Historical Markers
Founding Convention of the CIO Historical Marker
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Founding Convention of the CIO

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
Allegheny Center, Pittsburgh

Dedication Date:
September 23, 1997

Behind the Marker

Four men, dressed in tailored suits, are gathered around a conference table. Papers sit on the table in front of each person, and a glass in front of one of the men. Several ashtrays are also on the table. John L. Lewis (2nd from the right) and UMW vice president Thomas Kennedy (far right) led an aggressive campaign to organize the Pennsylvania coal mines. (W.W. Inglis, President of the Glen Alden Coal Company, and A.J. Maloney, President of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, are on the left.)
A tense meeting of the "Big Four" of the American coal industry, April 19, 1933.
Unionism stood at a crossroad when the markerAmerican Federation of Labor's convention opened in early November 1935 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Samuel Gompers' long-time strategy of focusing his organization on skilled white male workers had made the AFL into the nation's strongest labor organization. But his strategy left most steel workers, especially the ranks of unskilled laborers and semiskilled operatives, open to the harsh, often repressive campaigns waged by the steel companies against all labor organizers.

A mill worker, in a black suit, is shown fighting with pickets who seek to prevent his entering the Cambria plant of the Bethlehem Steel Company at Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
Steel mill worker fighting to cross a picket line outside the Cambria Steel...
Vast numbers of workers in the booming auto, rubber, and electrical industries were also largely unorganized and represented a huge opportunity, the mineworkers' John L. Lewis told the delegates. And the opportunities opened up by the New Deal's labor-friendly Wagner Act might not come again.

But the AFL's executive committee declined to mount an organizing effort in steel and pointedly affirmed that the AFL's purpose was to protect the "jurisdictional rights of all trade unions organized along craft lines." A raucous debate confirmed the AFL's comfortable craft-union ideal by a vote of 18,024 to 10,933.

Disregarding this defeat, the industrial unionists met the very next day. On November 9 the coal miners under Lewis, several strong national unions in the clothing industry, the typographers, oil field and refinery workers, and smelter workers formed the Committee for Industrial Organization.

Initially they intended to work within the AFL, but when the AFL ordered the CIO to dissolve, and then ousted the ten new CIO unions from the AFL, Lewis resigned as vice chairman of the AFL, and CIO unions boycotted the AFL's 1936 convention. Not until 1955 did trade unionists and industrial unionists settle their differences and merge into the AFL-CIO.
Steel Workers Vote as Government Watches.
Jones & Laughlin steel mill workers voting for union representation, Aliquippa,...

In January 1937 the CIO affiliated United Auto Workers (UAW) initiated a novel "sit down" strike against General Motors in which striking workers in Flint, Michigan, stayed inside the factory instead of picketing outside. When General Motors demanded that the state militia turn out the strikers, setting a deadline many feared would bring bloodshed, the governor calmly declined to send any troops. In early February General Motors fully recognized the UAW. When Chrysler followed a month later, only Ford remained an antiunion holdout.

The CIO, soon busy with the markerSteel Workers Organizing Committee never looked back. The steelworkers scored major victories in spring 1937 when U.S. Steel signed an unprecedented agreement that included recognition of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee as a bargaining unit and the Supreme Court issued its pro-labor decision in markerNLRB v. Jones and Laughlin. By May the SWOC had signed more than 100 contracts with steel companies, and boasted 300,000 members.

Group picture of the first assembly.
First Constitutional Convention of the Congress of Industrial Organizations,...
Other sit-down strikes in 1937 helped the CIO organize workers in the rubber, textiles, and glass industries. On April 2, 1937, markerstriking Hershey Chocolate workers brought the tactic to Pennsylvania. It became something of a strategy for all seasons, and gave rise to a popular labor song:

When they tie the can to a union man, Sit down! Sit down!
When they give him the sack, they'll take him back, Sit down! Sit down!
When the speed-up comes, just twiddle your thumbs, Sit down! Sit down!
When the boss won't talk, don't take a walk. Sit down! Sit down!

Men posing for a group portrait in front of the City County Building's ticket Office, Downtown Pittsburgh. They are wearing suits with overcoats and decorative top hats. Each is holding a cane with a USA CIO Pittsburgh flag attached.
CIO delegates in front of the City County Building's ticket Office, Pittsburgh,...
By the end of 1937, the CIO unions had a membership of 3.7 million. A CIO-led campaign in the textile industry signed up half the textile workers in the country, and made inroads even in the antiunion South. Perhaps 60 percent of the country's rubber workers were signed up. And this was in addition to the huge unions of miners, automobile workers, steelworkers, and ladies garment workers.

On November 14, the Committee for Industrial Organization became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) at a convention held at the Islam Grotto on Pittsburgh's North side. Father Charles Owen Rice, who would gain fame as Pittsburgh's labor priest in an activist career that spanned more than sixty years, prayed the invocation.

When Philip Murray succeeded his mentor John L. Lewis as chairman of SWOC in 1940, he inherited a disciplined, well-organized union. When World War II broke out, Murray promised to FDR that the steelworkers and the other industrial unions would not go on strike for the duration of the war. In return, FDR set up a War Labor Board that compelled the last holdouts among the "Little Steel" companies, which were led by markerEugene Grace's Bethlehem Steel to fully recognize the steelworkers union. SWOC became the United Steelworkers of America in 1942.
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