CIO Expelled from AFL

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CIO Expelled from AFL

United States 1937


The Committee for Industrial Organization (later changed to Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO) formed within the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1935 and was expelled from that organization in 1937. Between 1935 and 1937 the AFL and the CIO engaged in a bitter struggle focused on issues of strategy, timing, and personality. The backdrop of the struggle augmented the intensity of the conflict. In the midst of the Great Depression, working people had every incentive to organize. Facing layoffs, wage cuts, and growing corporate control of work processes, new segments of the workforce turned to unions for representation. President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policies facilitated a broader role for trade unions.

In this situation, unions were poised to recruit large numbers of new members and participate in electoral politics on an unprecedented level. AFL vice president John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), wanted to shape an organization that could take advantage of these opportunities. President William Green felt that the risks of rapidly organizing unskilled workers outweighed the benefits of attracting greater numbers. The trade union movement grew dramatically during the 1930s and early 1940s as a result of CIO organizing efforts. AFL growth outpaced the CIO's after World War II until the two organizations reunited in 1955.


  • 1922: Publication of James Joyce's novel Ulysses and T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land will transform literature and inaugurate the era of modernism.
  • 1927: American inventor Philo T. Farnsworth demonstrates a working model of the television, and Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaître proposes the Big Bang Theory.
  • 1932: In German elections, Nazis gain a 37 percent plurality of Reichstag seats, raising tensions between the far right and the far left. On a "bloody Sunday" in July, Communists in Hamburg attack Nazis with guns, and a fierce battle ensues.
  • 1937: Italy signs the Anti-Comintern Pact, signed by Germany and Japan the preceding year. Like the two others before it, Italy now withdraws from the League of Nations.
  • 1937: Japan attacks China and annexes most of that nation's coastal areas.
  • 1937: Stalin uses carefully staged show trials in Moscow to eliminate all rivals for leadership. These party purges, however, are only a small part of the death toll now being exacted in a country undergoing forced industrialization, much of it by means of slave labor.
  • 1937: In the middle of an around-the-world flight, Amelia Earhart and her plane disappear somewhere in the Pacific.
  • 1937: Crash of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, New Jersey, kills 36 and ends the brief era when rigid airships promised to be the ocean liners of the skies.
  • 1937: Pablo Picasso paints his famous Guernica mural dramatizing the Nationalist bombing of a town in Spain. Thanks to artists and intellectuals such as Picasso and Ernest Hemingway, the Loyalists are winning the battle of hearts and minds, even if they are weaker militarily, and idealistic young men flock from America to join the "Abraham Lincoln Brigade." Yet as George Orwell later reveals in Homage to Catalonia, the lines between good and evil are not clear: with its Soviet backing, the Loyalist cause serves as proxy for a totalitarianism every bit as frightening as that of the Nationalists and their German and Italian supporters.
  • 1942: Axis conquests reach their height in the middle of this year. The Nazis control a vast region from Normandy to the suburbs of Stalingrad, and from the Arctic Circle to the edges of the Sahara. To the east, the Japanese "Co-Prosperity Sphere" encompasses territories from China to Burma to the East Indies, stretching deep into the western Pacific.
  • 1947: The Marshall Plan is established to assist European nations in recovering from the war.
  • 1952: Among the cultural landmarks of the year are the film High Noon and the book The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

Event and Its Context

To Organize the Unorganized

The CIO origin tale features John L. Lewis punching the leader of the Brotherhood of Joiners and Carpenters, William "Big Bill" Hutcheson, during the 1935 AFL convention. By the time the punch occurred, significant changes had already taken place in the nature of production and the type of work done by most members of the U.S. working class. Lewis recognized these changes and was driven to create a new kind of union that would be more inclusive and would pursue broader goals than earlier trade unions. The story of the punch conveys much about the intransigence of the old-line AFL unions as well as something of Lewis's urgency.

