Insurance Workers of America Records

Collection Number: 5255

Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library


Insurance Workers of America Records,
Collection Number:
Insurance Workers of America
2 linear ft.
Forms of Material:
Records (documents) .
Kheel Center for Labor- Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library
Records document efforts of the CIO to unionize the insurance industry.
Collection material in English


Unionism in the insurance industry, just as unionism in many blue-collar industries, had its birth in the depression years of the late thirties. Most of the insurance agents who became interested in unionism during this period Joined the United Office and Professional Workers of the C.I.O. This organization grew fairly rapidly and soon included about 40,000 insurance workers (90 percent of them agents) in its ranks. The association of the U.O.P.W.A. and the insurance workers is an important one which leaves its mark to this day. The U.O.P.W.A. was a left-wing union and was among the unions expelled by the C.I.O. in 1950 as communist-dominated.
Agents who didn't agree with the communistic orienta-tions of the U.O.P.W.A. experienced little success in making their voices heard in the running of the organization. Key party-liners occupied positions of power at conventions or other policy-making conclaves and stifled any and all opposition. Insurance agents, who are extroverts by nature, didn't appreciate this frustration of their leadership attempts by the U.O.P.W.A. leaders, and a revolution soon developed within the union. This movement eventually led to a complete break when the U.O.P.W.A. became obsessed with the party line to the exclusion of bargaining agree-ments.
When the insurance agents went to the C.I.O. seeking an organization free of the U.O.P.W.A. domination, they found a champion in the late Allan Haywood. This veteran union leader became the first chairman of the newly-formed Insurance and Allied Workers Organizing Committee in April of 1950. He became a sort of beloved patron saint of the organization. Harold Ash served as the Secretary-Treasurer until he resigned because of ill health in February 1952. Richard T. Leonard then filled the post and became Chairman when-Haywood's duties elsewhere required him to relinquish the Chairmanship. Leonard served as Chairman until the union's founding convention at Cleveland in 1953.
The new union started off with a handful of members and its future was clouded because of the great difficulty of re-organizing the scattered insurance workers. On March 12, 1951, it scored a major victory when it won nation-wide bargaining rights for 6,000 John Hancock agents. The union has had great battles with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, the largest financial institution of its type in the world. It has succeeded in organizing Metropolitan agents in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Greater New York City.
A problem that has plagued the I.W.A. since the breakup of the U.O.P.W.A. in 195 has been the jurisdictional battles that have raged with the rival AFL union, the Insurance Agents International Union. The two organizations, saddled with insufficient membership spread all over the country, scrambled continually for the same workers, usually ex-U.O.P.W.A. remnants. A particularly strong blow to the I.W.A. occurred shortly after the disintegration of the U.O.P.W.A. when 9,000 organized agents of the Prudential Life Insurance Company left the C.I.O. and joined the I.A.I.U.
Eventually both unions saw the futility of such strife and a no-raiding agreement was proposed and signed even before the merger of the AFL-CIO. Shortly after this, in 1955, exploratory merger talks were begun between the two unions. Although these were unsuccessful, certain agreements were reached and a new era of non-interference began. Even though the actual merger attempts were thwarted by the sticky problem of voting methods at conventions, a merger in spirit took place. At the time of the writing of this history, the author, Mr. William A. Gillen, President of the I. W. A., predicted that the actual merger would take place in the immediate future.
Mr. Simon Helfgott started his career in the insurance industry as a debit insurance agent for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. He became one of the early members of the Insurance Workers, Local 30, New York. He later served on its executive board and became president in 1949. In 1950 when the local became an affiliate of the Insurance and Allied Workers Organizing Committee, Mr. Helfgott became a vice chairman of that organization. When the Insurance Workers of America was formed in 1952, he became its first vice president. Mr. Helfgott also served as president of the Industrial Insurance Employees Union, Local 1706, New York, affiliate of the I.W.A.
Excerpts from the history of the I.W.A. written by President William A. Gillen, April 26, 1957


