American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations

views updated May 14 2018


AMERICAN FEDERATION OF LABOR–CONGRESS OF INDUSTRIAL ORGANIZATIONS (AFL-CIO) is the product of a 1955 merger between the two labor federations that represented most trade unions in the United States. The AFL-CIO is not itself a union. Rather, it is an umbrella organization with which some eighty-five national unions affiliate. It rarely bargains with an employer, organizes a worker demonstration, or calls a strike. But it nevertheless constitutes the institutional voice of the labor movement, adjudicating disputes between affiliated unions, coordinating electoral and lobby activities at both the national and state levels, assisting the organizing work of constituent unions, and representing American labor abroad. Appropriately, the AFL-CIO maintains a large headquarters in Washington, D.C., across Lafayette Park from the White House.

The American Federation of Labor

The parent of the AFL-CIO was the American Federation of Labor, founded in 1886. The AFL long considered itself the authentic "house of labor" to which all workers and unions should adhere. Each affiliate therefore would have an "exclusive jurisdiction" within which to organize a given trade or occupation. Under Samuel Gompers, who led the union federation during its formative era (1886–1894, 1896–1924), the AFL developed into the most politically and organizationally conservative trade union center in the industrial world. Gompers and many of his associates had been schooled in the Marxist tradition, and from it Gompers took a firm commitment to working-class, that is, trade union, autonomy; a hostility to middle-class social reform movements; and a fear of the state. The latter was justifiably reinforced by the exceptional hostility of the courts and corporations to strikes, social legislation, and trade unionism in the sixty years that followed the great railroad strike of 1877.

Gompers and most other officers therefore characterized AFL practices as favoring "voluntarism" or "pure and simple unionism." In practice, this meant hostility to socialists, indifference or outright opposition to social reform, and a commitment to an organization largely representing skilled, male craftsmen. AFL affiliates, especially those of seamen, brewers, miners, and metal workers, could be exceptionally militant, but insularity and parochialism proved dominant strands. Although the United Mine Workers (UMW) and the International Longshoremen's Association represented thousands of African Americans, many in the AFL leadership thought of blacks, Mexicans, Asians, and other immigrants as a vast lumpen proletariat, dangerous and unorganizable.

With its membership concentrated in the building trades, on the railroads, in the mines, and in the garment shops, the AFL grew steadily in the years before World War I. Most AFL leaders cooperated with Woodrow Wilson's administration in World War I. The support, bitterly opposed by socialists and by some of Irish or German extraction, seemed to pay off as union membership soared to 5 million. For the first time, AFL affiliates, like the Machinists and the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, organized large numbers of immigrant industrial workers. But disaster soon followed. When the Wilson administration abandoned its wartime effort to advance a cooperative "industrial democracy," the corporations sought to enforce a nonunion "open shop" once again. Millions of workers therefore participated in the 1919 strike wave, the largest in the nation's history. The strikes ended in defeat, disorganization, and substantial membership losses. By the time the Great Depression struck, AFL affiliates enrolled only 3 million workers.

Most AFL leaders were not prepared to take advantage of the labor law reforms enacted during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. Although President William Green (1924–1952) had been a leader of the UMW, a union organized along inclusive, "industrial" lines, he sided with the craft unionists in the AFL hierarchy who insisted that skill-based union jurisdictions must remain inviolate. This put the AFL in opposition to the New Deal's National Labor Relations Board, which initially favored industrial unions and companywide collective bargaining. Moreover, craft unionism seemed dysfunctional to the effort to organize the great mass-production industries of that era, steel, automobiles, rubber, and electrical products, where semiskilled labor was predominant.

The Congress of Industrial Organizations

Late in 1935, under the leadership of John L. Lewis of the UMW and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, dissidents in the AFL founded the Committee for Industrial Organization, which in 1938 became the fully independent Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) after dramatic organizing victories in steel, automobiles, and rubber. Under the presidencies of Lewis (1938–1940) and Philip Murray (1940–1952), the CIO pushed the entire trade union movement to the left and gave American politics something of a social democratic flavor. In contrast with the AFL, the CIO sought to organize factories, mills, and offices, where men and women from European immigrant, Appalachian white, or southern African American backgrounds were plentiful. Socialists and communists were initially welcomed as organizers and union spark-plugs. The radicals Walter Reuther, Harry Bridges, and Mike Quill quickly rose to top posts in the auto workers, longshoremen, and New York transport workers unions. The CIO linked its fortunes closely to the Democrats, especially the New Dealers, who became a more identifiable, labor-liberal faction after 1938. Unlike the Gompers-era leaders of the AFL, CIO leaders fought for social legislation of the most comprehensive sort.

Although the CIO was a more dynamic and in its first decade a more politically potent federation than its rival, the AFL remained the largest union group. By the time of the 1955 merger, the AFL enrolled about 8 million workers, 3 million more than the CIO. AFL growth was a product of the 1935 Wagner Act, which made organizing easier; employer preference for unions thought to be less radical or disruptive than those in the CIO; and the postwar boom in trucking, utilities, construction, and retail sales, where AFL unions predominated.

The Merger

The AFL-CIO merger was made possible by a political and organizational alignment of the two federations that began with World War II. Both union groups offered the government a no-strike pledge, and both participated on the War Labor Board that set wages and pushed forward a system of grievance arbitration inside many war plants. The AFL now supported Democrats almost as much as the CIO did. And both groups were frightened by a postwar shift in the political wind, most notably the 1946 failure to unionize the southern textile industry (Operation Dixie); passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which made organizing more difficult; and the 1952 election of Dwight Eisenhower, the first Republican to occupy the White House in twenty years. Equally important, the CIO expelled or defeated its sizable communist wing, so both federations now supported U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. The CIO withdrew from the World Federation of Trade Unions, in which Soviet bloc "unions" participated, and in 1949 joined with the AFL in founding the anticommunist International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).

AFL president George Meany, whose union roots lay in the New York building trades, took the top post in the merged organization, while Reuther, who had served as president of the CIO (1952–1955), became head of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Department. The new AFLCIO eliminated much of the jurisdictional warfare that had irritated the public and marred union politics for more than a generation. It expelled the huge International Brotherhood of Teamsters when a high profile congressional investigation revealed an embarrassing pattern of corruption among top Teamsters officials. And the AFL-CIO developed a powerful and well-focused voter-mobilization apparatus, which backstopped Democratic victories in 1958, 1960, and 1964, and which in 1968 almost turned the tide for the Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey.

