CIO Joins, AFL Rejects WFTU

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CIO Joins, AFL Rejects WFTU

United States 1945


Inspired by the worker militancy of the previous 10 years or more, by state social reformism and liberal internationalism, as well as by the wartime antifascist alliance, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) committed itself to the founding of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). The American Federation of Labor (AFL), representing the conservative tradition of "business unionism" and "voluntarism" at home, more inclined to the domination of, than cooperation with, unions abroad, resisted this. Rising cold war divisions internationally led to an early split in the WFTU. The CIO joined the European social-democratic unionists in their withdrawal from the organization and then joined the AFL in the creation of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in 1949.


  • 1925: In Tennessee, John T. Scopes is fined for teaching evolution in a public school. There follows a highly publicized trial at which famed attorney Clarence Darrow represents the defense, while the aging Democratic populist William Jennings Bryan argues for the state. The "Scopes Monkey Trial" symbolizes a widening divisions between rural and urban America, and though the court decides in favor of the state, it is clear that the historical tide is turning against the old agrarian order symbolized by Bryan—who dies during the trial.
  • 1930: Collectivization of Soviet agriculture begins, and with it one of the greatest crimes of the twentieth century. In the next few years, as Soviet operatives force peasants to give up their lands, millions will die either by direct action, manmade famine, or forced labor. Overseas, however, and particularly among intellectuals and artists of the West, Soviet collectivization and industrialization are regarded as models of progress for the world.
  • 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. At the same time, Stalin—who in this year arranges the murder of Trotsky in Mexico—takes advantage of the situation to add the Baltic republics (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) to the Soviet empire, where they will remain for more than half a century.
  • 1945: At the Yalta Conference in February, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin make plans for Germany after its by now inevitable surrender.
  • 1945: April sees the death of three leaders: Roosevelt passes away on 12 April; the Italians execute Mussolini and his mistress on 28 April; and Hitler (along with Eva Braun, propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, and Goebbels's family) commits suicide on 30 April.
  • 1945: On 7 May, Germany surrenders to the Allied powers. Later in the summer, the new U.S. president, Harry Truman, joins Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam to discuss the reconstruction of Germany. (Churchill is replaced in mid-conference by Clement Attlee as Labour wins control of Parliament.)
  • 1945: United States drops atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August, and a month later, on 2 September, Japan surrenders.
  • 1945: The United Nations is established on 24 October.
  • 1950: U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy launches his campaign to root out communist infiltrators.
  • 1955: African and Asian nations meet at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, inaugurating the "non-aligned" movement of Third World countries.
  • 1960: Congo, along with several other African nations, becomes independent. But as the province of Katanga secedes, and pro-Soviet prime minister Patrice Lumumba disappears (he is later murdered), the country devolves into civil war. Soon UN troops will arrive to restore order.

Event and Its Context

Labor and Political Economy

The late 1930s and the wartime 1940s saw a dramatic expansion of the U.S. economy and employment. Not only did industry spread to the West Coast and the South, but new generations of immigrants—later including blacks and women—were drawn into the workforce. Under the Keynesian strategy followed by the presidential administrations of Franklin Roosevelt, there was also an expansion of public works and public sector employment. A partially state-sponsored populist culture, reflected even in Hollywood movies, encouraged radicalism that was already present among workers. Dynamism and turbulence in the economy and the reformist, occasionally prounion, action of the state enabled militant workers and leftist organizers to break away from the conservative and craft traditions of the AFL and form the industrially structured, Democratic Party aligned, and state-oriented CIO.

Internationalism among even the newer and more militant sections of the workers was, however, often combined with a variety of ethnic and religious identities, with racism, and with an Americanism that allowed immigrants not only to defend themselves against but even to pride themselves on being part of the most dynamically developing capitalist country in the world. The result was a "bureaucratic corporatist" and nationalist internationalism expressed not through direct worker solidarity action but through the CIO and the Rooseveltian state. Working-class thinking on international affairs was often colored by concerns for economic and personal safety, grievances against the more privileged, and a belief in American world responsibility. In the mid-1940s a vocal minority of the American working class supported labor internationalism; the majority was either doubtful, unconcerned, or worried by the prospect of continued cooperation with the Soviet Union.


Often compared to the social-democratic unions of western Europe, the CIO shared their social-reformist inclinations but had otherwise a much more socially diverse base and leadership. Although the European unions were largely divided into social-democratic and communist tendencies and organizations, the CIO leadership included communists on the left, socialists in the middle, and liberal democrats on the right. The CIO was then confronted on its right by the aggressive business-unionism of the AFL. The CIO, however, also has to be seen as an organization constraining and channeling the militancy of auto, steel, electricity, and other workers. This was much to the chagrin of the left and of the populist John L. Lewis, stormy leader of the militant mineworkers, who led his members first into and then out of the CIO. The CIO was also deeply engaged with both the state and the Democratic Party, which may have increased its influence but decreased its autonomy.

Whereas the "isolationist" AFL was interested in domination of both the Latin American and the world union movement, the CIO became increasingly involved in cooperation with both. In the case of Mexico and then Latin America, this happened, in particular, with Vicente Lombardo Toledano, charismatic leader of the left within the Mexican union movement and then with the Confederación de Trabajadores de América Latina (CTAL), which he founded and led. Indeed, the CIO was prepared to treat Latin America as Toledano's sovereign territory.

