Industrial Workers Get Organized

Front row: Philip Murray, John L. Lewis, and Sidney Hillman. Back row: William Mitch of the Miners, Jacob Potofsky of the Clothing Workers, and Emil Rieve of the Textile Workers. (CIO 1935-1955: Industrial Democracy in Action, December 1955)

Industrial Workers Get Organized

By the 1930s, there had been many efforts at organizing along industrial rather than craft lines, but they had all failed to produce anything of permanence. It was only when the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) was formed in 1935 that the will to break with the older craft traditions of the American Federation of Labor was cultivated, and the necessary resources and experience were brought to organize the basic industries.

The second episode of Organized the Unorganized: The Rise of the CIO kicks things off with an account of the institutional formation of the CIO from labor historians Melvyn Dubofsky and Nelson Lichtenstein and then provides a background on some of the organization’s key personalities. John L. Lewis, the founding president and driving force behind the CIO, unsurprisingly gets a fair amount of time, with a focus in particular on the reasons for his bold leadership at this decisive moment in history. In the 1920s, Lewis presided over a declining mine workers’ union and was known as one of the worst union autocrats. What explains his remarkable transformation in the 1930s? Leading labor historians and experts — including the author of the definitive biography of Lewis, Dubofsky — explain the central factors, and numerous archival clips from Lewis’s speeches do so in his own words.

This episode introduces Sidney Hillman, the only other real center of power in the organization besides Lewis in the early CIO, as well as some of the main organizers of the CIO, most of whom hailed from the United Mine Workers of America. Steve Fraser, the author of the definitive biography of Sidney Hillman, speaks to Hillman’s place in the CIO, and we hear a long clip from a 1935 radio debate that Hillman participated in.

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