By the 1930s mass production of clothing, automobiles, and other consumer goods had replaced smaller scale craft production. Industries such as steel, rubber, mining, textiles, and auto manufacturing required a new kind of worker, one with less skill than the members of the old craft unions who had started the AFL. Yet, this worker was largely without union representation. In 1933 fewer than three million American workers were represented by a union. AFL members were mostly white men who practiced skilled trades, descendents of the mid-nineteenth century first wave of immigrants. In a 2-1 vote at the 1935 convention, these members rejected the move to "establish industrial unions in specific industries, or to set up industrial unions to replace existing national and international unions."

Not all who voted against the resolution to organize by industry opposed the strategy. William Green himself felt that the tactic had some value. At issue was the timing of the move. Lewis wanted to recruit workers by industry right away and quarrel over which craft union had jurisdiction over them later. His goal, as he stated it, was to "organize the unorganized." The old-time AFL leaders worried that such quick growth would overwhelm them with new members. They resisted the idea of organizing workers by industry instead of by craft, but they also resisted the idea of rapid growth.

By refusing to organize the new industrial workers, the AFL lost the opportunity to expand the trade union movement into the most rapidly growing sectors of the economy and ignored a large number of workers. Industrial workers included segments of the population that were not represented in large numbers by the AFL: more recent immigrants, especially Italians and Jews from eastern Europe, larger numbers of African Americans, and women.

With Section 7a of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1934 and the National Labor Relations Act (also called the Wagner Act) of 1935, the federal government recognized that trade unions were valuable in a mass-production economy. The National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA) was formulated to regulate industry while freeing the federal government from costly antitrust prosecution. It exempted businesses from antitrust legislation in return for adopting federally regulated employment practices. It provided for a maximum 40-hour workweek, set minimum wages, prohibited child labor in many industries, and set prices and controlled levels of production. Section 7a guaranteed workers the right to organize unions and bargain collectively.

Despite opposition to Section 7a, the entire measure passed the Congress on 16 June 1934. Immediately, efforts began to have it voided by Supreme Court decision. In 1935 in Schechter v. United States, the Court outlawed the NRA. In the meantime, however, the NRA had meant that many industries paid for the increase in the minimum wage by paying skilled workers a wage closer to the unskilled wage. AFL tradesmen, like all workers, already felt their jobs threatened in the depression. The wage adjustments increased the hostility of AFL members toward unskilled workers.

Before Section 7a was ruled unconstitutional, thousands of new workers were being recruited into federally chartered labor unions. The AFL was overwhelmed with the volume of new union members, which amounted to two million in one year alone.

Schechter dealt a blow to the union movement, but the situation shifted again with the passage of the Wagner Act. The Wagner Act's stated purpose was "to insure a wise distribution of wealth between management and labor, to maintain a full flow of purchasing power, and to prevent recurrent depression." In other words, the Wagner Act recognized that workers were consumers too and that better wages could bolster the economy.

The Wagner Act viewed trade unions as a means to this end. It mandated union recognition and collective bargaining and set up the National Labor Review Board to oversee union elections. Many employers disagreed with the premise that better wages would improve the economy and resisted the Wagner Act's provisions for union recognition. In 1937 the Supreme Court found the Wagner Act constitutional.

Government regulation of trade unionism certainly helped build unions, but more important were the conditions of the Great Depression itself. If skilled workers were threatened by loss of status and income as unskilled workers earned higher wages, unskilled workers were also threatened by job and income loss. Lewis was not the only one frustrated by the AFL's reticence. Furthermore, the NLRA made many of the debates about strategy within the AFL fade in importance. With a government-supervised apparatus by which workers could select union representation, fights between unions about jurisdiction seemed less important.

