Author Page for Erik Loomis
I’ve been reading and rereading some key books of American labor history of late and I have a few thoughts. First on the CIO, after reading Robert Zieger’s 1995’s book, The CIO, 1935-1955.
There’s a sort of popular history of the CIO in the progressive mind that might go like this: The AFL sucked and was racist and wouldn’t organize industrial workers and so John Lewis changed this by creating the CIO. Worker activism, especially with the sit-down strikes of the late 1930s in the auto industry combined with FDR’s labor law to open up mass organizing, which was largely achieved by World War II. After the war, the CIO really screwed up by jumping in bed with the companies, undermining rank and file action, and kicking out the communists. By the time of the merger with the AFL in 1955, there wasn’t much reason for the CIO to exist as a separate entity.
I wouldn’t quibble with too much of this popular history. But I think for progressives and leftists thinking about the CIO as an important point in American labor history–and more importantly thinking about the role of the labor movement, progressivism broadly conceived, radicalism, etc. in American life today–there are a few issues and facts that have to be reckoned with.
1. That the CIO worked at all is incredibly lucky. It was so contingent on a lot falling the right way and it’s amazing it more or less happened. John L. Lewis was willing to front all the new unions a ton of money that they really couldn’t pay back. Yet by the time that Lewis bailed on the CIO project in 1940, there was just enough money to keep it all going. Lewis was mostly willing to tolerate communists for just long enough to get these organizing campaigns going. The need for full mobilization during World War II was all that really stabilized the CIO financially. Without it, it’s hard to say what would have happened to most of the industrial unions.
2. For all the talk of union power, actual information about the CIO’s success in mobilizing workers outside of basic organization does not leave one optimistic. Basically, the CIO struggled motivating workers at the polls. It’s political program was largely a failure on the local level. Historians like Thomas Sugrue have shown how Detroit workers were willing to reject the UAW whenever it pushed for racial equality, voting for Republicans even in the late 30s. Its candidates often lost, even in pro-labor states like Michigan and Ohio. The CIO fought hard to support Helen Gagahan Douglas against Richard Nixon and she was crushed. There are many cases like this from the late 30s until the merger in 1955. While CIO workers tended to vote more liberally than non-CIO workers, the federation simply could not turn the tide of most elections, even in its areas of strength.
3. Even more important, the American people outside of the CIO basically hated the organization. It’s worth remembering that not only did Taft-Hartley pass and not only did Taft-Hartley pass over Truman’s veto, but that the CIO wasn’t able to do a single thing to punish the politicians involved. That’s because not only did Taft-Hartley have the overwhelming support of the American people, it had a lot of support from rank and file members of CIO unions who were never comfortable with the radicalism of some of their leaders.
4. While the CIO redbaiting the communists out of the federation certainly helped undermine the social ferment unionism that gave the federation a reason to exist outside the AFL, it’s also important to remember that the communists actually were taking their orders from Moscow. Their constant position switching to fit Stalin’s new line disgusted many, including rank and file workers. Most workers were avowed anti-communists. Because the communists had great discipline and understood the mechanism of how unions worked, they tended to have outsized influence in the unions, but when there was a non-communist alternative, most (though certainly not all) workers were happy to get rid of them. There are exceptions to this, but the larger point stands–if we think that the communists were good for the labor movement, we do have to understand that most actual workers hated them.
5a. One area where the communist unions were right on and the CIO leadership was dead wrong was on race and Operation Dixie. The CIO tried to appeal to white workers in the South, meaning it avoided any talk of integration. Some of the communist-led unions had southern locals based upon black workers. The white workers hated them precisely because of the communist line on race. But there was much white workers in the South did not like on unions. The communists strongly pushed for an integrationist line and that had a much better chance of succeeding, because southern black workers were ardently pro-union when southern white workers weren’t really pro-union anyway. Not only was this important from a moral standpoint, the failure of Operation Dixie gave northern companies even more incentive to begin a process of capital mobility to the nonunion south that continues today in the global south.
