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The Communists and the CIO

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As far as it goes, this history of communists and the CIO in the 1930s and 1940s that Jacobin published is sound, both factually and historiographically, except for saying

Though its role is rarely mentioned, and even less frequently assessed, the Left was central to the organization of this new dissident union federation.

which makes absolutely no sense at all. If anything, the role of the left in the building of CIO is overdiscussed since basically no one writes about these issues but leftists interested in the communists. But whatever.

The problem, as often happens, is in the conclusions. What are we to learn?

Any revival of a left-wing unionism today will have to involve a serious emphasis on building a shop-floor presence within unionized workplaces, rather than just in the union staff positions more attainable for the political left. With an entrenched leadership bureaucracy committed to a failed strategy of collaboration with US capitalism, union staff will always be limited in their role.

Whether or not union bureaucracies have a failed collaboration with American capitalism, this struggles to make much sense because of the enormous differences between shop floors in 1937 and 2016. Communists were successful in unions like UE, and for that matter the entire CIO was successful for this reason, largely because the electrical industry had shopfloors where thousands of people worked. Mass organizing could result from this arrangements. Similar shop floors simply do not exist much today. Maybe in meatpacking and a few other industries. But not to any meaningful extent for organizing the American workforce. So maybe communists do get jobs as nurses and take over SEIU locals. That’s fine. But the structural issues of transforming unions are if anything harder than they were in 1937.

While individuals can do great work and contribute real talent, the task of reforming and reorganizing the US labor movement remains a political battle to be won within the unions through a rank-and-file upsurge from below. Many of today’s union leaders recognize this — and, like John L. Lewis, they’ll knowingly deploy left-wing organizing staff despite being unfriendly to left-wing objectives, because they’re entirely confident that the union, and not the leftist political project, will end up keeping “the bird.”

I can buy this.

Despite the Communist Party’s enormous shortcomings — including the opportunism of the Popular Front era and their shameful role during World War II — many CP-led unions nonetheless left an inspiring legacy. Many locals waged militant strikes and aggressively expanded the “frontier of control” on the shop floor far beyond the legal interpretations of collective bargaining.

OK, but let’s not handwave away said shortcomings. The biggest problem with the Communist Party union operatives is that they were indeed taking orders from Moscow, meaning that they switched positions at party directives and put those priorities over the priorities of the workers. And the workers noticed and acted, often actively participating in the driving out of the communists from the unions after World War II, but even before, writing to the Dies Committee, begging a federal investigation of their locals.

Of course any leftists taking over a union today are unlikely to be CP members and aren’t going to be following the orders of Putin or anyone else in Russia so maybe it’s irrelevant, except that to the author, it is not. A return of socialist based unionism (and we’re talking radical socialism here, not the Swedish kind) from below is the stated goal here:

Socialists within the labor movement must adopt a strategy of building up bases of local support that can be leveraged within and between unions for coordinated aims. Socialist politics are crucial to building a fighting labor movement, capable of giving expression to worker militancy across various industrial sectors and, ultimately, even the entire economy.

And that’s fine. But the lessons from the CP are not just the positive ones of organizing and solidarity. They are the negative ones of all the ways these unionists screwed up.

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