AFL and CIO Merge Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations reunited to cope with major union problems and a changing business and political environment. As the largest and most visible American union, the AFL-CIO would define for many the strengths and weaknesses of organized labor and collective bargaining as such.

Summary of Event

Led by the fiery leader of the United Mine Workers Union, John L. Lewis, nearly a million members of the American Federation of Labor American Federation of Labor (AFL) were suspended by the AFL in 1935 and were expelled officially in 1938. This massive division within the ranks of organized labor, leading to formation of the rival Congress of Industrial Organizations Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), was destined to last for two decades. Debate continues over whether the split was inevitable. Labor leaders such as David Dubinsky Dubinsky, David , who headed the ladies’ garment workers, along with labor historians such as Philip Taft and many politicians including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, believed the separation within the ranks of organized labor to be unfortunate as well as unnecessary. Given the tumults and uncertainties that characterized the labor scene after the CIO’s ejection from its parent organization, these perspectives were shared widely throughout the nation’s business community and the general public. AFL-CIO[AFL CIO] Labor unions;AFL-CIO[AFL CIO] [kw]AFL and CIO Merge (Dec. 5, 1955) [kw]CIO Merge, AFL and (Dec. 5, 1955) AFL-CIO[AFL CIO] Labor unions;AFL-CIO[AFL CIO] [g]North America;Dec. 5, 1955: AFL and CIO Merge[05020] [g]United States;Dec. 5, 1955: AFL and CIO Merge[05020] [c]Business and labor;Dec. 5, 1955: AFL and CIO Merge[05020] [c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 5, 1955: AFL and CIO Merge[05020] Meany, George Murray, Philip Lewis, John L. Reuther, Walter P. Hillman, Sidney Hoffa, Jimmy

Personality and generational conflicts undoubtedly fueled the causes of division. Lewis allied with David Dubinsky and Philip Murray, for example, against AFL president William Green and AFL officials such as William Hutcheson, John Frey, and Matthew Woll. Questionable actions of the AFL’s executive committee in its handling of dissidents also led to divisiveness. The split in labor’s ranks sprang from profound differences in attitudes and philosophy and from differing visions of labor’s future.

The AFL, the largest, most enduring, and most successful of American labor organizations, had won its way to prominence by adhering to the principles of its founders, most notably those of Samuel Gompers Gompers, Samuel , the AFL president from 1886 until his death in 1924. Carried forward diligently by Gompers’s successor, William Green Green, William , the AFL was built around the unionization of skilled workers. It stood for craft organization and craft autonomy. Mills, factories, and plants, with few exceptions, were unionized according to the trades of their skilled workers. That is, the AFL’s affiliated unions exercised jurisdiction over members working in specific crafts. A given factory thus could have several trade unions. The internal affairs of each trade’s union were virtually invulnerable to interference from AFL officials.

The CIO’s leaders, on the other hand, were committed to industrial unionism, or the organization of all workers in a given plant or industry, irrespective of skills, into one comprehensive union. The rationale for this approach grew from awareness of dramatic changes in American society and in the workplace that had manifested themselves by the mid-1930’s. Lewis and other CIO leaders lamented the fact that, for the most part, semiskilled and unskilled workers lay beyond either the interest or the respect of most AFL leaders. These workers constituted large and growing parts of the workforce in mass-production industries.

After furious battles against major industries during the last half of the 1930’s, reflected in the media almost daily, the CIO’s achievements were registered in its membership. By 1938, the CIO had more than 4 million members, while the AFL had 3.4 million. The CIO had grown by successfully targeting workers in mass-production industries and by winning cost-of-living increases, guaranteed annual wages, job security, and unemployment payments, as well as welfare and benefit plans. The AFL grew by adopting many CIO attitudes and objectives and by responding positively to CIO competition.

