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This Day in Labor History: December 5, 1955

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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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