But the AFL-CIO was a "sleepy monopoly," to use a phrase coined by the New York Times labor reporter A. H. Raskin. Union resources devoted to organizing new workers declined steadily in the 1950s and 1960s. The surge in public employee unionism that began in the 1960s was offset by an erosion of labor's strength in manufacturing and construction. Although some unionists, notably Reuther of the United Automobile Workers (UAW), wanted the AFL-CIO to play a more active role, complacency characterized the outlook of many on the federation's executive board. Thus, AFL-CIO membership hovered at about 13 million during the entire second half of the twentieth century, even as union density shrank from 33 percent of all wage earners in 1953 to about 14 percent at the beginning of the twenty-first century. "Why should we worry about organizing groups of people who do not want to be organized?" Meany told an interviewer in 1972.

Domestic Affairs

In domestic politics the AFL-CIO moved from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party in the mid–1950s to the center-right in the years after 1968. On issues of fiscal policy and New Deal–style social regulation, the AFLCIO remained steadfastly liberal. It favored social spending on jobs, infrastructure, and education as well as Keynesian-inspired deficits during the series of sharp recessions that began in the late 1950s and extended through the early 1990s. Rejecting the "voluntarism" of the Gompers era, the AFL-CIO lobbied for a higher minimum wage, more plentiful unemployment insurance, generous welfare and old-age retirement benefits, health and safety regulations at work, and a national system of health insurance. Because many industrial unions had negotiated health care benefits under their collective bargaining contracts, the AFL-CIO concentrated its efforts on winning health provisions for retirees and the indigent, enacted as Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.

The AFL-CIO attitude toward racial discrimination and the civil rights movement proved far more equivocal. As the civil rights movement reached a climax early in the 1960s, thousands of union locals still discriminated against African Americans, Hispanics, and women whose skin was black, white, or brown. AFL-CIO leaders wanted to abolish the most overt forms of such discrimination but without a radical transformation of union politics, personnel, or bargaining relationships. During the 1950s, the AFLCIO therefore defended union officials in the South who fought segregation and other forms of de jure discrimination. The AFL-CIO lobbied for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, in particular Title VII, which forbade the most egregious forms of employment discrimination.

But the AFL-CIO was wary of the civil rights movement itself, as it was of any popular mobilization that out-flanked it on the left. The federation did not officially endorse the 1963 March on Washington, although several individual unions provided logistical support and thousands of union participants. By the late 1960s, when it became clear that patterns of workplace discrimination, many embedded within union seniority and apprentice systems, could not be eliminated without some form of "affirmative action," the AFL-CIO threw its weight against most efforts to establish hiring and promotion quotas or to strengthen the new Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After the divisive 1968 New York City teachers strike, which put the interests of a heavily Jewish teaching corps against that of African American community control advocates, AFL-CIO political culture acquired a definite neoconservative flavor.

Foreign Affairs

The AFL-CIO played an even more conservative role in foreign affairs, where federation policy was long controlled by a small coterie that aligned labor's outlook with that of the most inflexible Cold Warriors. Aside from Meany, the key architects of AFL-CIO foreign policy included David Dubinsky, a former socialist who had fought the communists to near extinction in the New York needle trades; Jay Lovestone, once a secretary of the American Communist Party but after 1938 an anticommunist ideologue of highly sectarian views; and Lane Kirkland, a Meany aide who succeeded him in the AFL-CIO presidency (1979–1995).

In the ICFTU, the growing influence of European and Asian social democrats, who sought some sort of détente with the communist bloc, induced AFL-CIO leaders to sharply downplay their participation in such transnational labor bodies, including the Geneva-based International Labor Organization. Instead, the AFL-CIO set up its own network of government-funded "free labor" institutes in the 1960s. The Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. State Department had a working relation-ship with Lovestone, who was in charge of the AFL-CIO International Affairs Department from 1955 to 1974. In Africa, Latin America, and Asia, the AFL-CIO sought to build anticommunist unions aligned with U.S. foreign policy interests. The AFL-CIO was particularly active in Brazil, Guyana, Kenya, South Africa, the Philippines, and South Korea. In South Vietnam, the AFL-CIO, working closely with the U.S. mission, built an anticommunist labor movement, and in El Salvador it attempted to organize unions that supported the military's war against left-wing insurgents. The AFL-CIO considered communist bloc trade unions mere government-controlled fronts. Thus, when the genuinely independent union federation known as Solidarity burst forward on the Polish political scene in 1980, the AFL-CIO offered much moral and material aid.

The AFL-CIO staunchly backed U.S. policy throughout the Vietnam War. Dovish unionists had no impact on AFL-CIO policy, a circumstance that helped precipitate UAW withdrawal from the federation in 1968. Throughout the 1970s, the AFL-CIO backed the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party identified with the leadership of Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson and fought the liberal, profeminist, multiracial "new politics" forces within the party. During the 1972 presidential campaign, Meany enforced a pro-Nixon neutrality on the AFL-CIO because he considered the Democratic candidate, Senator George McGovern, a man who "advocates surrender." In 1976, Lane Kirkland cofounded the Committee on the Present Danger, which advocated a new arms buildup and an aggressive posture toward both the Soviet Union and the Euro-American nuclear disarmament movement.

Refocusing the Federation

When Kirkland assumed leadership of the AFL-CIO in 1979, the federation faced a crisis. Economically, it was reeling from the rust belt recessions of the 1970s, which slashed membership in the construction trades and manufacturing. Politically, the AFL-CIO soon confronted a Republican administration that was the most overtly antiunion administration in half a century. After President Ronald Reagan broke a strike of federal air traffic controllers in the summer of 1981 (see Air Traffic Controllers Strike), many in management adopted a much tougher line against AFL-CIO affiliates, demanding wage concessions, fighting union organization, and seeking cutbacks in pensions and health benefits.

