William Green improved worker’s rights through his role as AFL president
By DEBORAH A. MILES
When William Green was born on March 3, 1873, it was his fate to become one of the most influential labor leaders in the nation.
For 28 turbulent years, he was president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and left his mark on a number of legislative achievements that altered and strengthened the course of the labor movement.
His interest in labor unions spawned from his coal-mining family. At age 16, he quit school to work as a coal miner, and three years later, he was elected secretary of the Coshocton Progressive Miners Union, which later became a local of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).
Green married Jennie Mobley when he was 19, and later the couple had six children.
By 1906, Green was president of the Ohio district of the UMWA. But his drive to improve working conditions put him in the political arena. In 1910, he campaigned successfully for a seat in the Ohio Senate, where he served as both Senate president pro tempore and democratic floor leader. He wrote and won passage in 1911 of a model Workmen’s Compensation Act. He also secured bills to limit the hours of women wage earners, establish a 1 percent income tax, elect Ohio’s U.S. senators by popular vote, and hold judicial elections on a nonpartisan basis.
These accomplishments propelled his appointment as the UMWA representative to the AFL Executive Council, and he became the federation’s secretary-treasurer in 1916. He served as one of the five labor delegates to the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I.
When AFL founder and President Samuel Gompers died in 1924, Green was selected for the job. Unlike Gompers, who charted an independent and confrontational course for his members, Green preferred a more cooperative approach. His goal was to get legislation passed that would benefit all workers and the common good.
He sought public support, preached union-management cooperation, advocated for better work hours, and promoted a policy between labor and management tying higher wagers for workers to productivity increases.
In the 1930s, the AFL backing was crucial to winning passage of the 1932 Norris-Las Guardia Act, which severely limited the use of injunctions in labor disputes and abolished so-called “yellow-dog contracts,” that required workers to agree not to join a union as a condition of employment. He also helped pass the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which strengthened workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively.
Green played an instrumental role in the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the first federal law establishing minimum wages and a 40-hour week for workers.
He was a critic of the AFL Executive Council for its reluctance to embrace craft and industrial unionists. However, he did secure the board’s support for issuing “federal union” charters to the many workers’ groups seeking to organize on an industrial basis in the early 1930s. These federal locals led to the establishment of national unions for mass production workers in the rubber, electrical, auto and other industries.
Controversy reigned when these industrial unions decided to leave the AFL and form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Green did not support their action and insisted they had violated the cardinal principle of trade union unity by opposing their parent organization.
Green’s health began to fail and he left more of the daily AFL operations to his younger secretary-treasurer, George Meany.
Green died at his hometown of Coshocton at the age of 79.
The AFL and CIO were reunited in 1955, three years after his death.