5b. The CIO was to the right of the AFL on foreign policy issues between 1945 and 1955. The AFL retained an independence from the national security state (and the state more generally) than the CIO. The CIO relied upon federal legislation to push its agenda. Part of that deal was integrating itself into the state, which meant actively supporting Cold War foreign policy. The CIO basically said that Jacobo Arbenz had too many communists in his government, lending after the fact support to the coup in Guatemala.
6. On the other hand, it was precisely this working within the state and more specifically the Democratic Party that created the modern liberal state that did more for real workers than anything else in American history. Yet the growing consumer purchasing power of CIO workers actually did separate them from the rest of the American working class and there is a lot of evidence of CIO members in the 40s and 50s opposing federal programs that would have expanded the liberal state to a larger sector of the poor, precisely out of the same spirit of jealousy that today manifests itself in today’s poor complaining about public sector workers getting benefits when they don’t have any.
7. One thing the CIO and AFL had in common was no tolerance for rank and file activism. While rank and file activism did help build the CIO, its leaders were far more comfortable operating in Washington than the shop floor. It looked to crush wildcat strikes precisely because they made the internationals look bad to government and business leaders. On the other hand, there’s not all that much evidence that most workers wanted much in the way of rank and file activism and when they did express it, it was often protesting black people getting jobs or other socially reactionary issues.
Of course as so many people on the left have done, you can just look at this and say the CIO was a corrupted organization and that we need to promote solidarity, worker militancy, and direct action. Because the IWW did promote all of these things, they would say it is far more useful organization to see as a model than the CIO. The problem with that formulation is that the IWW has never accomplished anything. We might rightfully see the CIO as a deeply flawed organization. But what it did accomplish for American workers was enormous, even with all these problems.
And these discussions of worker solidarity, democratic unionism, and militancy are often just vague dreams without much meaningful connection to what the working class actually wants, which is to watch TV and go to their kids’ soccer games. Which ultimately is what most of us want because activism is hard and TV is fun.
In other words, history is complicated and any pat narrative that says this or that model is going to transform the conditions of the world’s workers is probably wrong. And if we are going to look at any past issues or models, we need to ground them in real historical fact and complexity. It’s one thing to remember Joe Hill and Frank Little and Emma Goldman with a quick raised fist or singing of Solidarity Forever. It’s another to be serious enough about our ideas to improve the lives of the world’s poor to investigate whether they actually had much useful to offer outside of image and figure. The CIO might have screwed up in some important ways. It’s still primarily responsible for actually winning the key issues that created the American middle class.
Good for Harry Reid, denying Obama’s desire to fast track free trade agreements that will send even more jobs out of the United States. And as Scott has noted about Reid before, the man rarely speaks without knowing that the Democratic Caucus is behind him.
Today, I turn 40. Shall I start measuring myself for a coffin?
…..I’ve already made a new friend after turning 40.
This spring, I am teaching a graduate seminar on the Environmental History of the Americas. Since I know how much extra time everyone has, I thought I’d post the readings so that people can read along if they wish. I hope it is enough reading for everyone. I can always assign more.
February 4—William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England
Brian Donahue, The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord
February 18—John McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914
Elizabeth Fenn, “Biological Warfare in Eighteenth-Century North America,” Journal of American History March 2000
February 25—Linda Nash, Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge.
