Alliance for Labor Action

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Alliance for Labor Action

United States 1969


In late 1968 the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), under the leadership of Walter P. Reuther, officially disaffiliated with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). The UAW's split with the AFL-CIO developed over several years, during which time a widening rift divided Reuther from George Meany, the AFL-CIO's long-standing president. Political differences and personal rivalries caused the division. Politically, Reuther differed from Meany in his activist vision for the labor federation. Personally, Reuther expected to be the next president of the AFL-CIO, but Meany refused to give up the reins of power despite his advancing age. Reuther criticized what he felt was the AFL-CIO's complacency in domestic politics and acceptance of United States' foreign policy. Early in 1969 the UAW created a pact with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America to form the Alliance for Labor Action (ALA). The ALA's mission was to gain the support of unorganized workers, students, and liberal intellectuals. Reuther hoped that the ALA would address the issues that—in his opinion—the AFL-CIO did not pursue. The UAW's alliance with the Teamsters, however, was short lived; the ALA ended in 1972.


  • 1948: Israel becomes a nation and is immediately attacked by a coalition of Arab countries.
  • 1953: Korean War, a conflict with no clear victors, ends with an armistice establishing an uneasy peace between South Korea and North Korea.
  • 1958: China's Mao Zedong proclaims the Great Leap Forward, a program of enforced rapid industrialization that will end a year later, a miserable failure.
  • 1963: U.S. Supreme Court rules that no municipal, county, or state government may require recitation of the Lord's Prayer or of Bible verses in public schools.
  • 1968: Communist victories in the Tet offensive mark the turning point in the Vietnam War and influence a growing lack of confidence in the war, not only among America's youth, but within the establishment as well.
  • 1968: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated on 4 April, and Robert Kennedy on 5 June.
  • 1968: Violence erupts at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
  • 1968: After Czechoslovakia adopts a more democratic, popular regime, Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces invade to crush the uprising.
  • 1973: Signing of peace accords in Paris in January ends the Vietnam War.
  • 1978: U.S. Senate approves a measure presented by President Carter the year before, to turn the Panama Canal over to Panama by 2000.
  • 1983: Sally Ride becomes the first female U.S. astronaut (the Soviets were ahead by two decades, with Valentina Tereshkova) when she goes into space aboard the shuttle Challenger.

Event and Its Context

One of the unions in the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO), the United Auto Workers (UAW) joined with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) when the two labor federations merged in 1955. UAW president Walter Reuther, who had become the president of the CIO after the death of its president in 1952, served as a facilitator for the merger. Because the AFL was twice the size of the CIO, it was clear that George Meany, president of the AFL, and not Reuther would become president. From the time of the AFL-CIO merger, Reuther and Meany differed politically. Meany backed away from broaching political class struggle, and Reuther believed in activist unions. Their political disagreements, compounded by differences in personal style, eventually led to the UAW's 1968 departure from the AFL-CIO and the formation of the Alliance for Labor Action (ALA).

Tensions over political action began as early as 1964 when the UAW, along with others such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Farmers Union, created the Citizens' Crusade Against Poverty. Meant as a supplement to President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, the Citizens' Crusade was organized by those leaders, as well as Reuther, who saw the War on Poverty as too modest. Reuther testified at the congressional hearings on the creation of the Office of Equal Opportunity, claiming that Johnson's antipoverty program was inadequate and that more resources were necessary to accomplish its goals. He also met personally with Johnson in an effort to lobby for a Price-Wage Public Review Board and a progressive spending tax. The AFL-CIO's executive council disagreed publicly with Reuther's plan. UAW leadership retaliated by criticizing the AFLCIO for being inactive politically and socially.

Reuther and the other leaders of the UAW laid out their case against Meany's leadership in a long statement to UAW locals in December 1966 (reprinted in the February 1967 edition of the UAW's newsletter, Solidarity.) They cited fundamental trade union differences, such as the need to increase unionization among the unorganized industrial, construction, office, technical, and professional workers. They also laid out new policy positions and structural reforms for the AFL-CIO, such as the need to develop a national economic wage policy and the need to commit more of the federation's staff resources to working for America's farm and migratory workers. In this letter, the UAW's leaders attacked Meany, claiming that under his leadership, "the AFL-CIO lacks a social vision, dynamic thrust, the crusading spirit that should characterize the progressive, modern labor movement."

Reuther's and other UAW leaders' stances on foreign policy issues also divided them from AFL-CIO leaders. The UAW refused to toe the cold war consensus line on international labor and the Vietnam War. At the 1965 AFL-CIO convention, UAW secretary-treasurer Emil Mazey attacked Johnson's policies in Vietnam, and Reuther's brother Victor accused the AFL-CIO of working along with the CIA in Latin America. In 1966 Reuther opposed Meany's decision to withdraw the American representative to the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, after its members elected president a Polish Communist. Unlike Meany, Reuther promoted relations with those in the Eastern Bloc countries. He felt the withdrawal isolated the American labor movement from other "Free World" countries because no other delegations participated in the walkout. Furthermore, Reuther called Meany's actions "undemocratic" because Meany did not consult AFL-CIO affiliates.

Although Reuther had at first supported the Johnson administration's policy in Vietnam, by 1966 he favored greater efforts toward negotiations and a bombing halt. The domestic consequences of the war, the opposition movement, as well as left-wing activists in his union led Reuther into the antiwar camp. The UAW held educational seminars to debate resolutions protesting the continuation of the war. According to Reuther's brother Victor, "Disagreement on the Vietnam War was the final blow in the wedge splitting the UAW and the merged AFL-CIO."

