The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The C.I.O.:
From Militant Struggles to Class Collaboration

Mar 31, 1981

December 5, 1980 marked the 25th anniversary of the merger between the AFL (American Federation of Labor) and the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations).

In the 1930s, the CIO unions were formed in a massive and militant upsurge of the working class, which forced the bourgeoisie to accept the unionization of millions of unskilled industrial workers. But by the time of the merger between the AFL and the CIO, just 20 years later, the militant struggles of the early years had been replaced by open collaboration with the bourgeoisie. A number of the militant leaders of the CIO were now co-opted. The others had either been driven out of the unions, or bitterly silenced.

Having seen these changes, what explains them? Was the CIO really different in 1955 than it was in 1935?

The Upsurge of the 1930s

The decade of the 1930s started out with a deep economic crisis. Industrial production plummeted. Unemployment reached between 13 and 17 million workers, depending on estimates. Some 1.5 million homeless people were wandering around the country, sleeping where they could. Workers who still had their jobs faced severe wage cuts. Manufacturing wages were cut by an average of 9.4 per cent. Bituminous coalminers had a cut of 16.2 per cent.

But the 1930s was also a decade in which the working class fought back. It was a time of social crisis and of a massive upsurge of the working class.

For example, Unemployed Leagues were organized in many states. One of their goals was to prevent the evictions of their members who could no longer afford to pay the rent. In big industrial cities, the Unemployed Leagues were sometimes able to organize and carry furniture back into an apartment as fast as the police moved it out.

In 1932, some 4,000 unemployed workers in the Detroit area marched from downtown to the Ford River Rouge plant demanding jobs. The Dearborn police and Henry Ford’s private army greeted the marchers with machine gun fire – killing four and wounding over two dozen more.

In 1934, there were major strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco. In these strikes, the workers faced court injunctions and arrests. Sometimes they had pitched battles with the cops. But they fought, nonetheless.

In the early 1930s, the number of strikes began to rise. And the sitdown strike appeared by 1935. Workers were no longer respecting the capitalists’ right to determine what happened to their property.

In these strikes, and in the battles outside the workplaces, the workers tested different ways to fight. Often they were thrown back. But they continued to fight. In the process, the workers learned to turn their backs on many of the rules of the bourgeois order. The workers began to forge a consciousness of themselves as a class.

The best indication of this development in class consciousness was that the workers began to propose their own political party. They began to see the limits of their separate actions and to see the need to carry out their struggle as a whole class, on the political level. They began to propose to organize separately, as a class, in opposition to the bourgeoisie.

These sentiments were reflected in the fact that in the 1932 presidential election, the combined vote for the Socialist Party and the Communist Party reached almost one million votes. By 1936, there were the beginnings of a wider movement for a labor party.

Reaction of the Bourgeoisie

The 1930s presented many problems for the bourgeoisie. Their system continued to be in a deep economic crisis. And they faced a working class which was deciding to fight for its interests.

The time-honored way of the American bourgeoisie to deal with a movement of the working class was to try simply to repress it through violent attacks. In the 1930s, this meant trying to stop the extension of unionization to the unskilled.

But there was also another opinion within the bourgeoisie that developed in the 1930s. A section of the bourgeoisie became convinced as time went along that the unskilled workers were not being stopped by the traditional means of direct repression, and, in fact, the repression was tending to heat up the battle.

This tendency, represented by Franklin D. Roosevelt, believed that some form of unionization by the unskilled was inevitable. For them, the important question was what would be the nature of this organization. Would it have ties to the bourgeoisie: would it be an organization led by the types of Sidney Hillman and John L. Lewis, who would keep the workers in line and help bring social stability back to the country? Or would the unskilled workers form unions, perhaps led by revolutionaries, that would continue to ignore, if not directly challenge, the existing social order?

This willingness of a section of the bourgeoisie to accept a certain type of unionization was codified in the NRA (National Recovery Act). Under Section 7a of this act, the right for workers to organize was recognized. In exchange, Roosevelt demanded that the workers accept class collaboration with the bourgeoisie. In a speech on the NRA in 1933, Roosevelt said:

“The workers of this country have rights under this law which cannot be taken from them, and nobody will be permitted to whittle them away but, on the other hand, no aggression is necessary now to attain these rights…. The principle that applies to the employer applies to the workers as well and I ask you workers to cooperate in the same spirit.”

Despite Roosevelt’s claim of protecting the workers’ right to organize, a large part of the bourgeoisie did not accept this, at least not up until 1937. Most capitalists refused to recognize the unions of the unskilled and continued direct attacks, using labor spies, private armies and vigilantes. This section of the bourgeoisie continued to use the local police and the National Guard time and time again against strikers. In 1935 alone, the National Guard was used to break 73 strikes in 20 different states.

