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.