The Formation of the CIO

A few weeks after the 1935 convention, the Committee for Industrial Organization held its first formal meeting on 9 November 1935. In addition to John L. Lewis as president, the committee was headed by Charles P. Howard, president of the International Typographical Union, as secretary. Other members were Sidney Hillman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America; David Dubinsky, president, International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union; Thomas F. McMahon, president, United Textile Workers of America; Harvey C. Freming, president, International Association of Oil Field, Gas Well and Refinery Workers of America; Max Zaritsky, of the United Hatters, Cap and Millinery Workers' International Union; and Thomas H. Brown, president, International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers.

Originally, the goal of the CIO was to bring more workers under the banner of the AFL. Had the conflict not become a personal battle between Lewis and Green, this might have remained the goal. Both men had started as coal miners and had worked their way up through the UMWA. In terms of their aspirations for the trade union movement, the two had more in common than issues separating them. The biggest difference between them was in temperament and style. Lewis was an inspiring orator to the rank and file. His skill at factional politics often left Green humiliated and unwilling to negotiate. On 23 November 1935 Lewis resigned as vice president of the AFL. He fully publicized his resignation, much to Green's embarrassment.

In its early years, the CIO was so closely identified with John L. Lewis that the two were linked in the public imagination. Lewis was no radical, but he respected the commitment and organizing skills of radicals and made good use of them. His own politics wavered with what he perceived as good for his organization, but he did seem to have a consistent conviction that labor should be a powerful force in the running of the country.

Lewis threw the developing resources of the CIO into a struggle to organize the steel industry by forming the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC). Steel mills were often located near the coal mines that fueled them. Lewis knew this landscape well and felt that an organized steel industry would be good for the UMWA. Under the NRA, large numbers of steelworkers had joined company sponsored unions. In some cases the company unions served to retard SWOC organizing, in others they offered an organization for SWOC to infiltrate. Steelworkers were anxious to organize. A 1936 article in The Nation described the mood in steel towns around Pittsburgh as "Waiting for Lewis."

The leadership of the AFL opposed the organizing drive in steel. The steel drive precipitated a new level of conflict with the CIO. On 3 August 1936 the executive council of the AFL met to discuss charges against the 12 unions that comprised the CIO. The council charged that in participating in the formation of the CIO, the 12 unions had "engaged in fostering, maintaining and supporting this dual movement and of fomenting insurrection within the American Federation of Labor." On 5 August the council voted to suspend 10 of the 12 unions unless they severed their relationship with the CIO. The council did not suspend the International Typographical Union and the Hatters' Cap and Millinery Workers International Union.

Politics and Union Power

In 1936 AFL and CIO representatives got together to form Labor's Non-Partisan League to support Roosevelt in an organization outside the Democratic Party. It was an effort to build an independent political power base for labor as well as to support Roosevelt. CIO influences dominated the new organization, which was staffed mostly by members of Lewis's union (the UMWA) and Sidney Hillman's clothing workers. Against the backdrop of the organizing campaign for steel workers, Lewis argued that support for Roosevelt would challenge the dominance of steel manufacturers and bankers that had caused the Great Depression.

Thus, when Roosevelt won the election, Lewis was prepared to proclaim it a victory for working people. He entered 1937, the second worst year of the depression, confident for labor's future and ready to build the CIO's membership. By the end of 1936 workers had occupied two General Motors Fisher Body plants in Flint, Michigan. In February 1937 they began a sit-down strike in the plants. Workers refused to leave until GM agreed to bargain with the United Auto Workers (UAW), a CIO union. The UAW won the strike and was recognized by GM.

Things looked good for the CIO on several counts. The drive to organize industrialized labor seemed to be proceeding well. The sit-down strike offered a new tactic that would be used in other industries as well. More important, the strategy of allying with the Democratic Party on independent terms seemed to have yielded a role for labor in public policy.

