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Biographies of Philip Murray and William Green

Roosevelt University named its library after two men who began their working lives as coal miners before becoming rival presidents of the most powerful labor federations in America. William Green led the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Philip Murray headed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to the peak of their respective power. Both men died within weeks of each other in November 1952, three years before their organizations merged in 1955 to form the AFL-CIO. William Green, the older of the two, was born in 1870 in the mining community of Coshocton, Ohio (about 60 miles northeast of Columbus), to British immigrant parents, neither of whom could read nor write. After completing the 8th Grade, Green followed his father into the coal mines and joined the Progressive Miners’ Union. His fellow workers elected him to a series of local union offices because of his energy, dedication, and education. According to his biographer, Green was one of the few men in his union “who was able to record minutes of a meeting, compose a formal letter, or frame a resolution for [union] conventions.” He dug coal for 19 years before becoming president of the Ohio District of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in 1906. As a popular union official, he was elected to two terms in the Ohio State Senate, where he drafted and helped pass a series of Progressive Era legislation, including a Workers’ Compensation law in 1913 that became a model for other states.

In 1913 the UMWA recognized Green for his leadership by naming him national secretary-treasurer and appointing him to represent the miners on the Executive Council of the AFL. Initially, he was the Council’s strongest advocate of “industrial unionism” and advocated legislation (like minimum wage laws) that would benefit all workers, not just union members. Both of these positions reflected the UMWA’s approach to unionism, but represented minority views among “craft unionists” in the AFL. In 1924 Green was elected AFL president, a position he would hold for nearly three decades. During the New Deal years of the 1930s, Green broke with the miners and with his friend Philip Murray when the AFL refused to allow industrial unionism in the mass production industries (steel, auto, and others) and by opposing initial New Deal labor legislation like the Social Security Act. Philip Murray was born in Scotland in 1886 of Irish immigrant parents and began mining at the age of ten. At sixteen, Murray migrated with his father to Western Pennsylvania, where the two of them earned enough money working in the local coal mines to bring his stepmother and twelve siblings to the U.S. Murray’s father had been a union activist in Scotland, and Philip became involved in union activities from age seven; his UMWA local in Horning, Pennsylvania elected him president as a teenager. The United Mine Workers grew dramatically during the first two decades of the 20th Century, and Phil Murray helped make this growth possible by serving on the union’s national Executive Board beginning in 1912. As a 33-year-old in 1920, Murray became the second-ranking officer in the largest union in North America. The top officer, John L. Lewis, considered Murray his “right-hand man” for the next twenty years.

In 1935 the miners and other unions broke with the AFL over the issue of how to organize mass production workers. They formed the CIO, with Lewis as its head, and Murray was assigned to organize the fiercely anti-union steel industry. Over the next decade, Murray led the organizing drive that brought some 800,000 steelworkers at a dozen of the largest corporations in the world into the United Steelworkers of America (USWA). In 1940, when Lewis stepped down as CIO president, Murray assumed that post while still remaining USWA president. In the immediate post-World War II years, CIO unions like the Steelworkers (and the Auto Workers, Rubber Workers, United Electrical Workers, Packinghouse Workers, and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers) raised the standard of living of industrial workers by fighting for rights like health insurance and pensions, often winning them only after waging massive strikes like the 1949 and 1952 Steel Strikes, when more than a half-million Steelworkers struck for 42 and 58 days, respectively.

Murray and Green were household names in the immediate postwar years. Together, their organizations worked to preserve, consolidate and expand the gains of the New Deal, as with the expansion of Social Security in 1950. Regularly called upon by Congress and the White House, they acted as public figures -- beloved by their friends and reviled by their enemies -- and often sparred with each other. When they died in 1952, the two former coal miners were no longer either friends or enemies, but strong allies.

Roosevelt named its library after Murray and Green in the early 1960s to recognize the role unions had played since its founding in 1945. Providing both moral and financial support when the fledgling university badly needed both, Murray and Green were among more than a dozen labor leaders on the university’s initial Board of Advisers. CIO and AFL unions also were major contributors to the extensive conversion of the Auditorium Building's 10th Floor restaurant into a functioning library that architects now recognize as one of the most beautiful spaces in Chicago. When the library was dedicated in March 1963, Roosevelt University was nationally known as a pioneer in providing quality education to all who could qualify, regardless of race, religion, or economic circumstance. As one of the dedication speakers said, “From the day of its founding, the sons and daughters of workers (as well as the workers themselves) have been an important part of the Roosevelt student body.” Named after two self-educated former coal miners who helped lead American labor, the library has honored their service by providing educational opportunities for all.

Bibliographical note:

Brief biographies of Murray and Green are in Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren Van Tine, editors, Labor Leaders in America (University of Illinois Press, 1987). For more extensive contemporary accounts, see Charles A. Madison, American Labor Leaders: Personalities and Forces in the Labor Movement (Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1950, reprinted 1962). A full-length biography of Green is Craig Phelan, William Green: Biography of a Labor Leader (State University of New York Press, 1989). A collection of essays related to Murray’s years as the Steelworkers’ founding president is: Paul E. Clark, Peter Gottlieb, & Donald Kennedy, Forging a Union of Steel: Philip Murray, SWOC, & the United Steelworkers (ILR Press, Cornell University, 1987).