Congress of Industrial Organizations Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Congress of Industrial Organizations, a militant congress of trade unions, organized both skilled and unskilled workers regardless of race or gender.

Summary of Event

The struggle that produced the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) revolved around a disagreement over labor tactics and philosophy. The American Federation of Labor American Federation of Labor (AFL), founded in 1886, was organized on a craft basis and did not include the skilled and unskilled workers in mass-production industries. By 1934, however, some members of the AFL wanted to form one union for an entire industry to include these mass-production workers. William Green, president of the AFL, and the generally conservative members of that organization’s executive council associated industrial unionism with violence and radicalism. Leadership in the move for more militant unionism came primarily from John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers and vice president of the AFL. Lewis criticized the voluntarism preached by Green and argued that it was imperative that the AFL become active in politics and in industrial unionism. Sidney Hillman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and David Dubinsky of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union were the other leading figures in this insurgency. [kw]Congress of Industrial Organizations Is Founded (Nov. 10, 1935) [kw]Industrial Organizations Is Founded, Congress of (Nov. 10, 1935) Congress of Industrial Organizations Labor unions;Congress of Industrial Organizations [g]United States;Nov. 10, 1935: Congress of Industrial Organizations Is Founded[09050] [c]Business and labor;Nov. 10, 1935: Congress of Industrial Organizations Is Founded[09050] [c]Organizations and institutions;Nov. 10, 1935: Congress of Industrial Organizations Is Founded[09050] Lewis, John L. Murray, Philip Green, William Dubinsky, David Hutcheson, William L. Martin, Homer Hillman, Sidney Murphy, Frank Taylor, Myron C. Roosevelt, Franklin D.

At the 1934 convention of the AFL, Lewis and other industrial union supporters succeeded in receiving an endorsement for the chartering of unions in a number of industries, including auto and rubber. In addition, there had been a promise made to organize the steel industry. However, little was done in the following months to implement the resolution. The next year, the AFL leadership rejected appeals for help in instituting a more active movement among the industrial workers. Lewis addressed the convention, pleading to “organize the unorganized” and thereby make the AFL the “greatest instrumentality . . . to befriend the cause of humanity.” His resolution failed by a substantial majority. The frustrated Lewis confronted the head of the Carpenters’ Union, William L. Hutcheson, who was quelling dissent among some of the workers, and started a fistfight. Lewis knocked Hutcheson to the floor, disrupting the convention; afterward, a new image became popularized of a “battling Lewis” who fought for industrial organizing.

Rebuffed by the convention, Lewis, Hillman, and others proceeded to meet separately, and on November 10, 1935, they formed what was originally called the Committee for Industrial Organization. Ostensibly this group was working within the AFL to promote organization of the mass-production industries. Green and his executive council, however, quickly concluded that such activity was in disregard of majority AFL sentiment as expressed at the convention and that it could easily lead to dual unionism. The council called on the Committee for Industrial Organization to disband. The unions now involved in this revolt included the United Mine Workers, United Mine Workers the United Auto Workers, United Auto Workers the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, Amalgamated Clothing Workers the United Textile Workers, United Textile Workers the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union[International Ladies Garment Workers Union] and a number of smaller organizations. They ignored the AFL request, and, in August, 1936, the entire group was suspended. A peace conference between Green and Lewis was arranged, but it collapsed—a result primarily of the latter’s uncompromising attitude. In March, 1937, the insurgent group was formally expelled from the AFL. Green also announced that the AFL itself would begin an immediate campaign to organize the mass-production industries. In 1938, Lewis’s group changed its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).


The decision of the AFL to move into mass-production industry unionism was probably prompted by the remarkable success of the CIO. Initially, the insurgent unions had approximately 1.8 million members, but in seven months the CIO claimed to represent more than 3.7 million workers. This growth resulted from organizational victories in the steel and automobile industries. In 1935, Lewis appointed Philip Murray, vice president of the United Mine Workers, to head the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee. Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee[Steel Workers Organizing Committee] Before Murray could start activities, however, a crisis arose in the automobile industry that demanded attention from the CIO leadership. Under the AFL, the United Auto Workers (UAW) had been losing members, and local leadership was completely intimidated by management. In 1936, Homer Martin, a former minister, took over the union and began to work closely with the CIO. Although Lewis would have preferred to attack steel first, he rushed to the support of the now-militant UAW when on December 28, 1936, the union began a dramatic sit-down strike in the Flint, Michigan, plant of General Motors. Labor strikes;General Motors (1936)

Although the sit-down tactic had been utilized on a limited scale before, the dramatic effect of thousands of men refusing to work but remaining in their plant took the public by surprise. Following normal procedure, General Motors immediately requested government assistance. An injunction was issued by a local judge, but the sheriff refused to serve it and was backed up by Michigan governor Frank Murphy, a Democrat who supported the rights of the workers and strove for a compromise settlement. Management, realizing that little support could be expected from Washington, constantly prodded by Murphy to go to the bargaining table, and faced with a considerable loss of profits, decided to meet with the UAW. On February 11, 1937, a contract was signed providing for the dismissal of the injunction, recognition of the UAW as the sole bargaining unit, and procedures for collective bargaining on wages and hours. The other automaking companies, with the exception of Ford, which held out until 1941, quickly fell into line.

