Committee for Industrial Organization

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Committee for Industrial Organization

United States 1935


The formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) was fundamental in the labor movement, as it was the first union group to recognize the need to organize unskilled labor. Historically, unions had typically banded together skilled workers into unions by trade. Existing unions, particularly the American Federation of Labor (AFL), refused to organize unskilled workers, most of whom worked in mass-production industries, such as garment manufacturing and tire making.

With its formation in 1935 as a committee within the AFL, the CIO became a voice in the workplace for underrepresented minorities such as new immigrants, African Americans, and women. CIO representation allowed workers to achieve a more just stake in their workplaces through collective bargaining. Unionized employees were able to change working conditions through grievance procedures, while newly instituted seniority systems assisted in bringing changes to unionized companies' shop floors. Emboldened by their unions, working-class Americans also had a larger say in their own communities. Local political power was often shaped by alliances with prounion entities, especially in company towns. The union also contributed to reshaping class and race dynamics in the United States.


  • 1920: League of Nations, based in Geneva, holds its first meetings.
  • 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Locarno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries between France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.
  • 1930: Naval disarmament treaty is signed by the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan.
  • 1933: Newly inaugurated U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt launches the first phase of his New Deal to put depression-era America back to work.
  • 1935: Germany annexes the Saar region after a plebiscite. In defiance of Versailles, the Nazis reintroduce compulsory military service. The Allies do nothing, and many western intellectuals maintain that it is only proper for Germany to retake its own territory and begin building up its army again.
  • 1935: Italians invade Ethiopia, and the response by the League of Nations—which imposes sanctions but otherwise fails to act—reveals the impotence of that organization.
  • 1935: Second phase of New Deal begins with the introduction of social security, farm assistance, and housing and tax reform.
  • 1938: The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act establishes a minimum wage.
  • 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: 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.
  • 1950: North Korean troops pour into South Korea, starting the Korean War. Initially the communists make impressive gains, but in September the U.S. Marines land at Inchon and liberate Seoul. China responds by sending in its troops.

Event and Its Context

Organizing the Unorganized

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) had been active for some 50 years at the start of the Great Depression. Union membership, whether in the AFL or other national organizations, was almost exclusively restricted to craftsmen, predominantly northern European Protestants. Typically, these individuals were relatively conservative skilled workers who had spent years learning their particular trade. For this and other societal reasons, union members resisted the inclusion of unskilled employees of the mass-production industries in their ranks.

Workers within the automobile, steel, aluminum, and rubber industries, among others, were upset with shop conditions and sought job security as well as organizing assistance from the AFL. Broadly, they sought representation by a single industrial union rather than the traditional craft-based unions, wherein workers were organized according to their specific trade. AFL leaders did not want to charter such industrial unions. By 1934 gains workers in these industries had made in negotiating with their employers had evaporated. The only mass-production unions to have any success during the first years of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal administration were the coal and garment unions.

The AFL stance on craft unionism had not changed significantly by 1935. Even with the 1935 passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), commonly known as the Wagner Act, labor resisted open membership. The NLRA recognized unions and established basic union-friendly protections for employees nationwide, including provisions barring employers from attempts to intimidate workers forming unions and granting employees the right to strike. But most workers persevered without federal protection.

John L. Lewis, leader of the United Mine Workers (UMW), was intent on organizing these men and women and in 1935 began what can only be characterized as a crusade to gather un-represented workers into a single industrial union. Lewis was repeatedly frustrated in his attempts to organize workers, specifically within the automobile, iron, and steel industries, under the AFL umbrella. Union leaders continually balked at his calls for organizing mass-production workers and for solidarity.

Despite this, the auto and rubber unions formed their own unions in August and September 1935, respectively. While working to organize the rubber workers, "Lewis insisted that its workers demanded … a union structure that encompassed all employees of the industry regardless of job classification or skill," wrote his biographer, Melvyn Dubovsky. Lewis did not oppose craft unions but urged that theories about union structure not be permitted "to obstruct the organization of mass-production workers never before unionized and employed in industries traditionally resistant to craft unionism."

Lewis Delivers a Blow to the AFL

The discussion within the AFL about the merits of industrial unionism came to a head at the 19 October 1935 AFL meeting in Atlantic City, New Jersey. William L. Hutcheson, head of the International Brotherhood of Carpenters, continued to squelch dissent by not allowing young rubber workers who favored industrial unionism to speak from the floor. He kept bringing up parliamentary procedures to silence the speakers. Lewis reportedly shouted from the floor, "This thing of raising points of order all the time on minor delegates is rather small potatoes." Hutcheson volleyed back, "I was raised on small potatoes. That is why I am so small." Neither he nor Lewis was small in stature.

