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 CIO:
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the time of the merger between the AFL and the CIO, just 20 years later, the militant struggles of the early years had been replaced by open collaboration with the bourgeoisie.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. What explains these changes? Was the CIO really different in 1955 than it was in 1935?

The Upsurge of the 1930s

The decade of the 1930s started with a deep economic crisis. Industrial production plummeted. Unemployment reached between 13 and 17 million workers, depending on which estimate is used. Some 1.5 million homeless people were wandering around the country, sleeping where they could. Workers who still had jobs faced severe wage cuts. Manufacturing wages were cut by an average of 9.4 per cent. Bituminous coal miners had their wages cut 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 a time of massive upsurge in 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 capitalists’ rights 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, they learned to turn their backs on many rules of the bourgeois order. Workers began to forge a consciousness of themselves as a class.

The best indication of this development in class consciousness was that 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 struggles 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 1932 presidential election: the combined vote for the Socialist Party and the Communist Party reached almost one million. 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 in a deep economic crisis. And they faced a working class which was deciding to fight for its interest.

The time-honored way in which the American bourgeoisie dealt with a movement of the working class was to try 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 which developed in the 1930s. A section of the bourgeoisie became convinced after a time that the unskilled were not being stopped by the traditional means of repression. In fact, the repression tended to heat up the battles.

A part of the bourgeoisie, represented by Franklin D. Roosevelt, believed that some form of unionization by the unskilled was inevitable. For the bourgeoisie, the important question was what form this organization took. Would it have ties to the bourgeoisie? Would it be an organization led by types like Sidney Hillman and John L. Lewis, types who would keep workers in line and help bring social stability back to the country? Or would the unskilled workers form unions perhaps led by revolutionaries, which would continue to ignore or even challenge the existing social order?

So a section of the bourgeoisie decided to accept a certain type of unionization codified in the NRA (National Recovery Act). Under Section 7A of this act, the right of workers to organize was recognized. In exchange, Roosevelt demanded that 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 right, at least not until 1937. Most capitalists refused to recognize 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 over and over against the strikers. In 1935 alone, the National Guard was used to break up 73 strikes in 20 different states.

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

Split in the Union Bureaucracy

This movement of the unskilled workers also created a division among existing trade union officials in the AFL. When the unskilled industrial workers came knocking on the door, wanting to be unionized, the majority of AFL officials voted to keep them out. These officials saw the main aim of the AFL as the restriction of entrance into their unions, expecting by this means to protect the gains of the existing membership. The mass organization of the unskilled contradicted this approach. The AFL would accept industrial workers only on the condition that skilled workers would break 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 Lewis and Hillman, argued for the unskilled to be brought into the AFL. These officials saw more clearly the changes taking place in the country. The changes included the shift to the assembly line and mass production. The crafts were weakened by this, and so was the AFL. As a result of such changes and of the depression, membership in AFL unions had fallen from 4,129,000 in 1920 to 2,127,000 in 1933.

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

The 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 mowed down the Ethiopians in the war now going on in that country ....” Officials like Lewis wanted to be seen by the bosses and the state as the legitimate representatives of the workers. They wanted to be the ones speaking in the name of the workers. And they wanted to be the ones collecting their dues. As Charles Howard, 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 this 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’s 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 did not want this movement of the unskilled to bypass them so in November of 1935 they set up the Committee for Industrial Organization within the AFL.

This formation of the CIO within the AFL was a challenge to the other AFL leaders. 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 simply looking for a place for labor within capitalism. Hillman stated the views of the CIO officials very clearly in a press interview in 1937. He said 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 “three vital and participating elements.” The three elements were the employers, labor and the government.

The one difference between the officials of the AFL and those of the CIO was whether it was possible for them to remain representatives of the working class if they ignored the unskilled workers.

The new committee continued for a year longer inside the AFL until the CIO unions were stripped of their rights within the AFL. Formally they remained in the AFL 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. The mounting wave of strikes reached a high point when the GM workers at Flint occupied their plants. After 44 days of determined fighting, 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 which involved 1,861,000 workers. This was the largest number of strikes since 1919. Between September 1936 and June 1937, there were over 1,000 sitdown strikes which involved 484,000 workers. Workers all across the country in every kind of industry from auto and rubber plants, to Five-and-Dime 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 only they could control this upswing; they used the strikes to pressure a recalcitrant bourgeoisie to recognize the new unions and give them the appearance of being 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 nine months, they recognized the right to organize for the 3,700,000 workers who poured into the CIO unions. U.S. Steel, previously a hardline anti-union company, agreed to sit down with CIO officials and recognize a union without any kind of strike taking place 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 workers that it was the unions’ ties to the state that had won them victories, 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 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 organizers tell miners to join up because, “The President wants you to organize.”

