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Sharon Smith

The 1930s: Turning Point
for U.S. Labor

(September 2002)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 25, September–October 2002.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE 1920s was a decade of rapid expansion for American capitalism, and ruling class confidence soared. Leading economists proclaimed that the era of booms and slumps was in the past, and the U.S. economy could look forward to “permanent prosperity.” The banking magnate Melvin A. Traylor declared confidently, “We need not fear a recurrence of the conditions that will plunge the nation into the depths of the more violent financial panics such as have occurred in the past.”1

But they spoke too soon. Before the decade was over, the U.S. economy had plunged into the worst depression in U.S. history. The 1929 stock market crash which marked the beginning of the Great Depression ushered in a period of immiseration for virtually the entire working class. By 1932 it was estimated that 75 percent of the population was living in poverty, and fully one-third was unemployed. And in many places, Black unemployment rates were two, three, or even four times those of white workers.

But the richest people in society felt no sympathy for the starving masses. They had spent the previous decade slashing wages and breaking unions, with widespread success. By 1929, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had lost a million members.2

With the onset of depression, they banded together as a group to oppose every measure to grant government assistance to feed the hungry or help the homeless. Most employers flatly refused to bargain with any union, and used the economic crisis as an excuse to slash all wages across the board. But in so doing, they unleashed the greatest period of social upheaval that has ever taken place in the United States.

When faced with working-class opposition, the ruling class responded with violence. Police repeatedly fired upon hunger marchers in the early 1930s. In 1932, for example, the Detroit police mowed down a hunger demonstration of several thousand, using machine guns. Four demonstrators were killed and more than 60 were injured. Yet afterward a city prosecutor said, “I say I wish they’d killed a few more of those damn rioters.”3

In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt granted workers the right to organize into unions in Section 7(a) of the National Recovery Act, and workers rushed to join unions. But everywhere the employers put up violent resistance. In 1934, when 400,000 East Coast textile workers went on strike to win union recognition, the bosses responded with a reign of terror, provoking one of the bitterest and bloodiest strikes in U.S. labor history.

In the South, the ruling class unleashed a torrent of racism and anti-communism, while armed mobs attacked strikers. The Gastonia Daily Gazette ran “Communism in the South. Kill it!” as a front-page headline. Employers distributed anti-union leaflets that read, “Would you belong to a union which opposes White supremacy?”4

In Gastonia, North Carolina, National Guardsmen joined by armed strikebreakers, were ordered to “shoot to kill” unarmed strikers:

Without warning came the first shots, followed by many others, and for a few minutes there was bedlam. Striker after striker fell to the ground, with the cries of wounded men sounding over the field and men and women running shrieking from the scene.5

In Burlington, North Carolina, soldiers bayoneted five picketers in a group of 400, all of whom were wearing “peaceful picket” badges. In the North, the battle was no less violent, when National Guard troops occupied mill towns all over New England. Rhode Island’s Democratic governor declared that “there is a communist uprising and not a textile strike in Rhode Island,” and called the legislature into special session to declare a state of insurrection and request federal troops.6

Although the strikers fought back heroically, they lost the strike. Thousands of strikers lost their jobs; others were forced to sign pledges to leave the union.

1934: The tide begins to turn

But these early defeats were not decisive. If anything, they strengthened workers’ resolve to fight back, as the center of struggle shifted away from hunger and unemployed marches toward strikes for union recognition in industry after industry. In 1933, there were 1,695 work stoppages, twice the number of the year before, involving 1,117,000 workers, nearly four times more than the previous year. In 1934, the figures rose still higher: 1,856 strikes involving 1,470,000 workers.7

And as the Depression decade continued, workers began to win their strikes. During 1934, three strikes, in San Francisco, Toledo and Minneapolis–all fought out almost simultaneously–turned the tide in favor of workers. Each strike showed in practice that with solidarity workers can win, no matter how well-armed and well-funded the bosses’ side is. Socialists played a key role in all three strikes.


The Toledo strike broke out in April, beginning from a position of weakness. Fewer than half the workers joined the strike at the Auto-Lite auto parts plant, making it easy for the company to hire strikebreakers to keep the plant running. But socialists from a small organization called the American Workers Party, led by A.J. Muste, built a solidarity movement that won the strike. Through the Lucas County Unemployed League, they managed to convince thousands of unemployed workers that their own interests lay not in stealing the strikers’ jobs, but in helping the union to win its strike.

Mass pickets of unemployed supporters, swelling at times to 10,000, helped the strikers to take the offensive. Armed with bricks and stones, they engaged in hand-to-hand combat with strikebreakers and the 900 National Guardsmen who were ordered in to break the strike. Even after the troops fired into the crowd, the pickets did not disperse. After 85 local unions pledged to call a general strike in sympathy, the company finally backed down, granting union recognition and a wage increase, and agreeing to rehire all strikers.

San Francisco

The San Francisco general strike started in May with a strike by 14,000 longshoremen up and down the West Coast. The main demand of the strike was for a union-controlled hiring hall, instead of the system by which foremen would pick out those who they wanted to work each day. Within a week, the Teamsters union refused to haul cargo to or from the docks, and other maritime workers struck in sympathy, completely shutting down San Francisco’s waterfront. The communist, Harry Bridges, was elected chairman of the San Francisco Strike Committee.8

When union leaders tried to push through an agreement without the union hiring hall, they were booed down at a mass meeting of strikers. Two months into the strike, the city’s business community pulled together to open the port. Police and National Guardsmen opened fire on the strikers, killing two strikers and one supporter, in a pitched battle that became known as “Bloody Thursday.”

In response, virtually all union workers in San Francisco voted to join the strike. Although a citywide general strike was the last thing the AFL leaders wanted, there was nothing they could do to stop it. So they assumed leadership of the strike in order to quickly bring it to a close. The Central Labor Council officially called a general strike, which brought 130,000 workers out and paralyzed the entire city. Police and National Guard Troops (now numbering 4,500) unleashed a wave of repression on strikers all over San Francisco, while squads of vigilantes raided union offices and attacked workers at gathering places.

But instead of leading the strike forward, the AFL leadership deliberately wound it down. Within four days, the strike was over.

[Immediately] President Green of the AFL disowned the strike. The second day of the strike the General Strike Committee called for arbitration of all issues, thus giving up the basic demand which the strike was all about, the union hiring hall. The third day it reopened all union restaurants and butcher shops and ended embargoes on gasoline and fuel oil…. By the fourth day the General Strike Committee voted 191 to 174 to end the general strike.9

The longshoremen won union recognition, but were forced to compromise on the demand for a union hiring hall–a partial victory, but far short of what would have been possible had the general strike succeeded.


The Minneapolis Teamsters strike, which began first in May and then resumed in July, went a step further than the others, because the rank and file was in control from start to finish. Trotskyists from the Communist League of America (CLA), Vincent Dunne and Farrell Dobbs, built the strike from the bottom up with military precision, relying only on the strength of the rank and file. The strikers organized their own hospitals and mass kitchens, and patrolled the streets of Minneapolis with “flying squadrons”–trucks filled with picketers who were dispatched on a moment’s notice to wherever scab trucks tried to move anywhere in the city.

The strike’s various operations, which foreshadowed the kind of workers’ self-management which would emerge during the great sitdown strikes in 1936 and ’37, involved thousands of workers beyond Teamsters Local 574. Each step of the way, the strike was run democratically through nightly mass meetings of workers, led by a strike committee of 100 truck drivers that published a daily strike newspaper.

