organizing along industry-wide rather than craft lines. The CIO majority had become less tolerant of left-wing influences that had played an essential role in the organization of industrial unions among mass production workers during the depression of the 1930s. The convergence derived its distinctive shape from the idiosyncrasies of influential individuals. Larger economic, social, political, and cultural trends, however, were decisive influences. In fact, the merger had multiple meanings in regard to the strength and purpose (internationally as well as nationally) of the U.S. labor movement in the twentieth century.


  • 1935: Second phase of New Deal begins with the introduction of social security, farm assistance, and housing and tax reform.
  • 1940: Hitler's troops sweep through Western Europe, annexing Norway and Denmark in April, and in May the Low Countries and France.
  • 1945: On 7 May, Germany surrenders to the Allies.
  • 1951: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are convicted and sentenced to death for passing U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviets.
  • 1955: Warsaw Pact is signed by the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe.
  • 1955: African and Asian nations meet at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, inaugurating the "non-aligned" movement of Third World countries.
  • 1955: Over the course of the year, a number of key ingredients are added to the pantheon of American culture: the 1955 Chevrolet, the first of many classic models; Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Marilyn Monroe's performance in The Seven-Year Itch; Disneyland; and Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock."
  • 1955: Among the year's deaths are Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Dale Carnegie, Cy Young, and James Dean.
  • 1955: Rosa Parks refuses to move from her seat near the front of a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and is arrested. The incident touches off a boycott of Montgomery's bus system, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., which will last well into 1956. The situation will attract national attention and garner support for the civil rights movement, before Montgomery agrees to desegregate its bus system on 21 December 1956—exactly a year after Parks's brave protest.
  • 1958: First U.S. satellite, Explorer I, goes into orbit.
  • 1962: As the Soviets begin a missile buildup in Cuba, for a few tense days in October it appears that World War III is imminent. President Kennedy calls for a Cuban blockade, forcing the Soviets to back down and ultimately diffusing the crisis.
  • 1970: President Nixon sends U.S. troops into Cambodia on 30 April. Five days later, National Guardsmen open fire on antiwar protesters at Kent State University in Ohio. By 24 June antiwar sentiment is so strong that the Senate repeals the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. On 29 June, Nixon orders troops back out of Cambodia.

Event and Its Context

When it began in the 1880s, the AFL had proclaimed in the Marxist-influenced preamble of its constitution: "A struggle is going on in the nations of the civilized world between the oppressors and the oppressed of all countries, a struggle between capital and labor, which must grow in intensity from year to year and work disastrous results to the toiling millions of all nations if not combined for mutual protection and benefit."

When the CIO was launched in the 1930s, breaking away from the conservatized AFL, it had some continuity with this working-class radicalism. The AFL's George Meany later commented of the CIO's founding leader, John L. Lewis, "Frankly, I think John was dreaming of being the leader who led the working class to the control of society."

There was nothing of this in the long 1955 preamble of the merged AFL-CIO, which presented a class-collaborationist posture, with a "pure and simple" focus on wages, hours, and working conditions blended with a pledge of loyalty to the U.S. government, a dash of religion, and an almost explicit commitment to cold war anticommunism. This reflected a deradicalized convergence of the two labor federations, which were united in an embrace of the capitalist status quo, facilitating a unity that had eluded the ranks of organized labor for many years.

Earlier Appeals for Unity

There had been significant currents pressing for unity almost from the moment when the key industrial unions— spearheaded by United Mine Workers of America leader John L. Lewis, with Sidney Hillman (Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America) and David Dubinsky (International Ladies Garment Workers Union, ILGWU)—broke with central leaders of the AFL to form the CIO. Dubinsky in particular had pressured for eventual reunification and finally pulled the ILGWU out of the CIO. He subsequently returned to the AFL but never abandoned efforts toward unity.

