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From AFL and CIO to AFL-CIO

In March 1934, only months after the AFL granted a charter to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (ACW), Abe Chatman and 23 other delegates representing Rochester’s ACW Joint Board and seven locals were seated by the Central Trades & Labor Council. President O’Connell welcomed the 12,000 new members with pleasure, noting the healing of Rochester labor’s “worst breach” and hoping the ACW would contribute “new thoughts and ideas.”

This new solidarity was short-lived, however. By the end of 1935 a Committee for Industrial Unionism had been formed by national union leaders, including the ACW’s Hillman, angered by the AFL’s opposition to organizing and restructuring along industrial lines. Rochester’s long-standing rivalry between the ACW and the United Garment Workers (UGW) was rekindled in October, 1937. The Teamsters International sided with UGW, placing an embargo and boycott on all ACW clothing firms.

That same month the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) held its first conference. Unity negotiations between the AFL and CIO collapsed in December, 1937 and within three months several CIO unions had been expelled by the AFL, including the ACW. But already on February 23, 1938, months before the CIO’s Constitutional Convention, the CIO had granted a charter to the Rochester Industrial Union Council (IUC).

The ACW dominated Rochester’s IUC not only through its long-term President John H. Cooper but through the behind-the-scenes role of Joint Board Director Abe Chatman. The IUC met at the ACW Hall at 476 North Clinton Avenue and the ACW contingent was by far the IUC’s largest.

Relations between the AFL and CIO labor councils oscillated between efforts to cooperate, even to mend the rift, and attempts to organize and raid on one another’s turf. In 1939 both council Presidents expressed interest in making peace, yet a year later publicly debated the relative merits of their organizations at Madison High School. In 1942 AFL Auto Workers tangled with CIO Electrical Workers over representing over 2000 workers at Delco. Only two years later the Councils’ respective Wage Stabilization Committees first planned a rally and then set up a permanent joint Economic Stabilization Committee for legislative action, and selected Jean McKelvey as chair. The two Councils collaborated in raising funds for the United Labor Chest, the ACW contributing over half the $84,000 raised in 1944. In 1946 representatives of the two councils participated on committees that planned the General Strike in support of AFL municipal workers and then negotiated a settlement with the City.

The two council boards attempted unsuccessfully to conclude a no-raiding agreement in 1951, three years before the national bodies finally signed such a pact. Nevertheless, at the end of 1952 the Central Trades & Labor Council unanimously approved a resolution calling for the AFL and CIO to merge, “becoming the first AFL city body in the United States to take such a formal action.”

Although when the national merger took place in 1955 state and local bodies were given two years to merge, Rochester’s AFL and CIO central labor bodies would not merge until November 6, 1959 as representatives of their Good Will Committees contested the distribution of Executive Board positions, union representation schedules, per capita dues, voting procedures at Council, and even the compensation of the President. Only the participation of national representatives in negotiations and the threat of charter revocation and imposed merger finally produced the Rochester & Vicinity Labor Council, AFL-CIO.