The strikers were attacked by the police time and again, with high casualties on both sides. But as Farrell Dobbs argues in his eyewitness account of the strike, Teamster Rebellion, “Contrary to bosses’ hopes and expectations, the strikers were not exactly paralyzed with fear at the prospect of facing an army of cops and deputies.”10 In one such confrontation, a mass gathering of strikers was attacked by 1,500 police and armed strikebreakers, who had been quickly sworn in as “deputies.” But the cops were the losers:

The pickets charged the deputies first and noticed that many uniformed cops were tending to hang back ... Sensing this mood among some of the cops, the pickets continued to concentrate mainly on the deputies. Soon even the bystanders were getting their licks in support of the strikers. Finding themselves mousetrapped, many deputies dropped their clubs and ripped off their badges, trying with little success to seek anonymity in the hostile crowd. By this time the pickets were also zeroing in on uniformed cops who had gotten into the thick of the fight. The scene of the battle spread as cops and deputies alike were driven from the market. The deputies were chased clear back to headquarters, the strikers mopping up on stragglers along the way. In less than an hour after the battle started, there wasn’t a cop to be seen in the market, and pickets were directing traffic.11

At first, Minnesota’s Governor Floyd B. Olson, a member of the Farmer-Labor Party, supported the strike. Declaring, “I am not a liberal ... I am a radical,” he had even donated $500 to the strike fund.12 But as the strike wore on, and involved increasingly bloody confrontations between police and strikers, Olson changed his tune and declared martial law. But when the workers didn’t back down, the governor retreated and the company finally agreed to settle the strike.

The AFL officialdom had played no role in winning this victory. The Minneapolis Teamsters had written to the union’s president, Daniel Tobin, requesting permission to strike. But two days after the first phase of the strike ended, Tobin wrote back, refusing to give the union’s permission to go on strike. “By that time we’d won and had signed a contract with increased pay,” argued Local 574 President Bill Brown.13

The CIO opens its doors

By the 1930s, objective conditions were overripe for mass industrial unionism in the United States. Industrial productivity had risen by less than 10 percent between 1899 and 1914, but between 1920 and 1930 productivity increased by 7 percent each year. By 1926, the Ford Motor Company announced that 43 percent of its jobs required only one day’s training.14

Most importantly, the working class was no longer segregated along racial lines. The slowdown in immigration after 1914 brought with it a corresponding increase in internal migration. A half-million Southern Blacks moved north during World War I. By 1930, more than 25 percent of Black men were employed in industrial jobs, compared with only 7 percent in 1890. By the mid—1930s, Black workers made up 20 percent of the laborers and 6 percent of the operatives in the steel industry nationally. And one-fifth of the workforce in Chicago’s slaughterhouses was Black. White workers couldn’t hope to win unless they united with Black workers–and that wouldn’t happen unless they organized on the basis of equality.15

Yet by the mid—1930s, despite the sharp rise in industrial struggle, the AFL leaders still clung to craft unionism. Craft unions generally included only highly skilled workers and were often hostile to the unskilled and semi-skilled majority. At the 1934 AFL convention, during a debate about organizing the unskilled, Teamster President Daniel Tobin even repeated former AFL President Sam Gompers’ earlier insult, calling unskilled workers “garbage.”

In the early 1930s, unskilled workers who wanted to unionize had no choice but to apply for membership in the AFL, but became quickly disillusioned by the indifference–and sometimes hostility–toward them by the union leadership. Unskilled and semi-skilled workers who joined the AFL were quickly shuffled off into “federal locals”–as subsidiaries with fewer rights than the brotherhoods of skilled workers. Thousands of rubber and auto workers rushed into the AFL after the NRA granted the right to unionize–but many rushed out again just as quickly in frustration with the AFL.

Furthermore, while the AFL began to admit larger numbers of Black workers into its unions, it made no attempt to break with its own racist tradition. In 1924, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) issued an open letter to the AFL, which read:

For years and years, the American Negro has been requesting his admission into the ranks of the organized labor movement. The Negro movement as a whole is outside the ranks of the organized labor movement. The white labor movement will not have the Negro movement within it. If we come to allow the formation in America of a powerful bloc of non-unionized Black workers, workers who would be entitled to hate the trade union idea, all workers, Black and white, will suffer the consequences.16

The NAACP proposed to the AFL “the formation of an interracial workers’ commission to promote systematic propaganda against racial discrimination in the unions.” In 1929, the NAACP again appealed to the AFL to fight racial discrimination. In both instances, the AFL did not even bother to respond.17

But a section of the AFL bureaucracy broke with craft unionism in the 1930s, led by United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) President John L. Lewis. John L. Lewis was by no means left-wing. In fact, in the 1920s he’d systematically driven out communists and socialists from the miners’ union. At one miners’ convention, Lewis stopped the proceedings and pointed to a group of known communists sitting in the balcony, ordering them to leave. Then, in a public display, a group of miners beat the communists senseless at Lewis’ behest. He ran the UMWA as a bureaucratic, top-down machine. In 1922, for example, Lewis expelled hundreds of rank-and-file oppositionists who challenged his leadership in a strike.18

Moreover, Lewis had supported Republican Herbert Hoover in the 1932 presidential election.19 He was woven of the same cloth as the rest of the AFL leadership. But unlike the others, he recognized that if the AFL didn’t open its doors to the unskilled, another rival union organization would develop and grow from the mass organizing drives which were already taking place. As Lewis’ biographer, Saul Alinsky, concluded, Lewis merely “read the revolutionary handwriting on the walls of American industry,” when he pushed to organize an industrial union federation.20

Lewis and other AFL leaders, such as Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, tried without success to convince the conservative wing of the AFL leadership that the future lay with industrial unionism. But he got nowhere. At the 1935 AFL convention, the divisions finally resulted in a formal split between the two sides. The break was dramatized by an actual scuffle on the convention floor, when the conservative president of the carpenters’ union, “Big Bill” Hutcheson, lunged at Lewis–and Lewis responded by punching him in the jaw.21 The split was official.

Lewis had been right. When the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) formally opened its doors as a section of the AFL in 1935, industrial workers flooded in. And those groups of workers who were already at the forefront of struggle, such as the auto and rubber workers, quickly affiliated their unions with the CIO. In 1938, when the AFL finally expelled the CIO and its million members, the CIO changed its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations and emerged as a rival union federation.

John L. Lewis and the other union leaders who formed the CIO hoped to model it after the United Mine Workers: a highly bureaucratic union machine, but one that organized any and all workers, Black and white, skilled and unskilled, on an equal basis. Because of the severity of racism and its divisive effect on the labor movement, the CIO had to take a stand against lynching and segregation, and condemn discrimination in all its forms. It issued special outreach publications for Black workers, to make it clear that the CIO represented a new breed of unionism that no longer barred the participation of Black workers. A CIO brochure called, The CIO and the Negro Worker–Together for Victory, stated,

Negro Workers, join the CIO union in your industry. The CIO welcomes you. It gives you strength to win justice and fair play. The CIO unites you with fellow workers of all races and all creeds in a common struggle for freedom, for democracy, for a better life.22

Even though the CIO’s commitment to ending racial discrimination was often only symbolic, it represented a sharp break with past AFL practice and made it possible for the first time to build a multiracial labor movement in the United States.

Mass radicalization

Roosevelt’s concessions to workers did not have the effect he intended. He expected that granting workers the legal right to organize alone would placate workers so that he could get on with the business of stabilizing the economy. In a 1933 radio address, he specifically urged workers not to struggle to win the right to unionize:

The workers of this country have rights under this law which cannot be taken from them, and nobody will be permitted to whittle them away but, on the other hand, no aggression is necessary now to attain these rights…. The principle that applies to the employer applies to workers as well and I ask you workers to cooperate in the same spirit.23

These words undoubtedly began to ring hollow to workers whose employers called out the National Guard when they tried to exercise their legal right to unionize. Meanwhile, it soon became clear that Roosevelt had only grudgingly consented to grant workers the right to form unions–and he deliberately wrote Section 7(a) of the National Recovery Act so vaguely that it could easily be interpreted as ensuring the “rights” of employers to form company unions. Many employers found it convenient to interpret the NRA that way in order to prevent workers from organizing genuine unions. Soon many workers were referring to the National Recovery Act as the “National Run Around.”24

Black workers had an additional reason to be angered by the NRA–its institutionalized racism. Conditions for many Black workers actually worsened after the NRA came into being. In order to appease the Southern segregationist wing of his New Deal coalition, Roosevelt allowed the NRA to legalize the racial discrimination practiced in the South, and to generalize it to all of U.S. industry.