Things looked even better when U.S. Steel signed an agreement with SWOC in March 1937. Organizing efforts then focused on the "little steel" companies: Republic Steel, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Inland Steel, and Bethlehem Steel. All refused to sign a contract with SWOC. On 26 May 1937 SWOC struck against all except Bethlehem Steel. The strike was one of the most violent in U.S. labor history. It was also a test of both the CIO's political strategy and the new national labor relations system. The strike did not succeed in forcing the little steel companies to the negotiating table. SWOC's defeat forced the CIO to reevaluate its political strategy, as it created a rift between Lewis and Roosevelt.

The Expulsion

After the suspension in the summer of 1936, the CIO unions largely went about the business of building their organization. They did not attend the 1936 AFL convention, which voted to maintain the suspension and endorsed the executive council's authority to judge when the suspended unions deserved to be reinstated. The CIO drives in steel and automobiles created positive publicity for the new national organization. Its position seemed assured as one of two powerful federations of labor, perhaps the stronger of the two.

In March 1937 the AFL executive council ordered all CIO unions expelled from state and city federations of the AFL. Throughout the rest of 1937 and into 1938, leaders of the AFL and the CIO made efforts to bring the two organizations back together. The two organizations met in October 1937 to negotiate the terms of unity. The CIO proposed that the AFL support the organization of workers in mass production only on an industrial basis. The AFL offered to recognize some industrial unions organized by the CIO in exchange for dismantling others and having AFL craft unions take in their members. Each organization strove to look as conciliatory as possible, but neither yielded much of substance. Each wanted to blame the other for the failure to reunite.

Negotiations proceeded until the end of 1937. The AFL remained committed to seeing the CIO disband before its members were readmitted. By late December, at a CIO policy conference, representatives of all 32 affiliated unions adopted Lewis's motion to end the negotiations. In November 1938 the CIO recognized the separation with a formal name change. It became the Congress of Industrial Organizations. It would maintain its independence until 1955, when it merged again with the AFL.

Key Players

Dubinsky, David (1892-1982): As president of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union for more than 30 years, Dubinsky built the union into a strong, financially stable organization. Throughout his career, Dubinsky retained an interest in social legislation.

Green, William L. (1873-1952): President of the AFL from1924 to 1952, Green, like John L. Lewis, came from the United Mine Workers of America. Interested in cooperation between labor and management, Green looked to government policy changes to secure a better future for labor. He was a Roosevelt appointee to the Labor Advisory Counsel of the National Recovery Administration.

Hillman, Sidney (1887-1946): Hillman participated in the1905 revolution in Russia before migrating to New York and becoming a garment worker. In 1914 he became president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) and held that office until his death. Originally a member of the Socialist Party, he became an active Democrat.

Lewis, John L. (1880-1969): A mineworker from Illinois, Lewis became head of the United Mine workers of America (UMWA) in 1920. He resigned from his position as AFL vice president in 1935 to concentrate on building the CIO. Striving to "organize the unorganized," Lewis became one of the most recognized figures in the country. Lewis retired as UMWA president in 1960.

See also: AFL, CIO Merge; American Federation of Labor; Committee for Industrial Organization; Congress of Industrial Organizations; GM Recognizes UAW; Memorial Day Massacre; National Industrial Recovery Act; U.S. Steel Recognizes the Steel Workers Organizing Committee; Wagner Act.



Anderson, Kristi. The Creation of a Democratic Majority,1928-1936. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Bernstein, Irving. Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Warren Van Tine. John L. Lewis: A Biography. Chicago and Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Dulles, Foster Rhea, and Melvyn Dubofsky. Labor in America, 2nd ed. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1960.

Foner, Philip S. History of the Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 2. New York: International Publishers, 1955.

Fraser, Steven. Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor. New York: The Free Press, 1991.

Galenson, Walter. The CIO Challenge to the AFL: A History of the American Labor Movement 1935-1941.Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Peis, Arthur. Labor's Giant Step. New York: Pathfinder,1964.

Zieger, Robert H. John L. Lewis: Labor Leader. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1988.

——. The CIO: 1935-1955. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

—Jane Holzka