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The CIO, Race, and Liberalism



Yeselson has an excellent long-form review of two new books on the CIO, race, and New Deal liberalism that look flawed but necessary anyway. You will want to read the whole thing if you care about the issues of the working-class, race, and the government in these perilous times. Here’s the conclusion:

But this isn’t true. Unions and black workers are closer than they have ever been. And unions are, if anything, less ambivalent bulwarks against racism than they were in the immediate postwar period. The AFL-CIO and African-American organizations and politicians work together and, for better or for worse, agree on pretty much every policy issue. Even the building trades, pushed for years by the courts and civil rights activists, have responded by opening up their apprenticeship and training programs to women and minorities. Today, there is a higher percentage of black workers who are union members than there are white workers. Ask any organizer of any color and they will tell you that they stand a better chance of organizing non-white workers, blacks especially, than white workers. And the most successful labor campaign in recent years, the SEIU-led Fight for $15, seeks to organize fast-food workers who are disproportionately non-white. Like the CIO when seeking to organize the industrial sector during the thirties and forties, SEIU today has both pragmatic and ideological reasons to organize workers of color in the growing low-wage service sector. Similarly, service-sector unions have built powerful alliances in California and Nevada with Latinos. As for white unionized workers, despite all of the stories about how pissed off they are at neoliberal Democrats and how they were attracted to Donald Trump’s trade message, the fact remains that white men in unions have still voted for Democrats at a rate of about 20 percent higher than their non-union counterparts. (This pattern likely did not hold this year. Exit polls from the 2016 election indicate that Clinton carried the union vote by 51–43, the lowest margin for a Democrat since 1984.)

So, while Schiller’s expertly depicted legal conflict seems ineluctable, in fact there is more solidarity between unions and African Americans today than there was a half century ago. He insists that the “weak and unstable foundation” of postwar liberalism provided little to “fleeing working-class whites in a time of economic crisis.” But how could a labor movement, grounded in industrial pluralism, win against management as its numbers declined? Conversely, how could this same declining movement succeed in petitioning the state for compensatory protections precisely at the moment when its political impact, along with its membership, grew smaller?

The dueling visions of the law—majoritarian, anti-statist industrial pluralism versus state-assisted redress of individual claims of racial discrimination—as Schiller demonstrates, generated a lot of conflict between unions and civil rights activists. But this conflict didn’t end the labor liberalism driven by the CIO and a few of the AFL unions. The collapse of employment in the key postwar industries and the subsequent decline in union membership is what badly wounded this iteration of labor liberalism. This undermined the Democratic Party’s desire to promulgate full employment and a redistributive economic policy, which meant that the party had an ascendant and growing African-American voting bloc, which simultaneously alarmed white workers at precisely the moment when their economic clout and the unions that provided it were waning.

So the new labor liberalism, built with the support of proportionally more non-white workers (and women), is more progressive than the old pre–civil rights era labor liberalism. If it achieves its powerful new vision, it will be a more humane, cosmopolitan, and egalitarian movement than its predecessor. But as of now, it is a significantly smaller movement and lacks economic and political leverage in key sectors of the political economy. The Fight for $15, however innovative and promising, doesn’t remotely compare to the great CIO victories of the late 1930s and ’40s in terms of its impact on workers, both white and non-white. The unique conditions that engendered labor’s massive growth during this period, barely commented upon by either author, does not necessarily provide a template for contemporary organizing.

As these two sharply argued books demonstrate, postwar liberalism hinged upon how and whether unions maximized and used their power. The books together form an odd complementarity: even as a powerful union movement promoted the cause of equality for African Americans (Schickler), union and civil rights activists began splitting apart from each other (Schiller). Meanwhile, modern conservatism merged its opposition to both worker empowerment and cosmopolitan racial equality, embodied in the figure of Barry Goldwater, the opponent of the 1964 Civil Rights Act who (as neither book notes) also despised and sought to curtail the embodiment of CIO power, Walter Reuther, and the flagship institution of American liberalism that he led, the UAW.

Today, multiracial political activism has returned to the left, but without the support of anything like the economically and politically weighty labor movement of the postwar era. The New Deal order cannot be resurrected. The working class is split along racial, regional, and cultural lines and, by most measures, a significant part of it (even slightly more non-white workers than expected) voted for an authoritarian, racist, misogynist grifter in the last election. Schickler, on the last page of his book, with more hope than evidence, asserts that demographic changes to a “majority-minority” population may in themselves put pressure on Democratic Party elites in the way that the labor and civil rights movements once did. More valuable is his concluding remark regarding the necessity for progressive groups to see themselves not as “isolated claimants on the party system but instead as part of a broader ideological coalition with common aims and shared enemies.” The only good news that resulted from this election is that the need for “shared enemies” has been filled.

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  • jeer9

    To hell with the CIO, race, and liberalism.

    Who’s Loomis rooting for tomorrow? Rhode Island or Oregon?

    I took the Rams making it to the Sweet Sixteen, mainly because one of their starters is from my hometown.

    • I am rooting for the Ducks to defeat URI by the largest margin in its history.

  • Nick Conway

    What book do you think gives the best history of the CIO? I saw Labor’s Giant Step by Art Preis in the bookstore and thought about getting it but wasn’t sure if there was a more recent overview that was better.

    • Robert Zieger, The CIO, 1935-1955 is the standard.