Blacks were effectively excluded from receiving minimum wages established in particular industries, because the NRA allowed employers to exempt predominantly Black job categories from coverage. In the South, where Black workers were still concentrated, workers were routinely paid less than Northern workers for the same jobs in the same industries. And in industries in which Black and white workers’ wages were made equal, it was common practice for racist employers to simply fire all their Black workers and replace them with whites, arguing that the NRA wage minimums were “too much money for Negroes.” It was with good reason that within a matter of months, the NRA was known among Black workers as the “Negro Removal Act” and the “Negro Robbed Again.”25

Until 1935, Roosevelt was caught in a balancing act. Since his election, he had managed to successfully

draw support both from the majority of the unions and from the so-called “progressive” wing of capital (advocates of greater corporatism, including the management of GE, U.S. Steel, the Rockefeller oil interests, and even the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce). He balanced this conflictual alliance by offering the AFL a more or less pro-union interpretation of NRA codes in lighter (and Northern) industries, as well as energetic relief measures; to big business, on the other hand, he ceded an interpretation of the NRA code in heavy industry which…buttressed the “company unions” that had been thrown up as road blocks to genuine organization.26

As the level of working-class struggle grew, and the economy began to stabilize, big business began to desert Roosevelt. As Mike Davis argues, “It was this mass desertion of business from the administration in 1935 that drove a reluctant Roosevelt temporarily into the arms of Lewis and the CIO insurgents.”27 Roosevelt needed the working class vote in order to win the 1936 election, and he shrewdly tailored his campaign to win the hearts and minds of workers. He put on quite a convincing show, declaring at one point during the campaign that if big business hated him, “I welcome their hatred,” and if he were given the chance to serve a second term they will have “met their master.”28

It was toward this end that in 1935 Roosevelt made two far-reaching concessions to workers. He pushed through the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act), which finally made it illegal for employers to refuse to bargain with unions. And he secured passage of a Social Security program, by which the U.S. government agreed to provide a minimal standard of living for the poorest families in society and for the elderly.

These two concessions proved to be the biggest gains workers won from the government during the Depression decade–gains which earned Roosevelt his legendary status as a friend to the working class. But although Roosevelt promised workers that “we have only begun to fight,” these were to be the last significant reforms he would grant to working class people.29 In reality, these concessions were nothing more than a calculated move to capture the loyalty of the ascending labor movement for the Democratic Party.

The labor leaders were all too happy to deliver. By raising the slogan, “The President wants you to join the union,” at picket lines all over the U.S., the CIO leadership virtually guaranteed Roosevelt’s continued popularity among workers. This, despite Roosevelt’s boast, “I am the best friend the profit system ever had,” which indicated that he desired to prevent revolts from below through reforms from above.

In 1936, the CIO created Labor’s Nonpartisan League, which was portrayed by its founders as a bold step in the direction of forming a labor party. But it was nothing of the kind. It placed labor securely in the pocket of the Democratic Party. In fact, it was specifically organized to campaign for Roosevelt’s reelection. Through the Nonpartisan League, the CIO raised $750,000 for Roosevelt, which helped make up for Roosevelt’s loss of big business campaign dollars. During the final weeks of the campaign in 1936, the CIO also suspended its organizing drives, so that it could devote its full organizational resources to Roosevelt’s reelection.30

Although Roosevelt remained popular, many workers–especially those who were most active in building the new industrial unions–began to turn away from the Democratic Party as the Depression decade wore on. Indeed, Democratic politicians were proving in practice that they stood firmly on the side of the bosses, while the compassionate New Deal rhetoric went out the window as soon as the class struggle intensified. In 1935 alone, 20 state militias–most controlled by Democratic governors–were called out against strikers in 73 disputes.31

A 1937 Gallup poll showed that at least 21 percent of the population supported the formation of a national farmer-labor party as an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans.32 In both Wisconsin and Minnesota, independent farmer-labor parties won important victories against the two major parties in the first half of the decade.

Inside the labor movement, this sentiment was even stronger, with locals from the auto, electrical, and garment workers’ unions voting in favor of a labor party. At both the AFL and various CIO conventions in 1935, resolutions in support of forming a labor party were put forward, which garnered considerable support. 33

The 1935 United Auto Workers (UAW) convention voted overwhelmingly to “actively support and give assistance to the formation of a national farmer-labor party.” Perhaps even more significantly, after a heated debate UAW delegates voted down a resolution supporting Roosevelt for president.34

This put the top CIO leaders in a quandary: Having promised to deliver union support to Roosevelt, they now faced the possibility of a mutiny within the ranks of one of the fastest-growing CIO unions. The fact that the vote had already been taken did not stop the union leaders from taking quick action to ensure the UAW’s support for Roosevelt.

They were willing to use any means necessary, including blackmail, to convince the union delegates to reverse the vote. John L. Lewis’s personal representative to the convention, Adolph Germer, simply pulled the UAW leaders aside and explained that either the convention would agree to support Roosevelt or the CIO would revoke all its funding for the UAW to organize the auto industry. Once UAW President Homer Martin explained to the delegates that the vote would have to be reversed “because of the effect it may have on the future of our Organization,” the convention quickly passed a new motion of support for Roosevelt.35

Other CIO leaders were equally devious in snatching working class votes for Roosevelt. The American Labor Party was created by union leaders, such as Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, who were frightened that socialist traditions deeply ingrained among New York’s garment workers would prevent them from voting for any Democratic Party candidate.

For Hillman the first and most important task was to “sell” the idea to his own union people ... Many of the union members, especially in New York and Chicago, had grown up in the tradition of supporting the Socialist Party, at least locally, and shunning our Tammany Halls. The new league ... was to function mainly through one of the two major parties, and particularly the Democratic Party, in order to ensure Roosevelt’s reelection ... . The thought was to channel “regular” socialists into Roosevelt’s camp.36

As the Trotskyist historian Art Preis points out, Roosevelt’s reelection was one issue on which the AFL and CIO rivals saw eye to eye: “It should be noted that AFL leaders who could not stomach the CIO as organizer of the unorganized industrial workers could join with it in a nonpartisan body to harness the workers to capitalist politics for the reelection of the ‘New Deal’ President.”37

Thus, despite the significant shift leftward in working class consciousness by the mid—1930s, the pressure to support Roosevelt was tremendous, even among many socialists. The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party fell into step behind the New Deal coalition, its politics virtually indistinguishable from Roosevelt’s by that time. Many long-standing members of the Socialist Party as well succumbed to the pressure to campaign for Roosevelt in 1936. David Dubinsky, leader of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and a long-time socialist, left the Socialist Party (SP) to form the American Labor Party in 1936.

As Art Preis describes,

The history of the CIO was to constantly appear as an admixture of two elements. On the one hand, mass organization of the industrial workers was to lead to titanic strike battles, most often initiated by the militant ranks despite the leadership. On the other, the workers were to be cheated of many gains they might have won because of the intervention of the government which had the backing of the CIO leaders themselves. Unwilling to “embarrass” the Democratic administrations ... the CIO leaders kept one arm of the CIO–its political arm–tied behind its back.38

Although the pressure to support Roosevelt was massive, the potential nevertheless existed to build a powerful socialist movement inside the working class. Such a movement could have developed into a revolutionary alternative to the Democrats. This was especially true among the industrial workers who were in the forefront of the CIO organizing drives. The auto workers’ willingness to support an alternative to Roosevelt shows this quite clearly.

The Great Depression was the most significant period of class struggle that has ever taken place in the United States. The sheer intensity of the struggle led ever broader sections of the working class to become radicalized and to begin to generalize politically. For a very short period of time as the working class movement advanced–between 1935 and 1937–the level of radicalization was such that on a fairly large scale workers began to realize that if they were to have a chance at winning, they had to confront all the bosses’ attempts to divide and weaken the working-class movement. Workers had to break down racial barriers and build genuine unity and solidarity; they had to prepare themselves to confront the violence of the bosses, which grew in ferocity during this period; they had to fight against anti-communism; and they had to break with the Democrats and the Republicans and form an independent working-class party.