Tired of his continued interruptions and verbally badgered by Hutcheson, Lewis vaulted over chairs and punched Hutcheson. Fistfights between members of these leaders' respective unions ensued. The next day Lewis convened a breakfast meeting with 40 or 50 advocates of industrial unionism to discuss next steps. He asked several of these union leaders to meet him in Washington, D.C., in three weeks to discuss forming an ad hoc committee. Lewis and others saw time and momentum slipping away. The time was right to organize unskilled workers, and this prompted the founding members and staff to act with urgency. The AFL had not adapted to modern times, leaving a void that could be filled by just about any organization. About two million company unions, independent unions, and non-AFL organizations were active at the time. Interest in unionism was piqued by worker unrest in numerous industries.

Minorities and Unionism

As part of its drive to organize unskilled workers, the CIO also assisted in organizing efforts among other marginalized groups, specifically foreign-born workers, African Americans, and women, who were prohibited from admission to conventional unions. Segregation of African American workers was commonplace throughout American society well into World War II. In some instances African Americans were unwittingly used as scab labor, further alienating them from their white counterparts. The AFL had, at one time, blamed African Americans for creating problems for the union because they had been strikebreakers. Samuel Gompers, head of the AFL in the late 1800s and early 1900s, had suggested removal of race as a condition of membership; the idea was short-lived.

"Were the A.F. of L. leaders imbued with even a semblance of real working class spirit they would take it upon themselves as a first and basic task to defeat the plans of the employers by organizing the Negroes and by mobilizing the whole labor movement behind their elementary demands," wrote William Z. Foster in The Daily Worker in 1929. "But they utterly refuse to do this."

Typically, minority employees paid exorbitant union dues—if they were accepted for membership at all. In those rare instances when African Americans were successfully admitted to a union, they were generally relegated to menial tasks. This was true even within the skilled labor unions. Their situation was made worse during the depression; they were "last to be hired, first to be laid off, with least savings from lowest wages, and discriminated against in relief as everywhere else," according to the labor writer Len De Caux.

The situation was not much better for women, black or white. In 1933 some three million women worked. Advocates of their inclusion in unions argued that, if provided the opportunity to join a union, they would. As were African American workers, women were typically relegated to semiskilled jobs and, during strikes, were often targets of company agents, who pressured them to end the strike and to break worker morale. The AFL simply refused to organize women, believing that they "obtained jobs just for 'spending money,'" according to the labor historian Philip S. Foner. "Soon they married and dropped out of the industry. Why, then, should the trade unions tax themselves and expend undue energy attempting to organize women?" The answer, as the CIO found, was that women were themselves tireless organizers. They were enthusiastic volunteers in times of crisis and stood up to physical abuse on the picket lines.

The CIO contended that such discrimination—in matters of race, religion, and gender—were perpetuated in the workplace, allowing employers to continue the cycle of worker exploitation. Ultimately, because of these progressive views, the CIO called itself a "people's movement" as much as a union.

Genesis of the CIO

During an AFL convention in November 1935, Lewis met with the officers of eight unions—including Sidney Hillman, leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), and David Dubinsky, of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU)—to discuss forming the Committee for Industrial Organization, which they formally founded on 9 November 1935. The other founders were Philip Murray, Tom Kennedy, John Brophy, Charles Howard, Thomas McMahon, Max Zaritsky, Thomas Brown, and Harvey Fremming. Lewis was elected chair. The fledgling group received financial pledges from the UMW, ACWA, and ILGWU, whose memberships, thanks to the Wagner Act, had grown, meaning the CIO could be financially independent of the AFL, even though it would technically remain under the AFL's auspices. The modest initial aim of the CIO was to promote industrial unionism among rubber, auto, steel, and radio workers.

Clearly, each person present at the founding of the CIO had his own reasons for advocating its formation. Howard and Dubinsky saw it as an opportunity to save the AFL from itself. Dubinsky believed that disenfranchised workers who were not welcomed into unions would likely turn to communism. His participation was tempered by caution. Howard, head of the International Typographical Union, participated as an individual rather than with the blessing of his union.

The only action taken at the initial gathering, other than its founding, was to formally state a joint commitment to promoting the organization of workers in mass-production jobs, and to do so without delay. The CIO offices opened on 18 November 1935 across from the UMW headquarters in Washington, D.C. Brophy, who had been active with the UMW, outlined possible activities for the organization and drafted pamphlets about industrial unionism for workers and other union groups.

The organization also hired several staff members. Len De Caux, the editor of the CIO News, served as publicist for the organization. Katherine Pollak Ellickson was hired as administrator; she managed the office and assisted with research and other tasks. The first CIO field representatives hired were Adolph Germer and Powers Hapgood. Ironically, they and Brophy had been staunch Lewis foes within the UMW. What happened to make them allies? McAlister Coleman observed, "overnight the magic formula of the words 'industrial unionism' was dissolving ancient grudges."

