Crafting a New Labor Policy: The Craft Severance Movement and the Struggle for Control of the National Labor Relations Board, 1939-1950

Bryant Etheridge, Bridgewater State University

During the 1940s, a conservative element within the American labor movement reshaped federal labor policy. Comprised of skilled workers fed up with belonging to unions affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), this disgruntled faction sought federal protection for the ostensible right of craftsmen to leave industrial bargaining units. Craft severance, as this separation process was known, allowed craftsmen to join the organizations they believed would better serve their interests, the craft unions of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Standing between them and that objective was the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The board, using powers conferred on it by the Wagner Act, had during the 1930s often denied craftsmen the choice between joining a craft or industrial union. Frustrated by how this board policy impinged on their bargaining power, skilled workers fought back. Moving between Washington D.C. and the industrial complex of southeast Texas, which provides a local case study of bargaining unit disputes, this paper tells the story of the craft severance movement. In Texas, craftsmen defended their craft severance petitions vigorously against CIO criticism. They also filed more and more petitions as the decade unfolded. In Washington D.C., AFL leadership and their Republican and southern Democratic allies put pressure on the NLRB. Most famously, they supported the Smith Committee’s investigations of the board for pro-CIO bias. In addition, every time the board held hearings on a new bargaining unit case, a new board member was appointed, or congressmen contemplated changes to the Wagner Act, these groups lobbied heavily on behalf of craft unionists. Despite the CIO’s constant and vehement protests, craftsmen and their political allies succeeded in reshaping NLRB policy regarding industrial bargaining units. In the process, they undermined one of the cornerstones of New Deal labor policy.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 222. CIO History Redux: Seeking New Histories of Labor in the New Deal Era