There were others in both federations who at various times took up that call. Even John L. Lewis, when he ceased being CIO president in 1941, eventually followed Dubinsky's trajectory (though very much in his own fashion and for his own purposes), which involved working for AFL-CIO unity while in the CIO, then pulling his union out of the CIO and temporarily back into the AFL under the banner of labor unity.

Another key force for unity (again largely for his own purposes) was David J. McDonald, who in 1952 became head of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA). The USWA, with close to a million members, was rivaled in size only by the United Auto Workers, led by Walter Reuther (a McDonald rival who had become CIO president). From the beginning of his USWA reign, McDonald let it be known that he favored unity and might even lead his union out of the CIO to return to the AFL.

In the face of the powerful CIO challenge and example of organizing mass production workers into strong industrial unions, the AFL had abandoned its dogged opposition to industrial unionism, a development that suggested convergence. Both federations (largely because of the liberal-labor coalition forged during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt) tended toward active support of the Democratic Party. Yet there remained a number of profound differences.

Differences Between the AFL and CIO

Although some in the AFL remained true to more expansive radical traditions, for many "pure-and-simple" unionism had evolved into an exclusive concern for the narrow economic interests of its own members, with a disregard for larger social questions. An approach sometimes called "business unionism" often predominated: not only were union leaders very probusiness (seeking far-reaching accommodations with employers), but they saw the union itself as a business providing services to its paying members. Union representatives were called "business agents," and a notion of hierarchical "business-like" efficiency replaced notions of democratic control by the membership.

Often, rather than unionizing unorganized workers, AFL union leaders sought to "raid" other (often CIO) unions, enticing locals of those unions (often with employer assistance) to switch affiliations (and dues payments). Such raiding and interunion squabbles dramatically undermined the strength and credibility of organized labor. Moreover, many AFL unions had a deeply entrenched policy of excluding nonwhite workers, although it did tolerate an occasional all-black "Jim Crow" union local. Most AFL unions also excluded women.

The CIO seemed to represent a qualitatively different model of unionism. Although CIO unions did not always live up to their reputations as champions of racial and gender equality, those reputations were based not only on official pronouncements but also on serious efforts to include African Americans and other racial minorities, and also women, in the organizations they sought to build. The CIO also had a reputation for greater union democracy and was viewed as conducting a social crusade for a better society. Len De Caux, once editor of the CIO News, later gave a sense of this radicalization that had been born of mass strikes, pitched battles, factory takeovers, and hard-won working-class victories during the 1930s. The momentum of such struggles generated "new political attitudes—toward the corporations, toward police and troops, toward local, state, and national government." Many felt the movement should "go on to create a new society with the workers on top to end age-old injustices … [and] banish poverty and war."

Essential to building the CIO unions had been members of various left-wing groups including the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, and smaller formations (especially breakaways from the Communist Party influenced in one case by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and in another case by a rightward-moving oppositionist named Jay Lovestone, who ended up following David Dubinsky back into the AFL). The CIO's radicalism clashed with the relative conservatism of the AFL. There were also more mundane—but no less powerful—considerations about how a merger would affect existing power relations among unions in each federation. As AFL spokesman George Meany put it, "Each AFL and CIO union is autonomous, and proud, and has officials interested in keeping their jobs."

Momentum for Unity

The fact that Meany had become AFL president in 1952, with Walter Reuther assuming the presidency of the CIO in the same year, helped to open new possibilities for overcoming some of the old organizational antagonisms. No less influential was an underlying evolution of the U.S. labor movement. Both the CIO and the AFL—which were committed to the Democratic Party that had passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935—had shared a growing acceptance of government intervention into labor relations. The NLRA greatly facilitated the possibility of organizing unions by involving the government in overseeing union recognition elections. In 1947 the Taft-Hartley Act amended the NLRA. Taft-Hartley was a politically restrictive, probusiness, antiradical measure, which further increased government power over organized labor. Although both federations protested vociferously against the Taft-Hartley "slave labor law," they were also prepared to live with it.