The NRA was at first ruled unconstitutional by the old Supreme Court, before Roosevelt’s new one finally came to see the logic of the same proposals, now embodied in the Wagner Act.

Split in the Union Bureaucracy

This movement of the unskilled workers also created a division among the existing trade union officials of the AFL. When the unskilled industrial workers came knocking on the door of the AFL, wanting to be unionized, the majority of the AFL officials voted to keep them out. They saw the main aim of the union to be the restriction of entrance into the unions, and by this means the protection of the gains of the existing membership. The mass organization of the unskilled workers contradicted this approach. The AFL would accept industrial workers only on the condition that the skilled workers would break down into a divided craft union structure, leaving the unskilled still unorganized.

There were other AFL officials, however, who proposed a different policy towards the unskilled. Officials of some unions, like John L. Lewis and Sidney Hillman, argued that the unskilled workers should be brought into the AFL.

These officials who proposed to bring the unskilled workers into the AFL saw more clearly the changes that had been taking place in the country. This was the time of the shift to the assembly line and to mass production. The crafts were weakened by this, and so was the AFL. As a result of this and of the depression, the membership in AFL unions had fallen from 4,129,000 in 1920 to 2,127,000 by 1933.

But the change in industrial techniques expanded and strengthened the position of another section of the working class, the unskilled industrial workers. And it was this section that was mobilized and fighting in the 1930s, and clamoring for union recognition.

Those officials around Lewis didn’t want to be bypassed by this movement. As Lewis put it, “If you go in there with your craft union they will mow you down like the Italian machine guns mow down the Ethiopians in the war now going on in that country….” They wanted to be seen by the bosses and by the state as the legitimate representatives of the workers. They wanted to be the ones to speak in the workers’ name. And they wanted to be the ones to collect their dues. As Charles Howard, the president of the International Typographical Union put it,

“Now, let us say to you that the workers of this country are going to organize, and if they are not permitted to organize under the banner of the American Federation of Labor they are going to organize under some other leadership…. I submit to you that it would be a far more serious problem for our government, for the people of this country and for the American Federation of Labor itself than if our organization policies should be so molded that we can organize them and bring them under the leadership of this organization.”

Lewis, Hillman and the others were unsuccessful in convincing the AFL to change its position. But they were not willing to be bypassed by this movement of the unskilled. So in November of 1935 they set up the Committee for Industrial Organization within the AFL.

This formation of the CIO within the midst of the AFL was a challenge to the other AFL leaders. It is not that the CIO leaders had any fundamental disagreements with them about the role of the unions in bourgeois society. Both sets of officials were just looking for a place for labor within capitalism. Sidney Hillman stated the views of the CIO officials very clearly on this in a press interview in 1937. He said that the CIO was, “not a movement to change the competitive system,” but was, rather, trying “to make the system workable.” What he wanted for labor was a “proportional share of the progress of industry” in which labor was one of the “three vital and participating elements,” the three elements being the employers, labor and the government.

The one question of difference between the officials of the AFL and those of the CIO was whether it was possible for any of those union officials to be the representatives of the workers if they ignored the unskilled workers.

The new committee continued for a year longer inside the AFL, until the CIO unions were stripped of rights within the AFL. In fact, formally, they remained until 1938, but in fact from 1935 on they openly turned toward the unskilled workers.

1937: the Turning Point

At the end of 1936, the dam broke loose. The mounting wave of strikes reached a high point when the GM workers of Flint occupied their plants. After 44 days of determined fighting, the workers forced GM to give in and to recognize their union.

After this victory in Flint, strikes broke out all over the country. In 1937 there were 4,740 different strikes involving 1,861,000 workers. This was the largest number of strikes in any year since 1919. Between September, 1936 and June, 1937, there were over 1,000 sitdown strikes involving over 484,000 workers. Workers all across the country, in every kind of industry – from auto plants and rubber plants, to 5-and-10-cent stores and restaurants – were sitting down.

The CIO officials rode right along with these strikes. On the one hand, they had no choice if they wanted to gain influence over the unskilled workers. They took the head of this movement, in order to be in a position to direct it.

But in addition, the CIO officials used the threat of the power of this movement to reinforce their position in relation to the state. They used the strikes as a way to convince the government and the bourgeoisie that they were the only ones who could control this upswing, and as a means to pressure a recalcitrant bourgeoisie to recognize the new unions and give them the appearance of being their partners in industry.

By 1937, a large section of the bourgeoisie had realized that Roosevelt’s position was the most viable one for them. Within 9 months’ time, they recognized the right to organize for the 3,700,000 workers who poured into CIO unions. U.S. Steel, previously a hardline anti-union company, agreed to sit down with CIO officials and sign in a union without there even having been any kind of strike action against it. There were a few holdouts, like Henry Ford and the Little Steel companies, but most were now convinced that industrial unions should be recognized in order to be controlled.