      • Bruce Vail

        Uggh. I know Zieger has a stellar reputation but Zieger actually makes one of the mot exciting times in US labor history seem boring. He also emerges as a bit of partisan in the debate with the AFL, don’t you think?

    • redbike

      What book do you think gives the best history of the CIO?

      I’m somewhat hijacking your query. Consider “Which Side Are You On?, Trying to Be for Labor When It’s Flat on Its Back”, Thomas Geohegan, © 1991.

      At the time the book was written, Geohegan was a Chicago-based labor lawyer; perhaps still is, and — who knows? — perhaps he’s lurking on this blog. At this very moment. The book is about Geohegan’s experience representing Teamsters. That’s to say, members of Teamster locals, not the locals themselves. The Teamsters, of course, were originally AFL, not CIO, hence, my acknowledgement that this doesn’t directly answer your question.

      “Which Side Are You On?” is superbly written. IMHO, I think any bookshelf related to US labor history should include it.

      Here’s a brief excerpt:

      Even now, in Local X nothing ever really happens. The word “fuck” is all that’s left. This is just as true of the Steelworkers, the Boilermakers, etc. I think it’s impossible in some unions even to have an election without the word “fuck.” It’s everything in a man’s life, his sword, his buckler, his shield. Sometimes, a man’s whole career threads in and out of that single word, like the eye of a needle.

      I could classify the different unions by the use of the word “fuck.” Try to imagine labor as a spectrum, with discrete, quantumlike gaps: at one end, the Teamsters and the Boiler-makers, and then the Steelworkers and the Carpenters, and then all the way to the other end, to AFSCME and the Teachers, where the word isn’t used at all. Not all of labor is like the Teamsters. There’s a whole section of it where there are English teachers, vegetarians, men and women who send valentines to each other and swoon on the Eve of St. Agnes. But I want to stay for a moment at the dark end of this spectrum.

      Some day a philosopher, or linguist, or deconstructionist, can explain to me how people can do business, conduct public affairs, by saying back and forth, “Fuck you” and “Fuck you.” Was this how they did it in ancient Athens, the first democracy? It’s the most degrading thing about being a labor lawyer. The whole English language drops away, and this “fuck talk” takes over. A few years ago, I had to present a case to a jury, and relate what went on at a union hall. My client, being a literal man, got up and told his story, literally, and didn’t leave out a single word.

      “So, Mr. X, can you tell us what was said?”

      “‘Fuck you.’”

      “And was there any response?”

      “Yes. ‘You scum-shit, fuck you.’”

      We went through days of testimony this way. And I kept seeing two or three suburban matrons on the jury, looking at me.

      “What have you done with your life?” they seemed to be saying with their eyes.

      And I felt, standing before them, like their lost little boy.

      But who knows? Maybe it’s our national language. Isn’t it the language of our theater? David Mamet, for example, is our great national playwright, and Mamet writes this way. English teachers teach it. It’s the language of the American stage, and even the English stage. It started out with Shakespeare, and it’s ended up with “Fuck you.”

      And Mamet is the son of a labor lawyer in Chicago.

      • Purely on the basis of this except, I’m placing this book on my reading list. One of the best things I’ve read in months.

  • Bitter Scribe

    I’m sorry but this is a lot of feel-good piffle. Unions are populated by white guys who, if a black man dared invade their workplace, dropped tools on his head and pissed in his lunchbox. And after work they went to a bar that “reserved the right to refuse service” and bitched into their beer about how lazy niggers didn’t want to work.

    • Bruce Vail

      deel-goodism is Yesselson’s spcialty…

      • yeselson

        Hi, could you tell me what the hell this means? Because I have no idea. Also, did you read the essay?

        • yeselson

          Ah, “feel goodism”–right, that’s me. You ought to read the piece. And maybe a dozen others I’ve written. But also–why don’t you write exactly what you mean–and please cite the passages that bother you. Thanks.

          • Bruce Vail

            I owe you an apology, Mr. Yeselson. I did not read your article before spitting out my snarky comment, nor am I familiar enough with your articles to make any sort of broad-brush criticism like that.

            I’ve now read your CIO books article in full and I absolutely agree with Erik that it is excellent. Again, I apologize, and pledge to resist popping off like that again

    • JdLaverty

      That is bullshit. The carpenters, laborers, maybe a few old industrial unions? Maybe. But it’s nonsense when it comes to the new, ascendant unions. Most of the public sector unions? Lots of black and hispanic members. And the two most powerful service sector unions, the SEIU and the UFCW (which is almost all private sector workers) are heavily diverse, especially in the most prominent locals, and both are in the best position to grow if they can find a way to overcome employer resistance. I worked for the UFCW; our local was only half white at most. And organising white workers is largely a pain in the ass.

      • Linnaeus

        One of the most racially integrated spaces I’ve ever been in here in my majority white county and city has been the county labor council – and I don’t mean integrated in just the sense of people of color and white people in the same space, but substantively so, because people of color hold positions of influence and their voices are respected.

        My graduate program department? Full of highly educated, cosmopolitan folk. And overwhelmingly white.

      • Bruce Vail

        Yeah this is right. There is a group of unions that are almost all white and fit Bitter Scribe’s description pretty well. Then there are the AFSCMEs, SEIUs, UFCWs and UNITE HEREs who are completely different.

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