Thus, the Depression decade marked the key turning point for the working class movement in the United States: For the first time, the potential existed to build a genuine mass revolutionary workers party. But such a revolutionary alternative would have required a forceful revolutionary leadership inside the working class movement. Instead, there was the Communist Party.

The Communist Party

The Communist Party was by no means the only socialist organization contending for leadership inside the working class movement during the Depression. In fact, the three 1934 strikes which turned the tide in workers’ favor were led by three different groups of socialists. The Trotskyists in particular, who were organized into the Communist League of America (CLA), showed through their brilliant execution of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike that they were up to the task of providing organizational and political leadership to the working-class movement.

There was one reason in particular why the Communist Party was the organization which played the decisive role in the labor movement of the 1930s: its comparatively large size. Even at the very beginning of the Depression, the Communist Party claimed a membership of 7,500, compared with the Communist League of America’s 131 members in 1931. At the end of 1938, the CP had grown to 82,000, while the membership of the Trotskyists, by then in the Socialist Workers Party, peaked at 2,500. Meanwhile, the Socialist Party continued its process of decline. Subsumed by inner turmoil as its right and left wings continued to do battle, SP membership actually declined in 1935–a pivotal year of growth for the class struggle.39

Moreover, the Communist Party had a genuine base among industrial workers, containing within its membership many of the same shop floor leaders from the strikes that built the CIO unions. In 1935, for example, communist membership among auto workers numbered 630, nearly doubling to 1,100 in 1939–with a periphery of sympathizers far bi gger. In 1937, the CP had 28 shop nuclei in the Detroit auto industry, while CP members were active in nearly every major auto workers union local.40

Likewise, CP members played a leading role in some of the key rubber workers strikes which swept through Akron, Ohio in 1936. CP members were part of the Firestone strike committee, while the chief picket captain of the Goodyear strike was a party leader. And the CP’s Akron organizer was asked to address a meeting of all the strike picket captains.41

But another factor also contributed to the Communist Party’s widespread influence among workers. It claimed to be the true inheritor of the tradition of the Bolsheviks, the party that led the Russian working class to power in 1917. That had been true when the CP was formed in 1921, when several revolutionary groups which had left the SP after the Russian Revolution merged together. But by the 1930s, Communist Parties all over the world were uncritical followers of Joseph Stalin, whose ascension to power marked a period of counterrevolution in Russia. In reality, the tradition of the American CP represented the very antithesis of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

After 1928, the year Stalin expelled the Trotskyist opposition and launched a policy of forced collectivization, his regime oversaw the complete reversal of every gain won by the working class in the 1917 revolution and the execution or exile of nearly every veteran Bolshevik still in Russia by the late 1930s. From then on, Communist Parties internationally were required to uncritically adopt each twist and turn in Russian foreign and domestic policy as their own. They quite literally became caricatures of the machine that Stalin had built to rule Russia. As American CP leader Earl Browder argued in the mid—1930s, “If one is not interested in directives from Moscow, that only means he is not interested in building socialism at all.”42

But the extent of Stalin’s atrocities wasn’t yet well known outside of Russia in the 1930s. At that time, the memory of the Russian Revolution remained fresh and continued to provide inspiration to working class people in struggle the world over. And the CP sought to enhance its own revolutionary image by denouncing all other forces on the left as traitors to the Bolshevik tradition. In the face of victorious fascism in Germany and Italy, Stalin could pose as a sincere defender against the far right.

As part of its wildly sectarian “Third Period” strategy between 1928 and 1934, communists denounced members of the Socialist Party as “social fascists,” or secret supporters of fascism masquerading as social reformers. In 1928, when Stalin first secured control over the Russian Communist Party, he announced that capitalism was entering into a new period of economic crisis, and revolution would soon be on the agenda. Soon the only alternatives would be communism or fascism. It was therefore the duty of communists the world over to prepare for the upcoming crisis by declaring war on all liberal and social democratic leaders, whom Stalin called social fascists.43

But the Stalinists reserved their fiercest hostility for those in the Trotskyist movement, who were trying in very difficult circumstances to keep the revolutionary tradition alive and to build an alternative to Stalinism. Following Stalin’s lead, the CP expelled its own Trotskyist faction in 1928. From that point on, communists engaged in a relentless campaign of persecution against Trotsky and his political allies, accusing them of being in league with Hitler himself.44

For all these reasons, the Communist Party quickly moved ahead of all other left-wing organizations, winning the allegiance of hundreds of thousands of workers who became radicalized during the 1930s–some of whom joined, others of whom remained within its broader periphery. But politics proved to be the decisive factor. No matter what its size or how deep its roots among militant workers, Stalinism led the Communist Party down a path which ultimately proved disastrous for the working-class movement in the 1930s.

Building a multiracial movement

But for all the weaknesses of the American Communist Party, its commitment to fighting racism was exemplary. In fact, the CP in the 1930s provides an extraordinary example for socialists on how to go about building a working-class movement that makes fighting racism an integral part of the class struggle.

This was true despite the CP’s bizarre “Black Belt” theory. As part of Stalin’s left turn during the Third Period, he argued that the American CP should advocate “self-determination for the Black Belt.” This meant calling for a separate Black republic in the Southern states, where a majority of Blacks still lived–even though no demand for such a republic had ever been raised by Blacks themselves.

Perhaps for this reason, the Black Belt theory’s call for a Black republic had virtually no influence on the party’s practice, and was rarely even mentioned in its literature. As part of the Black Belt theory, however, the party did adopt the following statement, which proved much more influential: The CP had to “consider the struggle on behalf of the Negro masses ... as one of its major tasks ... [T]he Negro problem must be part and parcel of each and every campaign conducted by the party.”45 This principle meant that throughout the Depression decade the CP consistently made a priority of antiracist activity. Although these efforts alone could not overcome the problems of Stalinism, the CP’s commitment to fighting racism marked a step forward from the indifference of earlier socialists, especially the Socialist Party.

Thus even in the South, where the CP made its earliest inroads in recruiting Blacks, the party did not organize around the demand for a Black republic. But communists did make a serious attempt to incorporate the fight against racism into the class struggle. Indeed, they had no choice, given the high level of racism in Alabama society. Three white CP organizers traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, to build a union among Black sharecroppers in 1929. As they began to gain a hearing among Blacks, the Ku Klux Klan responded by directing most of its energy toward fighting communism.

In 1934, the KKK organized 44 new Klaverns in northern Alabama, while a group of affiliated fascists began publishing the Alabama Black Shirt. They distributed leaflets that read, “Negroes Beware. Do not attend Communist meetings ... The Ku Klux Klan is watching you.”46 And the Klan backed up their threats with lynchings, beatings, and kidnappings of communists and Black activists.

In the pursuit of communists, the KKK enjoyed the full support of the Birmingham police department’s “Red Squad,” which beat up and arrested communists on a regular basis. With any number of local ordinances at its disposal for use against communists, the city council nevertheless pushed through an ordinance aimed specifically at radicals. The “Downs literature ordinance,” passed in 1934, made it illegal to possess one or more copies of “radical” literature, which was defined to include antiwar or antifascist materials, and pro-labor and liberal publications.47

The Birmingham communists quickly realized that both the party and the sharecroppers’ union had to be armed, underground organizations. CP leader Harry Haywood described “a small arsenal” of weapons at a union meeting he attended: “Sharecroppers were coming to the meeting armed and left their guns with their coats when they came in.”48

All literature, whether communist or union, had to be secretly distributed–smuggled inside baskets of laundry by Black women posing as laundresses or at the local barbershop, where communists would drop in for a “trim” and pick up their leaflets. The communists issued their own leaflet in response to the Klan, which read, “KKK! The workers are watching you!” And in 1933, the CP held a demonstration in front of the Birmingham courthouse, which demanded that the KKK and other white supremacists be outlawed, and the right to vote without the racist restrictions that prevented a majority of Blacks from voting throughout the South.49

In the North as well, communists made it a priority to raise demands around racism as part of the general class struggle. Their job was made easier because the Depression had already raised the level of class consciousness within vast sections of the working class. White as well as Black workers faced unemployment, evictions, and hunger, and were receptive to the CP’s calls for multiracial unity.

