You Should Know About Labor Leader John Brophy

John Brophy earned the moniker “Mr. CIO” in the 1930s for his excellent organizing for the Congress of Industrial Organizations. He was steadfast and never flashy, which is perhaps why he’s been forgotten. It’s also what makes him a model for our times.

Labor leader John Brophy (1883–1963). (Wikimedia Commons)

Like many readers of this publication, I have a special place in my heart for one Bernie Sanders. The period bracketed by his two presidential primary runs has been without question the most exciting political moment of my life. Despite his losses, I still think Bernie is the model for the Left of a principled and strategic politician. We do ourselves no favors in hastening a “post-Bernie” era or thinking we have nothing left to learn from the man.

Above all we can learn from Bernie’s consistency. It’s what allows him to stand aloof from the culture wars, a seeming moral anchor in a rancorous and cynical political climate. It’s what endowed him with the trustworthiness that made it possible for a democratic socialist to have a shot at winning the nomination of an avowedly capitalist party. If you’ve heard one Bernie speech, you’ve heard them all: unionized jobs, Medicare for All, a Green New Deal. He’s so steadfast and predictable that his critics can’t decide whether to condemn him for being an extremist or for being, well, boring.

Bernie belongs to a long and rich tradition of American radicalism. Of its many luminaries, one embodies this quality of consistency particularly well, and perhaps this is why his name, John Brophy, is not a household one. Brophy was a true working-class hero: as national director of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) during its ascendance, Brophy was a key player in many of the struggles that laid the groundwork for the New Deal order. And as the one person to internally challenge John L. Lewis — perhaps the most egotistical and spiteful maniac the American labor movement ever produced — before Lewis’s departure from the CIO, Brophy stood boldly for democracy and solidarity at a high personal price.

It should also be said that Brophy was indeed boring: friends called him “loquacious,” but even close colleagues would sometimes wince before going into meetings with him, knowing Brophy’s penchant for exercising ten words where one would do. Loquacity aside, Brophy had that same Sanders consistency. His basic program — nationalizing basic industries, shortening the working day, organizing the unorganized, giving working people a greater voice in American democracy — was formulated early on in his life and echoed unwaveringly throughout. Brophy always put principles before personal matters, and his steady manner helped channel volatile personalities into productive organizational action, action that just so happened to lay the groundwork for the most prosperous time for working people in American history. We should all aspire to be so boring.

Son of the Mines

Brophy was born in an English mining family. His father and his uncle, John’s namesake, were both miners. His grandfather died of a stroke while waiting to be lowered into the shaft, and even his great-grandmother was a miner before female labor in the mines was outlawed. The only traditions that ran as strong as mining in the Brophy family were Catholicism and unionism. When Brophy came with his family to the United States from England at age nine, he remained rooted in all three family traditions.

Despite enduring the pressures of desperate poverty and working as a full-time miner in Pennsylvania beginning at age twelve, Brophy found plenty of time for reading. He recalls in his autobiography that one of the greatest events of his childhood was when his mother collected some quantity of boys’ magazines from a lady for whom she did domestic work. In his adolescence, he was especially drawn to the writing of Richard Ely, Henry Demarest Lloyd, Henry George, Eugene Debs, and other critics of capitalism.

Brophy speaking at an outdoor labor rally at Six Mile Run, Pennsylvania, August 17, 1924. (Catholic University of America Digital Collections)

Brophy was a unionist above all else, but he was close to both socialists and socialist analysis. Economist Carter Goodrich said Brophy was a radical “of the sort whose favorite words are ‘program’ and ‘plan’ and ‘thought out beforehand.’” From very early on, and consistently throughout his career, he was sharply critical of the ultra-left, particularly the Communist Party. He believed that a clear, bold progressive program — the nationalization of the mines, organizing the unorganized, a six-hour day, and union democracy — laid out the best course between a blinkered business unionism and Communist “intellectualism.” Despite this position, he opposed red-baiting where it divided unionists.

In 1917, Brophy was elected president of District Two of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and in 1926, he challenged John L. Lewis himself for the presidency of the whole union in a campaign entitled “Save the Union.” Lewis, of course, was later to be the face of the CIO, but in the mid-1920s he had few organizing triumphs to his name and was making the UMWA more autocratic by the day.

