The birth of the CIO

June 3, 2011

Bill Roberts explains how the deep setbacks for the U.S. labor movement in the 1920s were only the prelude for the mass unionization struggles of the 1930s.

THE BIRTH of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) ushered in a period of labor militancy that transformed the American labor movement.

For a 10-year period, between 1936 and 1946, the struggles of U.S. workers were among the most dynamic of any industrially advanced countries.

The explosive nature of this growth in labor action can be seen in the number of strikes. Between 1923-32, there were 9,658 strikes involving 3,952,000 workers. Between 1936-45, there were 35,519 strikes involving 15,856,000 strikers.

Prior to this dramatic turnaround, the U.S. labor movement was on the skids. Not only were the craft unions of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) losing members at the rate of 7,000 per week by 1931, but workers' wages were also sliding downhill. Average wage cuts in manufacturing were 9.4 percent in 1931.

Labor leaders of the AFL played no different role during the Depression period than do labor leaders today. Above all, they saw their task as one of minimizing the effects of the rout, but did nothing to change its direction.

Pennsylvania members of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in front of their office
Pennsylvania members of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in front of their office

Thus, for example, John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers (UMW), toured the mining regions counseling workers to take cuts and not to strike.

Lewis was a typical business unionist who ran his union with an iron fist. In the tradition of former AFL chief Samuel Gompers, he did nothing to educate the members so that they could represent themselves better at the work sites; he was staunchly anti-communist and supported the Republican Party.

In 1922, at the conclusion of a successful strike, Lewis abandoned 100,000 unorganized strikers in Pennsylvania and West Virginia who were not covered by the agreement signed by the employers.

This attitude left large sectors of the industry unorganized and severely crippled the UMW by the end of the 1920s. By 1931, there were only 60,000 members left in the UMW cut of 400,000at the peak in 1920.

By 1933, Lewis was forced to shift gears. In danger of losing his fiefdom, Lewis decided his strategy of seeking legislation that favored the coal industry was too marrow, and thus, he joined with what was by now a clamor from the industrialists and bankers for a wider approach to solving U.S. capitalism's problems--government intervention.

In 1933, Lewis presented his plan to revive U.S capitalism to a Senate committee. Included in the plan was a reduction in the workday to help absorb some of the unemployed, a minimum wage and above all the right to organize and collectively bargain with employers.

This was boniness unionism's contribution to the National Recovery Act (NRA) and was incorporated under Section 7(a).

THE MYTH that has grown up around the NRA credits President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Democratic Party of being the friends of labor.

In fact, workers already had the legal right to organize under the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932, and the fact that unions had already organized workers made this section nothing more than a public relations job.

As Roosevelt's Labor Secretary, Frances Perkins, admitted, "Written in general terms, 7(a) was a problem in semantics. It was a set of words to suit labor leaders."

Lewis himself admitted that "Roosevelt was not too friendly to Section 7(a)." Nevertheless, the slogan "Your president wants you to join a union" was used by union organizers in the coalfields and garment districts with dramatic results.

Two months after the UMW organizing drive started, 300,000 new members were signed up. The International Ladies Garment Workers signed up 150,000 and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers 50,000.

The effect of the NRA was electric. Even though the main thrust of the legislation was to rescue business interests, it seemed to millions of workers that the green light was on for them to join under government auspices.

Even if Section 7(a) helped to spur organization of some workers, it could not protect them from employer reprisals. Employers were dong their utmost to violate 7(a).

Sometimes this provoked strikes in spite of union leaders' opposition; but it also led to demoralization among workers who were stopped for their organizing efforts.

The San Francisco General Strike of 1934 is the best example of how workers responded to reactionary employers who were bent on denying the longshore workers a living wage or a union. In spite of massive police brutality and reluctant AFL leadership, a wave of working-class solidarity effectively put the city in the hands of the workers for a short time.

That made it possible for the longshore workers to emerge from the struggle with better conditions, wages and a recognized union.

On the other hand, rubber workers found that the AFL was incapable of using the NRA to help them. By 1934, 70,000 workers had joined the AFL's federal unions (a structure that was designed to funnel workers into the various craft divisions of the AFL after a particular industry was organized).

These divisions, of course, played into the hands of the employers in their efforts to not bargain with the unions.

LIKE OTHER industrial workers, the rubber workers wanted industrial unions to take on the bosses.

Workers at General Tire and Rubber grew impatient with speedups and low wages. They called for a strike in June 1934 much to the consternation of the AFL-appointed leader, Coleman Claherty.

The company refused to recognize the union, and, through all sorts of legal maneuvers, they sabotaged the elections that would have given the entire industry union recognition. Instead of calling for a industry-wide strike--the only way to force the companies to bargain--the AFL made a deal in Washington in April 1935, completely caving into the companies.

The rubber workers were completely demoralized, and union membership stopped to less than 3,000 by summer.

John L. Lewis, Men's Garment Industrial President Sidney Hillman, and Ladies Garment Workers President David Dubinsky are among those unions leaders credited with reviving U.S. trade unionism.