AFL-CIO steps to confront this crisis were modest. For the first time in its history, the federation actually sponsored a mass demonstration, Solidarity Day, that brought hundreds of thousands of unionists to the Washington Mall in September 1981. Kirkland even called out the troops a second time, albeit a full decade later. The AFL-CIO established a study commission whose report, "The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions," realistically assessed the failure of the nation's labor laws, the potency of employer opposition, and the fragmentary nature of union power. The AFL-CIO also downplayed its war with the "new politics" forces inside the Democratic Party and mobilized effectively if futilely on behalf of Democratic presidential candidates in 1984 and 1988.

If the AFL-CIO could do little to stem the antilabor tide, Kirkland did manage the union retreat with a certain organizational tidiness. By the early 1990s, the AFL-CIO was once again an inclusive "house of labor." Although the National Education Association remained independent, the UAW rejoined the AFL-CIO in 1981 after a thirteen-year absence. The UMW, isolated even before the merger, joined under a new reform leadership, and the Teamsters again began paying dues in the late 1980s, albeit in a vain effort to win some institutional shelter against the government's racketeering probe of the union's corrupt top leadership. An important element of this AFL-CIO regrouping encouraged union mergers designed to streamline the leadership apparatus, avoid costly jurisdictional disputes, and generate a sufficient flow of dues to service the membership and organize new workers. By the end of the twentieth century, the AFL-CIO had one-third fewer affiliates than in 1955.

Kirkland and most of his backers believed that the revitalization of the labor movement depended on political and legal forces largely outside AFL-CIO control. His leadership therefore was plunged into crisis late in 1994, when conservative Republicans swept to power in the House of Representatives, sealing the fate of initiatives backed by the AFL-CIO that would have facilitated both organizing and collective bargaining. The most important element of this debacle was the collapse of the Bill Clinton administration's health care plan, whose enactment would have lifted from the bargaining table many of the health benefit conflicts that had generated strikes in the late 1980s. The AFL-CIO also saw a labor law reform commission chaired by the former secretary of labor John Dunlop end in stalemate, and the federation failed to win enactment of a law prohibiting the "striker replacements" that management deployed with increasing frequency to break strikes.

Although no incumbent president of the AFL, the CIO, or the AFL-CIO had been ousted from power in a century, an insurgent faction led by John Sweeney of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) forced Kirkland to resign in 1995 and then handily defeated the election of his heir apparent, Tom Donahue. Like Lewis, who had challenged the AFL hierarchs sixty years before, Sweeney was not a radical. He was a middle-aged Irish Catholic from the Bronx, New York, who sought to forge a social compact with the corporations and the state. Thus, he helped torpedo AFL-CIO adherence to single-payer health insurance and backed the Clinton plan, which favored employer mandates. The SEIU was not a model of internal union democracy. Many of its older, urban affiliates, like New York City's big hotel and apartment house Local 32B–32J, were classic fiefdoms ruled in an autocratic fashion.

But Sweeney represented a wing of the trade union leadership, largely composed of the old industrial unions and those institutions organizing service and government workers, whose most clear-sighted elements had come to understand that labor's capacity to actually make a social contract required that the unions once again demonstrate their willingness to play a disruptive, insurgent role in society. The SEIU had grown to more than a million members because it poured a quarter of all dues income into organizing (5 percent was the union norm). Consequently, the union deployed hundreds of organizers, who used direct action and communitywide mobilizations to unionize janitors, health care workers, and private sector clericals.

The agenda of the Sweenyite AFL-CIO leadership was not far different from that of those who revived the labor movement in the 1930s: open the door to students and radicals, welcome the new immigrants, carve out a distinctive political presence somewhat independent of the Democrats, and above all "organize the unorganized." Some skeptics labeled the Sweenyite strategy "bureaucratic militancy," but whatever its limitations, it was a clear step to the left. For the first time in two generations, America's top trade union leadership stood, in fact and in imagination, on the progressive side of the nation's political culture.

The new AFL-CIO executive board finally expanded to include a substantial number of women and people of color. And the AFL-CIO staff was marbled with New Left veterans long frozen out of responsible posts by the Cold War culture that had lingered within the AFL-CIO even after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Thus, the AFL-CIO endorsed demonstrations seeking to make the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund democratically accountable, and it encouraged a sometimes disruptive student movement that fought against sweat-shop labor abroad and in favor of living wages at home. By the start of the twenty-first century, the new AFL-CIO leadership had been unable to make the organizational breakthrough it so desperately sought, but the labor federation was a more politically potent force both within the liberal community and in the electoral arena.


Buhle, Paul. Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999.

Carew, Anthony. "The American Labor Movement in Fizzland: The Free Trade Union Committee and the CIA." Labor History 39 (February 1998): 25–42.

Dark, Taylor E. The Unions and the Democrats: An Enduring Alliance. Ithaca, N.Y.: IRL Press, 1999.

Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Warren Van Tine. John L. Lewis: A Biography. New York: Quadrangle Books, 1977.

Gall, Gilbert J. The Politics of Right to Work: The Labor Federations as Special Interests, 1943–1979. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.

Gottschalk, Marie. The Shadow Welfare State: Labor, Business, and the Politics of Health Care in the United States. Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 2000.

Goulden, Joseph C. Meany. New York: Atheneum, 1972.

Greene, Julie. Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881–1917. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Kaufman, Stuart Bruce. Samuel Gompers and the Origins of the American Federation of Labor, 1848–1896. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973.

Lichtenstein, Nelson. State of the Union: A Century of American Labor. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

McCartin, Joseph A. Labor's Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modern American Labor Relations, 1912–1921. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Phelan, Craig. William Green: A Biography of a Labor Leader. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

Tomlins, Christopher L. The State and the Unions: Labor Relations, Law, and the Organized Labor Movement in America, 1880–1960. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Zieger, Robert H. The CIO, 1935–1955. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.


See alsoLabor ; Labor Legislation and Administration ; Strikes ; Trade Unions ; andvol. 9:Ford Men Beat and Rout Lewis .

Congress of Industrial Organizations

views updated Jun 08 2018

Congress of Industrial Organizations

United States 1938


Formed in 1935 as a group within the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the Committee for Organization (CIO) clashed with its parent organization for the next several years. The leaders of the CIO felt that the organization must begin to recognize the masses of unskilled workers in large industries such as steelmaking and automobile manufacturing, whereas the AFL remained committed to its craft unionism approach, in which only skilled workers were organized. These ideological differences gradually were accompanied by a power struggle between leaders of the two groups. The AFL leadership finally expelled the CIO and its member unions in 1937, opening the way for the CIO to create its own federation. At a constitutional convention held in Pittsburgh from 14 to 18 November 1938, the CIO changed its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations and took its place as a significant national labor federation.