The CP initiated a multitude of struggles against racism–around a wide range of issues–throughout the Depression decade. In the early 1930s, the Harlem CP divided its time equally between organizing against unemployment and hunger, against racist hiring policies, and against lynching. All over the U.S., communist youth circulated petitions against segregation in baseball and other sports, in a campaign which featured white and Black ball players calling for integration in sports. When communists traveled to Washington, D.C. for a demonstration to free the Scottsboro Boys, they stopped off on the way and sat in at restaurants that refused to serve Blacks–a tactic adopted decades later by the civil rights movement. 50

And Harlem communists organized a traveling squad of working-class housewives, made up mostly of Black women, who visited butcher shops demanding that butchers in Harlem lower their prices by 25 percent. As the Daily Worker reported,

More than a thousand consumers formed a flying squad and moved down Lenox Avenue holding meetings in front of all open stores ... So great was the sense of the power of the workers that when butchers agreed to cut prices, housewives jumped up on tables in front of stores and tore down old price signs and put up new ones ... No store held out for more than five minutes after they arrived.51

But the Communist Party developed its first national campaign against racism through its years-long effort to free the Scottsboro Boys. The Scottsboro Boys case began in 1931 and dragged on for nearly 20 years, making it one of the most important antiracist struggles in U.S. history. But it was also important because it marked the first time in the U.S. that Black and white workers had ever joined together in large numbers in a campaign against racism.

The Scottsboro Boys were nine Black youths, aged 13 to 21, who were arrested in Alabama on a charge of gang-raping two white women on a train. There was no evidence to support a charge of rape, but that didn’t matter–particularly since Alabama is a Southern state, where it was common practice to convict Black men on unsubstantiated charges of raping white women. Within two weeks of the incident, the Scottsboro Boys had been tried, convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury–all while a huge lynch mob of white racists stood inside and outside the courtroom.

The Scottsboro Boys case was primarily an issue of racism, but it also divided the Black population along class lines. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a traditionally middle-class, liberal Black organization, refused to touch the case at first. As one author described, “[T]he last thing they wanted was to identify the Association with a gang of mass rapists unless they were reasonably certain the boys were innocent or their constitutional rights had been abridged.”52 But the Communist Party had no such reservations. It immediately sent a legal delegation from its International Labor Defense (ILD) committee to offer to defend the Scottsboro Boys in court.

Then, when the NAACP finally got involved in the case, it aimed to limit the defense to ensuring that the youths were given a “fair” trial. But the CP argued rightfully in the Liberator, its Black newspaper, “There can be no such thing as a ‘fair trial’ of a Negro boy accused of rape in an Alabama court.” The ILD’s strategy was to

give the boys the best available legal defense in the capitalist courts, but at the same time to emphasize ... that the boys can be saved only by the pressure of millions, colored and white, behind the defense in the courts.53

The CP developed a national campaign to defend the Scottsboro Boys, through the ILD and the National Scottsboro Action Committee, organized on the basis of mass mobilization. The campaign organized hundreds of Black and white workers who marched side by side in Scottsboro demonstrations, which grew into thousands as the campaign built strength. It organized street meetings and toured the parents of the Scottsboro Boys, who spoke to packed meeting halls. When Ruby Bates, one of the white women, came forward to state that the police had made her lie–that she hadn’t been raped after all–she joined the speaking tour.

As the Scottsboro campaign dragged on, the Communist Party gained new respect, while the NAACP’s reputation took a nosedive, especially among Harlem’s Black residents. As one NAACP leader described the consequences of the Scottsboro campaign, “on every corner up here now, the NAACP is catching hell, and anyone who lifts his voice in the interest of the organization also catches hell.”54

The Scottsboro Boys case was not fully resolved until 1950, when the last of the defendants was finally released from prison. But through its campaign in the 1930s, the Communist Party proved in practice that Black and white workers could unite on the basis of class–to fight racism and to build the labor movement–which enormously strengthened the working-class movement in the 1930s. It also had a profound impact on the Communist Party.

The CP’s commitment to building a multiracial socialist organization was evidenced by its success in recruiting Black workers into the party. At the time of the stock market crash in 1929, the party had only 50 Black members. But by the mid-1930s, the Communist Party’s Black membership had grown to about 9 percent nationally.55 This represented a small, but significant first step toward building a multiracial socialist movement in the U.S.

The party’s inroads in the deep South were in many ways even more impressive, given the scale of racism and repression. By 1934 the party claimed 1,000 members in Birmingham, mostly Black. After three members of the Sharecroppers Union were shot and killed by police in 1932, 3,000 people marched in a funeral procession for six miles, following caskets that were draped in banners with the communist hammer and sickle, while 1,000 stood along the route in tribute.56

Moreover, the party’s first real success at recruiting amongst Blacks took place in the context of the 1934–35 upsurge in strikes which led to the founding of the CIO. And the reputation earned by CP members as sincere antiracists no doubt helped them to convince larger numbers of Blacks to join the new union federation. For the first time in the history of the U.S. labor movement, Black workers began joining unions in much larger numbers, often playing a leading role in the strikes for union recognition which built the CIO in 1936 and 1937.

In fact, one of the most effective sit-down strikes of the Depression took place in Birmingham, Alabama. On Christmas Eve 1936, Black steel workers struck the American Casting Company, led by two members of the Communist Party. Within a few days, the strikers won a victory when the company granted a 20 percent wage increase and overtime pay. By the end of the 1930s, a half-million Black workers had joined a CIO union.57

From Third Period to Popular Front

In 1935, Joseph Stalin did a complete about-face in foreign policy, which lasted until 1939. After Hitler came to power in Germany, Stalin began to realize that Hitler represented a potential threat to the Soviet Union. He therefore began to seek out allies among other world powers, including President Roosevelt in the United States. To this end, the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations in September 1934. And Stalin unveiled a new policy called the “Popular Front,” which meant that in the U.S. and other countries where Stalin sought to ingratiate himself to bourgeois parties, communists would have to do likewise.

This meant that, after spending the previous seven years denouncing as social fascists not just Roosevelt and the Democrats, but also liberals and reform socialists, the CP was instructed to become virtually indistinguishable from them. And as the 1936 presidential election approached, the Popular Front meant that the CP was instructed to do everything in its power to help ensure Roosevelt’s victory. Communists were to become loyal–if uninvited–members of Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition.

By this time, American Communist Party leaders were quite used to completely reversing their policies on a moment’s notice when word came from Moscow. The transformation from Third Period to Popular Front took place gradually between 1935 and 1936, without formal acknowledgement of a change in position.