Their contributions came more from pragmatic considerations than from any theoretical or visionary perspective.

With their own positions threatened by the economic crisis they saw a way forward through organizing workers on an industry-wide basis.

As Daniel Guérin notes in his 100 Years of Labor in the USA:

these innovators had one crushing argument in their favor: technical progress. While industrial productivity had risen by less than 10 percent between 1899 and 1914, it had increased 7 percent annually from 1920 to 1930.

In all of basic industry, the semi-skilled were replacing the skilled, and in many cases unskilled workers dominated. Eighty-five percent of Ford workers could be trained to do their job in less than two weeks.

The structure of organizing workers by craft was a fetter on the union movement, and Lewis and the others who supported him recognized this.

The battle between the "industrialists" and the "crafters" inside the AFL broke into the open at the 1934 convention in San Francisco. The defenders of the old order conceded to establishing industrial unions in auto, cement and aluminum but they continued to insist on the primacy of the craft unions.

Daniel Tobin of the Teamsters repeated Gompers' old insult by referring to the recently organized unskilled workers as "garbage."

At the 1935 convention, the battle continued. It was at this convention that Lewis was verbally assaulted by carpenters' president William Hutcheson and then grabbed by the lapels. Lewis delivered a hard left to Hutcheson's jaw--a symbol of the break that was to follow.

THE "INDUSTRIALISTS" were defeated at the convention and convened immediately to set up a Committee for Industrial Organization.

Originally intended to be a committee inside the AFL, the CIO was soon forced to go its own way when the AFL expelled 10 Internationals representing more than a million workers for affiliating with it.

The "industrialists" now faced the enormous task of organizing the unorganized. Lewis recognized that to actually make it work he would have to enlist the help of any of those whom he had smashed in previous internal battles.

John Brophy had been his most dangerous rival. He had fought to reform the UMW between 1924-28, denouncing Lewis' sellouts, calling for the organization of the unorganized, the nationalization of the mines, the end to the alliance with the Republicans and the creation of a labor party.

At the 1926 convention, Brophy was elected president, but Lewis rigged the procedure and succeeded in ousting him.

In 1935, Lewis opened his arms to Brophy and to others he had opposed along the way.

As he told Powers Hapgood, another dissident, "You and Brophy had a lot of ideas, but they were premature. A general who gets ahead of his army is no use to anybody. But now I'm ready to take over some of these ideas. Let's go Powers." Brophy was given the post of organizing director.

Perhaps Lewis' most opportunistic turnaround, however, was his approach to the communists. No one had been more anti-communist then Lewis in the 1920s.

He issued a pamphlet in 1923 entitled "Communist Attempts to Capture the American Labor Movement," which argued that the Communists were out to transform the craft unions into industrial unions. He boasted that he was able to drive out every Communist in the UMW.

In 1935, he changed his mind. At the Atlantic City convention, he opposed a resolution that would have prevented Communist-led unions from participating in conventions. He argued that anti-communism was a pretext for doing nothing to help labor's cause.

In the CIO, he welcomed the Communists, recognizing their usefulness as organizers for his new venture.

Whatever the influence and organizational skills of the various radicals within the unions, it was the upsurge from below that pushed Lewis' CIO into a mass effort.

Whatever the illusions held by workers regarding Roosevelt's programs, the impression that labor's candidate had won in 1936, infused confidence into what was already a mass movement.

BEGINNING IN the rubber industry, workers at Firestone went on strike in January 1936, by occupying their plant.

This new tactic was designed to prevent scabs from taking jobs and seems to have been introduced to them by a Hungarian printer who had learned this lesson in 1914.

It was called the sit-down strike, and it achieved victory in two days.

The tactic was used a few days later at the Goodyear and Goodrich factories in Akron. The Goodyear sit-down was used to protest layoffs. The authorities threatened to send in the National Guard. The unions responded with a citywide meeting representing 104 unions and 35,000 workers. A general strike was threatened and after 33 days, the strike was successful.

After Akron came Flint. The CIO staked its future on his strike and won. Once the General Motors system was organized, the CIO was at the center of a mass workers' movement that was to reshape the face of U.S. labor for years to come.

The sit-downs in Flint and elsewhere reached their peak in 1937, with more than 200,000 workers involved. By his time, employers recognized the tide had shifted against them and sought to minimize its effects by seeking favorable deals with cooperative union leaders. Thus, Lewis was able to use the threat posed by the rank and file-led movement in auto to extract a deal from the steel companies in 1937.

The founders of the CIO--Lewis, Hillman, Dubinsky--sought to limit the movement that they had helped to start once the results could be achieved without actually releasing the power of the rank and file.

After all, Lewis' objectives were not dissimilar to AFL President William Green's. They just disagreed about the approach.

With the founding of the CIO, U.S. labor went on a march that was to overturn more than a decade of defeats. The success of this industrial unionism and the power exercised by rank-and-file workers shook American capitalism at its heart.

This explosive period of class struggle resulted from a combination of conditions and radicalized a generation of workers and their supporters.

This article originally appeared in the in May 1990 issue of Socialist Worker.

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