As the war in Europe drew to a close, the CIO was involved in a burst of international activity that often paralleled and even overlapped that around the creation of the United Nations (1946). Early in 1945 the CIO established an international affairs department. Later that year, it created bilateral committees, such as the Soviet-American, the Anglo-American, and others. These were modeled on the Latin American committee it had created in February 1943. Meanwhile, the CIO took part in the World Trade Union Conference (London, February 1945) and then the founding of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU, Paris, October 1945). The CIO was particularly involved with the colonial department of the WFTU. James Carey, a major CIO figure involved with the WFTU, believed—as did many CIO leaders and trade unionists in general—that the United States could and should oppose colonialism as un-ethical and unnecessary. Even so, Carey and others felt that the United States had a special responsibility to guide the world toward freedom and participation in the world economy. Blind to their own interventionism, they failed to perceive that the nation as a whole was unwilling to intervene in foreign affairs.

The CIO revealed similar ambiguity about American-Soviet relations. Although some of its leaders were committed to U.S.-Soviet collaboration and defended the Soviet unions, others, like Walter Reuther (who had worked in a Soviet auto plant in the 1930s), became increasingly skeptical about peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union and the Soviet unions. Tensions between procommunists and anticommunists within the CIO grew when the international communist movement opposed the U.S. Marshall Plan in 1947. An anticommunist wave in the United States, reinforced by the election of Democrat Harry Truman in 1948 (whom U.S. communists had opposed), led to anticommunist purges within the CIO. This set the international stage for its withdrawal from the WFTU and affiliation with the ICFTU (1949) and for the merger with the AFL in 1955. The CIO attempt to create an autonomous social-reformist union leadership failed both nationally and internationally.

The AFL, sharing the aggressive and domineering international orientation of U.S. corporations, linked more with the military and intelligence branches of the U.S. government, had a longer and perhaps more consistent foreign policy than the CIO. Active in pre-World War I efforts to create a trade union international, the AFL was, toward the end of that war, hostile both to "enemy" unions and to the socialist and pacifist inclinations of the European unions more generally. Although AFL leader Samuel Gompers was energetically involved in Wilsonian projects for a League of Nations and an International Labor Organization, he also shared U.S. hostility toward any subordination of the national (American) to the international. This American exceptionalism led to a breach with the International Federation of Trade Unions in 1921 and a concentration on a Pan-American Federation of Labor (1919), which it could both dominate and isolate from the social-democratic Europeans. The breach began to heal a couple of years before World War II.

Hostility toward the CIO at home and social democracy abroad permitted or stimulated the AFL to develop an intimate wartime relationship with the Organization of Strategic Services (OSS). Although this secret service was itself ready to work with social democratic unionists in wartime Europe, it kept its distance from the European and international unions as institutions. This provided the AFL with a separate source of identity and funding in furthering its own agenda against the CIO and the left at home and against the Soviet Union and communism abroad. At the peak of international liberal and socialist optimism, as the war in Europe drew to its conclusion, this certainly helped the AFL to reject the WFTU. The AFL was determined to continue or deepen its alliance with U.S. military and intelligence agencies (particularly the successor of the OSS, the Central Intelligence Agency), in furthering U.S. state, corporate, and union interests in the postwar era. This alliance was to prove rapidly successful at countering the influence of the new International. The AFL spearheaded trade union opposition to the WFTU.

Key Players

Hillman, Sidney (1887-1946): A Jewish labor activist in czarist Russia, Hillman migrated to the United States in 1907. He became a garment worker, a strike leader, and a union leader. In conflict with his old conservative union, he helped create the new Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and then became a founder of the militant CIO, of which he became first vice president in 1937. Under the reformist and interventionist presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945), Hillman became more and more involved with government and semigovernmental agencies, to the point of becoming the president's union advisor. No left-winger, Hillman was nonetheless prepared to collaborate with communism at home and with the Soviet Union (or Soviet unions) abroad. In both cases this was a matter of a progressive or social-reformist disposition, best expressed by Roosevelt's New Deal, the wartime coalition against fascism, and the founding of the United Nations. Hillman was a convinced union internationalist and played a key conciliating role at the World Trade Union Conference in London in early 1945.

Meany, George (1894-1980): Born into a New York Catholic working-class family, Meany, originally a plumber, worked his way up the union hierarchy, becoming secretary-treasurer of the AFL in 1939. In this position he devoted himself to the AFL's international activities, partly to increase his profile within the federation and partly to increase AFL influence with the U.S. state. He was a member of various national wartime labor boards. Meany's anticommunism was unlimited. He even voted for the Republican candidate, against Roosevelt, in 1944, for this reason. As the process of creating the new WFTU warmed up, Meany, as AFL representative to the 1945 British Trades Union Congress (1945), used the opportunity to denounce the Soviet trade unions and was shouted down for his pains. His anticommunism nonetheless paid off. He became president of the AFL, then of the merged AFL-CIO in 1955. He dominated the national and international policies of the U.S. union movement until his death.

Ross, Michael (1898-1963): Ross was born in London, England. Unusual for a union-official-to-be at that time, he studied economics, later gaining a B.A. in the United States. Active in the British Labour Party, he began a lifetime practice of writing for magazines and newspapers. After immigrating to the United States in 1933, Ross began working for the Roosevelt-era Public Works Administration (1934-1936). After a period as a lecturer, he became a union research director, and during the war he represented his union in Washington. He also served as a labor member on various government wartime committees. In 1945 Ross became director of the CIO international affairs department, serving as its representative to Europe (1953-1955). In 1955 he became assistant director, then director, of the AFL-CIO international affairs department and served until his death.

See also: AFL, CIO Merge; American Federation of Labor; Confederación de Trabajadores de América Latina; Confederación Obrera Pan-Americana; Congress of Industrial Organizations; International Confederation of Free Trade Unions; World Federation of Trade Unions.



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—Peter Waterman