By the end of the 1940’s, however, each organization had long been suffering the penalties of division, including erosive losses from duplication of effort. In addition, the national disposition toward unions had grown less tolerant, partly as a result of crippling strikes between 1945 and 1948. The political climate had therefore become less friendly. Legislative and judicial victories, moreover, had begun diminishing after the late 1930’s. An unmistakable antiunion trend was evident in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Supreme Court, U.S.;organized labor 1939 decision pronouncing sit-down strikes illegal in the Fanstock Steel case and subsequent federal court decisions upholding employers by fining union leaders for violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Although the Labor-Management Relations Act Labor-Management Relations Act (1947)[Labor Management Relations Act] of 1947 (the Taft-Hartley Act Taft-Hartley Act (1947)[Taft Hartley Act] ) Labor unions;Taft-Hartley Act[Taft Hartley Act] proved not to be the slave labor bill that union leaders feared it would be, it still invoked authority to curb the seemingly engorged power of union leaders and to shift the legal balance toward employers. Public confidence in and respect for union leadership were shaken further by exposures of Communist influences in several unions and by federal revelations of union racketeering and corruption, most notoriously in the Teamsters Union Teamsters Union Labor unions;Teamsters .

These factors registered as declining union membership and quickened the drive toward reunification of the AFL and the CIO. President Roosevelt had urged a reunification as early as 1934. The deaths in 1952 of Philip Murray, who had succeeded John L. Lewis as head of the CIO, and of AFL president William Green brought new leadership to both organizations. The brilliantly successful organizer of the auto workers, Walter P. Reuther, took command of the CIO, while the steady, forceful George Meany became president of the AFL. With the initiative for negotiations in their hands, a stalled unity committee was reactivated.

The range of divisive issues was soon narrowed. Reuther, no longer willing to have labor identified with communist influences, previously had purged communists from his own unions. He insisted that they be expelled from the AFL. Despite the AFL’s traditional sanctification of craft autonomy, Meany undertook a cleansing of the AFL, even though by implication it meant the beginning of centralized control within the organization. Similarly, both organizations, having confirmed by National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) statistics that their mutual membership raids and jurisdictional battles were costly and ineffective, consented to abandon them. Sixty-five AFL and twenty-nine CIO unions pledged in June, 1954, to abandon raids. With other practical and emotional complaints eased by the unity committee, a formal agreement to merge was consummated in February, 1955. The agreement was ratified on December 5 of that year.

Reunification signaled agreement within the AFL-CIO to recognize both craft and industrial unionism. All unions previously holding charters from either the AFL or the CIO were eligible to join the AFL-CIO. George Meany and Walter Reuther respectively assumed the presidency and vice presidency of the union, and posts on the executive council were divided according to the relative sizes of the former federations’ memberships. Assets were pooled. The AFL-CIO at its founding was the free world’s largest labor organization, encompassing sixteen million workers.


In the decades following the 1955 merger, the AFL-CIO bargained with rapidly changing and unprecedentedly powerful corporations and managements. An acceleration of the corporate drive toward automation, management’s steady upgrading of skills required for employment, corporate mergers, and the rise of conglomerates and of multinationals with team-managed technostructures all confronted the AFL-CIO with new managerial attitudes and strategies. At the same time, manufacturing industries, the traditional source of union strength, declined in importance. Union membership soon showed both a numerical decline and a decline as a proportion of the workforce.

Although less susceptible to measurement, the effects of a generational change among labor leaders were important to the evolving fortunes of the AFL-CIO. The combative and colorful union leaders of the early years were replaced by less charismatic officials. Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa certainly contributed color to the labor arena, but his actions led the AFL-CIO to expel the Teamsters in 1957. One concomitant of the generational transition was a loss of union morale. As some labor experts noted, this was attributable to AFL-CIO unions concentrating too heavily on job security rather than on job creation, as well as to what Walter Reuther decried as the AFL-CIO’s complacency and lack of drive and vision.

The tactics of conglomerates often involved the closing of unprofitable plants, the pursuit of mergers that blurred workers’ rights, and the capricious handling of union welfare, benefit, and pension funds. The AFL-CIO initiated coordinated bargaining in response. By the 1970’s, the federation had formed eighty coordinated bargaining committees charged with negotiating for workers employed by conglomerates.

There were other manifestations of pressure against AFL-CIO unions by many of the country’s major corporations. Labor historians have pointed to General Electric’s General Electric (GE) employee relations policies of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as examples of managerial strategies designed to preclude further union gains and erode existing positions. These policies were named for a vice president of GE’s affiliated companies, Lemuel Boulware Boulware, Lemuel , who was responsible for reviewing labor relations. “Boulwareism” focused on persistent advertising and merchandising tactics to undermine unions and resulted in one-time, “take-it-or-leave-it” GE offers at the bargaining table.