The increasingly intimate relationship of both the AFL and CIO leaderships with U.S. foreign policy also contributed to the merger. During World War II both aligned themselves with U.S. government aims in the struggle against the Axis Powers. By the end of the war this also involved, for many, a commitment to establish what some called "the American Century," which included the hegemony of U.S. business interests in the development of the postwar global economy. This collided with the rise of revolutionary sentiments and communist influence during the late 1940s.

AFL conservatives and also those with more left-wing backgrounds (such as ex-socialist Dubinsky of the ILGWU and his ex-communist collaborator, Jay Lovestone) were very much inclined to back U.S. cold war policy. Highly skilled in anti-communist infighting, Lovestone had come to accept Dubinsky's dictum that "trade unionism needs capitalism like a fish needs water." Lovestone sought to defend capitalism globally (with the blessing of AFL leaders) in cooperation with the U.S. State Department. The CIO, however, also embraced cold war anticommunism and in 1949 and 1950 expelled 11 "communist-influenced" unions with a total of a million members. Leaders and operatives of both federations became active, though often covert, participants in U.S. foreign policy activities in various countries.

A key to the deradicalization process was the unprecedented prosperity that made possible a profound improvement in the living conditions of a majority of those who were part of the U.S. working class. "I stand for the profit system; I believe in the profit system. I believe it is a wonderful incentive. I believe in the free enterprise system completely," proclaimed Meany, and such procapitalist rhetoric resonated with a majority of his members. The function of unions, he added, "is merely for us to disagree, if you please, as to what share the workers get, and what share management gets from the wealth produced by the particular enterprise."

The ex-socialist CIO president Walter Reuther was inclined to put forward a similar orientation, although he emphasized government social programs to guarantee decent health, education, and welfare for all: "There are many, many, many things that free enterprise can do better than the government. … I'm in favor of General Motors making automobiles. I'm opposed to government doing it, but I know General Motors is not going to meet the medical needs of the old-timers. … I only want the government to do the things that you can't do without the government." He added that unions represent "voluntary nongovernmental approaches" to advance the well-being of workers through "collective bargaining" with employers.

Dissension and Unification

Following its expulsion of the 11 "left-led" unions, the CIO—although it maintained the image of a dynamic, socially conscious unionism—was unable to recapture the confident and militant spirit that had characterized it in previous years. Some speculated that it would enter a period of decline and disintegration. This, with the rightward shift in the political atmosphere evidenced by the electoral victory of Republican presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower, increased sentiment within the CIO for unity with the AFL. Although Reuther gave rhetorical support to labor unity, Meany took the initiative to open serious merger talks. Meany dropped the old appeal for CIO unions to "come back to the House of Labor," and instead noted that "the CIO had been in existence for seventeen years [and] was a going concern," and that it would be best to overcome the tendency of the two rival labor federations to strive destructively "for competitive advantage."

Nonetheless, serious differences between the two federations remained. "Perhaps the most graphic symbol of the gulf between the two organizations was the quarters they chose for the winter meetings of their respective Executive Councils," Victor Reuther (Walter's brother and confidant and a prominent labor activist in his own right) later reminisced. He noted that "AFL officials periodically journeyed to Florida to spend several weeks, spending a few hours a day in formal session, and then going to the races or golf course or whatever for the rest of the day." In contrast, the CIO Executive Board usually met in a hotel conference room in some northern industrial city, "never too far removed from industrial workers." He also added, however, that a number of CIO leaders "were tired of the rigors and hardships of trade union life and were tempted by the prospect of being a member of a merged AFL-CIO executive council and of basking in the Florida sun every half-year."

