September 2012: CIO sympathizers routed at statewide AFL convention in ‘37

Delegates to the Minnesota AFL-CIO’s 51st Constitutional Convention will gather in Rochester Sept. 16-18. It is certain to be a much more harmonious affair than the statewide labor convention held in Hibbing 75 years ago, when AFL delegates snuffed out an attempt by “CIO sympathizers” to gain a foothold in the organization.

“Minnesota Labor took a definite stand on the side of the American Federation of Labor” at the statewide convention in September 1937, the Minnesota Union Advocate reported in its Sept. 30 edition.

[The Union Advocate’s “This Month in the Archives” feature offers a look back at what our newspaper was reporting from 5 to 100 years ago. Our digital archives are online, searchable and free to anyone. Click here for access.]

Over accusations of “steamroller tactics,” four delegations “known to be either affiliated or openly partisan to the CIO” were denied credentials via a voice vote from the convention floor. Delegates proceeded to elect an executive council “that is 100 percent loyal to the A. F. of L.,” and they voted to prevent U.S. Rep. John Bernard, a member of the Farmer-Labor Party representing the Iron Range, from addressing the convention because of his work as an organizer for the CIO.

The upstart Committee for Industrial Organization had been founded from within the AFL two years earlier by unionists who favored increased organizing among industrial workers. At the 1937 state convention, CIO supporters called themselves “progressives,” but the AFL establishment branded them “sympathizers.”

“Every effort of those sympathetic to the CIO to get at least a luke-warm reception for their proposals was met by a united front that left no question as to the temper of the majority,” The Advocate reported.

Gov. Elmer Benson “made an eloquent plea for harmony” in his address to the convention, broadcast over several radio stations statewide.

“Divide and rule was the slogan of the Roman emperors. A division within the ranks of labor is the hope of those who seek the destruction of labor,” Benson said.

“The dark cloud on labor’s horizon today is the division which has developed within the ranks of the American labor movement. It is a division which comes from the top and not from the bottom – not from the rank and file. The rank and file will never permit a permanently divided labor movement.”

The CIO formalized its break with the AFL in 1938, holding its first convention and renaming itself the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The two bodies merged as the AFL-CIO in 1955.

• 100 Years Ago. A union member looking to wet his whistle probably avoided the Schwabel Bros. saloons downtown St. Paul. According to the report of a delegate to the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly during the body’s September 1912 meeting, Schwabel Bros had employed non-union bartenders.

That wasn’t the only tavern-related issue to come before the Assembly during the meeting. The Cabinet Makers’ delegate “reported three saloons in the city which were fitted up with non-union fixtures.” The matter was referred to the executive board for consideration.

• 50 Years Ago. Martin J. O’Donnell, president of St. Paul-based Building Laborers Local 132, urged the city’s unions to send a representative to the St. Paul Housing Clinic at St. Thomas College in September 1962. The clinic tackled the issue of affordable and safe housing for residents of St. Paul.

The interest of Building Trades unions in such a project “can be taken for granted,” O’Donnell said. “But it would be short-sighted indeed for officers and members of unions engaged in other lines of business or industry to take the position that they don’t have an equally important stake in this matter.”

Working families, he said, should be concerned about the quality of housing facilities a community offers its citizens, particularly for young families and the elderly.

• 25 Years Ago. With President Ronald Reagan seeking approval from Congress to funnel more aid to rebels in war-torn Nicaragua, delegates to the Minnesota AFL-CIO convention in September 1987 approved a resolution urging peace in Central America – and calling on the national AFL-CIO to lobby Congress to reject Reagan’s request.

The resolution passed after delegates challenged the ruling of the convention chair, Minnesota AFL-CIO President Dan Gustafson, that the resolution ran contrary to national AFL-CIO policy, Union Advocate Editor Barb Kucera reported.

“The AFL-CIO does not support an end to U.S. aid to the Contras unless the Soviet Union and Cuba end their aid to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, Gustafson said.

“After the ruling of the chair was challenged, Secretary-Treasurer Bernard Brommer took the gavel. The challenge to the chair was upheld on a voice vote of the delegates, and the resolution was passed on a voice vote.”

• 10 Years Ago. Two years after workers at Dakota Premium Foods voted to form a union, the workers’ bargaining committee finally reached a tentative agreement with the South St. Paul meatpacking plant Sept. 30, 2002.

The contract included pay raises ranging from $2 to $4.50 an hour, raising hourly wages at the plant to between $10 and $13.50. It also included a $1,000 signing bonus, a grievance and arbitration process and seniority rights.

But the difficult process Dakota Premium workers endured to get their first contract provided an “example of what is wrong with U.S. labor law,” Advocate Editor Michael Kuchta wrote.

“The company tried to overturn election results, then continually delayed bargaining by filing multiple legal appeals of rulings that went against the company. Company negotiators finally began bargaining with workers on Aug. 15.”

St. Paul’s newest union went into action at “A Fair of the Heart” Sept. 13, 1987. Members of International Cornhuskers of America Local 1987 shucked thousands of ears of corn for the crowd of 45,000 at the annual United Way event. Pictured above are Steelworker Nyals Kittel (left) and Minnesota AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Bernard Brommer. At right, AFSCME member Lucille Robinson and Minnesota AFL-CIO Community Service and Education Director Christine Matuzek.

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