Philip Murray (1886-1952), American labor leader, helped organize America's mass-production workers into industrial unions through the establishment of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Philip Murray, John L. Lewis, Sidney Hillman, and David Dubinsky built the American labor movement as it now functions. During the Great Depression and the New Deal of the 1930s, they brought trade unionism out of the doldrums and, through the creation of industrial unions, into a position of power whereby labor influenced big business and national politics.
Murray was born on May 25, 1886, in Lanarkshire, Scotland, to Irish immigrant parents. His father was a coal miner active in the Scottish trade union movement. When Philip entered the mines at the age of 10, he was already a novice trade unionist knowledgable about strikes. In 1902 the Murray family emigrated to America. They settled in the western Pennsylvania mining district of Westmoreland County, where they had relatives.
Early Union Career
Within 2 years Murray had become a union militant, leading a strike against the coal company for which he worked. As a result, the Murray family was evicted from a company house and Philip was banished from the county. From that moment he decided to devote his life to the labor movement.
Murray rose rapidly within the ranks of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). By 1912 he was a member of the international executive board, and in 1916 he won election as president of District 5, the powerful Pittsburgh bituminous region. In 1920 John L. Lewis, the UMWA president, appointed Murray vice-president.
Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, when the UMWA was racked with factionalism and suffered a sharp membership decline, Murray remained unshakably loyal to Lewis. Because Murray proved so knowledgable about the economics of coal and other major industries and because of his proven negotiating ability, when Lewis formed the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) in 1936 he appointed Murray chairman.
Ideas and Programs
By then Murray had firm ideas about the place of the labor movement in American society. Devout Catholicism and the family tradition of unionism combined to form his own vision of social justice. Unionism led him to espouse the workers' case against employers; Catholicism caused him to oppose all so-called revolutionary "isms" and, in accord with the papal encyclicals on labor-management relations, to see the employers' as well as the workers' rights in the industrial and social systems. He expounded these ideas in a book he coauthored with industrial engineer Morris Llewellyn Cooke, Organized Labor and Production. The book asserted that if employers recognized trade unions and engaged in productive collective bargaining, the result would be justice for the worker, harmonious industrial relations, security for private ownership of property, increased productivity, and higher profits and wages.
Congress of Industrial Organizations
As chairman of SWOC, Murray sought to put his ideas into action. Financed by Lewis and the UMWA, SWOC succeeded in February 1937 in winning a collective bargaining agreement from United States Steel and from many smaller companies. But later that year the "Little Steel companies" defeated SWOC in a brutal and bloody strike.
Murray's patience, warmth, and negotiating skills kept SWOC alive and vital until conditions once again favored union growth. When World War II erupted and America moved into defense and war production, Murray succeeded in 1942 in breaking down Little Steel's barriers to trade unionism. That same year he transformed SWOC into the United Steelworkers of America (USA) and became its first president.
As president, Murray demonstrated what he had learned as Lewis's loyal lieutenant. Other industrial unions that emerged during the 1930s had democratic union constitutions and rank-and-file participation, but the USA was controlled from the top down. At the 1942 founding convention Murray demanded and won a constitution that vested almost complete power in the leadership, meaning in this case Murray, who was also president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) as well as a vice president of the UMWA.
Relations with Lewis
Despite his debt to Lewis, Murray could not avert a break. When Lewis repudiated Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, Murray remained committed to the President and the New Deal. As a result, Lewis retired as president of the CIO and was replaced by Murray. Lewis called Murray before the UMWA executive board in 1942, charged him with disloyalty, and stripped him of his union vice presidency. Murray, however, retained his presidencies of the CIO and the USA until his death.
Always a moderate attuned to the climate of the times and eager to make the labor movement more respectable, Murray rode the tide of anticommunism after the war. At the 1949 CIO convention he declared that, while there was room within the organization for all varieties of thought, there was no room for communism. He then led the convention delegates to expel 11 allegedly Communist-dominated unions from the CIO. He died in San Francisco on Nov. 9, 1952.
There is no substantial biography of Murray. The best place to find information on him is in two long and detailed histories of labor by Irving Bernstein, The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker, 1920-1933 (1960) and The Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941 (1970). For Murray's part in the struggle for industrial unionism with the American Federation of Labor see the dry, objective account by Philip Taft, The A.F. of L. from the Death of Gompers to the Merger (1959). The best study of Murray's role in the SWOC and CIO organizing drives in the mass-production industries is Walter Galenson, The C.I.O. Challenge to the A.F. of L. (1960). □
Murray was born in Scotland, where he began mining coal at age ten. In 1902, he immigrated with his family to western Pennsylvania, where he followed in his father's footsteps to become a union activist. Murray was elected president of a United Mine Workers (UMW) local in 1904 and began a quick rise through the ranks to a district presidency in 1916, and to the vice presidency in 1920.
Over the ensuing two decades Murray worked closely with UMW president John L. Lewis. He became an effective adjunct to Lewis's flamboyant leadership by mastering the technical details of the coal industry, union organization, and government policy. Although a staunch fighter for union members' interests, as a devout Catholic, Murray rejected radical solutions to industrial conflict for the papal vision of cooperation between labor and management. His belief in the sanctity of contracts and his abilities as a conciliator earned the respect of employers while his honesty and tough negotiation skills secured his popularity among union members.
Murray believed that a strong union and government intervention in the coal market would be mutually beneficial to workers and mine owners. When the Great Depression hit he became an early advocate of national legislation to regulate the industry. His efforts bore fruit with the early New Deal when the UMW used section 7a of the National Industrial Recovery Act to regain its membership and Murray took a leading role in writing the coal code under the National Recovery Administration.
Murray was a key player in the creation and success of the CIO. His experience and close relationship with Lewis placed him at the head of the Steel Workers' Organizing Committee (SWOC), one of the CIO's major initiatives. By early 1937 the SWOC negotiated an agreement with industry giant U. S. Steel, but failed to do so in the rest of the industry. Murray's skilled leadership of SWOC and ability to work with the government finally organized these "little steel" companies in 1941. The next year he founded the USA with himself as president. Unlike many other CIO unions that were born of rank-and-file action, the USA was a more hierarchical and bureaucratic entity from the start. To a great degree this suited Murray's vision for a labor movement that had to survive in conflict with similarly organized large corporations.
Murray took the reigns of the CIO in 1940, after Lewis followed through on a promise to resign the CIO presidency if Franklin Roosevelt won a third term. In this position he maintained his ties to the administration and succeeded in stabilizing the organization and seeing to its growth during the war years and successful institutionalization thereafter. Worried that early Cold War-era attacks on the CIO's left-led unions would compromise the organization, Murray expelled eleven tainted organizations in 1949. He remained in charge of the CIO until his death in 1952.
See Also: COLLECTIVE BARGAINING; CONGRESS OF INDUSTRIAL ORGANIZATIONS (CIO); NATIONAL INDUSTRIAL RECOVERY ACT (NIRA); NATIONAL RECOVERY ADMINISTRATION (NRA); STEEL WORKERS' ORGANIZING COMMITTEE (SWOC); UNITED MINE WORKERS OF AMERICA (UMWA).
Bernstein, Irving. The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker, 1920–1933. 1960.
Bernstein, Irving. Turbulent Years: History of the AmericanWorker, 1933–1941. 1970.
Zieger, Robert H. The CIO, 1935–1955. 1995.
Andrew A. Workman