Reuther sought to impose certain conditions for unity that would prevent the CIO, which had no more than four million members by this time, from simply being swallowed by the larger AFL. A few CIO leaders actually opposed unity. Mike Quill of the Transit Workers Union insisted that the progressive social philosophy of the CIO was incompatible with "the AFL's three R's—raiding, racketeering, and racism." Reuther insisted that the industrial union structure of the CIO unions must be maintained, that raiding must be eliminated through creating "rational machinery" for jurisdictional disputes, and that racial discrimination and racketeering must be eliminated from the AFL unions. On Reuther's right, however, was the pressure from United Steelworkers' president David J. McDonald, who despised Reuther's social-liberal orientation, and whose opportunistic threats to bolt to the AFL undermined Reuther's bargaining position in merger talks.

To make unity possible, however, Meany had to deal with dissension within his own ranks. The chieftain of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, "Big Bill" Hutcheson, had attempted to block unity efforts by resigning in protest from the AFL executive council and threatening to pull his union out of the AFL. Instead of attempting to reach a compromise with Hutcheson, Meany accepted his resignation, which forced the Carpenters to break from Hutcheson's intransigence to stay in the AFL.

No less significant was Meany's willingness to break an old AFL precedent by intervening in the internal affairs of its affiliates. He attacked the gangster-ridden regime of Joseph Ryan in the East Coast International Longshoremen's Union and headed efforts to expel it temporarily from the AFL. In addition, Meany helped to cut across longtime AFL "raiding" operations against CIO unions. He criticized racial exclusion and segregation among AFL unions and gave verbal support to civil rights throughout the country. It was also necessary, according to Meany, for the labor movement to "assume broader responsibilities" than its "traditional and continuing goal of obtaining a higher standard of life for the nation's workers and the American people generally."

With the converging positions, it was possible to hammer out such differences as the historic dividing line between craft unionism and industrial unionism: "The merged federation shall be based on a constitutional recognition that both craft and industrial unions are appropriate, equal and necessary as methods of trade union organization." Big majorities mobilized around support for the merger, which was proclaimed on 5 December 1955 at a unified AFL-CIO convention in New York City. This brought together 94 unions that claimed a total membership of 15 million or 36 percent of the labor force—the high-water mark of organized labor in the United States.

When AFL president Meany triumphantly clasped hands with broadly smiling CIO president Reuther, it was Meany who became the undisputed leader of the AFL-CIO. Many who identified with CIO traditions became dissatisfied with the relative conservatism and complacency of the merged AFL-CIO. However, when Reuther led the UAW in a 1968 breakaway to create the Alliance for Labor Action, intended to "revitalize" the labor movement, the great majority of unions remained in the AFLCIO. Only in the late 1990s, because of the significant economic and social decline that hit the U.S. working class, did the labor federation tilt in a moderately radical direction, somewhat reminiscent of earlier labor traditions.

Key Players

Meany, George (1894-1980): Son of an Irish-American local president in the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry, Meany himself became a plumber in 1916 and by 1922 was business manager of what had been his father's local. He rose in the New York City Building Trades Council and became president of the New York State Federation of Labor in 1934 and became a labor lobbyist and influential in Democratic Party politics. In 1939 he became secretary-treasurer of the AFL and took over the presidency of the federation in 1952. He played a central role in the merger of the AFLCIO and served as its president from 1955 until 1979.

Reuther, Walter (1907-1970): Son of a German-American socialist brewery worker, Reuther himself was drawn in the 1930s to radical activism and involvement in organizing the United Auto Workers, one of the most dynamic unions in the new CIO. Associated with the left wing of the fledgling and militant union in the late 1930s, he abandoned the Socialist Party to support the Democratic Party's New Deal coalition. A prominent anticommunist in the 1940s, he helped break left-wing influence in the UAW (of which he became president in 1947) and in the CIO. Reuther served as CIO president from 1952 until the merger with the AFL and remained UAW president until his untimely death.

See also: American Federation of Labor; CIO Anticommunist Drive; Congress of Industrial Organizations; Taft-Hartley Act.



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—Paul Le Blanc