When Lewis won the election, Brophy knew that there had been foul play at work. But he and allies like Powers Hapgood also believed that his insurgent campaign had been skillfully split by Lewis’s red-baiting, which made much of the fact that Communists had supported Brophy, despite their disagreements. Hapgood lamented, “Must they [Communists] always be told to go to hell and their cooperation refused in certain things in which every honest progressive believes merely because we differ from them in ultimate revolutionary ideology?”

Brophy’s defeat was complete. Not only did he lose his local presidency, but Lewis also expelled him from the UMWA for supposed “dual unionism.” From his expulsion in 1928 until his return to mining and unionism in 1933, Brophy, who had dedicated his life to the labor, was effectively exiled from the labor movement.

Lewis had totally vanquished his rival, but having done so, he found himself commanding a quickly shrinking empire: from a high of half a million bituminous coal miners in 1921, membership had fallen to eighty thousand by mid-1928. Lewis had soundly defeated the “Save the Union” campaign, and as implicitly promised, the union collapsed with the Depression.

“For downright blundering, mad, unreasoning, stupid, destructive, and disloyal leadership,” District 12 president Frank Farrington seethed, “Lewis’s action has never been equalled by any leader in the organized labor movement of America.”

Back in Action

In June 1933, the same month that the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) passed, Brophy returned to mining and to his local. Word got back to Lewis, who invited him to meet. As if he had not ruined the man’s life, Lewis explained to Brophy that their past differences were simply over the question of “timing,” not substance. Brophy was understandably wary of Lewis’s overtures, but he nonetheless accepted a UMWA staff job when it was offered.

Brophy finally returns to good standing in the UMWA in 1934. (Catholic University of America Digital Collections)

Lewis, for his part, had indeed changed. He was still the same power-obsessed petty tyrant, but he understood the moment better than most: Section 7a of the NIRA, guaranteeing workers the right to “organize unions of their own choosing,” was a game changer. In September 1933, Lewis capitalized on rank-and-file rebelliousness to pressure operators and Roosevelt into a contract covering all of the major bituminous districts.

Brophy conferring with John L. Lewis at the 1937 CIO Convention. (Catholic University of America Digital Collections)

With a generational victory in the bag, Lewis looked around him and chastised other labor leaders for squandering an opportunity. The craft orientation of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was its limitation, and Lewis was determined to overcome it. His determination was symbolized in the right jab that Lewis landed on carpenters’ union president William Hutcheson, one that he supposedly delivered after having leapt over several rows of chairs at the October 1935 AFL convention. A month later, the first CIO office in Washington, DC, was opened by Brophy, now the CIO’s national director.

It’s difficult to know what gave Lewis such confidence in Brophy, given their history. Perhaps part of it was a “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” philosophy. Maybe he also understood that his own dominant personality needed some balancing for the organization to be successful. By all accounts, Brophy’s impact as director was a universally positive one. In Walter Reuther and James Carey’s portrayal:

He was in the forefront of every organizing campaign that made national headlines during the last six years of the 1930s. It was John Brophy who helped rally striking rubber workers in Akron after they discovered that they could “shut the machines down.” It was John Brophy who climbed a barbed-wire fence in Flint to encourage sitdown strikers not to surrender. It was John Brophy who went to New Orleans and Jersey City despite publicized threats that if he addressed scheduled labor rallies, he would never leave either city alive. And, it was John Brophy who helped form the Steel Workers Organizing Committee.

If anything, Reuther and Carey underplay his role in the sit-down strike in Flint. Brophy had the foresight to see that UAW president Homer Martin was not up to the task of holding out on GM during the strike, and he stepped in to serve as a key liaison to Governor Frank Murphy, skillfully finding ways for him to avoid breaking the strike. After the strike, he was also the CIO’s representative on the negotiating committee, bringing much-needed contractual knowledge to the table.

Brophy also played the key role in developing the CIO’s internal culture. He personally drafted the regional structures, central bodies, and certificates of affiliation that gave the CIO internal structure and established it as a true rival organization of the AFL. And despite his own aversion to Communism, he defended people like Harry Bridges of the longshoremen’s union against red-baiting. Anything that divided the labor movement was abhorrent to Brophy.