As late as January 1935, the Daily Worker described Roosevelt as “the leading organizer and inspirer of fascism in this country.” But by the end of 1936, the CP formally entered the Democratic Party. While it didn’t formally support Roosevelt in the election (voicing fear that open communist support might hurt his campaign), the CP made it clear that it hoped he would win. By 1938, CP leader Eugene Dennis abandoned the idea of forming a third political party in the U.S., arguing that the Popular Front could “take the form of a political federation, operating insofar as electoral activity is concerned, chiefly through the Democratic Party.”58

In 1937, Roosevelt delivered a speech in which he argued that the U.S. should join the “peace-loving” nations of the world to “quarantine” the aggressors. Most people in the U.S. opposed the speech because, despite its talk of “peace,” it actually brought the U.S. a step closer to going to war. But the Communist Party stood behind the president, issuing a statement which used the same double-speak: “Everyone must line up on one side or the other. Whoever is opposed to collective action for peace is an enemy of peace, an agent of the international bandits.”59

A similar transformation occurred in the CP’s attitude toward liberals and labor leaders. During the Third Period, they were lumped together as social fascists, on the basis that fascism “must find indirect support. This it finds in the Socialist Party and the reformist trade union officialdom.” But by the time the Popular Front was in full swing in 1937, Browder issued this gushing praise of John L. Lewis and the CIO:

Democracy today is destroyed in much of the capitalist world. It is fighting for its life in the remainder. It can survive under capitalism only to the degree to which there are successfully carried out such programs as those of John L. Lewis and the Committee for Industrial Organization and the economic reforms and the peace program of President Roosevelt.60

The CP’s stance toward reformist Black organizations also shifted markedly. Mark Naison argues that the CP, organizing in Harlem in the early 1930s, “devoted as much attention to attacking other Harlem organizations as to publicizing its own activities.” In 1930, for example, communists disrupted a Harlem conference on unemployment, which was chaired by A. Philip Randolph and sponsored by liberal organizations. The conference’s demands included a call for a five-day work week, an eight-hour day, and public works programs for the unemployed. But Black communists who attended (and were eventually ejected for disrupting the meeting) called the participants “traitors,” “scab herders,” and “sky pilots.”61

The CP’s hostility to the NAACP was so great that it would not allow the NAACP to participate in its legal defense of the Scottsboro Boys, even though it would have helped to broaden support for the campaign. When renowned liberal lawyer Clarence Darrow offered to help defend the Scottsboro Boys in 1931, ILD attorneys said they would accept his help only if he renounced the NAACP. Darrow refused and withdrew from the case.62

But the Popular Front ushered in an entirely new posture toward these same liberals. In 1936, the CP joined forces with a cross-section of Black professionals and reformists to launch the National Negro Congress–which elected A. Philip Randolph as its first president. The NAACP withheld its formal support, but not for lack of effort on the part of the CP. In 1935, Earl Browder submitted an article to the NAACP magazine, Crisis, which pleaded for reconciliation between the two groups. He asked,

Would it not be better if instead of attacking us, you would combine forces with us in fighting for Negro rights, for Angelo Herndon, for the Scottsboro Boys, and for the defense of Ethiopia. We would welcome cooperation with you for these things, in place of having to answer your attacks, which is indeed an unpleasant duty.63

And at the Congress’s founding conference,

Communists filled their speeches with references to American history and proclaimed respect for the American political tradition. “It was not Marx, Lenin and Stalin’ whom Communists cited in their addresses,” the Amsterdam News reported. “Rather it was Douglass, Lincoln, and the heroes of the American Revolution from whom they drew their inspiration.”64

“Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism”

The American CP went far beyond the call of duty in carrying out the Popular Front policy. Party leaders’ stated aim to remold the CP’s image as a “responsible American organization” soon emerged as unadulterated patriotism. As Eric Chester describes,

Patriotic appeals became the mainstay of communist rhetoric. The party insisted that it was “carrying on the work of Jefferson, Paine, Jackson, and Lincoln.” During the 1938 election, the Communist Party’s chief slogan was “Communism is twentieth century Americanism.” Browder even upheld the CP as “the most consistent fighter ... for the defense of our flag and [the] revival of its glorious revolutionary tradition.”65

Between 1937 and 1939, the CP retreated even further from the notion of an independent working-class party, as the Popular Front gave way to an even broader class alliance called the “Democratic Front.” Defined as a coalition “of the forces opposed to the fascists,” the Democratic Front included workers, farmers, the middle class, and “important sections of the upper middle class and certain liberal sections of the bourgeoisie.”66

Browder’s attempt to incorporate the CP into the mainstream of U.S. politics led him to instruct party members to court the Catholic church in order to “help influence the integration of the catholic community into the Democratic Front.” Toward this end, the party hailed St. Patrick as “a people’s saint,” and Browder asserted,

[Q]uestions of family and social morality furnish no practical division between Catholics and communists ... Communists are staunch upholders of the family. We consider sexual immorality, looseness and aberrations as harmful products of bad social organization ... We combat them as we combat all other harmful social manifestations.”67

Some left-wing historians–those who wish to downplay the problems of Stalinism, along with those who wish to apologize for reformism–argue that the Popular Front was a major step forward for the CP, because it ended its self-imposed isolation of the Third Period. They point to the fact that the party more than tripled in size during the Popular Front period, from 26,000 members in 1934 to 82,000 members in 1938, as evidence of success. But that line of reasoning ignores the fact that the CP’s membership also tripled in size during the Third Period years between 1930 and 1934, when it grew from 7,500 to 26,000.68

The fact remains that from 1928 on, the CP never decided its strategy based upon what was needed to move the labor movement forward. Because it was tied to Stalin’s coattails, the American CP could not aim to build an independent revolutionary movement inside the working class–either during the Third Period or the Popular Front. In shifting from the Third Period to the Popular Front, the Party merely traded one disastrous policy for another, shifting from outlandish sectarianism to the adoption of equally outlandish patriotism.

Moreover, the CP’s growth in size and influence among workers during the 1930s only made the consequences of its misguided policies more tragic. The onset of the Popular Front period coincided with the height of the CIO strike wave, in 1936—37. Thus, at the very same time that workers were becoming radicalized on a fairly massive scale, creating the potential for the creation of a mass revolutionary workers’ party, the Communist Party did everything it could to halt that process.

Because of the Popular Front, the communist shop floor leaders were instructed to help the CIO leadership in delivering the working-class vote to the Democrats. Despite the fact that many of the most militant workers were already willing to break with the Democratic Party in 1936, Roosevelt was reelected in one of the biggest landslides in U.S. history.

But the consequences of the Popular Front spread far beyond the electoral arena. Supporting Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition had a devastating impact on the class struggle, because the CP now gave the top union officials in the CIO, like John L. Lewis, their complete support. As a result, the Communist Party used its enormous influence inside the unions to lead the most militant sections of workers away from militancy.

1936–37: The class struggle peaks

But that was easier said than done, since by the time the sit-down strikes began in 1936, working-class confidence was soaring. This was especially true among workers in the tire and auto industries, where workers who had left the AFL unions in droves in 1934 swarmed into the CIO beginning in 1935–and were more enthusiastic than ever. An economic upturn that began in 1935 and lasted until the fall of 1937 boosted their confidence still further.

A wave of sit-down strikes spread through the center of rubber production, Akron, Ohio, in 1936. As one contemporary writer described the militant mood among rubber workers,

A week seldom passed without one or more sit-downs ... The Goodyear management, for instance, assigned two non-union inspectors to a department with instructions to disqualify tires produced by known union men. After pelting them with milk bottles for awhile, the men sat down and refused to work till the inspectors were removed. The company rushed in forty factory guards with clubs, but a 65-year-old union gum miner met the army at the entrance and told them to “beat it.” They went–and the non-union inspectors were replaced.69

The sit-downs were sometimes called over non-economic issues as well. For example, Goodyear rubber workers once sat down when the KKK burned a cross in view of their Akron plant, and didn’t resume work until it had been extinguished.70

The workers’ defiant mood was extended to representatives of the federal government. When President Roosevelt sent his representative to convince workers to return to work during the Goodyear companywide sit-down strike, the workers responded by chanting at their mass meeting, “No, no, a thousand times no, I’d rather die than say yes.”71

Toward the end of 1936, the sit-downs spread to the auto industry, and the city of Detroit exploded in an organizing frenzy, as Bert Cochran describes:

After the Midland victory, Detroit went into a fever of union agitation and organization. Workers would repeatedly call up union offices demanding that an organizer be sent to their shop to sign them up, or take care of their grievance, or call a strike. Delegations would descend on union headquarters for union books and equipment. There were sit-downs at Gordon Baking, Alcoa, National Automotive Fibres, Bohn Aluminum, and Kelsey Hayes.72

But the legendary Flint sit-down strike, which began at the end of 1936, turned the tide most dramatically. Flint was the center of the General Motors (GM) empire: with a total population of 160,000, some 47,000 were employed by GM in 1936. UAW membership in Flint had grown from 150 at the end of October to 4,500 by the end of December.73

