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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE) locals 1939-1949

by Cameron Molyneux

Founded in 1936 by workers from General Electric, Westinghouse, Philco, RCA and other companies that made electrical appliances and machinery, UE soon became one of the largest and most controversial unions in the CIO. A successful strike at RCA's Camden New Jersey plant in June 1936 gave the new union its first breakthrough and was soon followed by a short strike and NLRB election victory at GE's premier Schenectady plant after which the company agreed to bargain on a national basis while the union chartered 29 new GE locals. Westinghouse held out longer, finally signing a contract for its 19 plants in 1940. By then defense production was beginning to transform opportunites for companies, workers, and the union. World War II saw the union add almost 200 locals and a half million members. At the September 1944 annual convention UE claimed a peak membership of 686,000.

From the start, UE was known as a left-wing union, many of its top leaders closely associated with the Communist Party, a heritage that would complicate its internal and external politics. The union took strong positions on racial and gender equality. Women were an important part of the work force and by the end of the war comprised about 40% of the membership. At the same time, the leftwing reputation left the union vulnerable to red-baiting from within and without, and that dynamic in the postwar period nearly destroyed UE. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act required unions to expel leaders who were recent members of the Communist Party. When UE refused, the union was expelled from the CIO and its contracts and locals were raided by rival unions. With its leaders persecuted by federal authorities, the union began a steep decline that left it with only 75,000 members in 1956. The union survived and today maintains its progressive reputation.

These maps chart the spread of the UE from September 1937 when it counted 82 locals and about 70,000 members through the spectacular expansion of World War II. The postwar difficulties are only beginning to show in the maps for 1946-1949 but would be starkly apparent if we continued into the 1950s. Here are additional CIO union maps. These maps are hosted by Tableau Public and may take a few seconds to respond. If slow, refresh the page.

Move between five maps and charts using the tabs below

Sources: The data for these maps, lists, and charts are compiled from roll call documents in the UE’s convention proceedings for 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1946, 1947, 1948, and 1949 found in the Labor Union Constitutions & Convention Proceedings Collection (Ann Arbor: University Microfilm International, 1986).

Clarification: Membership numbers on some maps are reported as ranges, giving an approximate number. This is due to the way in which votes are allocated in roll call; 100 members is equal to one vote and any significant fraction past that earned the local another vote (e.g. 101 members equals two votes). Data for the total membership chart was self-reported by the union’s national office in the annual officer’s report accompanying the convention proceedings. Discrepancies in membership charted on these maps could result from overcounting of individual locals, differing definitions of what constitutes dues-paying membership, and locals delinquent on dues which may not have been counted on roll call documents.

The map of new and lapsed locals has been created by comparing roll call lists from year to year and noting whether locals had appeared on both, had appeared the first year, but not the second, or had only appeared the second year. Inaccurate gaps in these records could be caused by delinquent locals not being reported by the international union.

Research and data compilation: Cameron Molyneux

Maps: Cameron Molyneux and James Gregory

Additional CIO maps and charts

CIO Unions History and Geography - Introduction

The CIO transformed American labor and American politics. Defying the American Federation of Labor's commitment to craft unionism, the Committee for Industrial Organization was launched in 1935 by leaders of the United Mine Workers and other AFL unions that had previously embraced industrial union organizing strategies. The goal was to build unions in core industries like steel, auto, aircraft, electrical appliances, meat packing, tires, and textiles that had blocked organizing efforts at every turn. Here we explore the history and geography of the CIO unions from 1935 through the end of the 1940s with maps and membership data showing the growth and in some cases decline of what will be a growing list of the major unions starting with United Auto Workers (UAW), United Electrical Workers (UE), International Ladies Garment Workers (ILGWU), International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

United Auto Workers (UAW) locals 1937-1949

Founded in 1935 as one of the first initiatives of the industrial union organizing committee led by John L. Lewis, the United Autoworkers won a breakthrough victory against General Motors in the dramatic Flint Michigan sit down strike in the winter of 1936-1937. After General Motors agreed to bargain, Chrysler and several smaller auto companies followed suit and by mid-1937 new union claimed 150,000 members and was spreading through the auto and parts manufacturing towns of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. These maps chart the spread of the UAW from April 1939 when it counted 172 locals and about 170,000 members to 1944 with 634 locals and more than one million members then though the late 1940s when conversion to civilian production and a post-war recession caused a dip in membership even as the number of locals increased. Watch the UAW spread across the map in the 1940s, anchored in Michigan and the Great Lakes states but claiming dozens of locals in the Northeast and California, and a sprinkling in Alabama, Geogia, and Texas.

International Ladies Garment Workers (ILGWU) locals 1934-1947

Founded in 1900 in four East Coast cities by a workforce largely comprised of immigrants who had prior trade union experience in Europe, the ILGWU was one of the first female majority unions in the American Federation of Labor. As one of the AFL’s few industrial unions, the ILGWU joined the Committee for Industrial Organizing in 1935 as a founding member. But opposed to what they saw as rising communist influence in the CIO, ILGWU leaders left and reaffiliated with the AFL in 1940. Already well-established before joining the CIO, the ILGWU did not experience the same explosion in membership that new unions like the UAW and UE experienced in the later 1930s and 1940s. Despite this, the union maintained steady growth after 1935 and peaked at around 380,000 members in 1947.

International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) locals 1934-1949

The ILWU broke away from the International Longshoreman's Association (ILA) in 1937 in order to join the CIO. The West Coast locals of the ILA had waged a three-month long strike in 1934, closing all the ports up and down the Pacific Coast and winning employer recognition for locals that had been without bargaining rights since the 1920s. Led by militants who defied orders from ILA headquarters, the 1934 victory had set the stage for the 1937 split. Over the next 12 years, the newly independent ILWU would solidify longshore locals along the entirety of the West Coast while starting successful organizing drives in farming in Hawaii and warehouse locals both on the West coast and states further east. During this period, the union’s membership more than doubled, from 25,000 to 65,000 dues paying members.