Gregg Mitman, “Geographies of Hope: Mining the Frontiers of Health in Denver and Beyond, 1870-1965, Osiris 2004
March 4—Thomas Andrews, Killing for Coal: American’s Deadliest Labor War
Stefania Barca, “Laboring the Earth: Transnational Reflections on the Environmental History of Work,” Environmental History January 2014
March 18—James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed
March 25—Raymond Craib, Cartographic Mexico: A History of State Fixations and Fugitive Landscapes
Neil Safier, “The Confines of the Colony: Boundaries, Ethnographic Landscapes, and Imperial Cartography in Iberoamerica,” in James Akerman, ed., The Imperial Map: Cartography and the Mastery of Empire
April 1—Marsha Weisiger, Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country
Paul Rosier, “’Modern America Desperately Needs to Listen’: The Emerging Indian in an Age of Environmental Crisis,” Journal of American History December 2013
April 8—Emily Waklid, Revolutionary Parks: Conservation, Social Justice, and Mexico’s National Parks, 1910-1940
Mark David Spence, “Crown of the Continent, Backbone of the World: The American Wilderness Ideal and Blackfeet Exclusion from Glacier National Park,” Environmental History July 1996
April 15—James Morton Turner, The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964
April 22—John Soluri, Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States
Edward Melillo, “The First Green Revolution: Debt Peonage and the Making of the Nitrogen Fertilizer Trade, 1840-1930,” American Historical Review 2012
April 29—Mark Carey, In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society
Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses” Critical Inquiry Winter 2009
Enough reading for you?
For the first time in the history of college sports, athletes are asking to be represented by a labor union, taking formal steps on Tuesday to begin the process of being recognized as employees, ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” has learned.
Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, filed a petition in Chicago on behalf of football players at Northwestern University, submitting the form at the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board.
Backed by the United Steelworkers union, Huma also filed union cards signed by an undisclosed number of Northwestern players with the NLRB — the federal statutory body that recognizes groups that seek collective bargaining rights.
“This is about finally giving college athletes a seat at the table,” said Huma, a former UCLA linebacker, who created the NCPA as an advocacy group in 2001. “Athletes deserve an equal voice when it comes to their physical, academic and financial protections.”
Huma told “Outside The Lines” that the move to unionize players at Northwestern started with quarterback Kain Colter, who reached out to him last spring and asked for help in giving athletes representation in their effort to improve the conditions under which they play NCAA sports. Colter became a leading voice in regular NCPA-organized conference calls among players from around the country.
Now this is a story worth following. Given the difficulty graduate student unions have had in getting universities to admit they are employees, I think this is going to be an even harder struggle for athletes since they aren’t even paid, but I wish them the best of luck.
Getting rejected by the state of California in his application to practice law (PDF), largely because he has never really come clean about his actions with The New Republic, even well over a decade later.
Via Roger Ailes, who points out that Marty Peretz thinks Glass is a good dude.
Honestly, I kind of feel sorry for the guy. Glass, not Peretz. No one should feel sorry for Peretz.
America, 2014. A nation where working age people now are the majority of food stamp recipients. I see no alternative other than cutting food stamps to get these lazy welfare cheats off the government teat and back where they belong–homeless and hungry. Take this person:
The newer food stamp recipients include Maggie Barcellano, 25, of Austin, Texas. A high school graduate, she enrolled in college but didn’t complete her nursing degree after she could no longer afford the tuition.
Hoping to boost her credentials, she went through emergency medical technician training with the Army National Guard last year but was unable to find work as a paramedic because of the additional certification and fees required. Barcellano, now the mother of a 3-year-old daughter, finally took a job as a home health aide, working six days a week at $10 an hour. Struggling with the low income, she recently applied for food stamps with the help of the nonprofit Any Baby Can, to help save up for paramedic training.
“It’s devastating,” Barcellano said. “When I left for the Army I was so motivated, thinking I was creating a situation where I could give my daughter what I know she deserves. But when I came back and basically found myself in the same situation, it was like it was all for naught.”
What has she done for this nation? And only working 6 days a week? If she had any motivation, she’d work at least 7. Maybe 8 or 9. That’s what the makers do. That and be born rich, white, privileged, and probably male, use their status to get into the best colleges, join the investment firm where their frat brother’s dad is a partner, and rig the political game through enormous and increasingly unregulated political donations to place more wealth in their Cayman Island bank accounts.