  • 1922: Published this year James Joyce's novel Ulysses and T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land will transform literature and inaugurate the era of modernism.
  • 1927: American inventor Philo T. Farnsworth demonstrates a working model of the television, and Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaître proposes the Big Bang Theory.
  • 1932: In German elections, Nazis gain a 37 percent plurality of Reichstag seats, raising tensions between the far right and the far left. On a "bloody Sunday" in July, communists in Hamburg attack Nazis with guns, and a fierce battle ensues.
  • 1937: Italy signs the Anti-Comintern Pact, signed by Germany and Japan the preceding year. Like the two others before it, Italy now withdraws from the League of Nations.
  • 1937: Japan attacks China and annexes most of that nation's coastal areas.
  • 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.
  • 1937: In the middle of an around-the-world flight, Amelia Earhart and her plane disappear somewhere in the Pacific.
  • 1937: Crash of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, New Jersey, kills 36 and ends the brief era when rigid airships promised to be the ocean liners of the skies.
  • 1937: Pablo Picasso paints his famous Guernica mural dramatizing the Nationalist bombing of a town in Spain. Thanks to artists and intellectuals such as Picasso and Ernest Hemingway, the Loyalists are winning the battle of hearts and minds, even if they are weaker militarily, and idealistic young men flock from America to join the "Abraham Lincoln Brigade." Yet as George Orwell later reveals in Homage to Catalonia, the lines between good and evil are not clear: with its Soviet backing, the Loyalist cause serves as proxy for a totalitarianism every bit as frightening as that of the Nationalists and their German and Italian supporters.
  • 1942: Axis conquests reach their height in the middle of this year. The Nazis control a vast region from Normandy to the suburbs of Stalingrad, and from the Arctic Circle to the edges of the Sahara. To the east, the Japanese "Co-Prosperity Sphere" encompasses territories from China to Burma to the East Indies, stretching deep into the western Pacific.
  • 1947: The Marshall Plan is established to assist European nations in recovering from the war.
  • 1952: Among the cultural landmarks of the year are the film High Noon and the book The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

Event and Its Context

Background of the AFL-CIO Split

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) had been butting heads with the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) since the formation of the latter in 1935. The CIO was founded as a result of the AFL's failure to organize unskilled workers. Prominent members of AFL member unions, particularly John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW), thought the time was right to organize under the banner of industrial unionism. This prompted the committee's founding members and its staff to act with an underlying urgency. With the creation of the CIO, national union membership was no longer restricted to skilled tradesmen or craftsmen. The CIO accepted unskilled workers; furthermore, it assisted in organizing among marginalized groups, specifically new immigrants, African Americans, and women. Union prohibitions against admitting members of these groups were otherwise conventional. "The CIO was clearly the most rigorous, expansive, and inclusive force that the mainstream labor movement had produced in over fifty years," wrote Robert H. Zieger.

The AFL executives, according to Walter Galenson, saw the CIO as "a challenge to the supremacy of the American Federation of Labor." Despite this perceived threat, AFL leaders, including William Green, the organization's president, 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.

By the fall of 1936, 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 that committee [CIO] is dissolved." The executives took the challenge.

Unions Rebuked, then Revoked

Attempts to negotiate a truce between the factions were short-lived. All the CIO unions were expelled from the AFL in March 1937 for "betraying the union cause." CIO founding members Charles Howard and David Dubinksy had hoped for reconciliation with the AFL. Each group wanted to be dominant in the event of a merger. "The issue was no longer, if it ever had been in reality, industrial unionism versus craft unions. It was a contest for power," wrote Rhea Dulles Foster and Melvyn Dubofsky. "The welfare of labor as a whole was sacrificed to the rivalries of stubborn self-willed ambition."

The AFL executive council formally revoked the charters of the UMW; the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers; and the Federation of Flat Glass Workers in January 1938. That April, the charters of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA); the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tinworkers; the United Textile Workers; the United Automobile Workers (UAW); the United Rubber Workers; and the Oil Field Workers were revoked by the AFL. The International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) charter was not.

In its first two years, the CIO had made marked achievements in organizing. It had decided in 1937 to abandon what were considered militant actions, such as sit-down strikes. Instead, its leaders began to rely on legislation from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to gain new contracts. Also, late that same year, Lewis reorganized the union executive office. Many of his family members were given key roles within the union administration. This obviously gave more credence to the statement, "John L. Lewis is the CIO." But he was losing interest in the organization he had helped create and was actually spending more time on UMW activities.

The CIO was moving toward the creation of a new labor federation, thanks to its rift with the AFL. The leaders of the ILGWU were upset. They pointed to promises made by the CIO to "seek every means … to compose the rift in the ranks of organized labor." The ILGWU was also concerned about how effectively it could organize in smaller communities, particularly in nonindustrial areas.

In May 1938 the CIO became an independent union. Lewis was reportedly the only founding member unconcerned about this split with the AFL; rather, he saw it as a chance for the unions and their members to chart their own destinies. Two of the founding unions—the ILGWU and the Cap and Millinery Workers—decided to remain with the AFL, which stepped up organizing drives, asserting to workers that it was a conservative alternative to the radical CIO.

The Specter of Communism Provokes an AFL Witch Hunt

John P. Frey, president of the AFL metal trades department, and other AFL members repeatedly rejected attempts to broker a peace with the CIO by making allegations of communists operating within the CIO. The charges were accurate. Communists and sympathizers were indeed active in unions, including the Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers; the Maritime Union; and the Woodworkers of America. Some rose to top positions within the CIO. Lewis said he could ignore people's politics in exchange for their help in promoting industrial unionism.

Paul W. Ward, writing in the Nation, described Frey as the "chief backbiter of the American labor movement," keen on "sabotaging the very unions [he] is supposed to lead." Ward painted Frey as an overwrought fraud, characterizing his speeches before AFL conventions as filled with "vast venom and a stupefying array of irrelevancies. It took hours for Frey to get to the point."