In the meantime, Murray was conducting his campaign to organize the steel industry, although in the end steel was broken from the top down. Myron C. Taylor, chairman of the board of the United States Steel Corporation, United States Steel Corporation;labor relations desiring to avoid a work stoppage that would jeopardize a lucrative foreign contract and anticipating inevitable union recognition, invited Lewis to private talks that lasted for three months. The result was the signing of a contract on March 2, 1937, that granted union recognition and provided for a 10 percent wage increase, a forty-hour week, and overtime pay. Many other companies followed Taylor’s lead, but three of the “Little Steel” companies, under the moral leadership of Tom M. Girdler of Republic Steel, fought unionization successfully, culminating in the so-called Memorial Day Massacre on May 30, 1937, when police fired on union demonstrators in front of the South Chicago plant of Republic Steel. It was not until World War II that the entire industry was finally “organized.”

Nevertheless, within the space of one month, the CIO had achieved a remarkable victory over two huge industries that had long been immune to unionization. The drive of men such as Lewis, Murray, and Martin and the reasonableness of men such as Taylor were important in this advance, but the attitude of the government on both the state and federal levels was also of critical importance. Without the fair-minded attitude and support of Governor Murphy, the UAW would have been driven from the General Motors plant. Although Lewis and President Franklin D. Roosevelt were soon to be enemies, the White House placed considerable pressure on the employers to negotiate. Finally, the work of the National Labor Relations Board and the revelations by a Senate subcommittee, headed by prolabor senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr., of the unsavory antiunion tactics used by employers helped the CIO to consolidate and expand its gains over the next year.

By the end of the 1930’s, union membership had increased to 30 percent of all workers. The CIO’s commitment and democratic initiatives to bring workers into the union organization regardless of skill, job, race, or sex, as well as a policy of inclusion on the part of the mass-production industries, revolutionized unionization. Although not completely removed from discrimination, hundreds of thousands of African American workers were able to join unions. Women, despite obstacles to their gaining key union leadership roles, nevertheless were instrumental in building the forces of the CIO, especially in cases involving issues specifically relating to women. Congress of Industrial Organizations Labor unions;Congress of Industrial Organizations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Babson, Steve. The Unfinished Struggle: Turning Points in American Labor, 1877-Present. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. Concise and comprehensive history of the American labor movement. Includes notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnard, John. Walter Reuther and the Rise of the Auto Workers. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983. Fine account written for lay readers provides an important vignette of mid-1930’s CIO activity in a major industry. Includes bibliographic essay and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernstein, Irving. Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969. Authoritative, clearly written general history of American labor in the era between the world wars. Discusses the development of unionism and collective bargaining in American industry and public policy relating to collective bargaining during the New Deal era. Includes bibliographic notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooks, Thomas R. Toil and Trouble: A History of American Labor. 2d ed. New York: Delacorte Press, 1971. Provides good personality sketches and colorful anecdotes. Solid and informative, despite the author’s clear prolabor bias. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Foster Rhea Dulles. Labor in America: A History. 7th ed. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 2004. Comprehensive account of American labor and labor movements since colonial days. Devotes substantial discussion to national organization during the 1930’s, including the rise of the CIO and the merger of the CIO and the AFL. Features bibliographic notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fine, Sidney. Sit-Down: The General Motors Strike of 1936-1937. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1963. Well-told account presents a clear scholarly view of specific CIO battles with business and the community. Includes notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Galenson, Walter. The CIO Challenge to the AFL: A History of the American Labor Movement, 1935-1941. 1960. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981. History of the CIO during what the author calls a revolutionary era marked by a radical change in the power structure of American labor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, James R. The World of the Worker: Labor in Twentieth-Century America. 1980. Reprint. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1998. Focuses on notable labor leaders, including John L. Lewis and Sidney Hillman, emphasizing the relationships between leaders and workers. Provides a valuable description of the conflict over power and authority in the unions. Includes bibliographical essay and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stolberg, Benjamin. The Story of the CIO. 1938. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1971. Readable journalistic account encapsulates well the atmosphere and personalities that affected the establishment of the CIO. Combines theory and history. Includes 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. An invaluable study, although at times dense reading. The best work of its kind for understanding the AFL and CIO dissidents. Chapter notes, valuable index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zieger, Robert H. The CIO, 1935-1955. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. History of the CIO prior to its merger with the AFL draws on archival records and oral histories. Includes endnotes and index.

Founding of Industrial Workers of the World

Labor Unions Win Exemption from Antitrust Laws

International Labor Organization Is Established

Railway Labor Act Provides for Mediation of Labor Disputes

Norris-La Guardia Act Strengthens Labor Organizations

Wagner Act

Fair Labor Standards Act

Categories: History