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The Congress of Industrial Organizations


History of the CIO:

The Minutes of the Executive Board of the CIO provide an unusually clear lens through which to view
critical issues in the public life of the United States in the period 1935 to 1955. These years were
characterized by mass organizing, nationwide strikes, and bitter ideological and partisan political conflict that
had a far-reaching impact on the nation as a whole. An assertive labor movement claimed front-page
attention as it intruded into every area of public life.
 
The CIO was at the center of labor activism. It played a key role in the expansion of collective bargaining
and the establishment of basic entitlements such as health insurance, pensions, and grievance machinery. It
exerted a powerful working-class voice in the great debates over taxation, social welfare, and economic
policy of the New Deal-World War II era. During this same period, pioneering CIO political initiatives
helped forge the New Deal coalition that dominated American politics for forty years. Unprecedented
recruitment of African American workers by the CIO and its alliances with civil rights organizations made
organized labor a major factor in the revolution in race relations launched in this era.
 
The ideological conflicts that raged in the CIO, involving as they did the role of communism in both the
world arena and in domestic affairs, were at the center of national politics for more than a decade. The
industrial mobilization of American workers, millions of whom were CIO members, during World War II
raised enduring questions about the character of state power in the modern world. And no aspect of
American life was more significant in postwar anticommunism, international and domestic, than the industrial
unions of the CIO.
 
The Minutes' verbatim record of the lengthy, free-wheeling discussions of CIO leaders provides a vivid
firsthand record of the deliberations of some of the outstanding figures in American labor history. The
Board, which consisted of the leader of each of the thirty or so unions in the federation as well as
top-ranking officers of the CIO itself, met at least three times each year and often as many as six. The
articulate and ambitious leaders of the industrial union movement embraced a variety of progressive
perspectives. Social Catholics, reformist Protestants, secular liberals, Communists, social democrats, and
Trotskyists debated and sought to put into action diverse agendas for labor.
 
Early meetings of CIO leaders reflect the crusading spirit that characterized the creation of modern industrial
unionism. Records of these gatherings reveal the inner workings of the CIO's bold organizing campaigns of
the mid-1930s. They document the epic struggle of Akron's rubber workers, the dramatic Flint sit-down
strike of 1936-37, the violent response to efforts to organize a half-million steelworkers, and the
unprecedented union involvement in the 1936 election.
 
At early meetings of the Board, CIO founder John L. Lewis articulated far-reaching ambitions for the new
industrial union movement. Lewis's reports on his complex and shifting relations with Franklin D. Roosevelt
vividly reveal the political dimensions of the industrial union crusade. Lewis's successor, Philip Murray,
combined an encyclopedic knowledge of economic conditions with an immersion in Roman Catholic social
ideology. Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers brought with him the legacy of his vast
experience in the disputatious New York immigrant socialist environment as well as a shrewd understanding
of the new politics of the Roosevelt era. Harry Bridges, the fiery head of the influential West Coast
Longshoremen's Union, personified the crosscurrents of the vigorous left-wing political culture that
characterized the dockyards milieu of California. Walter Reuther and other leaders in the increasingly
influential United Automobile Workers (UAW) advanced far-reaching progressive political and ideological
programs.
 
Of course, much of the material in the Minutes of the Executive Board is of special interest to students of the
labor movement per se. The split between the AFL and the CIO (and twenty years later, the merger of the
two organizations) occupied much of the attention of CIO leaders. These Minutes also contain detailed
discussions of collective bargaining goals and strategies, the great strike waves of 1935-37, 1940-41,
1944, and 1945-46, inter-union relations, organizing efforts such as the postwar Operation Dixie, and
political initiatives. Internal conflicts often loomed large. The Minutes' extensive transcripts document John
L. Lewis's bitter break with his erstwhile colleagues in the period 1940-42. The ongoing conflict between
pro-Soviet and anti-Communist unionists, which culminated in the "trials" that led to the ouster of eleven
unions from the CIO in 1950, brought even fiercer conflict and more extensive debate.
 
In the CIO's later years, meetings of its Executive Committee, which consisted of presidents of the largest
unions and the federation's central officers, reflect the changing political and economic environment of the
1950s. Board minutes chronicle their efforts to come to grips with perplexing postwar problems of antiunion
legislation, economic growth, unemployment, civil rights, and foreign policy. CIO leaders were critical
supporters of the government's anti-Communist foreign policies and pioneers in modern political action
initiatives. Extensive debates over merger with the AFL reflect competing visions of labor's future.

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