But Frey was persistent and passionate in his diatribes against the CIO. He also testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, beginning on 13 August 1938. He listed 280 people—all organizers in CIO-affiliated unions—who were members of the Communist Party, thus perpetuating his contention that the CIO was essentially a communist front. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was incensed that the committee proceedings had turned into little more than Frey's denouncement of the CIO. He demanded Frey's testimony be ended. "There is no menace here in Communism. The great menace in this country is in Nazism and fascism," Roosevelt purportedly said. "The AFL is tory and reactionary, but John L. Lewis is the most progressive, liberal labor leader I've known in my life."

These debates attempted to turn public sentiment against the CIO, regardless of the president's opinion. Publications such as the conservative News Letter and Wasp, circulating in San Francisco (ca. 19 August 1938), openly said the union's communist ties, no matter how loose, would bring about an end to the CIO. "Americanism will hold sway from now on, due to the co-operation with the A.F.L., of the American Legion and the Americans who have had the courage to fight on in the face of repeated set backs."

Lewis pressed forward with his plan to bring industrial unionism to every worker regardless of how political or popular opinion might cast shadows on his intentions. He remained focused on the single goal of unionizing the nation.

More Unions Affiliate with the CIO

The timing of the break with the AFL was not auspicious. The country was still in a recession and on the brink of a war in Europe. But several unions, many fairly new, did choose to affiliate with the CIO. These included the National Maritime Union; the United Electrical and Radio Workers of America; the American Newspaper Guild; the Transport Workers of America; and the International Woodworkers of America. These unions often faced competition from AFL members unions such as the International Brotherhood of Carpenters, in the case of the woodworkers. Workers in specific niches within industries gravitated to one or the other union.

The CIO held its constitutional convention on 14 November 1938 at Pittsburgh's Islam Grotto. Lee Pressman, an attorney, drafted the constitution. The dues structure decided upon helped the young organization greatly. The CIO charged 5 cents per capita dues. This enabled the creation of an active central organization and, in turn, more resources to use for organization. Lewis was elected president of the new CIO. Philip Murray and Sidney Hillman were elected vice presidents, and James B. Carey was elected secretary.

Union Dues Bring Union Blues

At the time of the convention, the CIO was in poor health, thanks largely to the recession. Dues were not being paid. Employers were still balking at union activity. Organizing in industries such as steel and textiles had slowed appreciably. The UMW remained the CIO's most solvent and stable member union CIO. Of its 4 million members, the CIO collected dues from just a third. The UMW not only paid most of the dues it did collect, it also footed the bill for the CIO staff at $30,000 per month. Overall, it was estimated to be responsible for 43 percent of the CIO funding—83.4 percent between 1936 and 1937—and the CIO also owed the UMW $1.2 million in loans. The ACWA was the other major financial contributor, followed by the ILGWU, which also loaned $100,000 to the union. With the departure of the ILGWU in late 1938, gone, too, was 12.5 percent of the CIO membership. The other stable income source was subscriptions to various CIO publications. Overall, the union was not fiscally healthy.

The union's finances were further complicated by the absence of a budget or cohesive spending plan. Lewis and the UMW controlled the budget; thus, they also dictated the CIO agenda. This led to problems such as ineffective expenditures—for example, drives to organize small groups of workers, such as communications and technical workers. The net to the CIO, in terms of both membership and finances, was negligible.

Additional problems resulted from power struggles within unions, notably the young UAW. Between 1937 and 1940, the UAW split, thanks to personal and ideological differences. Because the union could potentially bring more than a million members into the CIO fold, Lewis and the CIO executives decided to become involved in that specific union's political turmoil. By 1939 two separate UAWs existed: one affiliated with the AFL, the other connected to the CIO. Still, the squabbling continued.

Despite harsh criticism from the AFL, the CIO continued to grow. Its membership passed 2.65 million by 1940. Although CIO members were vocal and dynamic, their numbers would never surpass those of the AFL. Nonetheless, by the time of its 1955 merger with the AFL, the CIO counted five million members.

The AFL experienced a renaissance at the end of the depression. Workers perceived this more established organization as a moderate alternative to the CIO. Unions, including the Teamsters, Machinists, and Carpenters unions, allied with the AFL as a result. The AFL had also softened its hard-line stance on organizing unskilled laborers. Some locals went so far as to adjust membership criteria; most notable among these was the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Unionization in the service industries, such as the hotel and restaurant industries, swelled the AFL ranks even more. AFL membership was about five million by 1940.

Key Players

Carey, James Barron (1911-1973): Born in Philadelphia, Carey worked for the Philco Radio Corporation and Philadelphia Storage Battery Company, where he became involved in unionism. He was president of both the Radio and Allied Trades National Labor Council (1933-1940) and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (1936-1941). He served as the CIO secretary from 1938 until 1973 and as its secretary and treasurer from 1942 to 1973. He was also involved with the AFL-CIO after the unions merged in 1955.

Dubinsky, David (1892-1982): Dubinsky is best known for his lengthy tenure as president of the ILGWU. He 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.

Frey, John Philip (1871-1957): Born in Mankato, Minnesota, Frey was a teenager when he began working, first in a lumber camp, then as a grocery clerk. He became an apprentice iron molder in 1888. He joined the International Molders and Foundry Workers Union in 1893 and quickly ascended to union leadership roles. He became involved in AFL activities beginning in 1909. He was named head of the AFL metal trades department in 1927 and maintained this post until his retirement in 1950. Vocally opposed to industrial unionism, he orchestrated the suspension of all CIO unions from the federation and lobbied against the CIO.

Green, William (1873-1952): Green was vocal in his opposition to the CIO, which was formed while he was president of the AFL—the second since its founding (he succeeded Samuel Gompers). Despite his position, he was not a part of the union's inner circle, as were individuals such as William Hutcheson and Daniel Tobin.

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

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 is said to have read those works in addition to classics such as the Odyssey and theIliad and such authors as Oswald Spengler, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels as he crossed the country, organizing workers. 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 of 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 organized labor.

See also: American Federation of Labor; AFL, CIO Merge; CIO Expelled from AFL; Committee for Industrial Organization; United Automobile Workers; Wagner Act.



