The West Virginia State Federation of Labor, an organization of labor unions, was founded in 1903. Throughout much of its existence, the federation worked to overcome serious internal divisions, sectionalism in the state, and strong employer opposition.
World War I was a time of increasing strength and financial stability for the federated labor movement at both the national and state levels, but after the war labor was again under attack. Many employers joined the ‘‘open shop’’ movement, which allowed nonunion workers to work alongside union workers, using the slogan, ‘‘An American Plan.’’ Their goal was to destroy unions. The attitude of the public and employers toward labor became less tolerant, sometimes hostile. More importantly, the position of government changed from benevolence and protection to indifference and outright opposition.
After 1932, President Roosevelt’s New Deal, with its favorable labor legislation, provided an opportunity for the renewed growth of the labor movement. But even growth brought its challenges. The passage under Roosevelt of the National Industrial Recovery Act and later the Wagner Act fostered the rapid unionization of factory industries, in particular. This aggravated the old issue of industrial unionism versus craft unionism, resulting in a bitter rivalry that shattered the unity of the American Federation of Labor, with which the West Virginia Federation was affiliated. In 1935, the supporters of industrial unionism, led by John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers, organized the Committee for Industrial Organization. In 1936, the AFL suspended from its membership the unions that had affiliated with the CIO. Because the West Virginia State Federation of Labor refused to expel its CIO unions, on September 1, 1937, the AFL revoked the charter of the state federation. These unions then reorganized themselves as the West Virginia State Industrial Union Council (CIO).
In the meantime, the American Federation of Labor reestablished a West Virginia State Federation of Labor in March 1938. The rivalries and bitterness between industrial unionists and craft unionists were more pronounced than ever. For the next 19 years they raided each other’s membership and often fought to organize the same workers. In politics, the two groups often supported opposing candidates. Significant numbers of unions remained unaffiliated with the federation, and it continued to be plagued by financial difficulties. Internal fights continued into the post-war period, particularly between the crafts and the United Mine Workers.
In 1955, reunification of the national labor movement occurred with the formation of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). State groups were given two years to merge. In West Virginia, the Federation of Labor and the Industrial Union Council worked out an agreement to create the West Virginia Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, in 1957.
The West Virginia State Federation of Labor ended with the creation of the West Virginia Labor Federation in 1957.
This Article was written by Stephen L. Cook
Last Revised on November 19, 2010
Harris, Evelyn K. & Frank J. Krebs. From Humble Beginnings: The West Virginia State Federation of Labor, 1903-1957. Charleston: West Virginia Labor History Pub. Fund, 1960.