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William Green: Biography of a Labor Leader.

William Green: Biography of a Labor Leader William Green served as president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) from 1924 until his death in 1952. He directly succeeded Samuel Gompers, who had dominated the AFL since its inception in 1886. Unlike Gompers, Green is remembered as a weak and ineffective leader, a man who presided over the AFL in its darkest days: during the 1930s and 1940s the craft-unionist AFL engaged in bitter warfare with the movement of industrial unionism as represented in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Phelan does not challenge the standard historical view of Green. Rather, he uses Green as the basis for a fascinating exploration of conservative labor leadership. Why and how, he asks, were Green's leadership skills so limited? In particular Phelan focuses on an important question regarding Green's evolution: why did this man, who personally favored industrial unionism, emerge as such a strong opponent of the CIO?

Green was born in 1870 in Coshocton, Ohio, and grew up in a coal-mining family with trade unionist commitments. As a young man Green hoped to become a minister, but economic hardship ended that dream. Phelan stresses that Green's early religious aspirations influenced him greatly: he "would always consider himself God's agent in human affairs" (p. 5). Green entered the mines at an early age and by 1891 held his first unuin position. During the next years Green steadily rose within the United Mine Workers. In 1913 Green was appointed both secretary-treasurer of the UMW and seventh vice-president of the AFL. Finally, in 1924, when the AFL Executive Council sought a replacement for Gompers, they turned to the quiet William Green. As Benjamin Stolberg wrote in 1926, the members of the Executive Council "think he is safe. . . . They found him weak. They are for him" (p. 28).

Phelan rightly directs much of his attention to the 1930s, to the paralysis of the AFL during much of that time, and to the battle between the AFL and the CIO. In assessing the reasons for Green's limitations as a leader, Phelan emphasizes his subject's religious orientation. Because of his Christian moral idealism, Green rejected the possibility that conflict between workers and employers might in some cases be inevitable. This led Green, even during the crisis of the Depression, to seek voluntary cooperation from employers and moreal understanding between them and workers. Above all Green did not welcome, and often actively opposed, rank-and-file militancy.

Conservative craft unionists surrounded President Green in the top ranks of the AFL, and they determinedly resisted any movement toward industrial unionism. The AFL Executive Council had little faith that efforts to organize unskilled workers in mass production could succeed: and if successful, its members feared, such efforts would threaten their dominant position in the AFL. Thus they used the principle of exclusive jurisdiction to block efforts toward industrial unionism. Furthermore, Phelan suggests, craft unionists in the AFL Executive Council ultimately exercised more influence than did President Green: "Green was never a member of inner circle of the Executive Council which largely controlled Federation policies" (p. 117).

Yet Phelan argues that historians have erred by interpreting Green as simply deferential to the power of craft unionists in the AFL. The actual dynamics were far more complex. Although agreeing with the industrial unionists on principle, Green could not accept their reliance on labor conflict and rank-and-file militancy. Furthermore Green's passive leadership style, his "dogmatic adherence to parliamentary rules of order, and his mechanistic view of majority rule . . . functioned to maintain craft union hegemony" (p. 120).

Once the Committee for Industrial Organizastion had been established, Green gradually emerged as a hardliner against the CIO. He and other AFL leaders suspended the unions affiliated with the CIO on flimsy charges and against the CIO unions suggest that Green may have been more beholden to the powerful craft unionists in the AFL than Phelan is willing to acknowledge. It is a virtue of this study, however, that one is made aware of such subtle problems in interpreting the career of William Green.

During his last fifteen years, Green continued to stress cooperation between labor and capital while spearheading the AFL's war against the CIO. From 1940 onward, however, Green played a less central role in the AFL's affairs. Phelan's slender volume presents a highly readable assessment of William Green's contributions to the labor movement, particularly during the 1930s. The study is marred only by frequent typographical errors, most of them harmless. One error at least may create confusion for the reader: chapter 6 begins by incorrectly dating the creation of the CIO (it occurred in November 1935, not 1936). Nonetheless, Phelan's book stands as an important and suggestive contribution to the history of labor leadership in the United States.

Julia Greene is assistant professor of history at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. She is revising for publication her Ph.D. dissertation, recently completed at Yale University, entitled "The Strike at the Ballot Box: Politics and Partisanship in the American Federation of Labor, 1881-1916." An article on AFL politics during the early twentieth century will appear in a forthcoming issue of Labor History.
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Author:Greene, Julia
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1990
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