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

Workers Were Organizing. The CIO Ran to Catch Up

Aug 1, 2005

Leaders of the new "Change to Win" split from the AFL-CIO sometimes compare their split to the formation of the original CIO, led by John L. Lewis.

Unfortunately, the two events are about as different as day and night.

By the end of 1935, when Lewis and other AFL leaders formed the Committee for Industrial Organization inside the AFL, there was already in the working class an upsurge of very militant strikes, wildcats, even sit-downs. In the U.S. in 1932 there were 841 recorded strikes involving 324,000 workers. In 1933 there were 1695 strikes involving 1,168,000, and in 1934 there were 1856 involving 1,467,000. By 1937 the strike wave would grow to 4,740 recorded strikes involving 1,861,000 workers.

Three strikes in 1934 were especially significant: the Toledo Auto-Lite strike, the San Francisco general strike, and the Minneapolis Teamsters’ strike (actually three strikes in a row). These strikes showed that the working class was in a fighting mood, ready to battle against the conditions forced on them by the bosses’ Great Depression.

The workers also demonstrated their willingness to follow a fighting, militant leadership, different from the AFL craft-union approach often called "business unionism." Leaders of those 1934 strikes–militants of the American Workers Party in Toledo, the Dunne brothers and Carl Skoglund and other militants of the Socialist Workers Party in Minneapolis, Harry Bridges and Communist Party militants in San Francisco–were influenced to a great extent by revolutionary and socialist ideas and by the successful workers’ revolution in Russia in 1917.

In l935, it was clear to John L. Lewis and his allies inside the AFL that a vast workers’ uprising was already in progress. Their ambition was to run after the workers’ movement, catch up to it, seize its leadership and impose their own policy upon it–in a word, to substitute themselves for the socialist militants then at the front.

At the October 1935 AFL convention, Lewis ally C.P. Howard of the International Typographical Union spoke: "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."

The CIO founders’ aim was precisely to interpose themselves between the working class and its rising, class-conscious, militant leadership. To begin to accomplish this, they separated from their old AFL; to signal the completion of that job, in 1955 they rejoined the AFL.

Andy Stern, SEIU president and founder of the Change to Win split-off, writes that his proposals, if adopted by the AFL-CIO, would have been "a dramatic event as historic as the founding of the CIO in the 1930s." But whatever the drama of the original CIO, it was inside the larger drama of a whole working class lifting its head, flexing its muscle, daring by mass actions to do battle with the bosses. The workers began to do whatever was necessary to win, enthusiastically creating a wave of sit-down strikes which declared that the working class could even begin to seize for itself the bosses’ holy property.

Unfortunately, no such drama exists today. If a workers’ movement arose today as vigorously as in the 1930s, then the same leadership issues would arise as well. And people like Stern and Jimmy Hoffa Jr. would rush to contain it.