The Allied Industrial Workers of America (AIW) was chartered by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) as the United Auto Workers on August 26, 1935, to organize auto industry workers in the bitterly anti-union days of the Great Depression.
The charter was one of the first issued to an American union to organize on an industrial basis. The old AFL, which was founded in 1881, had traditionally organized unions only on a craft basis—electricians in one union, plumbers in another, machinists in their own craft union. Before 1935, the one exception to this rule was the United Mine Workers union. William Green, then President of the AFL, recognized that organizing on a craft basis would not be effective in large industrial plants.
With the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, millions of industrial workers sought to organize their own union.
On August 26 of that year, just eight weeks after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act into law, the AFL’s Green called the first convention of the UAW-AFL in Detroit, Michigan. Some 250 delegates from auto plants throughout the country attended. Over the objections of auto industry workers who sought an open election of officers, Green appointed Francis Dillon, an AFL representative, president of the UAW, and Homer Martin as vice president.
Martin immediately began visiting various strongholds of auto industry workers—already organized in UAW locals—and urged support for the democratic election of officers directly from auto-related plants. The AFL finally agreed in April 1936 to call a convention in South Bend, Indiana, to allow UAW members to elect their own officers. The delegates promptly elected Martin as their union’s first elected president.
Homer Martin was just what the UAW needed at the time. A spellbinding speaker, he was an outstanding organizer. At the time he took over as president of the UAW, the union had approximately 24,000 dues-paying members. Sparked by dramatic industrial actions, such as sit-down strikes, 1937 proved to be a year of fabulous growth. In February of that year, membership of the union stood at 88,000. But by October, dues-paying membership soared to 400,000.
In the midst of this unprecedented union growth, brewing factionalism was seeping into the burgeoning AFL, factionalism that would soon have a profound effect on the auto workers’ union. In 1936, John L. Lewis, president of the Mine Workers, formed the Committee for Industrial Organizations (CIO). Most of the industrial unions within the AFL immediately joined the CIO. In September of that year, the AFL suspended all of the unions associated with the CIO.
By the end of 1937, when efforts to resolve the differences between the AFL and CIO failed, the CIO changed its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations and formally broke from the AFL. Meanwhile, a split was also growing imminent within the UAW. The rift culminated in 1939 when the larger, Detroit area local unions decided to stay with the CIO under the new leadership of Lewis. The Homer Martin faction, carrying the original UAW charter but with fewer members, re-elected the fiery former preacher as president and continued as the UAW-AFL, the predecessor of the AIW.
The AFL restored the original charter to the union, and promised that it would be “an autonomous industrial union” with complete jurisdiction in auto plants, auto parts plants, and in aircraft and farm implement industries. Such a pronouncement by the AFL was seen as a major change of federation policy.
This meant that from 1939 to 1955 – the year the AFL and CIO merged – there were two United Auto Workers unions. Shortly following the AFL and CIO merger convention in December 1955, the UAW-AFL changed its name to the Allied Industrial Workers of America.
Some 12 years earlier, the union moved its headquarters from Detroit to Milwaukee. In 1955, the union moved again, this time to Los Angeles. But the West Coast headquarters lasted only four years following action by the AIW convention in 1957 calling for a return to the Midwest. In 1959, the union built a new headquarters building on the southwest side of Milwaukee that was to serve the AIW until the UPIU merger in 1994.
Throughout the 1980s, the AIW slowly lost membership as more and more industrial companies moved their plants from the union’s stronghold areas to rural areas of the South or to Third World countries. The AIW also lost membership due to technological change. By the early 1990s, the AIW’s membership had declined by 50 percent from its 1975 figure of 100,000 members.
Nick Serraglio, who had served as the union’s secretary-treasurer for two years and as a vice president and regional director in Cleveland for 18 years, was elected president in 1991. He immediately began seeking a larger, stronger union with more resources to merge with the Milwaukee union. Delegates to the 1991 convention had instructed the AIW’s executive board to seek a merger partner.
An AIW merger committee headed by Serraglio reached agreement with the UPIU board in the first quarter of 1993. The AIW executive board approved the merger unanimously, and delegates to the AIW’s 29th Constitutional Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota on September 20, 1993, ratified the merger by a 302-35 vote. The merger became effective on January 1, 1994.