Meany and Reuther Lead AFL, CIO

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Meany and Reuther Lead AFL, CIO

United States 1952


The ascension by George Meany to the presidency of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Walter Reuther to the presidency of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) marked the development of a more "modern" orientation, replacing what many considered to be outmoded traditions. A new generation of labor leaders replacing older leaders—AFL president William Green and CIO president Philip Murray—also helped facilitate the merger of the AFL and the CIO.

  • 1932: Charles A. Lindbergh's baby son is kidnapped and killed, a crime for which Bruno Hauptmann will be charged in 1934, convicted in 1935, and executed in 1936.
  • 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.
  • 1942: Declaration of the United Nations is signed in Washington, D.C.
  • 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 the British Parliament.)
  • 1947: Marshall Plan is established to assist European nations in recovering from the war.
  • 1949: Soviets conduct their first successful atomic test. This heightens growing cold war tensions, not least because the sudden acquisition of nuclear capabilities suggests that American spies are passing secrets.
  • 1952: Among the cultural landmarks of the year are the film High Noon and the book The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.
  • 1952: George Jorgenson travels to Copenhagen and returns as Christine Jorgenson. (This is not the first sex-change operation; however, it is the first to attract widespread attention.)
  • 1955: Warsaw Pact is signed by the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe.
  • 1957: Soviets launch Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. This spawns a space race between the two superpowers.
  • 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.
  • 1967: Racial violence sweeps America's cities, as Harlem, Detroit, Birmingham, and other towns erupt with riots.

Event and Its Context

The men whom George Meany and Walter Reuther replaced had been stalwarts of American labor's mainstream and guardians of the deep division that had opened in labor's ranks during the Great Depression. Phil Murray and Bill Green had much more in common than dying within a dozen days of each other (on 9 and 21 November, respectively) in 1952. Both were warm and outgoing, deeply religious men who were utterly devoted to the labor movement and enjoyed considerable popularity. Both were born into mineworker families, and each entered the mines and union activity while still in his teens.

From Gompers to Green to Labor's Civil War

In the early 1920s, both Green and Murray had been supporters of United Mine Workers (UMW) leader John L. Lewis. Lewis played a key role in the rise of Green to the presidency of the AFL and in the rise of Murray to the presidency of the CIO. Both became bitter opponents of Lewis, though at different points in their careers. If anything, the points at which each man broke with John L. Lewis—far from narrowing the gap between them—helped to guarantee that Green and Murray would be sharply opposed to each other.

Green's rise into AFL presidency took place with the death of Samuel Gompers in 1924. As a UMW official, he had favored industrial unionism and union involvement in broad efforts toward social reform, but he then embraced the dominant AFL orientation: narrow craft unionism and a "pure-and-simple" focus of only seeking to improve wages and conditions at the unionized workplace. His hostility to Lewis became open and uncompromising in 1935 when the UMW chieftain spear-headed the CIO rebellion for industrial unionism.

Murray supported Lewis's militant industrial unionism and swerve toward labor radicalism in the midst of the Great Depression, and after the formation of the CIO, Lewis appointed him to head the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, which evolved into the United Steel Workers of America. Lewis also chose Murray to succeed him as CIO president in 1940. Murray rejected Lewis' feud with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, his labor militancy during World War II, and his challenge to CIO authority when Lewis sought unity with the AFL to bring an end to what many saw as "labor's civil war."

For years Green had denounced the CIO's militancy as the "utterly subversive policies of minority domination and violence," claiming that many of its leaders were "moved by a consuming ambition to establish themselves as dictators," and alleging that "the CIO welcomes communist support and uses its methods." Green's most conciliatory note was urging wayward CIO unions to "come back into the House of Labor." According to George Meany, who became AFL secretary-treasurer in 1939, "Bill Green had done nothing for five years [before his death] but go around making speeches denouncing the group [the CIO] which was tearing us apart. He would always wind up that they should 'come back home.' That wasn't convincing anybody." It was certainly not convincing to Murray, whose break with his mentor Lewis was over preserving CIO integrity.

