In 1904, the young Murray assaulted a company weigh boss he thought was cheating him and was fired. When his fellow workers struck in support of his reinstatement, his father, stepmother and seven of his siblings were thrown from their home into the street. The experience made an indelible impression on Murray. Concluding that unions were the best defense workers had against unfair treatment, he devoted himself to the cause. In 1905, Murray was elected president of the UMW local in Horning, Pa. Murray completed an 18-month correspondence course in math and science in six months. He also met and courted his wife, Elizabeth Lavery, the daughter of a miner killed in a pit accident. They married in 1910 and eventually adopted a son.
Murray soon came to the attention of UMW leaders at the state and national level. Murray favored industrial cooperation and gradual improvements over industrial warfare and revolutionary upheaval. In 1912, John White, UMW president, appointed Murray to the UMW's national Executive Board; three years later, White backed his election as president of UMW District 5 in western Pennsylvania. In 1917, Murray mobilized support on the Executive Board to confirm another rising star in the organization, John L. Lewis, as vice president of the UMW. Then, when Lewis was elevated to the presidency of the miners' union, he supported promoting the 33 year-old Murray (1886-1952) to the vice presidency.
For the next 20 years, Murray was Lewis's right-hand man. Lewis handled relations with management, financiers, politicians and the press, while Murray handled relationships with the members. The two men worked closely together for many years, but Murray was capable of acting not only independently of Lewis but also in complete opposition to him.
In 1936, following the formation of the original Committee for Industrial Organization within the AFL, Lewis put Murray in charge of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC). Murray's organizers cultivated leaders of the industry's many company unions, while his staff filed unfair labor practice charges against the companies with the new National Labor Relations Board and fed congressional investigators information about the steel industry's use of anti-union spies and hired thugs. In March 1937, one week after the Flint sit-down strikers forced General Motors to recognize the United Auto Workers, U.S. Steel, the nation's largest steel producer signed an agreement with the SWOC. Other steel producers soon followed. Although the so-called "Little Steel" companies would thwart unionization until 1941, by the end of 1937 SWOC had chartered more than 1,000 local unions and was administering hundreds of collective bargaining agreements.
When the CIO held its first official convention in 1938, Murray was elected its second vice president. Two years later, Murray assumed the CIO presidency when John L. Lewis resigned in protest over President Franklin D. Roosevelt's re-election and his interventionist foreign policy. Murray, in contrast, supported the president's effort to aid the Allies in their war against Nazi Germany. And he agreed to serve, as did his CIO colleague, Sidney Hillman, in the agencies established by the Roosevelt administration to coordinate war-related production and to expedite the settlement of labor disputes in war-related industries.
Shoring up support for the nation's war effort and securing gains for union workers despite a no-strike pledge absorbed much of Murray's energies in his first years as head of the CIO. In 1942, Lewis, who opposed the no-strike policy, disaffiliated the UMW from the organization he had founded. He also supported Murray's expulsion from the miners' union. While the break caused Murray great sorrow, he never wavered from the course he had chosen. He continued as CIO president, and he agreed to assume the presidency of the newly formed United Steel Workers of America. By the war's end, Murray could point to real achievements. The war had been won, union membership had continued to grow and wage gaps between the highest- and lowest-paid workers had narrowed.
After the Republicans won control of Congress in 1942, Murray established a permanent Political Action Committee within the CIO and called for a guaranteed annual wage, union pensions, joint labor-management industry councils and government policies to ensure full employment. A long-time member of the executive committee of the NAACP, in 1943 Murray sought to make the Fair Employment Practice Commission (established by executive order two years earlier) a permanent legislated agency to protect the employment rights of minorities. Under his leadership, the CIO condemned racial discrimination and established a Committee to Abolish Racial Discrimination inside the CIO.
After the war, Murray opposed the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) and successfully challenged an interpretation of the act that would have forbidden a labor publication from endorsing a political candidate. He also refused on principle to sign the anti-Communist affidavit that Taft-Hartley required of all union officers because he considered it demeaning and discriminatory. In keeping with this opposition, Murray refused to sanction raids by CIO affiliates on unions whose leaders refused to sign the affidavit. However, when several left-leaning unions disregarded the official CIO endorsement of Harry Truman in 1948 and instead supported the third-party candidacy of Henry Wallace, Murray acted decisively to expel the dissidents, convinced they put the interests of the Communist Party before those of the union and its members.
In the 1950s, Murray continued to press for the political, social and economic advance of working people, leading his last major strike against the steel industry in 1952. Shortly thereafter, he died of a heart attack in San Francisco, honored by millions as a truly humane and visionary leader of the labor movement.
Source: AFL-CIO and USW web sites