Brophy with Powers Hapgood (left) and Adolph Germer (right) organizing the rubber workers in Akron, Ohio, 1936. (John Brophy, A Miner’s Life [University of Wisconsin Press, 1964]).
More generally, Brophy traveled ceaselessly during this time, serving as a mediating link between the rank and file and CIO leadership. For this he gained the moniker “Mr CIO” — a development that no doubt rankled Lewis. He also challenged Lewis on substantive questions: for instance, Lewis was initially opposed to the Tennessee Valley Authority, which he saw as a threat to coal production in the region. Brophy eventually convinced him that “an organization which stood for improving the conditions of the common people could not oppose the TVA.”

Servant of the Program

For all this, Brophy’s position was an appointed rather than elected one. When the time came in 1938 to elect leadership in an organization that Brophy gave structure to, Lewis publicly opposed his candidacy for secretaryship, putting forth his daughter Kathryn instead.

It’s possible that Brophy could have won the election despite Lewis’s opposition, given the respect he had earned as national director. But ever wary of causing internal division, Brophy would not allow his name to be put up for nomination. As his autobiography editor notes in frustration, “He never allowed himself to become a ‘big shot,’ nor was he diverted from what he liked to call the ‘larger program’ in pursuit of lesser objectives.” The next year he was replaced as organizational director by Allan Haywood, a Lewis acolyte.

Sister Camilla Mullay, Brophy’s biographer, speculates on a few possible reasons for Brophy’s demotion. The only other person to be demoted in 1939 was Bridges, leading many to think that the “menace of Communism” was at the forefront of Lewis’s thinking. But Brophy was well-known to be as opposed to Communism as any other CIO leader, and much more aligned philosophically with the socialists. (Brophy was never a member of the Socialist Party, as he believed the “rigid doctrines of Marxist materialism” were at odds with his own Christian humanism, but in most matters of political ideology and practice, he was a socialist.)

Mullay finds more convincing the idea that Lewis believed Brophy simply unsuitable to the moment. Workers had been pounding at the door demanding to join the CIO in the mid-’30s. Lewis saw the road ahead to be a more difficult one from an organizing perspective, and perhaps he felt that Haywood, an apolitical yes-man who liked being “one of the boys,” was more appropriate to the task of organizing the unorganized than Brophy, the mild-mannered intellectual and religious abstainer from drink.

The obvious reason for Brophy’s demotion, however, might be the truest one. Brophy was the anti-Lewis, a reputation he could not live down even while acting as Lewis’s spokesman. Mullay helpfully summarizes their differences:

Except for a brief period in the mid-nineteen thirties, John L. Lewis personified for Brophy the laissez-faire philosophy, the business unionism, and the dictatorial leadership that he detested as evil. Philosophic differences led Lewis to give in to the coal operators in 1922 when Brophy held out for continuing the strike. This philosophic divergence caused Lewis to write in 1925 that the coal industry could be cured by the free play of natural economic laws, and Brophy to urge the nationalization of mines. Typical again were their attitudes in the 1928 election: Lewis voted for Hoover, Brophy, for Thomas. Actually Lewis’ drive to organize the unorganized, which drew Brophy to his side as an enthusiastic collaborator, sprang not from the desire to push the entire larger program, but from the need to secure the UMWA flanks, the captive mines owned by the steel industry. Lewis demanded personal loyalty, Brophy, union democracy. Lewis was concerned with personal power, Brophy with principles, institutions, and movements. Lewis thought it fitting that he be chauffeured in a limousine to his big office; Brophy believed a labor leader should live like a rank-and-filer.

Given their opposition, it makes sense that Lewis and Brophy’s relationship would end bitterly — and that when Lewis turned the reins of the CIO over to Philip Murray and then promptly alienated himself from Murray, Sidney Hillman, and other labor leaders, Brophy once again found a home in the CIO. Murray appointed him to the War Labor Board, where he tirelessly championed economic planning led by labor. As he said in 1941:

It has become apparent during the last decade and more that industrial management, if left to its own devices, is utterly incapable of organizing our American economy on a basis of full production, high wages, and low prices. It is essential that other elements of our society step into that breach. . . . Labor alone at once knows how the job is done and has the will to do it, not in the interest of private profit, but with the welfare of the nation as a whole in mind.