Bird, Stewart, Dan Georgakas, and Deborah Shaffer. Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW. Chicago: Lake View Press, 1985.

Craft, Donna, and Terrance W. Peck, eds. Profiles of American Labor Unions. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.

De Caux, Len. Labor Radical: From the Wobblies to CIO, A Personal History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1970.

Dubinsky, David, and A. Raskin. David Dubinsky: A Life with Labor. Simon and Schuster, 1977.

Dubovsky, Melvyn, and Warren Van Tine. John L. Lewis: A Biography. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Finley, Joseph E. The Corrupt Kingdom: The Rise and Fall of the United Mine Workers. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Foner, Eric, and John A. Garraty, eds. The Reader's Companion to American History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Foner, Philip S. History of the Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 2. New York: International Publishers, 1955.

——. Women and the American Labor Movement: From World War I to the Present. New York: Free Press, 1980.

Foner, Philip S., and Ronald L. Lewis, eds. Black Workers: A Documentary History from Colonial Times to the Present. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Foster, Rhea Dulles, and Melvyn Dubofsky. Labor in America, 2nd ed. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1960.

Fraser, Steven. Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor. New York: Free Press, 1991.

Galenson, Walter. The CIO Challenge to the AFL: A History of the American Labor Movement, 1935-1941. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Murolo, Priscilla, and A. B. Chitty. From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: A Short Illustrated History of Labor in the United States. New York: New Press, 2001.

Murray, R. Emmet. The Lexicon of Labor. New York: New Press, 1998.

Selvin, David F. The Thundering Voice of John L. Lewis. New York: Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard, 1969.

Taft, Philip. Organized Labor in American History. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.

Zieger, Robert H. The CIO, 1935-1955. Chapel Hill:University of North Carolina Press, 1995.


Ward, Paul W. "Presenting John P. Frey." Nation 144, no. 7(13 February 1937): 176-177.

Additional Resources

Le Blanc, Paul. "Congress of Industrial Organizations:Constitutional Convention" (22 January 2003). <>.

—Linda Dailey Paulson

Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)

views updated May 18 2018


Dismal working conditions for millions of American industrial laborers inspired the creation of the CIO. Originally called the Committee for Industrial Organization, the CIO began in November 1935 as a reformist movement within the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which had traditionally focused on organizing skilled workers, such as electricians and carpenters, into their own trade unions. The AFL had made only halfhearted efforts to organize the millions of workers in such basic industries as steel, automobiles, rubber, and meatpacking. These industrial workers had almost universal complaints about the general climate of job insecurity during the Great Depression, the lack of any meaningful input concerning their working conditions, and the arbitrary power of their foremen to hire, fire, and transfer. For most workers, having so little control over their lives proved to be humiliating and degrading. Anyone who was fortunate enough to work at an industrial job during the Depression had to accept long hours and the increasingly fast pace of the machinery. The combination proved to be exhausting, and often dangerous. If workers spoke up or complained, they risked losing their jobs, with no recourse.


The CIO sought to change the balance of power in American factories. Three presidents of existing AFL unions—John L. Lewis of the United Mine-workers (UMW), David Dubinsky of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers—pushed hardest for the creation of the CIO and offered resources from their union treasuries to support the cause. Lewis's UMW had a direct interest in organizing the steel industry, because large steel companies owned a significant percentage of the nation's coal mines. Dubinsky and Hillman saw potential in linking the fortunes of industrial workers, through the CIO, with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. All early CIO leaders feared that unrest among American workers, if not harnessed in positive ways, could be channeled into potential Communist or fascist movements.

Industrial workers had made their discontent obvious after the passage in 1933 of Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act, which was designed primarily to allow businesses to regulate themselves out of the Great Depression, but which also contained a clause (section 7a) that guaranteed American workers the right to organize into unions without interference from their employers. Throughout 1934, hundreds of thousands of laborers, across industries and across regions, went on strike to claim their legal right to join unions, many of which were affiliates of the AFL. In most cases, however, employers ignored the law and fought hard, often violently, against their employees. Many leading union supporters lost their jobs, while the federal government did nothing to prevent or punish these blatant violations of the National Industrial Recovery Act. The prospects for widespread gains for organized labor fizzled with the 1934 organizing defeats. But what would become of the unrest that prompted the uprisings? Lewis, Dubinsky, and Hillman hoped that it could be funneled into effective industrial unions within the AFL, making organized labor a significant national political force. The AFL's leadership, however, did not share this vision, and very shortly after its creation the CIO began to operate, for all practical purposes, as an independent labor organization.


Two months after the Supreme Court declared the National Industrial Recovery Act unconstitutional in May 1935, President Roosevelt signed theNational Labor Relations Act—also known as the Wagner Act, after its chief sponsor, Senator Robert Wagner from New York—which once again guaranteed American workers the right to join unions without employer opposition. Workers were understandably wary. Likewise, while CIO officials appreciated the symbolic importance of the bill, they had no illusions that business owners would obey it. CIO leaders also faced the difficult task of convincing workers that the CIO was serious about supporting them, and that it had the power to stand up to intransigent managements.

In February 1936, rubber workers at Goodyear Tire in Akron, Ohio, forced these dynamics into the open with their fight for long-simmering demands: a measure of control over both their hours and their method of payment, and protection for union activists, who were being fired in violation of the Wagner Act. The struggle was far more complex than simply workers versus management. The CIO competed for the workers' allegiance with an AFL union and with Goodyear's company union, which was not an independent bargaining agent and which should have been outlawed under the Wagner Act. Rubber workers set the pace in this conflict, largely rejecting the AFL, but not entirely content with their alternatives. The CIO hoped to harness the workers' anger and use it to establish a permanent union with a collective bargaining agreement with Goodyear, but the company was still far stronger than any union. In late March, Goodyear offered minor changes in working hours, but refused to sign a formal contract. This was an ambiguous result, like many of the CIO's experiences in the 1930s. The rubber workers were not crushed, which was a major triumph when compared with earlier years, but by no means did the CIO create a solid institutional base in Akron, and rubber workers were without either a collective bargaining agreement or any other means to resolve their grievances.

