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“Right After That They Walked Out”: Alice Wolfson Recalls the Origins of the CIO

by Alice Dodge Wolfson/Charlie Potter and Beth Friend

John L. Lewis’ dramatic walkout from the October 1935 American Federation of Labor (AFL) convention and the creation of the Committee for Industrial Organization (later the Congress of Industrial Organizations) that soon followed marked a new stage in labor’s drive to organize industrial unions in depression-era America. Here Alice Dodge Wolfson, who was working as a stenographer in 1935, recalled her own contribution to the Lewis walkout and the creation of the CIO. Attending the October 1935 AFL convention in Atlantic City as a delegate from her stenographers local of the United Office and Professional Workers Union (a left-wing New York union aligned with the supporters of industrial unionism around Lewis), Wolfson played a small but decisive role in helping launch the CIO when she rose to challenge an AFL official from the convention floor.

Listen to Audio:

Alice Dodge Wolfson: Well, towards the end of the convention, there was a report by the head of the Union Label Trades Department. He was one of the old guard, a very, we thought, stuffy, elderly gentleman. And he got up, and droned on in a long, long speech, about how we must look for the union label on this, and the union label on that. And while he was speaking, mimeographed copies of his speech were given out, and one of the members of our “Progressive Caucus”came up to me and said: “You will notice there is no Stenographer’s Union label on the copy of this speech. Why don’t you get up and comment on that?” Well I, who am no public speaker, was kind of terrified at the prospect, because most of the speakers were quite elderly and experienced men. But when the delegate, the head of the Union Label Trades Department finished his speech, I raised my hand timidly and rose to my feet. And I said “I am Delegate Dodge from Stenographers, Bookkeepers, Accountants, and Office Employee’s Union Local 14965, and I demand to know why there is no Stenographer’s Union label on the copies of this speech!” And, well, it brought down the house. People cheered, they laughed. Here was this young and innocent looking lady getting up and making this demand. And of course the man who’d just made the speech, made some very, he evaded the issue completely, he made a very unsatisfactory reply, naturally. So I felt that this was the last straw that brought about the split. It made me feel that I had influenced the progress of the labor movement, by making this speech at the very, practically the last day of the convention. That that settled the issue, from then on John Lewis and his cohorts had completely made up their minds. And right after that they walked out, and formed the CIO.

Source: Interview done by the Oral History of the American Left, Tamiment Library, NYU for the public radio programGrandma Was An Activist, producers Charlie Potter and Beth Friend.