The consequence of Boulwareism was a series of battles, some conducted under provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act before the National Labor Relations Board, and some in the courts. The highlight of the battles was a 102-day strike against the nation’s fourth largest corporation, involving 147,000 workers from thirteen unions. By spending nearly two million dollars to counter Boulware’s intensive public relations campaigns, the AFL-CIO cut so markedly into GE’s earnings that the company chose to give in to most union demands.

Boulwareism was one manifestation of what some observers regarded as a 1960’s crisis in industrial relations, characterized by management’s hardened attitudes. Many large corporations reputedly believed that their attempts to achieve better employee relations, and thereby to improve worker efficiency, had failed. Nothing remained, therefore, except to destroy gains made by unions since the mid-1930’s and to regain at the bargaining table the same measure of managerial authority that management had won politically with passage of the Taft-Hartley Act and the Landrum-Griffin Act.

Some observers attributed the crisis in labor relations less to labor-management conflict than to labor-management collusion. Daniel Bell Bell, Daniel argued that the age of genuine collective bargaining as an instrument of economic and social justice was ending. Economist and public servant John Kenneth Galbraith Galbraith, John Kenneth interpreted collective bargaining as a joint exercise of “countervailing power,” by labor and management. Bell and others saw it as their jointly administered manipulation of inflation at the general public’s expense. Evidence for this thesis was drawn, for example, from events occurring in the steel industry, among others. Leaders of unions and management agreed to publicize phony threats of strikes or to call brief token strikes to raise wages and benefits for the unions; the increased costs were used to justify higher prices for products. The maneuvering, Bell and others said, contributed to persistent inflation.

Other experts explained the crisis of labor-management relations differently. Crisis was explicable as a transition stage. Union-management collusion, resistance to technological change, complacency, low morale, inflationary pressures, political and governmental interference in the affairs of capital and labor, and the runaway legalism attending passage of major labor-management legislation (including the Wagner Act, the Taft-Hartley Act, and the Landrum-Griffin Act) were nothing new when viewed in historical perspective. The genuine crises of major strikes and national disruptions lay well behind. Strike activity was low, and the industrial scene increasingly could be characterized by its placidity.

Government officials closely monitored the affairs of the AFL-CIO and independent unions, as well as those of corporations. Collective bargaining, in some respects, moved from the unilateral and bilateral settings prevailing from the mid-1930’s through the early 1960’s to a trilateral and more complex phase, with government as a player in the game. This new phase of industrial relations involved careful consideration of the effects of an increasingly internationalized economy, of foreign competition, and of the public welfare. AFL-CIO[AFL CIO] Labor unions;AFL-CIO[AFL CIO]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooks, Thomas R. Toil and Trouble: A History of American Labor. 2d ed. New York: Delacorte Press, 1971. Colorful and interesting reading. An instructive prolabor account. Chapters 12 through 25 concern the era from the 1930’s to 1970. No notes or bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Galbraith, John Kenneth. The New Industrial State. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967. Eloquently describes changes in American economic life that furnished the context for the AFL-CIO merger and its aftermath. Few notes. Good index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldberg, Arthur J. AFL-CIO: Labor United. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1956. Interesting contemporary assessment of the merger. The author is a former CIO counsel, later a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jacoby, Daniel. Laboring for Freedom: A New Look at the History of Labor in America. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1998. A reevaluation and revision of U.S. labor history and the place of the AFL-CIO therein.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kerr, Clark. Labor and Management in Industrial Society. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1964. Expert, balanced, and informative. Notes and select bibliography. A useful and reflective work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Preis, Art. Labor’s Giant Step: Twenty Years of the CIO. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972. The author’s provocative view of “American class struggle” as seen through the CIO. Chapters 36-39 deal with the merger. Brief notes on sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robertson, David Brian. Capital, Labor, and State: The Battle for American Labor Markets from the Civil War to the New Deal. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. History of American labor unions, labor policy, and industrial relations that focuses particularly on the AFL-CIO. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taft, Philip. The A.F. of L. from the Death of Gompers to the Merger. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959. Standard and authoritative. Clear but colorless scholarship. Valuable index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wehrle, Edmund F. Between a River and a Mountain: The AFL-CIO and the Vietnam War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. Traces the history of the AFL-CIO while focusing specifically on the union’s Vietnam War-era activities. Bibliographic references and index.

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Categories: History