William R. Green

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William R. Green

William R. Green (1872-1952) was president of the American Federation of Labor during the stormiest period in United States labor history.

William Green was born on March 3, 1872, in Coshocton, Ohio, the son of English immigrants. He wanted to become a Baptist minister, but economic circumstances compelled him to enter the local mines. Soon the labor movement became his ministry.

Green rose gradually through the hierarchy of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). He passed from president of subdistrict 6 to president of the Ohio district union in 1906 and 5 years later to UMWA statistician. In 1913 Green was elected UMWA secretary-treasurer and later that year a vice president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). He served two terms (1911-1915) in the Ohio Senate, where he sponsored the Workmen's Compensation Act.

Green maintained excellent relations with the barons of the American labor movement but could not command the respect of more obdurate labor leaders. Basically accommodating, he proved unable to discipline quarrelsome union officials or to negotiate with strong antilabor employers.

When Samuel Gompers, the tough and resourceful president of the AFL, died in 1924, Green replaced him. Taking over the AFL at a time when it was declining, Green watched it sink even lower during the late 1920s and the Great Depression.

Although President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal promised labor great organizing opportunities, Green failed to command enough support within the AFL to launch a vigorous membership campaign. Devoted to the concept of the AFL as a harmonious family that could amicably settle its internal conflicts, he allowed the craft unionists, who dominated the executive council, to drive the industrial unionists out of the organization. Green thus became a party to the civil war between the AFL and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) that raged unabated from 1936 to 1941. Always loyal to his original union, the UMWA, in 1937 he was suspended from it because John L. Lewis, UMWA president, was leader of the CIO.

President of the AFL for 28 years, Green continually backed down under pressure from powerful craft union leaders. On Nov. 21, 1952, he died of a heart attack.

Further Reading

No adequate biography of Green exists. However, Irving Bernstein's The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker, 1920-1933 (1960) and Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941 (1970) contain sympathetic and critical information about Green. Philip Taft, The A.F. of L. from the Death of Gompers to the Merger (1959), gives a dry, detailed history of the organization during Green's presidency. For the conflict with the CIO see Walter Galenson, The CIO Challenge to the AFL: A History of the American Labor Movement, 1935-1941 (1960).

Additional Sources

Phelan, Craig, William Green: biography of a labor leader, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989. □

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