The CIO also sought to organize steelworkers, who shared common complaints about the arbitrary power of foremen, but who also had experienced numerous routs at the hands of management, most recently in 1934. Steel was the heart of American industrial might, however, and there were half a million potential steelworker union members. Girding for battle, the CIO created the Steel Workers' Organizing Committee (SWOC) in June 1936. Funded primarily by Lewis's UMW, SWOC ignored any AFL claims to jurisdiction over skilled steelworkers and began mass organizing.

While still technically part of the AFL, the CIO now operated independently and faced strong opposition from its parent organization. The CIO also acted on its own by supporting President Roosevelt in his successful bid for reelection in 1936. Whether or not they were influenced by the CIO's endorsement, most working-class Americans voted for Roosevelt, and CIO leaders hoped that this display of political power would help protect the fledgling industrial union movement.

The CIO's fortunes rose with the success in early 1937 of the famous Flint, Michigan, sit-down strike against General Motors (GM). Although it appears that most autoworkers in Flint desired greater control over their working lives, only a few were willing to risk their livelihoods by openly associating with a unionization drive sponsored by the upstart United Auto Workers (UAW). By organizing workers to stay inside factories rather than to picket outside them, UAW activists neutralized much of the power that GM (or any other intransigent employer) traditionally wielded in such conflicts. A police assault on the sit-down strikers would damage company property, and it was impossible to operate machines with strikebreakers while strikers occupied the plant. Although the Supreme Court would later declare the sit-down tactic to be an unconstitutional violation of a company's property rights, for a brief period, refusing to leave factories tipped the balance of power in labor conflicts. The CIO was not involved in the day-to-day conduct of the Flint strike. Lewis, however, personally negotiated with GM and government officials to broker the final settlement. As a result, the CIO gained much favorable publicity and the UAW became one of its largest and most important affiliates. The UAW's first agreement, however, proved to be more important for its symbolism than its substance. GM pledged to recognize the UAW as its labor force's sole bargaining agent for six months, but much remained unclear about what concrete differences that would bring in labormanagement relations.

With an eye toward GM's loss of market share during the Flint sit-down strike—the economy was experiencing a minor upswing in the midst of the Depression—U.S. Steel president Myron Taylor unexpectedly settled with SWOC in early March 1937. Once again, the agreement was an ambiguous triumph. U.S. Steel employees won a wage increase and a forty-hour workweek, but SWOC did not extract the right to be the sole bargaining agent for the company's workers. Nevertheless, the CIO benefited from having won any concessions at all from the nation's largest steelmaker, which had rebuffed all previous organizing campaigns. The following month, Chrysler Corporation signed a labor agreement with the UAW-CIO, and the Supreme Court declared the Wagner Act constitutional. Hundreds of thousands of workers across the country, from a staggering variety of jobs, soon joined CIO-affiliated unions. There was certainly reason to be hopeful about the future of the CIO's industrial union project.


However, there were also ominous developments. Ford Motor Company violently resisted UAW organizing efforts, and the Roosevelt administration failed to enforce the Wagner Act. Likewise, smaller steel companies fought successfully, sometimes lethally, against SWOC's efforts to complete organization in steel. These campaigns drained resources from the CIO, which, despite increasing its institutional presence around the country, was often unable to offer adequate support to the masses of hopeful workers in other industries who had recently joined unions. The CIO also relied heavily on organizers, and top leaders in a few affiliated unions, who were members of the Communist Party. Communist union activists, perhaps a quarter of the CIO organizing staff, were essential to the industrial union mission and appear almost without exception to have placed their commitment to workers above their party allegiances. Yet the presence of Communists in the CIO made the organization vulnerable to red-baiting politicians and industrialists. During the Depression years, however, top CIO officials shrugged off such attacks and utilized the Communists' talents.

The biggest threat to the CIO proved to be the deep recession that began in late 1937. Industrial employment plummeted, severely reducing union membership and dues payments. When it officially split from the AFL in November 1938—changing its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations—the CIO was far weaker than it had been a year earlier. The recession further emboldened anti-union employers like Ford and Republic Steel to flaunt the Wagner Act, the AFL continued its counterattack against what it considered to be the CIO's renegade operations, and John L. Lewis assumed increasing, often erratic, control of the CIO while still leading the UMW. It is unclear how many workers still belonged to CIO unions in late 1938, but it seems certain that the numbers were far lower than those released by CIO officials.

As the defense buildup for World War II brought the nation out of the Great Depression, the CIO's prospects for survival increased dramatically. The war years, indeed, would bring relative institutional stability, but with many constraints on union behavior. The central question continued to be whether or not industrial unionism, through the CIO, could maintain a lasting presence and improve the lives of millions of American workers. The jury remained out as the Depression ended. The alternative, however, seemed to be the grim, arbitrary autocracy that had prompted unionization. Adding to the complexity, while the CIO sought better lives for masses of Americans, the working class itself was not united. Improving opportunities for all workers would require serious challenges to racial and gender discrimination, hierarchies that were dear to many members of CIO unions. The CIO, indeed, faced daunting challenges.



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Zieger, Robert H. The CIO: 1935–1955. 1995.

Daniel Clark

American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations

views updated Jun 08 2018

American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations

The AFL-CIO is a voluntary federation of labor unions that represents workers in various industries. AFL-CIO stands for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.

The AFL-CIO began as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886. At that time, America was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution . Factory workers were becoming a significant percentage of the country's labor force. Workers formed unions to help them bargain with employers for better working conditions.

The AFL was led at first by Samuel Gompers (1850–1924). Gompers believed that unions should focus on organizing skilled laborers, but not unskilled ones. Gompers preferred unions to organize based on the type of work members did, not the industries in which they worked. He also believed that unions should not be too involved in politics. Rather they should focus on strategies and tactics for bargaining with employers.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression (1929–41) made poor working conditions even worse for laborers. By then, the factory system had a large number of unskilled laborers in the American workforce. Some members of the AFL, including John L. Lewis (1880–1969), believed that unions should organize unskilled workers based on the industries in which they worked. Lewis also believed that unions had to be more political and work for laws that favored workers.

At the AFL's annual convention in 1934, Lewis and his friends helped pass a resolution that resulted in the AFL working to increase organization among industrial unions. The executive committee of the AFL disagreed with the resolution. It associated unskilled laborers with violent strikes and other radical organizing tactics. So the AFL did not do much to implement the resolution.

