On June 17, 1936, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee was created. This pioneering industrial union was critical in the mass organizing of the nation’s giant factories in arguably the nation’s most important industry. It’s eventual success combined with the organizing of auto to allow the CIO to succeed and the transformation of the American labor movement to advance.
Like many industries, steel workers had a history of attempts to unionize, but a largely unsuccessful one. The major union was the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AA), which came out of the Sons of Vulcan and other early steel unions and had briefly organized Carnegie Steel before being crushed during the Homestead Strike in 1892. It maintained a presence for awhile, but by the 1930s, it was completely irrelevant. U.S. Steel had a company union that fought against any real organizing it its factories.
In 1935, John L. Lewis led a group of union leaders supporting industrial organizing within the American Federation of Labor and formed the Committee for Industrial Organization. Lewis was the head of the most important industrial union in the AFL, the United Mine Workers of America. But outside of the textile unions in decline because of capital migration to the non-union South, the AFL had few other industrial unions. Moreover, its leadership was openly hostile to industrial organizing. When loggers in the Northwest won the Great Strike of 1935, they were given to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters by the AFL, who had granted the UBC rights over anything having to do with wood. But the UBC was concerned about its politically conservative culture being overwhelmed with thousands of former Wobblies and current communists, so it gave them second-hand status in the union without the same voting rights as their core membership. This angered many of the loggers and demand for real industrial unionism continued.
Such it was in steel where the AA was basically useless by the 1930s. The relationship between the coal mines and the steel industry was deeply integrated. The steel mills burned enormous amounts of coal and thus the steel companies invested heavily in the mines. Lewis understood that he could not create a permanent successful organization in his own industry without organizing the steel mills too. He might be able to organize the mines not supplying the steel mills, but he could never be secure if the steel owned mines were undercutting his members’ wages. So he created the Steel Workers Organizing Committee and placed his top deputy Philip Murray in charge. The UMWA paid for the whole thing, as it would basically for the entire CIO for the first few years after it finally broke from the AFL in 1937. That investment started with $500,000 and went from there. Lewis also hired a whole bunch of communists to organize the steel mills. As much as an enemy of communism as any other old-time AFL union head, Lewis also understood the task at hand and welcomed them because of their usefulness, especially in organizing the large numbers of African-Americans working the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs in the mills. Lewis selected the officers, from Murray on down, on the basis of personal loyalty to him, although by 1940, when Lewis broke with FDR, that loyalty proved to have limits.
From the beginning, SWOC tied itself very closely to the Democratic Party. Reliant on the New Deal state to undermine company unions and prosecute the criminal intimidation against unionists, the industrial unions worked hard to elect Democratic politicians. While trying to organize Jones & Laughlin Steel in 1936, the employer fired hundreds of union supporters. SWOC fired an unfair labor practice under the new National Labor Relations Act, which provided a labor relations framework for the first time. But the constitutionality of the NLRA was highly unclear and given the Supreme Court’s rejection of much of the New Deal, the steel companies felt confident of throwing this out too. But in National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the NLRA in 5-4 decision in April 1937. This demonstrated the critical role of the New Deal state in industrial organizing and even when John L. Lewis flounced out of supporting FDR during the 1940 election, the rest of the CIO stayed strongly behind the Democratic Party and would remain so for the remainder of the federation’s independent existence. This was a complete rejection of the traditional AFL position that government could never be trusted by labor and thus labor should remain nonpartisan, although in reality that meant a lot of labor leaders were active Republicans, including John L. Lewis.
SWOC had a huge early win in March 1937, when it managed to take over the company union inside U.S. Steel. For a fictional account of this, Thomas Bell’s 1941 novel Out of This Furnace is excellent. On top of this, the LaFollette Committee’s investigation into how U.S. Steel intimidated and fired union workers forced them on the defensive. U.S. Steel surrendered due to this timely combination of worker organizing and government pressure, again showing the critical nature of governmental intervention for successful American unionism. This was a huge win for the entire industrial union movement. But the so-called Little Steel companies, which were not that little, refused to surrender. SWOC attempted to force their hand but Little Steel decided to turn into a military force, buying tremendous amounts of weaponry and then murdering strikers at the Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago in May 1937. Financially exhausted and lacking real state support to punish Little Steel (this is when FDR gave his “plague on both their houses” statement about the constant labor strife of the time, outraging the industrial unionists), SWOC would spin its wheels for the next few years. By 1939, it was $2.5 million in debt and it was struggling to organizing anything in the South. It wasn’t until the preparation for World War II that, seeing the inevitable future of very lucrative defense contracts, Little Steel acquiesced and between that and the maintenance of membership clause in World War II, SWOC and thus the CIO became financially stable for the first time.
In 1942, SWOC became the United Steelworkers of America. It would remain one of the nation’s strongest and most important unions for several decades, winning strikes in 1952 and 1959 before declining as foreign steel and American steel companies not investing in new factories undermined American steel competition on the national and international market.
This is the 227th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.