Channeling the Workers’ Movement

The bureaucracy of the new CIO tried to fasten its views on the workers. It tried to convince the workers that it was the unions’ ties to the state that had won them victories, and not the workers’ own independent activity. It tried to convince them that their fate depended on who was in the White House.

An early symbol of this attempt to tie the workers to the state was John L. Lewis’s famous line during an early organizing drive for the United Mine Workers. When his organizing teams went out through the coal country to try to enlist new members for the UMW, he had them tell the miners they should join up because, “the President wants you to organize.”

After the first big victories, the workers confronted a choice: they could continue through their own activity to reinforce the positions they had already won and to extend their victory; or they could, as the CIO officials advised, reap the legal benefits of their fight. The CIO officials portrayed the state as having been “freed” finally from the control of the capitalists. They pointed to Roosevelt, to the NLRB procedures and the legal status now accorded unions as proofs. They held that this new situation now called for different methods on the part of the workers. Neither was it any longer necessary – most of the time – to resort to the costly inconvenience of a strike, nor was it even wise, for a rash of strikes might push the government back into the arms of the bourgeoisie.

So when workers in Pontiac plants sat down after the end of the Chrysler strikes in 1937, UAW officials not only refused to endorse the strike, but they threatened that if the workers didn’t leave the plant immediately, the UAW would totally withdraw its organizing funds and abandon the workers’ unionization drive.

So when a law was passed in Congress against factory occupations, it was enforced by these union officials. And the UAW Executive Board even went so far as to send a letter to inform GM it could fire any workers engaged in a wildcat strike.

Sometimes the CIO officials admitted that a strike was still necessary, in order to help the government put the pressure on a hardliner. This was the case, for example, in Little Steel. These were the five smaller steel companies which, unlike the giant U.S. Steel, refused to voluntarily sign a union contract. So the union leaders were forced to call a strike.

Nonetheless, the steelworkers’ leader, Phillip Murray, told the workers they could depend on the government, on “labor’s friend” who would aid them. But instead of aid, the workers got bullets. During the strike 18 workers were killed, and many more were wounded. In a protest march on Memorial Day in South Chicago, when 200 police arrived, they were greeted as if they had come to guard the march to Republic Steel. But the police opened fire upon the strikers, killing 10 and wounding many more.

Even after events like these, the union officials maintained their view. In fact, they told the workers who wanted a union that strikes, bloody and costly strikes, could be avoided by going through the government procedures of the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board). Workers could file a petition and hold a certification election. If the majority voted for the union, then the law of the land said they could have it. And the burden was on the government to enforce the law against any employer who refused.

The view of the union officials was that it is the actions of the government, and not of the workers, that count.

This view came out very clearly at the Ford Motor Company. Ford was one of the last holdouts, even refusing to accept the NLRB procedures. By 1941, the Ford workers had built up their organization. They had organized in the workers’ neighborhoods, as well as in the plants. Inside the River Rouge complex, the workers had established a union structure. Even though Ford formally said it was illegal, there were elected committeemen whom Ford dealt with.

One day in 1941, Ford fired eight committeemen. The workers responded with a strike.

The union officials hadn’t wanted to see a strike, and had tried to prevent it for several years. But now the workers had taken the step on their own. At this point, the UAW officials supported the strike.

During the strike, all the workers’ organizing came to fruition. They had been able to overcome a good part of the racism that Ford had so consciously used to try to divide the workers. Finally, after the workers showed their organization and determination by surrounding the whole Rouge complex with a ring of cars, choking off all movement into or out of the complex, Ford gave in and agreed to recognize the union.

The workers had built their union, and they had forced Ford to recognize it. Yet the union officials told the workers that winning the strike didn’t mean they had a union, not yet. First the union had to be made “legal” by going through the procedure of an NLRB vote. Even though the workers had shown through their actions what a real union was, the officials insisted that they had to have the approval of the government. They were telling the workers that the nod of approval by the government was what counted, not the workers’ own activity.

The question of the union contract was viewed in the same way. Workers were told that this legal document was their guarantee, that this piece of paper protected them. Instead of having to go through the cost of strikes all the time, there were grievances and arbitration to protect them.

In exchange, the workers were told they had to act responsibly. They were supposed to agree to the opening statement of the contract which says something like, “The general purpose of this agreement is to promote orderly and peaceful labor relations for the mutual interest of the Corporation, the employees, and the Union.”

Above all, this means a pledge not to engage in any kind of strike action until all the time-delaying twists and turns of the contract grievance procedure are followed. In effect, the intent is to limit strikes to contract expiration every two or three years.

The Question of the Labor Party

The movement during these years for a labor party expressed the workers’ desire for an organization of the whole class. The CIO officials came up against this desire many times, but each time they found the way – at least partly – to pull it back into a support for the Democratic Party.