Brophy was particularly drawn to the CIO’s Industry Council Plan (ICP), which proposed “the creation of joint industry and labor management councils” to be responsible for managing each of the industries jointly. This plan was hatched during the war to coordinate defense production, but Brophy saw the plan as an urgent peacetime initiative as well. He spoke on the ICP consistently at CIO conventions, well past the point when anyone else in organized labor was listening, through to his retirement in 1961 and passing in 1963.

Writing to Walter Reuther in 1958, Brophy described the aim of the ICP as “democratically arrived at policies dealing with the use of America’s natural resources, the elimination of depressed areas, and the availability and cost of electric power.” After the war, he served on the Missouri Valley Authority (MVA) Committee and pushed for the creation of an MVA on the model of the TVA. As with the ICP idea itself, the MVA was one of Brophy’s “vigorous instruments for attaining the long-range goal — full integration of workers into the social and economic planning process,” a goal that was both untimely and timeless.

Brophy laying a CIO wreath in Mexico with Walter Reuther and Dan Benedict on December 13, 1954. (Catholic University of America Digital Collections)

Being Boring From Within

The historian Robert Zieger has written that “until 1941, in most things except name the CIO was the UMW and John L. Lewis.” To the broader public, Lewis’s gigantic face and booming voice personified the new labor behemoth.

But comparatively out of sight, moving from town to town, mine to mine, plant to plant, Brophy gained the reputation of being “Mr CIO.” It fit him much better than it did Lewis, who could only ever be John L. Lewis. Brophy, by contrast, melded with the organization in its period of ascendance, and he bore a lifelong commitment to the basic principles for which the CIO is known — organizing the unorganized and incorporating workers’ voices into an industrial democracy.

Of the many lessons Brophy’s life and social philosophy have to offer, the fundamental simplicity of the socialist program might be the most important. Despite all its enemies’ bluster about scandalous extremism, at the end of the day socialism is just not that interesting. In the face of political demagoguery and absurd culture wars, it points back again and again to material interests and worker empowerment. Contemporary socialists may fill magazines and podcasts with infinitely interesting discussions of the “leftist perspective on x,” but socialism itself is fairly bereft of opinions. It doesn’t know the latest. It’s not holding court at a bar. It is impervious to “vibe shifts.”

If Brophy is any example, we could all do well to be a little less interesting, less opinionated, less acerbic, and much more focused on the long-term program. Bayard Rustin once wrote in a very different political context:

Genuine radicalism . . . is not measured by how loud and abusively one can shout or by the purity and beauty of one’s rhetoric. Rather, genuine radicalism seeks fundamental change through concerted, intelligent and long-range commitment. . . . Obviously there is much wrong with the trade union movement; obviously there is much wrong with black people in the United States; obviously there is much wrong with white liberals; obviously wherever we look we can find fault. But the only result of endless fault-finding is that you end up in a corner with the few people who are as good and pure as you are. It renders impossible the building of a political movement capable of directing its attention to the most basic task of all — the redistribution of wealth. . . . Those self-appointed spokesmen who raise divisive issues to prove the superiority of their politics are not really radical. By confusing and distracting from the real sources of social change, they retard the struggle for equality and justice.

When the next upsurge happens, it will be incumbent on the Left to cast off its own quixotic concerns and serve as the trusted and principled channel through which the demands of working people are directed to transformational gains. This means, among other things, being more principle than personality, more program than opinion, more Brophy than Lewis. “The most important labor leader nobody knows” has much to teach us in this regard.

Much of the biographical material here is taken from Sister M. Camilla Mullay’s 1966 dissertation, “John Brophy, Militant Labor Leader and Reformer: the CIO Years,” and John Brophy’s autobiography, A Miner’s Life. Also consulted were Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren Van Tine’s John L. Lewis: A Biography, and Robert Zieger’s The CIO: 1935–1955.

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Benjamin Y. Fong is honors faculty fellow and associate director of the Center for Work & Democracy at Arizona State University. He is the author of Quick Fixes: Drugs in America from Prohibition to the 21st Century Binge (Verso 2023).

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