From Ohio History Central
Established in 1935, the Congress of Industrial Organizations was an umbrella organization for other unions.
In 1881, Samuel Gompers took the lead in organizing the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States of America and Canada. This union became the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886, in Columbus, Ohio. Under Gompers's leadership, the AFL became the largest labor union in the United States. The AFL initially allowed only skilled workers to join the organization. Unskilled laborers initially did not have representation under the AFL. The union also originally prohibited women, African Americans, and other racial minorities from joining the union.
Following Gompers's death in 1924, difficulties arose for the AFL. Some members began to call for a more inclusive union -- one that would fight for the rights of unskilled workers as well, rather than just workers skilled in a particular craft. Tensions over this issue became so prevalent that, in 1935, John L. Lewis, an AFL member, formed the Committee for Industrial Organization. Originally, this organization was a part of the AFL, but in 1937, the parent organization expelled all members of the Committee for Industrial Organization. The Committee for Industrial Organization eventually became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
The CIO quickly attracted thousands of workers to its ranks. One of the primary reasons for this involved several successful strikes during the mid 1930s. One of the CIO's greatest achievements came during the Akron, Ohio, Rubber Strike of 1936. In an attempt to alleviate poor working conditions at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, B.F. Goodrich, and Firestone, workers at these plants had formed a union, the United Rubber Workers, in 1935. The United Rubber Workers were initially affiliated with the CIO. The strike began as a protest against a plan created by Goodyear to reduce wages and increase the pace of production. The workers utilized the concept of the "sit-down" strike. In the past, when workers went on strike, they would leave the factory to join picket lines. Company owners often hired "scab" laborers to cross the picket lines and continue production. The practice of using scab labor made it difficult for striking workers to obtain their demands. In contrast, in a sit-down strike, workers quit working but still occupied their places within the factory. This process meant that the factory owners could not send in additional workers to continue the job. In addition, factory management was more reluctant to use private security forces or other strikebreakers to intimidate the striking workers, as that approach threatened destruction of plant property. In addition to the sit-down strike, the rubber workers also organized long picket lines in protest. Akron's mayor, Lee D. Schroy, attempted to send in the police to put down the strike, but the police officers refused to do so when they faced the thousands of organized workers. In the long term, Goodyear was forced to recognize the United Rubber Workers and negotiate better contracts with workers.
The CIO and its affiliated unions did not always attain such quick success. In 1937, workers at the Republic Steel Company, the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, and several other steel companies went on strike over low wages and poor working conditions. Collectively these steel companies were known as "Little Steel." Like the strikers in Akron the year before, these workers employed the use of sit-down strikes and picket lines. People sympathetic with the workers actually used airplanes to drop food to the workers inside of the plants. They also attempted to mail food into the businesses, but the post office refused to deliver the packages to the strikers. To prevent the strike from occurring in the first place the Little Steel companies had hired their own police forces to intimidate workers. During the strikes, the companies lobbied local residents to put pressure on the strikers and their families. Numerous citizens formed committees, including the Mahoning Valley, Ohio Citizens' Committee, the Citizens' Law and Order League of Canton, Ohio, and the John Q. Public League of Warren, Ohio, to protest the strikers' actions. Little Steel brought in scab laborers to work the machines while the sit-down strikers remained in the plants. The employers even used tear gas to drive the strikers out of the businesses. The governor of Ohio, Martin L. Davey, eventually sent troops in to break up the strike. Little Steel refused to recognize any of the strikers' demands. It was not until 1941 that the Little Steel companies finally recognized unions.
The AFL and the CIO remained as two separate organizations until 1955, when the two unions reunited together as the AFL-CIO. For the remainder of the twentieth century, the AFL-CIO remained the largest union in the United States. The percentage of unionized workers, however, declined beginning in the 1950s. In 1953, 32.5% of American workers were union members. By 1983, only twenty percent of American workers belonged to a union.
- Zieger, Robert H. The CIO, 1935-1955. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997.