Philip Murray

Philip Murray (1886-1952), American labor leader, helped organize America's mass-production workers into industrial unions through the establishment of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Philip Murray, John L. Lewis, Sidney Hillman, and David Dubinsky built the American labor movement as it now functions. During the Great Depression and the New Deal of the 1930s, they brought trade unionism out of the doldrums and, through the creation of industrial unions, into a position of power whereby labor influenced big business and national politics.

Murray was born on May 25, 1886, in Lanarkshire, Scotland, to Irish immigrant parents. His father was a coal miner active in the Scottish trade union movement. When Philip entered the mines at the age of 10, he was already a novice trade unionist knowledgable about strikes. In 1902 the Murray family emigrated to America. They settled in the western Pennsylvania mining district of Westmoreland County, where they had relatives.

Early Union Career

Within 2 years Murray had become a union militant, leading a strike against the coal company for which he worked. As a result, the Murray family was evicted from a company house and Philip was banished from the county. From that moment he decided to devote his life to the labor movement.

Murray rose rapidly within the ranks of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). By 1912 he was a member of the international executive board, and in 1916 he won election as president of District 5, the powerful Pittsburgh bituminous region. In 1920 John L. Lewis, the UMWA president, appointed Murray vice-president.

Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, when the UMWA was racked with factionalism and suffered a sharp membership decline, Murray remained unshakably loyal to Lewis. Because Murray proved so knowledgable about the economics of coal and other major industries and because of his proven negotiating ability, when Lewis formed the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) in 1936 he appointed Murray chairman.

Ideas and Programs

By then Murray had firm ideas about the place of the labor movement in American society. Devout Catholicism and the family tradition of unionism combined to form his own vision of social justice. Unionism led him to espouse the workers' case against employers; Catholicism caused him to oppose all so-called revolutionary "isms" and, in accord with the papal encyclicals on labor-management relations, to see the employers' as well as the workers' rights in the industrial and social systems. He expounded these ideas in a book he coauthored with industrial engineer Morris Llewellyn Cooke, Organized Labor and Production. The book asserted that if employers recognized trade unions and engaged in productive collective bargaining, the result would be justice for the worker, harmonious industrial relations, security for private ownership of property, increased productivity, and higher profits and wages.

Congress of Industrial Organizations

As chairman of SWOC, Murray sought to put his ideas into action. Financed by Lewis and the UMWA, SWOC succeeded in February 1937 in winning a collective bargaining agreement from United States Steel and from many smaller companies. But later that year the "Little Steel companies" defeated SWOC in a brutal and bloody strike.

Murray's patience, warmth, and negotiating skills kept SWOC alive and vital until conditions once again favored union growth. When World War II erupted and America moved into defense and war production, Murray succeeded in 1942 in breaking down Little Steel's barriers to trade unionism. That same year he transformed SWOC into the United Steelworkers of America (USA) and became its first president.

As president, Murray demonstrated what he had learned as Lewis's loyal lieutenant. Other industrial unions that emerged during the 1930s had democratic union constitutions and rank-and-file participation, but the USA was controlled from the top down. At the 1942 founding convention Murray demanded and won a constitution that vested almost complete power in the leadership, meaning in this case Murray, who was also president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) as well as a vice president of the UMWA.

Relations with Lewis

Despite his debt to Lewis, Murray could not avert a break. When Lewis repudiated Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, Murray remained committed to the President and the New Deal. As a result, Lewis retired as president of the CIO and was replaced by Murray. Lewis called Murray before the UMWA executive board in 1942, charged him with disloyalty, and stripped him of his union vice presidency. Murray, however, retained his presidencies of the CIO and the USA until his death.

Always a moderate attuned to the climate of the times and eager to make the labor movement more respectable, Murray rode the tide of anticommunism after the war. At the 1949 CIO convention he declared that, while there was room within the organization for all varieties of thought, there was no room for communism. He then led the convention delegates to expel 11 allegedly Communist-dominated unions from the CIO. He died in San Francisco on Nov. 9, 1952.

Further Reading on Philip Murray

There is no substantial biography of Murray. The best place to find information on him is in two long and detailed histories of labor by Irving Bernstein, The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker, 1920-1933 (1960) and The Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941 (1970). For Murray's part in the struggle for industrial unionism with the American Federation of Labor see the dry, objective account by Philip Taft, The A.F. of L. from the Death of Gompers to the Merger (1959). The best study of Murray's role in the SWOC and CIO organizing drives in the mass-production industries is Walter Galenson, The C.I.O. Challenge to the A.F. of L. (1960).