Lewis was the most important individual within the fledgling CIO. Not only did he have a big voice that resounded within labor circles, but also he was the only founding member with experience in bargaining and negotiating with industries on a par with his AFL counterparts. Further, his own union, the UMW, was considered central to the national industrial economy, which could give the organization leverage in acceptance by industry leaders. Without raw ores and coal for manufacturing goods in times of work stoppages and strikes, industry could be effectively halted nationwide. The CIO was staffed with successful UMW organizers: Germer, Hapgood, Van A. Bittner, and William Mitch. The miners' union was the CIO's major funder. Lewis was not paid; UMW loans made in 1936 and 1937 financed an estimated 83.4 percent of CIO expenses.

Lewis resigned his vice presidency in the AFL on 23 November 1935. This action, according to Walter Galenson, was a "means of dramatizing the split and of driving a further wedge between the AFL and CIO."

Second, perhaps, to Lewis in stature within the CIO was Hillman. He had founded the ACWA in 1914 and is described as being the CIO's "most articulate, decisive and generous supporter." In 1936 CIO member unions, in addition to the UMW, ILGWU, and ACWA, included the United Textile Workers, the United Automobile Workers, and the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tinworkers.

The AFL executives saw the CIO as "a challenge to the supremacy of the American Federal of Labor," wrote Galenson. Although threatened by the CIO, they remained steadfast in their conviction that industrial unionism was a waste of time and resources. Lewis was just as determined to see the CIO succeed. The two organizations butted heads through the next few years. A 1936 strike at Goodyear in Akron, Ohio, is often recognized as the CIO's first real test of effectiveness.

CIO organizers worked tirelessly throughout 1936 to gain union recognition and collective bargaining agreements from executives of leading corporations such as General Motors and U.S. Steel. By fall the AFL tired of the upstarts in what was supposed to be a union committee. At a UMW convention that same year, Lewis said the CIO would not back down from organizing. "[A]ll the members of the Executive Council of the American Federation of Labor will be wearing asbestos suits in hell before [the CIO] is dissolved." The executives took the challenge. The decision was made to suspend the CIO member unions from the AFL. This was soon changed to an expulsion. Lewis was reportedly the only founding member unconcerned about this split.

CIO organizing drives were held throughout 1936 and 1937 in a wide variety of industries. The union courted packinghouse workers, woodworkers, shipbuilders, seamen, and other laborers without union representation. Efforts remained concentrated, however, in the target industries identified at the union's founding: auto, rubber, radio, and steel. By 1937 the CIO had more than 3.7 million members, most of whom were in industrial unions, including maritime workers, white-collar workers, and woodworkers.

In November 1938, with its major unions expelled from the AFL, the CIO officially inaugurated itself as a separate labor federation, in the process changing its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. In the next two decades, the CIO would continue its organizing efforts. By the time of the CIO's merger with the AFL in 1955, it included more than five million members. Author Robert Zieger called the creation of the CIO the key episode in addressing the labor issues of the preceding six decades.

Key Players

Dubinsky, David (1892-1982): Dubinsky is best known for his lengthy tenure as president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Dubinksy started working in his family's bakery in Poland at age 11 and first participated in a strike at age 15. In the United States, he became involved in union activity within a ILGWU local. In 1932 he undertook the monumental task of reorganizing the union. He remained active in union politics until his retirement in 1966, after which he served on public and private sector boards until his death in 1982.

Green, William (1873-1952): AFL president at the time of the formation of the CIO, Green was vocal in his opposition to industrial unions. He was the second AFL president since its founding, succeeding Samuel Gompers. Despite his position, he was not a part of the union's inner circle.

Hillman, Sidney (1887-1946): A founder of the CIO and head of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (ACWA), Hillman was also instrumental in founding the Non-Partisan League within the American Labor Party, the political party that provided union endorsement for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936. He served on the National Defense Advisory Council during World War II.

Hutcheson, William L. "Big Bill" (1874-1953): Head of the International Brotherhood of Carpenters and active in the AFL at the founding of the CIO, Hutcheson is best known for provoking and then taking a punch thrown by John L. Lewis at the union's national convention.

Lewis, John Llewellyn (1880-1969): The son of a Welsh coal miner who immigrated to the United States, as a young man Lewis worked in various jobs, including coal mining, before becoming a labor organizer. He was United Mine Workers of America (UMW) president and was active in the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Known as a fiery orator, he peppered his addresses with quotations from both the Bible and Shakespeare. He resigned from the AFL to form the Committee for Industrial Organization in 1935, which reorganized in 1938 as the Congress of Industrial Organizations. He served as its president from 1935 to 1940.

Murray, Philip (1886-1952): Born in Scotland, Murray was a leader within the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) and a founding member of the CIO. He was the chairman of the UMW's Steel Workers' Organizing Committee. Murray became the head of the CIO when Lewis resigned in 1940. He is often acknowledged for his work in seeing the union through World War II, a rough period for most unions.

See also: American Federation of Labor; AFL, CIO Merge; CIO Expelled from AFL; Congress of Industrial Organizations; Wagner Act.



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—Linda Dailey Paulson

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