During the course of the Flint sit-down strike, which began on December 30, 1936 and lasted until February 11, 1937, 140,000 out of a total of GM’s 150,000 production workers either sat down or went out on strike. But the strike’s importance was more than just economic. The attention of the entire nation was riveted on the Flint auto workers, as they took matters into their own hands and stood up to the bosses, the CIO leaders, the National Guard, and even Roosevelt–and won.74

The strikers organized a system of defense, food distribution, and even entertainment, with all decisions made at daily mass meetings. When police tried to force the strikers off GM property, they drove the police back by turning on the plant’s fire hoses and shooting freezing water at them. Then, in an ingenious tactical maneuver, the strikers outsmarted the police and GM management, and occupied Chevrolet Plant No. 4, a strategic plant which proved the key to winning the strike. Strike leader and socialist Kermit Johnson described the immense satisfaction felt by the workers when, “herding the foremen out of the plant, we sent them on their way with the same advice that most of us had been given year after year during layoffs: ‘We’ll let you know when to come back!’”75

Finally, when Michigan’s Governor Frank Murphy–a Roosevelt Democrat–tried to send in the National Guard to end the occupation, the workers met and voted to hold the plants at all costs. They responded to Murphy,

We have decided to stay in the plant. We have no illusions about the sacrifices which this decision will entail. We fully expect that if a violent effort is made to oust us many of us will be killed, and we take this means of making it known to our wives, to our children, to the people of the state of Michigan and the country that if this result follows from an attempt to eject us, you [Governor Murphy] are the one who must be held responsible for our deaths.76

The Governor abruptly changed his mind about sending in the National Guard.

Women also played a decisive role in the Flint sit-down strike. Some 350 strikers’ wives came together to form the Flint Women’s Emergency Brigade which, like the strike itself, was organized along military lines. Not a typical women’s auxiliary, the Brigade organized a women speakers’ bureau, day care centers for women on picket duty, and a line of defense, ready to battle the police.

Their courage was every bit as great as the men inside the plant. Genora Johnson, a leader of the Brigade, announced at one point, “We will form a line around the men, and if the police want to fire then they’ll just have to fire into us.” And their experience in the class struggle changed their lives forever, as this remark by one of the women shows clearly:

A new type of woman was born in the strike. Women who only yesterday were horrified at unionism, who felt inferior to the task of organizing, speaking, leading, have, as if overnight, become the spearhead in the battle of unionism.77

The Flint victory had an impact nationally, raising working-class confidence still higher. By the end of 1937, nearly a half-million workers all over the U.S. had taken part in a sit-down strike. The number of all strikes more than doubled between 1936 and 1937, from 2,172 to 4,740, involving nearly two million workers overall.78

In the auto industry, there were 170 sit-down strikes against General Motors alone between March and June 1937. As the New York Times observed, the sit-downs were due at least in part to “dissatisfaction on the part of the workers with the union itself,” and the auto workers “are as willing in some cases to defy their own leaders as their bosses.”79

John L. Lewis asserts control

When the Flint sit-down first began, John L. Lewis was quick to issue a statement of support. He said, “The CIO stands squarely behind these sit-downs.”80 He did so not because he approved of the tactic, but because the occupation was already taking place–and he knew there was nothing he could do to talk the workers into leaving the plant. Above all, Lewis wanted to put the CIO at the head of the strike wave in auto so that the CIO could organize the auto industry.

But once the Flint sit-down strike was over, Lewis made it clear that the CIO wouldn’t tolerate unauthorized strikes on any kind of permanent basis. “A CIO contract is adequate protection against sit-downs, lie-downs, or any other kind of strike,” h e announced. Lewis’ words fell on deaf ears among workers, however. Auto workers engaged in at least 200 “quickie” strikes in the four months after the UAW and General Motors signed their first agreement. By mid-1937, the UAW leadership issued a formal statement that the “union will not support or tolerate” wildcat strikes, or strikes without union authorization.81

But though the union became more and more heavy-handed, workers continued to try to take matters into their own hands. In March, Chrysler workers sat down when the company refused to recognize the UAW as the workers’ sole bargaining agent, in a strike that lasted 15 days. Lewis personally negotiated an agreement–one which didn’t grant the workers’ key demand. Five votes had to be taken before workers occupying the Dodge plant finally agreed to end the sit-down.82

John L. Lewis also shrewdly reversed his posture toward the Communist Party during the CIO strike wave. With the Popular Front well underway, the CP leadership made clear its willingness to serve the top CIO officials uncritically. And the CP membership represented an army of organizers, ready to work long hours for little or no pay. Lewis decided to use the communists to help rein in union militants and to help organize the CIO. When the CIO launched its campaign to organize the steel industry in 1936, 60 of its 200 full-time organizers were members of the Communist Party. In Chicago, as many as 32 out of the 33 full-time steel organizers were part of the communist caucus.83

Outwardly, Lewis appeared to defend the communists from conservatives within the CIO. “I do not turn my organizers or CIO members upside down and shake them to see what kind of literature falls out of their pockets,” he told red-baiters. But privately Lewis made it quite clear that he was merely using the communists. He argued, “Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?” And later, once the union had finally gained a foothold in the steel industry and he no longer needed them, he fired all the communists from the union’s payroll.84

Some CIO leaders tried to blame the wildcat strike wave on communist agitation–a charge the CP leadership passionately denied. “The Communist Party is not stirring up strikes,” Earl Browder protested. Meanwhile, BK Herbert, the party leader who oversaw the work of CP members in the auto industry issued a directive that “unauthorized actions must not be tolerated.” UAW vice-presidents Wyndham Mortimer, who was a CP member, and Ed Hall, a sympathizer, also announced, “[W]e wish to emphatically deny that we are in any way responsible, or in any way encouraged, unauthorized sit-downs.”85

The Communist Party leaders bent over backwards to make clear that their allegiance was to the New Deal coalition, not to rank-and-file workers. In December, the Daily Worker ran a statement by the party’s Michigan state secretary William Weinstone, in which he declared “unequivocally and emphatically that the communists and the Communist Party had never in the past and do not now in any shape, manner or form advocate or support unauthorized and wildcat action and regard such strikes as gravely injurious to the union’s welfare.” And he argued, if party members were to initiate such strike action, it would be “gravely injurious ... to the cause of cooperative action between labor and middle-class groups.”86

But the CP leaders’ newfound aversion to wildcat strikes did not immediately filter down to communists on the shop floor–many of whom continued to lead the wildcats and sitdowns which erupted during the course of 1937. Not only was confidence still rising among the rank and file, but that confidence enabled workers to begin to try and assert some control over the pace of production and other working conditions.

In January, as soon as the Flint sit-down strike began, 200 UAW delegates met and created a board of strategy that served General Motors a set of eight demands, including a demand for a 30-hour workweek, a six-hour day, and union participation in regulating the pace of the assembly lines. And after the Flint strike was won, union activists tried to incorporate a strong shop steward system into the first contract agreement with GM. Under their proposal, each work group of 15 to 100 workers would elect its own steward. Some GM plants already had a steward system in place.87

But it quickly became clear that the union leadership was all too willing to bargain away crucial control over working conditions. In the first contract, negotiated in March, GM management refused to recognize shop stewards, replacing them with a new structure of “committeemen”–who were far fewer in number and held less authority than stewards. The second GM settlement, negotiated in April, explicitly stated that shop stewards would not be authorized to handle grievances. The April agreement was implemented without ratification by UAW members.

As Eric Chester argues, the March and April settlements were setbacks for auto workers:

Committeemen who had to service 400 workers could not possibly remain in direct contact with all of their constituents. Unlike shop stewards, who were themselves members of the work department whose grievances they sought to uphold, committeemen would often have to act as another outsider adjudicating the disputes of those directly involved.88

Meanwhile, General Motors demanded permission from the union to fire any workers who took part in unauthorized strikes–which the union granted in September. Fear of discipline temporarily curtailed the number of wildcat strikes. But when GM negotiated an agreement with the UAW in November that was worse than the first contract–and which included the new disciplinary provision–the struggle exploded once again.

