Organized Labor - The interwar years



With internal critics silenced, Gompers and his successor, William Green, were free to devote the AFL's international energies in the 1920s to developing a leadership role for U.S. labor in the Western Hemisphere—a renewed interest that in part was inspired by the AFL's alienation from European labor diplomacy. Unable to shape either the International Federation of Trade Unions or International Labor Organization in ways it deemed constructive, the AFL instead chose to concentrate after 1920 on exercising influence over its immediate neighbors. Economic issues also played a role: AFL leaders recognized that American business was expanding rapidly throughout the hemisphere and that immigrants from Canada and Latin America were swelling the U.S. workforce. Since many AFL unions had already established strong footholds in Canada by World War I, AFL leaders primarily focused on encouraging better relations with Latin American labor movements. Their avenue to influence was the Pan American Federation of Labor, created in 1918 with secret financial aid from the Wilson administration. The Pan American Federation sought to raise labor standards in Latin America, curb abuses of labor by international capitalists, and promote the growth of unions in the Americas. Gompers and the AFL also wanted to use the organization to resolve immigration problems between Mexico and the United States and to give legitimacy to corporatist-oriented labor organizations such as the Confederación Regional Obrera Mexicana at the expense of the Industrial Workers of the World and other anarchist, communist, or socialist labor movements and organizations, which were winning converts in Latin America and within the Mexican-American community in the U.S. Southwest.

Although the Pan American Federation and the AFL sometimes condemned U.S. military interventionism within Latin America, AFL delegates often asserted that the U.S. presence in Latin America was primarily a beneficial one. Significant within the Pan American Federation conventions, as Sinclair Snow has shown, were debates over the Monroe Doctrine, with delegates from the AFL defending the doctrine as one that protected Latin American countries from greedy European powers, and many Latin American trade unionists condemning it as an instrument of U.S. imperialism. The AFL's frequent support for U.S. foreign policy and predominant role in the Pan American Federation fostered much criticism among radical Latin American trade unionists, who came to view it as a tool of U.S. imperialism. The organization declined rapidly as more left-leaning labor organizations gained influence in Mexico and Latin America in the mid-and late 1920s.

Largely isolated from their European and Latin American counterparts, the AFL at first promoted a nationalist response to the Great Depression. The organization resisted Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts to expand trade through reciprocal agreements with other countries and instead suggested that the best way to end the depression was by implementing a thirty-hour work week. Mandated shorter hours, argued AFL leaders, would force employers to hire unemployed workers and lead to increased spending. To further stimulate the economy, many AFL unions recommended increased tariff protection for some industries and even promoted William Randolph Hearst's "Buy American" campaigns. Yet the AFL's isolationist impulse proved temporary. German and Japanese aggression in the 1930s, as well as challenges from the newly created Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), forced the AFL to take a renewed interest in international affairs. In 1933 the AFL instituted a boycott of German goods and supported Roosevelt's ban on strategic materials to Italy. Although AFL leaders continued to support the neutrality laws and to oppose U.S. military involvement overseas throughout the 1930s, it reaffiliated with the International Federation of Trade Unions in 1937. In part, the AFL sought to support antifascist forces in Europe. But equally important it hoped to prevent the organization from admitting either the CIO or labor delegates from the Soviet Union.

The symbolic origins of the CIO lay in United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis's historic right-cross punch to the chin of William Hutcheson of the Carpenters Union during an AFL convention in 1935. The fistfight occurred following a heated debate in which Lewis attacked the AFL for failing to take advantage of the depression and Roosevelt's labor policies to organize the unorganized. Following the 1935 convention, Lewis met with other disaffected leaders to create the Committee for Industrial Organization, which would spawn the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Although the AFL had many semi-industrial unions by the 1930s, leaders of the new CIO objected to the slow rate at which the AFL organized unskilled workers and to the continued dominance of craft unions within the organization. Capitalizing on rank-and-file labor militance in industries like rubber, automobiles, and steel, the CIO organized mass industrial unions that incorporated most grades of workers within particular industries. The CIO became famous for its militant tactics, scored decisive victories for workers in numerous industries, and vied with the AFL for leadership of the American labor movement.

Less well known than the domestic quarrels between the AFL and CIO were their conflicts over foreign policy. In contrast to the AFL's heavy-handed "Monroe Doctrine" for labor, CIO leaders preached nonintervention in the internal affairs of Latin American unions. When pursuing negotiations over labor issues, moreover, the CIO chose to bargain with leftist and often communist-led organizations like the Confederación de Trabajadores de América Latina rather than with AFL-inspired organizations such as the Inter-American Labor Union. Such activities won the CIO much goodwill among Latin American trade unionists, as did its decision to endorse Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas's decision to expropriate British and American oil fields in 1938. By contrast, AFL leaders argued that Cardenas's nationalization programs were a violation of the right to private property. The CIO also parted ways with the AFL in its willingness to envision the Soviet trade union movement as a part of future international labor organizations.

The top leaders of the CIO hierarchy, such as Sidney Hillman, Philip Murray, James Carey, and Walter Reuther, were all noncommunists who had battled communists during their ascent to power. Yet all were willing to work with communists at home when it supported their purposes and to negotiate with communist labor leaders abroad because they believed their support to be critical to the defeat of fascism and to future international labor cooperation. Such sentiments were comparable to those of the European leaders of the International Federation of Trade Unions, who had battled the Red International Labor Union in the 1920s but who saw the need for a popular front against fascism in the 1930s. By contrast, the AFL remained vehemently anticommunist throughout the 1930s and strongly opposed Soviet participation in the International Federation of Trade Unions. AFL leaders argued that only "free" trade unions, unattached to government parties or institutions, should be allowed to join international labor organizations. Soviet supporters countered that Western labor movements—including the AFL—were not entirely free of state interference either. A full debate on the issue of Soviet participation in the International Federation of Trade Unions was postponed in 1939 because of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. But the success of the Grand Alliance during World War II again led western European and CIO unionleaders to speculate about the value of a postwar labor organization that would include the communist world.



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