The Emergence & Significance of Industrial Unions

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  • 0:02 What Is an Industrial Union?
  • 1:05 Emergence of Industrial Unions
  • 3:24 Key Figures
  • 5:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

Learn how industrial unions differed from other unions of the time and why their leaders were so passionate about them. Consider the impact of organization workers in entire industries rather than by skill alone.

What Is an Industrial Union?

Imagine that you work in the U.S. steel industry as a laborer in the early 1930s. You work hard but haven't been in the industry long enough to develop particular skills. Your job mainly involves performing tasks of manual labor, such as hauling raw materials from one place to another. Due to this, you are considered an unskilled worker.

Working conditions are poor, but the major federation of unions of the time, The American Federation of Labor (AFL), primarily represents the skilled workers, those who have training and experience in specific tasks. These workers are often expected to make judgment calls and have typically been on the job longer. As an unskilled worker, where do you turn for support for your cause? Industrial unions helped meet this need. In this lesson, we'll take a look at how unions designed around entire industries provided an avenue for labor organizing on behalf of many different levels of workers, including unskilled and semiskilled workers, rather than just skilled workers alone.

Emergence of Industrial Unions

Prior to the twentieth century, industrial unions had emerged in several industries, combining the forces of both skilled and unskilled workers. In particular, the United Mine Workers of America and the American Railway Union had fought for better wages and conditions starting in the 1890s. Some strikes of these industrial unions were successful, while others faced government and employer action against them.

By the mid-1930s, a debate divided many in the labor movement as to whether each skilled craft should be organized into a union, or craft unions, versus whole industries organized into a union, or industrial unions. Those who advocated for craft unions valued the development of skills in a certain area, but those who wanted industrial unions noted that some industries do not lend themselves well to this model. In addition, they unfairly exclude some workers, like the laborer who hauls the raw materials.

As an unskilled worker in the steel industry, shouldn't you have an organization that represents your interests fully? This was the argument of the CIO. Originally an acronym for the Committee for Industrial Organization, CIO members worked within the AFL for a period of time in the 1930s as a subset of the membership who really wanted to address this issue.

However, AFL leaders wanted to keep their attention on the skilled crafts and would not support a long-term focus on the industry-wide goals that the CIO advocated. This debate raised tough questions about whether it's better to organize based on the specific type of work you do or based on the actual workplace as a whole. Ultimately, the resistance of AFL leadership to industrial unionism resulted in a split with the CIO, which got a new name at their first convention: the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The CIO was essentially a federation of industrial unions, acting to represent the interests of all workers in major industries, such as the steel, rubber, and automotive sectors.

Over the years, the AFL leadership and the CIO engaged in a turf war with both groups vying for some of the same members. Interestingly, the two groups would later merge back together into the AFL-CIO in the 1950s. But that's a story for another lesson!

Key Figures

Let's look at three key figures in this movement and what they each contributed to the mission of better representation for all workers.

An early representative of industrial solidarity was Mary Harris Jones, known as Mother Jones. She was particularly active in the mining industry but was also well known in the wider labor movement. She was also involved in establishing the Industrial Workers of the World and fought to end child labor.

Eugene V. Debs started off as a railroad worker in his teens and ultimately became president of the American Railway Union. A strong advocate of industrial unionism, Debs would also become critical of the class system in general. Debs stood out to many because of early successes with a strike against the Great Northern Railway to achieve higher pay for workers. When the Pullman Palace Car Company reduced wages without reducing worker's expenses, Debs was able to mobilize workers across the industry during a strike and boycott that shut down railways. When the Pullman strike ended poorly and Debs was sentenced to a jail term for his involvement, he ultimately developed a greater interest in changing the political landscape of the country. He would run for President of the United States multiple times as the Socialist party candidate.

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