Sep 5, 2016
Eighty years ago, on September 10, 1936, the American Federation of Labor, the AFL, a skilled trades organization, suspended ten unions that had been working inside the AFL to establish unions for industrial workers without specific trades.
The suspension marked a very open split inside the union bureaucracy. The bureaucrats who sat at the top of the AFL were content with the small numbers already inside the unions for workers who belonged to one or another of the skilled trades. And they were militantly ready to keep what they called “the rabble,” that is, the large mass of the working class, outside the doors of their unions.
The Committee on Industrial Organization, which was what those ten unions called themselves, had been formed in November 1935, based on the initiative taken by John L. Lewis, president of the mineworkers union. They proposed to organize all the workers in a particular industry, company or even particular plant, in a single union.
Going beyond the narrow focus on particular trades, which marked the AFL, the CIO was an enormous step forward for the American working class. Nonetheless, the CIO fell far short of the possibilities that the struggles of American workers opened up in the 1930s.
The Great Depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929 ushered in a brutal decline in workers’ living standards. Unemployment jumped up, then stayed high. Workers “lucky” enough to keep a job suffered wage cuts and exhausting speed-up. A million and a half homeless people wandered the country, sleeping where they could.
In the early 1930s, workers carried out isolated and desperate fights for survival, often led by communists, socialists and other radicals. Unemployed Leagues sprang up in many states, mobilizing the unemployed to demand relief. Many times they massed, trying to prevent evictions of people who could no longer pay the rent. Some raided food and fuel from warehouses and businesses to keep starvation at bay.
Those who mobilized had to face the organized terror of the capitalist state – for example, in 1932, Dearborn police and Henry Ford’s private army greeted 4,000 unemployed marchers with machine gun fire, killing five and wounding more than two dozen more.
In 1933, strikes sharply increased, jumping up to 1,695 from the 841 recorded in 1932. More dramatically, the number of strikers almost quadrupled, from 324,000 to 1,168,000. “The country is full of spontaneous strikes. Wherever one goes, one sees picket lines,” wrote Benjamin Stolbert, a labor journalist and historian, in December 1933.
The capitalist class responded, with all the forces of the state apparatus at its command, violently attacking the growing working class movement. At least 15 strikers were killed, 200 injured and thousands arrested in the last six months of 1933. Criminal syndicalist charges were brought against active strike leaders, threatening them with long prison terms, while right-wing gangs kidnapped or tried to lynch some strike leaders.
The working class responded in 1934 with more widespread strikes, including four strikes that shut down whole cities or even regions of the country.
Longshoremen in San Francisco began a 78-day strike for union recognition that eventually spread to other workers on the Frisco waterfront, including seamen and warehousemen, and then to other ports along the West Coast. When cops killed two strikers, strike organizers responded with a call for a general strike of all San Francisco workers. Involving more than 150,000 workers, the general strike continued for four days.
The longshoremen didn’t immediately gain their union, but the forces of the working class were not broken, and workers began to impose their demands through immediate actions.
In Toledo, Ohio, strikers at Auto-Lite, an auto parts company, were joined by unemployed workers to shut down much of the city. They fought pitched battles against the cops and National Guard for eight days. The guard may have been armed with tanks, artillery and Gatling machine guns. But the Auto-Lite strikers pulled to their side most of the working class of Toledo, and the existing unions called for a general strike of all the working population. The government stepped back, the National Guard left town, and the company ceded to workers’ demands, including recognition of their union.
In Minneapolis, Minnesota, a strike by coal haulers spread to truck drivers and warehouse workers throughout the city. Over a period of seven months, truck drivers carried out four strikes, growing in size, organization and militancy. Two strikers were murdered, leading to a massive funeral demonstration in protest. The governor declared martial law and brought in the National Guard. The strikes spread, engaging wider parts of Minnesota’s working class, and enlisting the aid of farmers who brought in food for the strike kitchen. The strikes effectively shut down all business in Minneapolis.
What gave the strikes in Minneapolis their staying power and real strength was the strike committee that workers had elected and continually reinforced to direct their movement, along with the general meetings of all the workers, which decided on actions and demands. They organized defense guards that drove off the police and the bosses’ goons.
When the employers ceded to the strike’s demands, this opened up much wider organizing efforts all through the upper Midwest and northern Plains states.