Administrative records of the Insurance Workers of America include minutes of the General Executive Board meetings (1953-1957), president's reports (1954-1957), vice-president's reports (1955- 1957), and secretary-treasurer's reports (1954-1957); reports of the Research and Education Department (1955), reports of the Merger Committee (1957), and reports of organizing activities (1953-1955).
Discussion of organizing activities dominates the minutes and officers' reports throughout the 1953-1957 period. Penetration of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, especially in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and expansion of the union's John Hancock base, are given primary attention.
Correspondence in the records is of the union's executive officers, President Kenneth Odell, Vice-President Simon Helfgott and Secretary-Treasurer John Brisbane, primarily with representatives of the insurance companies regarding collective bargaining negotiations and efforts to set up grievance procedures within the companies. Corporate correspondents include Atlanta Life Insurance Company, Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, Home Life Insurance Company, John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Monumental Life Insurance Company of Michigan and Ohio, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, United Mutual Life Insurance Company, and Western and Southern Life Insurance Company (1951-1957).
In addition to correspondence with employers, national union officials also corresponded with local union officials in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Danbury, Ct. (1954-1957). The union's organizing drives and local negotiating efforts are documented in this correspondence and in the reports of the union's organizers, which are also included.
Despite evidence of extensive anti-union activity, especially on the part of the Metropolitan management, which repeatedly refused to bargain over changes in the conditions of employment, job actions among organized agents appear rare, with grievances settled through negotiation, arbitration or similar means. Of significance was the 119-day Home Life Insurance Company Strike, mentioned in the minutes and president's report of 1956 and in form letters that year between the secretary- treasurer and union locals. This strike was hailed as the longest and most successful in the history of the industry. Correspondence and newsletters of 1955 also refer to a strike at Boston Mutual.
Legislative activity, as reflected in the minutes of 1953-1957, and 1955 newsletters, focuses primarily on efforts to change provisions in the New York State Insurance Law limiting agents' compensation. These efforts extended nationally to attempts to induce other state legislatures to pass resolutions condemning the New York law.
In the 1955 minutes and newsletters, savings bank life insurance in Pennsylvania and New Jersey emerges as an issue of concern. An undated report, "The Case Against Savings Bank Life Insurance," outlines the IWA's opposition to the measure and also illustrates a degree of harmony between the CIO union and its American Federation of Labor counterpart. The report was prepared by the IWA "in cooperation with the Insurance Agents International Union, AFL."

Helfgott, Simon, 1894-1957
Odell, Kenneth
Brisbane, John.
Atlanta Life Insurance Company
Boston Mutual Life Insurance Company
Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company
Home Life Insurance Company
Insurance Agents' International Union
Insurance Workers of America
John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company
Metropolitan Life Insurance Company
Monumental Life Insurance Company
Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company
United Mutual Life Insurance Company
Western and Southern Life Insurance Company

Insurance law--New York (State)
Savings-bank life insurance--United States--State supervision.
Labor unions--United States--Political activity.
Insurance company employees.
Collective bargaining. Insurance companies. Connecticut. Danbury.
Collective bargaining. Insurance companies. Massachusetts. Boston.
Collective bargaining. Insurance companies. New York (N.Y.)
Collective bargaining. Insurance companies. Pennsylvania. Philadelphia.
Collective bargaining. Insurance companies. Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh.
Collective bargaining. Insurance companies. United States.
Grievance procedures. Insurance companies. United States.
Strikes and lockouts. Insurance companies. United States.
Trade-unions. Insurance companies. United States.
Trade-unions. Insurance companies. United States. Organizing.

Form and Genre Terms:
Records (documents)


Access Restrictions:
Access to the collections in the Kheel Center is restricted. Please contact a reference archivist for access to these materials.
Restrictions on Use:
This collection must be used in keeping with the Kheel Center Information Sheet and Procedures for Document Use.
Cite As:
Insurance Workers of America Records #5255. Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library.


Box 1 Folder 1 1956
Box 1 Folder 2 1953
Box 1 Folder 3 1954
Box 1 Folder 4 1954
Box 1 Folder 5 1954
Box 1 Folder 6 1955
Box 1 Folder 7 1955
Box 1 Folder 8 1955
Box 1 Folder 9 1955
Box 1 Folder 10 1956
Box 1 Folder 11
Box 1 Folder 12 1956
Box 1 Folder 13 1955
Box 1 Folder 14
Box 1 Folder 15
Box 1 Folder 16 1957
Box 1 Folder 17 1955
Box 1 Folder 18 1955
Box 1 Folder 19 1955
Box 1 Folder 20 1953-1957
Box 1 Folder 21 1953-1957
Box 1 Folder 22
Box 1 Folder 23 1953-1955
Box 1 Folder 24 1954-1955
Box 2 Folder 1 1953
Box 2 Folder 2 1957
Box 2 Folder 3 1956
Box 2 Folder 4 1954-1956
Box 2 Folder 5
Box 2 Folder 6 1944-1955
Box 2 Folder 7 1956
Box 2 Folder 8 1956
Box 2 Folder 9 1954
Box 2 Folder 10 1957
Box 2 Folder 11 1955
Box 2 Folder 12 1957
Box 2 Folder 13 1955
Box 2 Folder 14 1954-1955
Box 2 Folder 15 1954
Box 2 Folder 16 1955
Box 2 Folder 17
Box 2 Folder 18 1954
Box 2 Folder 19 1954-1955
Box 2 Folder 20 1954
Box 2 Folder 21 1953-1954
Box 2 Folder 22 1954
Box 2 Folder 23 1952