In February 1967 the UAW's executive board voted to withdraw its officers from the AFL-CIO executive council and related committees and institutes. Shortly after the resignations, the UAW presented a program to be considered by the entire American labor movement. It included proposals for internal reform, as well as stressing labor's responsibility within the community for rebuilding inner cities, protecting natural resources, and reducing pollution. In the spring of 1968 the UAW stopped paying the per capita tax on its membership owed to the federation. For this refusal of payment, the AFL-CIO executive council suspended the UAW from the federation. The UAW put the funds in escrow and called for the AFL-CIO to allow for a debate at its December convention to help reexamine the federation's policies and programs. The object of the debate was to determine whether the federation met its responsibilities to "the changing needs of the labor movement and the nation." The UAW sought reform within the AFL-CIO rather than officially departing from the federation, in an effort to avoid a division in the labor movement as the presidential election approached. These attempts at reform were ineffective. Once the election was over, the UAW disaffiliated with the federation.

In July 1968 Reuther and the Teamsters general vice president, Frank Fitzsimmons, announced a pact between the two unions that established the ALA. The ALA was not devised as a rival federation to the AFL-CIO; rather, the teamsters and the UAW established the organization as a means to coordinate organizing campaigns and political activities. Nevertheless, despite what the ALA claimed, Meany identified it as a dual union and threatened to expel AFL-CIO affiliates that joined it. Under this threat, only two other small organizations enlisted in the ALA.

Even without other major supporters, the ALA had major numbers behind it because the teamsters and the UAW were the two largest unions in North America. Between them they represented almost four million workers and their families. Because of its large membership and its geographic concentration in such states as Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana, the UAW's departure from the AFL-CIO directly affected the participation level in many city and state councils.

The ALA outlined a far-reaching program designed to deal with what they viewed to be the nation's most critical problems, ranging from union organizing to health care to affordable housing. The ALA committed itself to working with any group willing to help organize the nonunionized workers and to strengthening collective bargaining by embracing the concept of coordinated bargaining. It also took active political stances on international policy issues. For example, the ALA urged the U.S. Senate to vote against the deployment of the antiballistic missile system.

In 1970 the ALA suffered a serious blow to its leadership when Walter Reuther was killed in a plane crash. His absence left a leadership vacuum in the ALA. Although the alliance had always been cochaired by a person from both unions, it had been under the direction of Reuther that the alliance was able to hold together the liberal, idealistic UAW and the corrupt, conservative Teamsters Union. With Reuther's death, the more moderate Leonard Woodcock became president of the UAW, and the more conservative Fitzsimmons took control of the ALA. The alliance was no longer viable. The ALA soon collapsed in January 1972 as a result of economic problems as well as the Teamsters' actions toward the farm workers union in California and endorsement of President Richard Nixon for reelection.

The UAW remained independent of the AFL-CIO for 14 years. The UAW's withdrawal from the AFL-CIO showed the fractures in the Democratic Party's liberal coalition. The departure broke the united front of labor's support for the Vietnam War and its abundant military expenditures. It also ruptured labor's support for the Democratic Party. The ALA, although ultimately a failure, provided an example of activism and served as a critique of mainstream unions and politics.

Key Players

Fitzsimmons, Frank E. (1908-1981): General vice president of the Teamsters, Fitzsimmons managed the union when its president, Jimmy Hoffa, was jailed. In 1969, at Hoffa's behest, Fitzsimmons joined the Teamsters with the United Auto Workers (UAW) to create the Alliance for Labor Action (ALA). Following Hoffa's release from prison in 1971, Fitzsimmons became president of the Teamster Union. His support of Nixon and his union's strikes against the United Farm Workers led to the termination of the ALA.

Meany, George (1894-1980): President of the AFL, Meany oversaw its merger with the CIO in 1955. During Meany's presidency, the AFL-CIO became the most important supporter of the Democratic Party. Conservative in his values and politics, Meany sustained criticism for, among other things, his support of the war in Vietnam and his ambiguous attitude toward women and minorities. Personal and political differences between him and Reuther led to the UAW's withdrawal from the AFL-CIO and the formation of the ALA. Meany remained the president of the AFL-CIO from 1955 until November 1979, when he stepped down at the age of 85. He died within two months after leaving office.

Reuther, Walter Philip (1907-1970): President of the UAW and former president of the CIO, Reuther served as a facilitator for the AFL-CIO merger. His activist vision of unionism brought him into conflict with the more passive style of AFL-CIO president George Meany. Reuther led the UAW out of the labor federation and into the ALA with the teamsters. In 1970 Reuther died in a plane crash. Shortly thereafter the ALA collapsed.

See also: AFL, CIO Merge.



Amberg, Stephen. The Union Inspiration in American Politics: The Autoworkers and the Making of a Liberal Industrial Order. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Barnard, John. Walter Reuther and the Rise of the Auto Workers. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1983.

Comier, Frank and William Eaton. Reuther. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Warren Van Tine, eds. Labor Leaders in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Halpern, Martin. UAW Politics in the Cold War Era. Albany:State University of New York Press, 1988.

Lichtenstein, Nelson. The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

Reuther, Victor G. The Brothers Reuther and the Story of the UAW. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976.

—Emily Straus

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