After the first big victories, workers confronted a choice: they could continue through their own activity to reinforce 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. CIO officials pointed to Roosevelt, to NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) procedures and to the legal status now accorded to unions as proof. They held that this new situation called for different methods on the workers’ part. Nor was it any longer necessary, most of the time, to resort to the costly inconvenience of a strike; it was not even wise, for a rash of strikes might push the government back into the arms of the bourgeoisie.

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

When a law 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 wildcat strikes.

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

Nonetheless, steelworkers’ leader Philip Murray told workers they could depend on the government, on “labor’s friend” to aid them. 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, the 200 police who arrived were greeted as if they had come to guard the march to Republic Steel. But the police opened fire, killing 10 and wounding many more.

Even after events like these, union officials maintained their view. In fact, they told workers who wanted a union that strikes, bloody and costly, could be avoided by going through the government procedures of the NLRB. 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 would be on the government to enforce the law against any employer who refused to honor the results.

In the view of the union officials, actions of the government, not of the workers, were what counted.

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

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 years. But now that workers had taken the step on their own, the UAW officials supported the strike.

During the strike, all the organizing workers had done came to fruition. They were able to overcome a good deal of the racism Ford had so consciously used to divide the workers. Finally workers showed their organization and determination by surrounding the entire 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 union officials told them that winning the strike didn’t mean they had a union, not yet. First the union had to be made “legal” by going through an NLRB vote. Even though workers had shown by their actions what a real union was, officials insisted that the workers had to have the approval of the government. The officials were telling 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 this legal document was their guarantee, this piece of paper protected them. Instead of having to go through the cost of strikes all the time, there were grievance and arbitration procedures 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 words to the effect that, “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 point of view meant a pledge not to engage in any kind of strike action until all the time-consuming twists and turns of the contract grievance procedures were followed. In effect, the intent was to limit strikes to contract expirations every two to three years.

The Question of the Labor Party

The movement during these years for a labor party expressed worker’ desire for an organization of the whole class. CIO officials came up against this desire many times. But each time they found the way, at least in part, to pull it back into 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 in 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 government attacks on workers during Roosevelt’s first term. But through the LNPL, acting as if this represented an independent move away from the Democrats, the CIO leaders attempted to bring support back to Roosevelt. They were for independent labor action, they would say, but at this moment it was important to re-elect Roosevelt. As Sidney Hillman stated when he called for a vote for Roosevelt,

The position of our organization is known: 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 Lewis broke with Roosevelt, millions looked 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 action in the upcoming presidential election, Lewis announced in a radio address to more than 25 million people, that his support was going to the Republican Party candidate, Wendell 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 decided to run one of their own officers, Vice President Richard Frankensteen, for mayor of Detroit. 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 union officials. A few individual candidates were okay, if need be. But they refused to organize a national labor party with a presidential candidate. So, despite a number of resolutions in Michigan, New Jersey and Ohio by CIO unions for the formation of a labor party in 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, about their willingness to carry the interests of the bourgeoisie into the working class, World War II and its aftermath must have convinced the bourgeoisie that they had reliable allies.

As U.S. involvement in World War II drew nearer, the CIO officials led the way in convincing workers to sacrifice their interests. In the 1940 GM-UAW agreement, Walter Reuther told 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, to show they were “responsible” union leaders. And the CIO officials even pledged to give up double time pay for overtime work. Even the AFL unions didn’t go this far.

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

Despite these attempts to tie down the workers’ movement, opposition developed during the war. A minority voiced opposition to 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, more than in any other similar time period in American labor history.

But despite this unrest, there was never a serious threat to war production. And the wages of workers were cut dramatically by wartime inflation. Even the famous incident when Lewis led the miners out of the coal fields, 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.

After the war ended, 1946 saw the largest strike wave in U.S. history. About 4,600,000 workers went out on strike. But most of these strikes were contractual, and workers did not recover what they had lost to inflation during the war or in the immediate years following.

The CIO officials took their last step to convince the bourgeoisie during the Cold War and the McCarthy period. They even initiated attacks within the unions against militants and communists. The officials expelled from the CIO any 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. They proved, one last 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. Officials of the CIO unions had played an important role for the bourgeoisie in relation to unskilled workers, as the AFL officials had done in an earlier period in relation to skilled workers.

In playing this role, the CIO bureaucrats left the AFL and established a separate union structure, the CIO. In 1955, when they re-entered the AFL, now bringing the whole CIO with them, the merger simply represented the final symbol of a union bureaucracy that had completed its job.

Reprinted from Class Struggle #5

March, 1981