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Congress of Industrial Organizations:
Constitutional Convention

By Paul Le Blanc

The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) had its beginnings as a Committee for Industrial Organization, formed within the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1935 by leaders of the United Mine Workers of America, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the International Typographers Union, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and others. In contradiction to what had become the dominant trend in the AFL, the CIO was committed to organizing all workers -- skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled -- on an industrial basis rather than more narrowly by craft. This meant the creation of large new unions of formerly unorganized mass production workers -- steelworkers, autoworkers, electrical workers, rubber workers, etc. By 1937 the AFL had expelled most of the offending unions, and at a constitutional convention held on November 14-18, 1938, the new battalions of industrial labor reconstituted themselves into a new federation -- the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The site of the convention was the Islam Grotto on Pittsburgh's North Side.

The rise of the CIO took place in the midst of the Great Depression, a devastating economic downturn that left more than a third of the nation's people "ill-clothed, ill-housed, and ill-fed," in the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many surviving businesses utilized the hard times to maintain and enhance profits by cutting wages and intensifying the work -- at the expense of working conditions and workers' dignity. This generated a considerable amount of anger and radicalism among many workers an their families. In 1934 there were three militant strikes -- led by left-wing radicals, involving masses of workers and their families, and resulting in decisive union victories -- that shook Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco.

This inspired John L. Lewis and Philip Murray of the mineworkers, Sidney Hillman of the clothing workers, and other prominent figures in the AFL to insist that the time had come to form the CIO. Hundreds of thousands of workers in the mass production industries organized new unions and conducted determined strikes (sometimes "sit-down" strikes that took over their workplaces) to force their employers to bargain seriously with them for improved wages, hours and working conditions. Unlike many of the AFL unions, the CIO had a reputation for including all workers -- unskilled as well as skilled, women as well as men, and everyone regardless of race, creed or color. (According to the Pittsburgh Courier, "the only real effort that has been made to let down color bars since the days of the Knights of Labor is that of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.")

Representatives gathered at the Pittsburgh convention representing 34 international unions, 8 organizing committees, 23 state labor councils, 116 city and country labor councils, and 137 local industrial unions -- claiming to represent a total membership of more than 3 million workers (roughly equivalent to the size of the AFL). They elected as President the fiery orator John L. Lewis of the Mineworkers, with Philip Murray of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (predecessor of the United Steel Workers of America) and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers as Vice-Presidents, and James Carey of the newly-formed United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America as Secretary-Treasurer.

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While Lewis had been a lifelong Republican, and while some radical CIO activists believed that the unions should help form an independent Labor Party, the CIO became a major force supporting the "New Deal" administration of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. This was largely because of that administration's pro-labor policies and positive social legislation (social security, unemployment insurance, etc.). This far-reaching labor alliance with the social-liberalism of the Democrats became characteristic of U.S. politics for many years after. In fact, some positions advanced by Lewis and the CIO went much further than most politicians were prepared to go -- calling on the government to guarantee full employment and a living wage for all workers. "This movement of labor will go on until there is a more equitable and just distribution of our national wealth," Lewis declared. "This movement will go on until the social order is reconstructed on a basis that will be fair, decent, and honest. This movement will go on until the guarantees of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitutions are enjoyed by all the people, and not by a privileged few."

The CIO had a profound impact on the country's economic and political life. It represented for many not simply a way to improve wages, but an inspiring cause dedicated to creating a better world. Writing in 1938, labor journalist Mary Heaton Vorse--who many years before had covered the ill-fated 1919 steel strike -- commented: "Labor has shown in its struggles an inventiveness, intelligence, and power greater than anything before in its long history. Whole communities of workers have been transformed." Looking back on this period, editor of the CIO News Len DeCaux recalled:
 

As it gained momentum, this movement brought with it new political attitudes -- toward the corporations, toward police and troops, toward local, state, national government. Now we're a movement, many workers asked, why can't we move on to more and more? Today we've forced almighty General Motors to terms by sitting down and defying all the powers at its command, why can't we go on tomorrow, with our numbers, our solidarity, our determination, to transform city and state, the Washington government itself? Why can't we go on to create a new society with the workers on top, to end age-old injustices, to banish poverty and war.

This captures the spirit of the CIO at the time of the 1938 Pittsburgh convention. In future years, realities would develop somewhat differently than many had expected. Lewis became disillusioned with Franklin Roosevelt and broke with the Democrats--but also lost the Presidency of the CIO, to be succeeded by Phil Murray, and later by United Auto Workers leader Walter Reuther. After World War II, an anti-labor offensive resulted in restrictive labor laws that undercut union power. The Cold War introduced new splits in the CIO, with many radicals -- especially Communists -- being driven out. As the CIO became less radical, the AFL had shifted away from some of its conservatism, resulting in the AFL-CIO merger of 1955.

The radical spirit of the CIO that had inspired millions of working people throughout the United States, however, had resulted in improved living conditions and working conditions, and left a permanent legacy of idealism for the labor movement.

Sources:

Irving Bernstein, Turbulent Years, A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941 (Boston: Houghton Miflin Co., 1971);

Len DeCaux, Labor Radical, From the Wobblies to CIO, A Personal History (Boston: Beacon Books, 1970);

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

Mary Heaton Vorse, Labor's New Millions (New York: Modern Books, 1938);

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

The author:

Paul Le Blanc is Assistant Professor of History at Pittsburgh's LaRoche College and a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO. He has worked as a unionized auto worker, shipyard worker, hospital worker, and teacher. He is author of a number of books, including A Short History of the U.S. Working Class.

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Last updated May 14, 2002