Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Irving Howe

Ten Years of the CIO

A Stirring Story of the Rise of American Labor

(12 August 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 32, 12 August 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) has become so much a part of the consciousness of the people of this country that it comes almost as a shock to recall that the CIO is only ten years old – practically an infant as labor organizations go. And yet in those ten brief but exciting years, this mighty organization of industrial workers has become a factor of first importance in the United States; it has brought about tremendous changes in the conditions and attitudes of millions of workers; it has given American labor a consciousness of its strength unequalled since the 1830’s when the first important, if, halting, attempts were made in the young nation to organize a few workers into unions.

The CIO has just published a little booklet called The Truth About the CIO which details its tumultuous history for these past ten years. This booklet stimulates memories for us which our readers, no doubt, will find similar to their own.

Craft Unionism Proved Outdated

In 1935 the trade union movement in America, as contrasted with its present strength of about 15,000,000, had less than 5,000,000 members. Company unionism, today almost entirely wiped out, was rife in the big industries. The use of armed strike-breakers, company thugs, state militia to break strikes was a usual occurrence. The AFL, then the only nationwide federation, was hopelessly out-of-date; it could not touch the mass industries because its horse-and-buggy craft unionism would mean twenty ineffectual and competing craft unions where one industry-wide union was needed.

So great was the need for militant labor activity, so pressing the need for union strength, that by 1935 a conflict broke out in the AFL. A number of unions, such as the United Mine Workers, found that if they themselves were to continue to exist and expand, it was necessary that allied industries, such as steel, be strongly organized. But the AFL, by its inept and conservative craft methods, had made a dismal failure in steel; membership in the almost moribund AFL steel union had fallen from 100,000 to 10,000.

And then the CIO was formed by eight AFL unions, under the leadership of John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers. A bitter struggle broke out inside the AFL: industrial versus craft unionism, twentieth century versus nineteenth century methods. The conflict took a personal and dramatic form when John L. and Joe Hutcheson, reactionary head of the carpenters’ union, came to blows at the historical 1935 AFL convention; but beneath that flareup, and much more fundamental than it, was the fact that an issue of grave importance was being decided: should the mass industries of America be unionized?

Think today how much has been done, what great progress has been made! Sometimes we socialists, in our criticisms of the CIO leadership – always made, of course, from the point of view of strengthening and improving the unions – tend to overlook the magnitude of these accomplishments and to forget how much blood was sacrificed and how much sweat was spent in organizing the CIO.

For big business didn’t take it lying down. Recognizing what a mortal enemy industrial unionism was to it, the gigantic U.S. Steel Corporation, for instance, knew that if its workers were organized it wouldn’t be able to repeat the scandal of doubling its net profits in 1924–29 without giving a single wage increase during those years! The giant corporations fought – but they couldn’t stop the advance of America’s workers.

The first great test came early in 1936 when the Akron rubber workers went on a six-week strike, during which they introduced the new and revolutionary technique of “sit-down.” They occupied the factories and would not be budged; they defied the property rights of the rubber barons, even though they might have given you a queer stare if you’d put it to them in just that phrase. And they won!

Then came the deluge: an incredible growth of mass unions. The CIO steel union, despite the million dollar propaganda campaign which the American Iron and Steel Institute initiated against unions, broke through the stronghold of American capitalism and organized the steel workers. They took over or wrecked company unions; they persisted despite the bosses’ strong-arm tactics and labor spies.

And then the auto workers! Here were America’s most militant, aggressive workers moving into action as never before. The UAW, later to become the largest union in the world, moved at break-neck speed, struck General Motors in a sit-down strike and in 1937 forced GM to sign on the dotted line.

What the CIO Has Achieved

Today the CIO, with its six million members, is at the apex of its strength. Let us take a glance at what industrial organization has meant to America’s workers:

  1. It has resulted in a feeling of confidence and strength which is the most hopeful sign for those who look to labor as the force which can be stimulated to take bold action and, by creating its own government, solve the problems which the workers of this country face. Where formerly company spies and police reigned in undisputed terror, as in Ford, today union stewards speak for their brother workers and struggle in. their behalf. True, boss domination continues, and with it insecurity for the Workers; that will always be the case so long as capitalist society exists.
  2. In many CIO unions there has developed a degree of democracy which has few equals. Of course, the CIO has its share of pie-cards and bureaucrats, but what union today can equal the democracy of the United Automobile Workers? Even in those unions in which the Stalinists have wormed into control, such as the Electrical Workers (UE), the desire for democracy among the ranks is so keen that the Stalinist leaders are often forced to allow a certain amount of freedom to oppositions. Not that the CIO is perfect on this question of inter-union democracy; not by a long shot. But you need only compare the internal functioning of, say, an AFL building trades local with that of a UAW local and you see the great progress that has been made.
  3. The CIO has, by and large, kept racial and religious prejudices out of its ranks; it has rejected the Jim Crow policy which so disgraces some AFL unions. For the CIO found that when it went out to organize the mass industries, in which many Negroes worked, a policy of refusing to treat the Negro workers as brothers simply meant suicide. Who doesn’t remember the famous Ford strike when the company tried to use Negro workers as strike-breakers by telling them that the white workers hated them, and when the white workers appealed successfully to their Negro brothers to join ranks and thereby won the strike? Today there are hundreds of thousands of Negro workers in the CIO; they have won a new sense of dignity in their acceptance as equals in the army of labor – and thereby the white workers by their side have also won a new sense of tolerance and brotherhood.
  4. The CIO has brought to its members many material advantages. Thus the average hourly wages of auto workers went up from 74 cents in 1935 to $1.40 in 1946; those of steel workers from 65 cents in 1935 to $1.30 in 1946. Hours have been shortened, conditions improved, speed-ups resisted. Of course, many of these increases in wages have been eaten up by the rising cost of living; but ask yourself: would wages have gone up to the same degree to meet the rising cost of living if there hadn’t been union organization?
  5. The CIO has shown, through its Political Action Committees, the political strength of labor, even if only potentially.

We mention this point last because it brings up the major weakness of the CIO at the moment: its lack of political independence. Though it has organized an independent political arm, the PAC, its politics are not yet independent. The CIO still flits around, fiddling with so-called “liberal” capitalist politicians. Its leaders still resist the idea of an independent Labor Party. And that is why so often what the workers win on the picket line, they lose in Washington.

The CIO has a great past – a history made possible by the sacrifices, struggles and devotion of thousands of its active militants, the stewards, the men who do the small union tasks, who keep things going; who, when the time comes, walk the picket lines be it cold or hot; who run into debt to keep the struggle going; who fight off the cops or the scabs when the picket lines are attacked.

It is they, the many unnamed heroes of the CIO’s struggles, who have built their unions to present-day strength. They have reason to be proud. And it is to them that we look for the future: to maintain the ’36 tradition of militant union struggle as opposed to playing ball with the bosses; to maintain the tradition of union democracy; to push through to success Operation Dixie; to drive the Stalinist leeches from control of the few unions on which they have festered; and, above all, to move decisively toward building a political arm as strong in labor’s behalf as is its economic arm: the political arm of an independent Labor Party.

Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 5 July 2019