In 1936, when a UAW convention called for the formation of a national labor party, John L. Lewis made a personal plea at the last minute to convince the delegates to add a rider to this resolution giving Roosevelt support for the upcoming presidential election.

Lewis, Hillman, and other union officials in the CIO unions were very active on the political scene in 1936 in other ways as well. They set up Labor’s Non-Partisan League to mobilize labor votes for Roosevelt. Many workers would not support the Democratic Party because of all the governmental attacks on the workers during Roosevelt’s first term. But through the LNPL, by acting as if this represented an independent move away from the Democratic Party, the CIO leaders were attempting to bring support back to Roosevelt. They were for independent labor action, they would say, but at this point in time it was important to re-elect Roosevelt. As Sidney Hillman stated the issue when he called for a vote for Roosevelt,

“The position of our organization is known: that we are for a labor party. We are today bound… to help bring about a labor or farmer-labor party – what is commonly known as independent political action. But in the last two years things have happened… since the coming of the Roosevelt administration. We have participated in making the labor policy of the Administration.”

By 1940, the push for a labor party had grown considerably. After John L. Lewis had broken with Roosevelt, millions were looking to him to form a labor party. When Lewis spoke, he often reflected the movement that was growing for a labor party. In 1940, he told a cheering UAW convention, “Some day in this country the people are going to lose confidence in the existing political parties to a degree that they will form their own party.” Lewis continued to attack Roosevelt. But when it finally came to taking an action in the upcoming presidential election, he announced in a radio address that was listened to by over 25 million people, that he was supporting the Republican Party candidate, Wendell L. Wilkie.

The fact that no real alternative was presented to the workers meant the movement was disoriented.

After World War II, the movement for a labor party developed once again. In 1945, in Detroit, there was so much pressure for such a move, that the UAW officials decided to run one of their officers, vice-president Richard Frankensteen, for mayor of that city. The push from the ranks was strong enough to run an individual labor candidate, but never to form a labor party. The formation of such a party was always pushed to the back burner by the union officials. A few individual candidates were O.K., if need be. But a national labor party with a presidential candidate – they refused. So despite a number of resolutions in Michigan, New Jersey and Ohio by CIO unions for the formation of such a labor party for the 1948 elections, none was ever formed. As a result, the only third party candidate in the 1948 presidential elections was Henry Wallace, an independent bourgeois candidate.

The Final Proof

If the bourgeoisie still had any doubts about the reliability of the CIO union leaders, about their ability to control the workers or about their willingness to carry the interests of the bourgeoisie into the working class, World War II and the aftermath certainly convinced them that they had reliable allies.

As U.S. involvement in World War II approached, the CIO union officials were leading the way to convince the workers to sacrifice their interests. With the 1940 GM-UAW agreement, Walther Reuther told the workers, “Now we must accept even a bad agreement for the good of the country.”

When Pearl Harbor was bombed, the leaders of the CIO rushed forward with a no-strike pledge, showing that they were “responsible” union leaders. And the CIO officials even pledged to give up double time pay as a premium for overtime work. This is something even the AFL unions didn’t do.

They put themselves forward to take responsibility for the war and all the sacrifices imposed when they took a seat on the War Labor Board.

Despite the CIO officials’ attempts to tie the workers’ movement down, opposition developed during the war. A minority opposition was voiced against the no-strike pledge. And there were a record number of wildcats. During the war years, some 6,774,000 strikers went out on a total of 14,471 strikes. This was more than in any other similar time period in American labor history.

But despite all this unrest, there was never a serious threat to war production. And the wages of the workers lost drastically to the wartime inflation. Even the famous incident when John L. Lewis led the miners out of the coalfields, demonstrably breaking the no-strike pledge, did little more than let off accumulated steam. Certainly the war effort was not impaired, despite the number of strikes.

Once the war ended, 1946 brought the largest strike wave in U.S. history. Some 4,600,000 workers went out on strike. But most all of these strikes were contractual strikes, and the workers overall did not recover what they had lost to the inflation of the war and the immediate post-war years.

The CIO officials took their last step during the Cold War and the McCarthy period. They even initiated the attacks within the unions against militants and communists. They were the ones who expelled from the CIO the unions they could not purge. They used these attacks as a way to strengthen their own positions within the unions, and to tighten their bureaucratic control over the unions. And in doing this, they proved, one more time, that they were reliable allies for the bourgeoisie.

By the time 1955 rolled around, the upsurge of the working class had been over for a long time. The officials of the CIO unions had played an important role for the bourgeoisie in relation to the unskilled workers, just as the AFL had earlier done in relation to the skilled workers. In playing this role, the CIO bureaucrats had left the AFL and established a new separate union structure, the CIO.

If in 1955 they re-entered the AFL – now bringing the whole CIO with them – this merger was simply the final symbol that the union bureaucracy had completed its job.