The biggest strike in 1934 was textile, which started as a local strike, but spread eventually to more than 400,000 workers in 20 states from New England to the southern Piedmont. The workers confronted cops and tens of thousands of National Guardsmen and company thugs who, together, murdered 13 strikers and carried out mass arrests of picketers. The strikers who were almost all white, having worked for companies that didn’t hire black workers, now faced companies who moved to hire black workers in an attempt to break the strike. The inability of the white workers and the organizers of the strike to confront the divisions that Jim Crow had sown in the ranks of the working class helped contribute to the collapse of the strike.
Whether workers won their demands or were pushed back, the working class was organizing itself, learning to use its own forces – including by resisting assaults by police, the army and the bosses’ thugs. These were only battles in a larger war. And by fighting to organize by industry, they were breaking down the traditional divisions that had long existed in the organized working class. Sometimes they created democratically elected and militant leaderships for their struggles.
The movement of 1934 was potentially revolutionary. The victory of the Russian working class had taken place less than two decades before. And inside the American working class there were revolutionary militants from the pre-World War I generation – unionists, syndicalists, or revolutionary socialists who helped give a political expression and a direction to these struggles.
In their struggles, when workers were organizing without dividing up by skill or occupation, implicitly, they were viewing themselves as part of the same class.
John L. Lewis, and other leaders who stood with him, were every bit as much bureaucrats as any of the others. But they understood that if they did not go with the workers, they would be bypassed, and so for a period, they rested on the workers’ mobilization. This is what gave the new CIO its force and dynamism. In a few short years, struggles of the working class forced one company after another, one industry after another to accept what the American capitalist class had long said it would never accept, that is, industry-wide unions of the unskilled workers.
The old-line AFL bureaucrats, ready to stick their heads in the sand, ignored what the workers were doing. Lewis and the others were suspended, then expelled, forcing them finally to transform the Committee on Industrial Organization to a new union federation, the Congress on Industrial Organization in 1938.
The CIO from the beginning was established by part of the old union bureaucracy as an organizational structure aimed at containing the working class. By imposing these new unions on the bosses, millions of workers were expressing their will to fundamentally change their lives. But the leadership of the CIO maneuvered to prevent this mobilization from going all the way up to the end of the possibilities the workers had opened up for themselves.
The officials who headed the CIO were as hostile as the AFL to the communists and socialists who had led most of the struggles of the 1930s. But the CIO leaders understood that the workers would push them aside if they did not join the workers’ mobilization.
CIO leaders like Lewis sought to bring in those who had led the mobilization, and that meant at least some of those communist, socialist and other radical militants. To be more precise, the CIO leaders worked with them, up to the point they could expel them from the very unions built by the radicals’ leadership and determination. That point arrived in less than a decade; in many cases, much sooner.
Why weren’t the communists and other militants who had so often led the fights that built the unions able to lead fights that could stop the union bureaucrats from consolidating their control over the CIO?
One important reason is that the Communist Party – by far the biggest of those parties, with by far the most militants, and having led most of the hardest struggles – this party believed it needed an alliance with Lewis and the other CIO leaders. Thus the CP turned its back on the workers’ ability to run their own organizations themselves.
Conscious of the destructiveness of capitalism, millions of workers had aspired, however haltingly, to have their own political representatives and to put an end to the failing system in which they were caught. The situation called for the formation of a mass workers’ party, which did not exist in the United States. Such a party would have allowed the workers to have their own voice and their own leadership. It could have provided a consistent policy for those millions of workers in struggle.
The widespread desire for such a party was so strong that Lewis and others were forced to play with the idea of a “labor party” for a whole period during this time, but only to later divert the political aspirations of the working class back behind Roosevelt and the Democratic Party. The CP went along, calling for support of Roosevelt’s candidacy.
By the beginning of World War II, the CIO contained six million members. This new federation reflected the mobilizations that the American workers had just lived through. But it also reflected the fact that the union bureaucracy had been able to prevent this mobilization from taking a revolutionary road. And with the push of American imperialism to enter World War II, the CIO actively disciplined the working class.
The American working class had shown its capacity to fight, and to carry out impressive, vast struggles. But in the absence of a revolutionary political leadership for these fights, they remained imprisoned within a union framework, allowing American capitalism to avoid facing what might have become a powerful workers revolution, one that could have changed the whole history of the world.
That revolution is still on the agenda – as are new organizations of the working class.