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When John L. Lewis And Big Bill Hutcheson Brawled At The AFL!
The Oct. 19, 1935, Punch that Changed Labor History.
On October 19, 1935, the American Federation of Labor held its convention in Atlantic City. While usually a staid affair, this convention was rocked by a fight on stage between United Mine Workers of America president John L. Lewis and United Brotherhood of Carpenters president Big Bill Hutcheson. This incident and the lead-up to it helped cement the withdrawal of the UMWA from the AFL and the creation of the CIO as an industrial alternative to the AFL’s craft unionism.
The United Brotherhood of Carpenters was the largest member of the AFL. It was also among the most politically conservative unions. While like much of the AFL technically nonpartisan in these years, Hutcheson was an active Republican and would remain so throughout his life, openly campaigning for Republican candidates against Franklin Roosevelt. His son, who took over the union upon Big Bill’s death in 1952, shared his political conservatism. In fact, the UBC would not endorse a Democrat for president until Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Hutcheson would become a member of America First before World War II, castigate FDR for not supporting the House Un-American Activities Committee, and oppose Harry Truman’s proposal for a national health program. He also opposed unemployment insurance.
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The Carpenters were distinctly uncomfortable with not only the idea of industrial unionism but the industrial workers. The AFL gave the Carpenters jurisdiction over the timber industry. Loggers in the Pacific Northwest went on strike in 1935. The Great Strike finally organized the loggers who had agitated for unionism since their days as IWW members 20 years earlier. The Carpenters gained 100,000 new members. But the UBC feared the influence of a bunch of ex-Wobblies and current commies — of which there were no small number, especially in Washington although decidedly less so in Oregon. So they did not give the loggers full union rights, including the right to vote for union officials. Hutcheson already ran one of the least democratic unions in the United States and was not about to let a bunch of commie treecutters in an industry marginal to the union’s central mission undo the work he had done building his empire. The loggers seethed under Carpenters representation, such as it was.
John L. Lewis saw the labor movement very differently than did Hutcheson. Not that Lewis was more democratic or some sort of raging leftist. Far from it. Lewis and Hutcheson were old poker buddies back when both lived in Indianapolis. But Lewis knew that his miners, one of the only industrial unions in the United States, required the organizing of the nation’s other industrial laborers to create a stable union. Lewis would later personally engineer the organizing of the steel plants for this reason. Lewis and other labor leaders were also concerned that AFL president William Green’s tepid response to the Great Depression was undermining the labor movement. During the early 1930s, the AFL lost up to 7,000 members a week. Lewis demanded that Franklin Roosevelt aggressively move to pass legislation that helped workers. He also encouraged the AFL to give up its long-standing animus to the industrial workers that made up a huge chunk of the American labor force and engage in an organizing campaign of workers who wanted to join unions. Green and Hutcheson demurred. Lewis stewed.
The growing tensions between the craft unions and those who sought to organize the millions of under- and unemployed Americans demanding economic change grew through 1934, as revolts around the nation made many Americans fearful for capitalism’s future. But the AFL still largely refused to act. By the time the AFL met in Atlantic City in the fall of 1935, Hutcheson was determined to squash any industrial unionism talk. At the convention, Hutcheson ran the floor. When a rubber worker began speaking about a point of order, Hutcheson interrupted him. Lewis quickly responded to defend the guy.
When Hutcheson called Lewis a “bastard” in response, Lewis jumped on the stage and punched him in the face. He then re-lit his cigar and calmly returned to his seat. Hutcheson didn’t really know how to respond.
Some have questioned whether Lewis had planned to punch Hutcheson. I kind of doubt it but he certainly took advantage of the situation to very publicly announce to the AFL old guard that he was serious about organizing the nation’s industrial workers. Three weeks after this dramatic event, Lewis, David Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (AGW) formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) within the AFL. This set the stage for the withdrawal of the industrial unionists from the federation in 1937, when the CIO became the Congress of Industrial Organizations. After that came the creation of the United Auto Workers, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, and the other giant unions that changed American life.
In truth, the labor movement has never been internally united. Like in 1935, today there are many factions in the labor movement. Some are on the left. Others are politically conservative. Some want to organize the masses. Others are happy taking care of the members they have. Some are members of the AFL-CIO and others choose to walk their own path. I wish the labor movement could be on one page, but then I’d like a pony too.
Robert Zieger, The CIO, 1935-1955
Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren Van Tine, John L. Lewis: A Biography
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