In November 1935, Lewis and others formed the Committee on Industrial Organizations. They intended to operate within the AFL as a separate committee. AFL president William R. Green (1872–1952) opposed the committee. The AFL ordered the committee to disband and then suspended it in 1936 and expelled it in 1937.

In 1938, Lewis and his supporters formed their own organization called the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The AFL and the CIO functioned separately for the next two decades. The CIO initially had great success, growing as industry boomed during World War II (1939–45). This forced the AFL to modify its recruitment efforts for its member unions.

Unions and Race

Organized in 1886, the American Federation of Labor initially represented the interests of skilled, white, male, and immigrant workers from Europe. African Americans were typically excluded from the unions and related work with restrictions on membership, apprenticeship, and hiring practices. In response, black workers, particularly railroad porters, longshoremen, and plasters, formed all-black unions on their own. When the Congress of Industrial Organizations formed in 1938, it adopted more inclusive racial policies to strengthen its membership and its bargaining power with the federal government.

After World War II, the federal government passed many laws to restrict the power of unions. By the 1950s, the AFL and the CIO decided they needed to work together for favorable laws and to organize workers for bargaining with employers. They merged into one federation in 1955, representing around sixteen million workers, about 35 percent of the American work-force. By the end of the century, the figure fell to around fourteen million, or 20 percent of the workforce, as factories began to move overseas, forcing Americans to find other types of work.

American Federation of Labor—Congress of Industrial Organizations

views updated May 23 2018


The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is a voluntary federation of 65 national and international labor unions. It comprises 65 national union affiliates, 45,000 local unions, 51 state federations (including Puerto Rico), 570 central labor councils, and a membership of more than 13 million workers. The organization, which has had enormous political influence since the 1930s, is headquartered in Washington, D.C.

The AFL was formed in 1886 as a loose confederation of 25 autonomous national trade unions with more than 316,000 members. The AFL, renouncing identification with any political party or movement, concentrated on pursuing achievable goals such as higher wages and shorter work hours. Members were encouraged to support politicians who were friendly to labor, no matter their party affiliation.

During the 1930s, the AFL became embroiled in internal conflict. The trade unions that dominated the AFL were composed of skilled workers who opposed organizing the unskilled or semiskilled workers on the manufacturing production line. Several unions rebelled at this refusal to organize and formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). The CIO aggressively organized millions of workers who labored in automobile, steel, and rubber plants. In 1938, unhappy with this effort, the AFL expelled the unions that formed the CIO. The CIO then formed its own organization and changed its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. By the 1950s, the leadership of both the AFL and CIO realized that a unified labor movement was a necessity. In 1955, the AFL and the CIO merged into a single organization, the AFL-CIO.

The AFL-CIO is primarily concerned with influencing legislative policies that affect unions. Its staff members conduct research, set policy, and testify before congressional and state legislative committees. More importantly, the organization provides funds and volunteers to labor-endorsed political candidates. Alhough the AFL-CIO is a nonpartisan organization, it traditionally has supported democratic party candidates.

With the 1995 election of John J. Sweeney as president, the AFL-CIO has made increased union membership its highest priority. Despite Sweeney's most recent reelection in 2001, membership in U.S. trade unions has continued to fall over the last several decades, as the manufacturing sector of the U.S. economy has steadily declined. Union membership in 2001 comprised just 13.5 percent of the workforce, compared with a high of 34.7 percent in 1954. Sweeney has pushed the organization to recruit women, minorities, low-paid workers, and white-collar workers. In an effort to strengthen local unions, the AFL-CIO launched the New Alliance initiative in 2001. The purpose of the initiative is to restructure unions at the state and local levels.

The day-to-day work of the federation is carried out by 11 programmatic departments including the Organizing Department; the Field Mobilization Department; the Civil, Human and Women's Rights Department; and the International Affairs Department. Topics of major importance to the AFL-CIO include manufacturing, civil rights, the global economy, health care, immigrant workers, minimum-wage issues, pensions, and social security.

further readings

AFL–CIO Website. Available online at <> (accessed November 13, 2003).

Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)

views updated May 23 2018


Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was an organization of trade unions that represented all workers in major mass-production industries. Formed in 1935 by John L. Lewis (18801969), the CIO was initially called the Committee for Industrial Organizations, a collection of eight unions within the American Federation of Labor (AFL). But differences soon presented themselves between the AFL and the CIO. Except for miners and textile workers, the AFL was divided into craft unions. Boilermakers, machinists, upholsters, painters, and other trades were separated into local unions by the type of skills required to make their products. The CIO advocated an industrial unionism, whereby workers would be organized according to the nature of their products (their industry). Steel-workers would have one union, for example, and the building trades another. The CIO also had an open-door policy to African Americans and other classes of society rejected by the AFL. In 1938 the eight unions represented by the Committee for Industrial Organizations left the AFL, and reorganized themselves under the name Congress of Industrial Organizations. The CIO faced formidable opposition in its early days. The AFL collaborated with local unions and state and federal legislators to brand the CIO a communist organization. Employers murdered, gassed, beat, and intimidated their workers to demoralize the CIO's unionizing efforts. World War II (19391945) pulled the AFL and CIO closer together, as both organizations supported governmental efforts to mobilize industry for military production. During the Korean War (19501953) the AFL and CIO formed a joint committee to deal with federal labor policies. This committee facilitated the formal merger of the two organizations in December 1955.

See also: American Federation of Labor, Labor Movement, Labor Unionism

American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations

views updated May 23 2018

American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO US labour organization, the largest union in North America. It is a federation of individual trade unions from the USA, Canada, Mexico, Panama, and some US dependencies. It was formed in 1955 by the merger of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Although each union within the federation is fully autonomous, the ultimate governing body of the AFL-CIO is an executive council made up of president, vice presidents and secretary-treasurer. In recent years, the reduction of union membership (c.15% of US workers in 1995) has seen the AFL-CIO concentrate on recruiting public sector workers.

Congress of Industrial Organizations

views updated Jun 11 2018

Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) See American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)

Congress of Industrial Organizations

views updated May 18 2018


CONGRESS OF INDUSTRIAL ORGANIZATIONS. SeeAmerican Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations .

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American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations