Adolph Germer Papers, 1898-1966


Few lives span as much labor history as does that of Adolph Germer. Almost entirely self educated, he has been an ardent and articulate champion of industrial unionism, playing a role in many of the most dramatic episodes of labor's struggles.

Germer left school at the age of 11 to work in the coal mines in Illinois, at a wage of sixty cents for ten hours; and in 1894, at the age of 13, he participated in his first strike with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). He took part in the Colorado mine strike of 1913-1914, which culminated in the Ludlow massacre. During the 1920's and early 1930's he was a bitter opponent of John L. Lewis, and was a leader of a rival faction within the UMWA. However, with the formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO, later renamed the Congress of Industrial Organizations), in 1935, Germer joined Lewis, and was one of Lewis' chief lieutenants in the organization of the rubber and automobile industries, contributing much to the establishment of the infant CIO. In the early 1940's he directed the organizational drive of the International Wood-workers of America (NA). In 1946-1947 he represented the CIO in Paris as Assistant Secretary-General of the World Federation of Trade Unions in charge of colonial affairs. As CIO National Representative for the West, Germer directed CIO activities for the states west of the Mississippi, was one of the CIO's top troubleshooters in areas of communist disruption, and often took over the office of CIO Vice President and Director of Organization when Allan S. Haywood was absent. Even after his retirement in 1955, Adolph Germer continued to serve the CIO on special assignments.

An active unionist all his life, Germer has also believed in the efficacy of political action to secure the rights of labor. He joined the Socialist Party in 1900 and became a close friend and disciple of Eugene V. Debs. Between 1916 and 1918 he was National Secretary of the Socialist Party. In 1918 he was tried on a charge of conspiracy under the Espionage Law, along with Victor Berger, Irwin St. John Tucker, J. Louis Engdahl, and William F. Kruse. Although convicted and sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment, the decision was later reversed. He continued to be active in the Socialist Party until 1932, when he became disenchanted by splits in the socialist ranks. After this he became a staunch Roosevelt supporter. Germer also maintained close friendships with various political figures such as Frank Murphy, governor of Michigan and later Supreme Court justice; Wayne Morse, senator from Oregon; and Paul Douglas, senator from Illinois.

Germer's chief genius seems to have been as an organizer, and he often played “behind the scenes.” It was seldom that his role achieved national publicity, but in a rare instance the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial of January 24, 1937, pictured Germer as the moving force in the unionization of the automobile industry: “Back of Homer Martin, youthful president of the United Automobile Workers of America, stands the rugged figure of Adolph Germer, an active participant in the battles of labor for decades and now one of the field marshals in the industrial army commanded by John L, Lewis, creator of the Committee for Industrial Organization,” It is probable that Germer played a major role in the widespread adoption of the “sit-down strike” as a useful strategy in the industrial conflicts of the 1930's. (Rose Pesotta once addressed him as "“Adolph, of the sit-down fame”). By his own claim, it was he who first got Walter Reuther started in union activity (see Germer's letter of April 11, 1946, to J.A. Phillips).

Adolph Germer was once introduced to a meeting as “Mister CIO himself.” Although already 54 years old when the CIO was formed, he served that organization during the whole of its existence as a separate entity. From the time of its formation in 1935, through its expulsion from the AFL in 1936, and until its reunion with the AFL in 1955, Germer devoted himself to the work of the CIO with the zeal of a missionary. He almost lived on a train as he traveled about on his various assignments, Little known outside the labor movement, Germer's influence and importance to labor history have extended beyond. While many of his peers strove for positions of national prominence, he chose to describe himself as “never a big shot but always a rank and filer.” (Germer's name does not even appear in Who's Who in Labor. The unanswered questionnaire from the editors still remains with his papers.)

To completely catalogue Germer's activities, even briefly, would require more space than is here available. The researcher is directed to the chronological table and the description of the collection which follow, as well as to the folder of biographical material (Folder 3, Box 15).


1881, January 15 Born in Germany.
1888, December 2 Landed in United States with parents; attended school in Braceville, Illinois.
1892 Went to work in mines in Staunton, Illinois.
1894 Participated in first strike with UMWA, was blacklisted with father and moved to Mt. Olive, Illinois. Continued to work in mines for 13 years, holding various offices in the local union.
1900 Joined Socialist Party, held positions on the National Committee and the National Executive Committee.
1907, April Elected sub-district vice-president in Illinois Belleville District of the UMWA.
1908, April - 1912 Secretary-treasurer of Belleville District, UMWA.
1911 Edited (?) the Alarm, a small pro-labor publication.
1912 Elected by International Miners' Convention to be one of two U.S. delegates to World Miner's Congress in Amsterdam.
1912 Ran for office in Illinois legislature.
1912-1914 Appointed as UMWA international organizer, assigned to Colorado; participated in first five months of Colorado miners' strike.
1914 Elected District vice-president of Illinois USA.
1916-1919 Elected national secretary of the Socialist Party.
1918 “Chicago Socialists” trial.
1919 Sent to California by Socialist Party to straighten out troubles with the newly organized Communist Labor Party.
1920-1921 Socialist Party organizer for Manhattan area in New York.
1921, December - 1922 State secretary for Socialist Party of Massachusetts.
1922 Sent to California as organizer for International Union of Oil Field, Gas Welland Refinery Workers - AFL.
1925 Returned to Mount Olive, Illinois.
1926-1930 Moved to Chicago, worked for Krann and Dato, a large real estate firm.
1930 Elected vice-president of the Reorganized United Mine Workers of America.
1931 Returned to Mount Olive and worked as a miner until the mine closed down.
1931, June - 1933, December Editor of Rockford Labor News.
1934 - 1935, May 27 Labor representative on the National Recovery Administration Regional Compliance Council for Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Missouri.
1935, November Appointed by John L. Lewis as first field representative for the Committee for Industrial 0rganization; participated in auto and rubber organizing campaigns and strikes, 1935-1937.
1937, June - 1939, November Director of Detroit Regional Office.
1938-1939 Elected president of Michigan State Industrial Union Council.
1939, December - 1940 Regional Director for New York.
1940-1944 Director of Organization, International Woodworkers of America.
1943 Named CIO director for the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Coast States.
1944 Named CIO National Representative for the West (including all states west of the Mississippi).
1946-1947 In Paris as Assistant Secretary-General of the World Federation of Trade Unions in charge of colonial affairs.
1947 Returned to U.S., resumed responsibilities as National Representative for the West; continued to act as a trouble-shooter for the CIO (especially in areas such as California, Michigan, and the Northwest where Communist influence threatened to disrupt democratic unionism).
1955, April 1 Officially retired from the CIO, but continued to serve on special assignments.