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This Day in Labor History: December 5, 1955

[ 15 ] December 5, 2011 |

On this day in 1955, the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged into the AFL-CIO.

During the 1930s, dissatisfaction over the AFL’s conservatism and its unwillingness to organize industrial workers led to the creation of the CIO in 1935 under the leadership of United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis. The CIO revitalized the labor movement, organizing 4 million workers in the next 3 years and 6 million by 1945. It also forced the AFL to put huge resources into organizing in order to keep up. On one level, this situation became suboptimal for labor as many industries had competing AFL and CIO unions that spent as much time attacking the other the companies. But it also revitalized the labor movement, turning it into a central player within the New Deal Coalition and leading to labor’s greatest victoires.

But after World War II, the CIO’s reason for existing began disappearing. First, the AFL’s response to the CIO meant that it had begun organizing industrial workers into huge unions like the Machinists that had the same kind of bargaining power as the United Auto Workers. Second, the CIO’s purge of its left-leaning leaders destroyed the organization’s spirit. Communists had played a central role in CIO organizing from its beginning through World War II. Some unions were openly communist. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, the most labor-crushing law in American history, sought to crack down on the lefties, penalizing unions whose leadership did not repudiate communism. The increased anti-communist attitude in the nation was reflected in CIO head Philip Murray, who was a strong anticommunist. John Lewis had always tolerated the communists because he knew how well they could serve the larger cause, but Murray was distinctly uncomfortable with them. When in 1948, the left-leaning unions supported Henry Wallace for the presidency and opposed the Marshall Plan, Murray no longer felt he could tolerate having communists in the CIO.

Over the next few years, the CIO expelled not only communists from its leadership, but entire left-leaning unions, including Mine Mill, the Food and Tobacco Workers, and most significantly, the Longshoremen led by legendary leftist Harry Bridges. Philip Murray died in 1952. He was succeeded by UAW head Walter Reuther. I will talk more about Reuther in this series. He was a good man who did a lot of great things, but he could also redbait and had supported Murray’s expulsion of the communists.

With the communists gone, the CIO became not so different from the AFL. Moreover, the expelled unions were some of the strongest in the federation. Many of the remaining CIO unions were struggling and dependent upon subsidies from the CIO itself. Moreover, with Murray’s death, Reuther and Steelworkers president David McDonald were at each other’s throat. The CIO was rife with internal division. It made no sense for them to stay apart and in 1955 they merged together. From the perspective of what was smart for the big labor federations in 1955, it was an acceptable decision. From the perspective of the vitality of American labor, the expulsion of the communists after Taft-Hartley was the first step in labor’s long decline and the merger of the AFL and CIO is the second.

This series has also discussed the Homestead Strike of 1892 and the Everett Massacre of 1916.

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Comments (15)

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  1. Linkmeister says:

    Erik, of the AFL you write: “its unwillingness to organize industrial workers”

    Could you amplify on the reasons for this or point me to an article (not a book, please! I have too many to read as it is!) which explains it? It makes no sense to me that something called the American Federation of Labor would be unwilling to organize anybody. Who DID it represent prior to the merger?

    • Hogan says:

      The AFL tended to organize by craft rather than by industry. It’s a good way to organize small specialized shops, and a bad way to organize large integrated factories like steel and auto plants. The purest survival of the AFL model is probably the construction trades; a large project will involve members of unions for carpenters, plumbers, sheet metal workers, electricians, laborers, and probably some others I’m not thinking of right now. (This is why we have three unions of electricians: the IBEW started out as electricians working construction, and I think now also includes people who work for electric utilities; the UE represents workers in GE and other manufacturing plants but they got purged; the IUE (now part of the CWA) is the non-Red union representing manufacturing workers for electrical products.)

    • Erik Loomis says:

      In short, the AFL was founded as a federation of unions organized on the basis of craft rather than industry. Thus, the AFL might not be in theory opposed to organizing the auto factories, but would want to organize 40 different unions within it, each based on the specific job. In addition, the AFL was openly racist and refused by and large to organize blacks, Asians, and eastern Europeans, not to mention women and children. This is oversimplistic because there were industrial unions within the AFL like the United Mine Workers, but John L. Lewis, UMWA head saw the future was organizing workers on an industrial basis and the AFL refused to do this.

      The AFL, especially its leadership, saw itself as the respectable alternative to anarchism and socialism and so really discouraged radical actions by its unions.

      Despite all of this, the AFL did a lot of great things, but the need for the CIO was pretty huge.

    • I’ll “ditto” what Hogan and Mr. Loomis said above, but it’s also interesting to note, as Mr. Loomis alluded to the UMW, that the CIO emerged originally as an organizing committee nominally within the AFL until about 1938 when it formally broke from the federation (the seeds of the breakup began almost as soon, even before, the CIO was founded).

  2. Mr. Loomis,

    Off topic, but do you plan to write about David Montgomery, the labor historian who, as you may know, passed away a couple days ago?

  3. John A Joerg says:

    Thanx Eric for the labor history. Once the fat cats went after the communists, and succeeded, organized labor went into serious decline. No one wants Stalinism, but Stalinism isn’t communism or socialism. What the working class need today is a labor history program. The bosses and the sellouts can’t fool conscious workers. And everyone would profit from a conscious working class. Thanx 4 the info on the CIO-AFL merger & breakup.

  4. […] Erik Loomis looks back on history to this day in 1955, when the AFL and the CIO merged. […]

  5. […] series has also covered the merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955 and Homestead Strike of […]

  6. […] of the 20,000 December 2, 1946–The Oakland General Strike December 5, 1955–Merger of the AFL and CIO December 28, 1869–Founding of the Knights of Labor December 30, 1905–Murder of former […]

  7. […] a 20-year split, the two largest labor federations in the U.S. merge to form the AFL-CIO, with a membership estimated at 15 million – […]

  8. […] a 20-year split, the two largest labor federations in the U.S. merge to form the AFL-CIO, with a membership estimated at 15 million – […]

  9. Brett says:

    From the perspective of the vitality of American labor, the expulsion of the communists after Taft-Hartley was the first step in labor’s long decline and the merger of the AFL and CIO is the second.

    Sounds about right. Once you’ve pushed out the radicals that you may have not have always agreed with on policy but needed to “stiffen the spines” of the existing leadership, there’s not a lot left to keep the organization from drifting into small-c conservatism where fear of losing gains predominates. That’s especially the case if the union organization isn’t particularly democratic.

    Of course, I don’t know what the alternative might have been. Had they resisted kicking the communists out, there might have been worse legislation than Taft-Hartley that could have been used against them.

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