The federation led by Murray seemed qualitatively different from that led by Green. "CIO was an especially magical set of letters," remembered one 1930s militant. In 1938 labor journalist Edward Levinson described a crusade for a better world: "Around mammoth modern mills and at bleak old factories, on ships and on piers, at offices and in public gathering-places, men and women roared, 'CIO! CIO!' with the gathering velocity of a massed football cheer, with the difference that their goal was more and better bread for the family table and a greater sense of freedom in affairs economic, political, and social. … Labor was on the march as it had never been before in the history of the Republic." CIO staff member Shirley Quill's description of AFL union officials conveys profound cultural differences between the two federations: "The AFL leaders were … crafty, comfortable, conspicuously well-fed, successful powerbrokers in their own fiefdoms. They competently negotiated contracts covering wages, hours, working conditions and pensions, and stared blankly when such arcane subjects as discrimination, minority rights, seniority for women and voter registration appeared on the agenda."

Green's denunciations of the CIO drew bitterness from Murray: "He joined the procession of Wall Streeters and barons of the steel industry." Murray saw the leading representative of the AFL's younger layer as "some kind of loud-mouth bum from New York." In later years the target of this scorn, George Meany claimed that his relations with Murray were "quite friendly," but he added that a merger of the AFL and CIO would not have been possible as long as Murray was alive.

By the early 1950s great changes had been taking place within the cultures of both the AFL and the CIO, as well as in their larger social, economic, and political contexts. Meany and Reuther were better able to reflect and move within the altered realities. Significantly, neither had been personally involved in the original split between the AFL and CIO.

Red Menace and American Dream

The Great Depression had generated the mighty upsurge of labor radicalism that was the CIO. It had also pushed many workers and intellectuals toward left-wing activism. The growing Communist Party was able to point to—and secure support from—the allegedly "socialist" homeland of the USSR. Many left-wing activists, communists included, were employed by the less radical Lewis and Murray and helped build the organizations and victories of the CIO. The depression was not, however, overcome by heroic labor struggles. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal social reforms beguiled masses of workers and labor activists but also failed to end the depression. It was instead massive government spending during World War II that skyrocketed the economy into prosperity and at the same time helped to increase government influence and controls over the labor movement.

Government involvement, under Roosevelt's liberal Democratic administration, had enabled the labor movement (in the form of unions) to grow and flourish so long as—occasional radical rhetoric aside—it would not become an anticapitalist force. In the postwar period, the success of labor's struggles would enable workers' buying power to help fuel the development of a buoyant consumer economy.

As the U.S. government moved to defeat the Axis powers in the war, it also prepared to establish what Henry Luce, the influential publisher of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines, termed in 1941 "the American Century." In the postwar period, the U.S. government sought to keep the labor movement enlisted in its foreign policy objectives of maintaining a prosperous U.S. capitalism by helping to preserve and rebuild a global capitalist economy in which the U.S. would be a central force. This would involve global containment of social revolutions and communism, culminating in the cold war.

Communism was associated—despite its revolutionary rhetoric and the idealism of many of its adherents—with the ruthless and sometimes murderous dictatorship of Joseph Stalin in the USSR, which facilitated the ability of the U.S. government to win many labor activists to its policy of probusiness anticommunism. Another factor was that the executive branch of the U.S. government—after the death of Roosevelt in 1945, and even after Republican Party congressional victories in 1946—continued to be in the hands of the relatively prolabor liberal wing of the Democratic Party under Harry Truman. Moreover, the long wave of economic prosperity that began at the end of World War II was having an impact on the lives of many workers who a decade earlier had been radicalized by hard times. A growing number of union leaders in both the CIO and the AFL were inclined to adapt to this powerful current.

This trend became clear in 1947 when congressional Republicans were able to push through the Taft-Hartley Act, which was designed to limit union power and eliminate labor radicalism. Among the restrictions it imposed were outlawing union tactics responsible for many previous union victories and prohibiting communists from serving as union officers. Although both had protested loudly against this "slave labor law," both the AFL and CIO leadership drifted into acquiescence once it was passed. In fact, many AFL leaders were almost exultant in signing the noncommunist affidavits that were required by the new law.

John L. Lewis—whose UMW had rejoined the AFL in 1946 and who remained a formidable figure in the ranks of organized labor—correctly predicted that the law's provisions would "make more difficult the securing of new members of this labor movement, without which our movement will become so possessed of inertia that there is no action and no growth." He challenged the AFL, at its 1947 national convention in San Francisco, to refuse to comply with the Taft-Hartley Act, including the requirement that all union officers sign non-communist affidavits.

This was an incredible challenge to a federation whose youngest and most dynamic leader, 53-year-old secretary-treasurer George Meany, would later confess: "I never went on strike in my life; I never ran a strike in my life; I never ordered anyone else to run a strike in my life, never had anything to do with a picket line."

Yet it was Meany, the tough-minded organization man, who had the audacity to attack Lewis head-on. He denounced the UMW leader's proposal as impractical, argued that AFL leaders should be proud to sign noncommunist affidavits, and went on to "red-bait" Lewis' record as former head of the CIO. Lewis, he charged, had "made fellowship" with "stinking America-haters who love Moscow" and had been "a comrade to the comrades." Lewis pulled his union out of the AFL immediately after this convention. It was this attack that guaranteed Meany as Green's successor. "George 'elected himself' in San Francisco," commented Jay Lovestone, one of his key advisors. "Thereafter it was only a matter of time."

In the same year, Walter Reuther made his mark by "fighting communism" in the United Auto Workers (UAW). Reuther himself had been a left-wing activist for many years and an active member of the Socialist Party (until the late 1930s, when he switched to New Deal Democrats). He had played a key role in building the UAW and advancing the militant and socially conscious brand of unionism represented by the CIO. Labor journalist Len De Caux commented that "Walter was perceptive. He worked hard. He fought well. He deserved much credit—and he saw that he got it." Although Reuther once had been sympathetic to the "socialist experiment" in the USSR and on friendly terms with U.S. communists in the UAW, the combination of Stalinism and internal union politics, plus his own ambition, led to a shift.

Denouncing "the efforts of the Communist Party or any other outside groups or individual to interfere in the affairs of our union," Reuther aligned his campaign for UAW president with support for signing the noncommunist affidavits required by the Taft-Hartley Act. Trouncing the incumbents, he asserted as new UAW president that his union "understood that the alternative to a finish fight was communist control of our union." Not only did the dynamic, red-headed 40-year-old become a media celebrity, but he was catapulted into the central leadership of the CIO in time to play a leading role in the expulsion of "communist-led" unions from its ranks. A one-time supporter later complained that "UAW events moved swiftly toward a one-party state after Reuther's triumph in 1947," and another observed that Reuther had "fought under the banner of greater democracy for UAW members, and yet he became the instrument in the establishment of a tight restrictive union subject to the rule of one person." This was a growing trend throughout the CIO, however, and also characterized most AFL unions.

In 1948 a number of CIO unions openly opposed the reelection of U.S. President Harry Truman (supported by the CIO majority) and campaigned instead for Henry Wallace's left-liberal Progressive Party. In response, Philip Murray, who at first had sought to restrain Reuther's anticommunism, denounced "these so-called Left-Wingers" whose preference was "to be the satellites of Sovietism rather than to be loyal to their own country." Murray concluded, "There is no room in the CIO for communism." Eleven "left-wing" unions with a million members were kicked out. This was Reuther's line, and the UAW president came to be seen by many as Murray's obvious successor.

Death and Unity

The momentum of the CIO had visibly slowed by 1952, and the AFL, by that time twice the size of its once-dynamic challenger, was also stagnating. The success of the presidential campaign of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower was both a defeat of the Democratic Party and a blow to Murray and Green. For the first time in two decades, the party in power had no obligations to organized labor, and the two union federations' greater-than-ever dependence on the federal government left them especially vulnerable to the potential antilabor shift. This anxiety haunted both men as they passed away.

Murray's death helped to save the career of a rival of Reuther's, David J. McDonald of the United Steel Workers of America. Seen by many as a pretentious opportunist with a taste for high living, McDonald was slated for removal from his position as secretary-treasure of the union by an increasingly critical Murray, who had earlier appointed him. Instead, McDonald was able to take over the Steelworkers' union presidency and had designs on the presidency of the CIO. Reuther was elected to the CIO presidency (by a narrow margin in a contest with longtime CIO staffer Allan Haywood). An envious McDonald looked for ways to undermine his opponent's authority. "I didn't like Reuther, and I presume he felt the same way about me," he later asserted. (A less diplomatic comment of his referred to "that no good red-headed socialist bastard Reuther.") McDonald threatened to pull his union out of the CIO and used that threat as leverage to advance a rapid merger with the AFL.

Meany had no such difficulties when he took over the AFL presidency. His lack of "class struggle" credentials and his skills as a lobbyist and a tough-minded organization man blended well with the relative affluence and social conservatism that was then dominating the American scene. His fundamental outlook for the labor movement did not seem to differ substantially from Reuther's. That fact, plus the absence in either of an emotional stake for maintaining the division of CIO from AFL, contributed to the U.S. labor movement's rapid reunification.

Key Players

Green, William (1873-1952): An Ohio-born coal miner, Green rose through the ranks of the United Mine Workers of America to become its secretary-treasurer in 1913 and joined the AFL's executive council in the same year. In 1924 he succeeded Samuel Gompers as AFL president, a position Green held for the rest of his life.

Lewis, John L. (1880-1969): Born into a Welsh coal mining family in Iowa, Lewis worked in the mines and at other jobs until he became a full-time AFL organizer in 1910 and then secured employment as a statistician for the United Mine Workers of America in 1917. By 1919 he was UMW acting president, a position he would occupy on a permanent basis from 1920 to 1960, when he voluntarily retired. In 1935 he was centrally involved in the formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization inside the AFL, which led, after expulsion of its members, to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Lewis was CIO president in both incarnations, a position he relinquished in 1940. In 1942 he withdrew the UMW from the CIO, then brought it back into the AFL briefly in 1946-1947, after which he maintained it independent of any labor federation.

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. By 1922 he 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 a labor lobbyist influential in Democratic Party politics. In 1939 he became secretary-treasurer of the AFL and then took over the presidency of the federation in 1952. He played a central role in the merger of the AFL-CIO and served as its president from 1955 until 1979.

Murray, Philip (1886-1952): Born in Scotland, Murray came to the U.S. in 1902. He had been involved in mining and unions since the age of 16. An executive board member of the United Mine Workers of American beginning in 1912, he became a supporter of John L. Lewis in the 1920s and first vice president of the UMW during Lewis's presidency. When Lewis led the CIO, he made Murray the president of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee; Murray replaced Lewis as CIO president in 1940. When Murray broke with Lewis' policies, Murray was expelled as UMW vice president, but made his own distinctive mark as president of the CIO and the United Steel Workers of America.

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 its left wing in the late 1930s, he abandoned the Socialist Party to support the Democratic Party's New Deal coalition. A prominent anti-Communist in the 1940s, he helped break the left-wing influence in the UAW (of which he became president in 1947) and the CIO. Reuther served as CIO president from 1952 until the merger with the AFL, but remained UAW president until his untimely death.

See also: AFL, CIO Merge; American Federation of Labor; CIO Anticommunist Drive; Congress of Industrial Organizations.



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Congress of Industrial Organizations. Proceedings of 1949 Convention.

—Paul Le Blanc