The Communist Party leads the movement–backward

The conflict between the union and the rank-and-file militants finally reached a showdown in November at the Fisher Body plant in Pontiac, Michigan. After the company fired four union activists for leading a wildcat strike, 500 workers occupied the plant and vowed to stay until all four were reinstated. CP members and supporters played a key role in the strike. One of the four fired workers was a communist sympathizer, George Method, and he was the unofficial leader of the sit-down strike. CP member Wyndham Mortimer backed the strike and, as a vice-president, tried (unsuccessfully) to convince the UAW executive board to give strike authorization. The Daily Worker ran a story supporting the strike, arguing that the four fired workers “had been unjustly treated.”89

But UAW leaders were under immense pressure to crack down on the union militants. First, GM President William Knudson threatened to end all negotiations with the UAW unless it proved that it could control its members. Then New Deal Governor Frank Murphy announced plans to send in the state militia to forcibly evacuate the plant. And John L. Lewis warned UAW President Homer Martin that he had to end the wildcat immediately.

But the Pontiac workers had no intention of ending the strike. UAW officials twice attended mass meetings and pleaded with workers to vacate the plant, and twice the workers voted to continue the strike. Instead of leaving the plant, they organized a big dance party, to which they invited auto workers from all over the Detroit area to come and show their solidarity.

The Communist Party finally broke the stalemate–by condemning a strike led by its own members, which it had publicly supported only days earlier. After an article appeared in the New York Times blaming the strike on the Communist Party, the CP leadership immediately switched sides, fearing it might alienate its New Deal allies. Earl Browder personally ordered the party’s Pontiac auto workers fraction to end the occupation.

George Method used his role as strike leader to convince workers to leave the plant. He said, “We are all wrong. Let’s go out of the plant and show we are behind the international union.” Within an hour, the strikers had vacated the plant. The strike was lost. Afterward, a Daily Worker editorial argued that wildcats “only play into the hands of the bosses.” And not long after the strike ended, CP leaders told UAW officials that the party supported their attempt to shut down all local rank-and-file newspapers.90

The class struggle subsides

The Pontiac strike effectively marked the end of the CIO strike wave of the 1930s. The dynamic of class struggle is such that, if it does not continue to move forward, it very quickly begins to backslide. The monthly average of strikes fell by more than half between 1937–39, while the CIO added only 400,000 new members–compared with nearly 4 million in its first two years.91

By late 1937, recession had once again set in. Between August and November of 1937, the industrial production index dropped by 27 percent, once again throwing millions of workers into unemployment. Between November 1937 and January 1938, U.S. car production fell from 295,000 to 155,000. Employment in the auto industry dropped from 517,000 in 1937 to 305,000 in 1938.92

Once the 1936 presidential election was out of the way, Roosevelt was free to show his true class loyalties. Moreover, with a new war on the horizon, as Mike Davis argues, “FDR’s overriding desire to win support for an increasingly interventionist foreign policy, pre-empted further reform initiatives or new concessions to labor.”93 As Roosevelt began his war buildup, he looked to reestablish his ties with big business.

Thus, Roosevelt slashed relief and works programs for the poor and unemployed in 1938 and again in 1939, even though unemployment was rising sharply. And he made a pronounced turn against the labor movement, beginning in 1937. In that year a group of virulently anti-union steel manufacturers, known as “Little Steel,” decided to use every means at its disposal to prevent the CIO from organizing the steel industry. Well before the strike even began, they had already stockpiled millions of dollars worth of arms and ammunition, and they had begun organizing squads of armed strikebreakers. What followed was one of the bloodiest attacks on workers in U.S. labor history.

But the CIO leadership did nothing to prepare the strikers for violence. In fact, they told strikers they should “welcome” the National Guard because it was called in by New Deal governors–that the Guard was there to protect their right to unionize. The communists echoed this advice. Instead, the National Guard traveled from one steel town to another to force the mills open, smashing up picket lines and then escorting scabs through, beating and arresting strikers, and raiding and ransacking workers’ homes. The most violent attack took place at a strikers’ Memorial Day support meeting outside a plant in South Chicago:

Union leaders, including Stalinists, told [the workers] that Roosevelt, the Wagner Act and Chicago’s own “New Deal” Democratic Mayor Kelly had “guaranteed” the right to peaceful picketing…. The police then charged with swinging clubs and blazing guns, beating down or shooting every laggard. In a couple of minutes, ten lay dead or fatally wounded–every one shot in the back. Another 40 bore gunshot wounds–in the back. One hundred and one others were injured by clubs–including an eight-year-old child.94

All told, 18 workers were killed during the Little Steel strike, which ended in defeat soon after the Chicago Memorial Day massacre. But throughout, Roosevelt refused to intervene in the face of this vicious–and obviously illegal–assault on workers’ right to unionize. His only statement came after the strike was over, when he condemned both sides, quoting Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “A plague on both your houses!”95

It was to be expected that Roosevelt would turn his back on workers, and that the CIO leadership would not lead a fight against Roosevelt. But by the time workers learned this bitter lesson, the greatest upsurge in U.S. working-class history was over. And the Communist Party had played a decisive role. The CP had an impact inside the labor movement which reached far beyond its own membership. Not only did the Communist Party have a substantial base among industrial workers, but by 1937, CP members held top leadership posts in 40 percent of CIO unions.96

There was a decisive missing element in the working-class movement of the 1930s: an organization of revolutionaries that was large enough to influence the course of the struggle. The Communist Party was large enough, but it had long ceased to be a revolutionary organization. So instead of leading workers toward revolution, the CP left thousands of workers without a way forward. Most workers who’d joined the CP during the course of the 1930s left by the end of the decade, undoubtedly confused and demoralized by the experience, with a grossly distorted vision of socialism. In the eyes of the most militant workers, the Communist Party discredited itself when it turned its back on the class struggle at its turning point in 1937.

Moreover, the Communist Party experienced yet a third about-face in policy before the decade ended, when Stalin signed a short-lived pact with Hitler in 1939. Suddenly, five years of alliances with liberals and support for Roosevelt went out the window. The war buildup that the party had enthusiastically supported was now condemned as a war between “rival imperialisms for world domination.” The Stalin-Hitler pact resulted in an exodus of members, including a large number of Blacks, from the CP, who could not stomach the idea of defending a Soviet alliance with the world’s most renowned racist.97

Nevertheless, one of the most important lessons to be learned from the 1930s is how it might have ended differently. If sections of the labor movement had broken with the Democrats, and if the sit-down strikes had escalated instead of subsiding in 1937–both of which were possible–the Depression decade could have ended in victory for the working class movement. Instead, it ended in a series of defeats, followed by world war.

* * *


1 Lewis Corey, The Decline of American Capitalism (New York: Covici Friede Publishers, 1934), p. 16.

2 The AFL’s membership dropped from four million in 1920, to three million at the end of 1929. Daniel Guerin, 100 Years of Labor in the USA (London: Ink Links, 1979), p. 95.

3 Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism (New York: Basic Books, 1984), pp. 59, 63, 67.

4 Bert Cochran, Labor and Communism: The Conflict that Shaped American Unions (Princeton: Princeton niversity Press, 1977), p. 35.

5 Jeremy Brecher, Strike! (Boston: South End Press, 1997), p. 187.

6 Brecher, p. 190.

7 Cochran, p. 84.

8 Although Bridges always denied that he was a Communist Party member, he was certainly a very close sympathizer who adhered to party discipline.

9 Brecher, p. 175. See also Klehr, pp. 126–127.

10 F arrell Dobbs, Teamster Rebellion (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), pp. 80–81.

11 Dobbs, p. 88.

12 Brecher, p. 183.

13 Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step: The First Twenty Years of the CIO, 1936–1955 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), p. 25.

14 Guerin, p. 101.

15 David Brody, In Labor’s Cause: Main Themes on the History of the American Worker (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 104, Philip Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619–1981 (New York: International Publishers, 1974), p. 218, and Guerin, p. 151.

16 Guerin, p. 152.

17 Guerin, p. 152.

18 Cochran, p. 48.

19 Klehr, pp. 224–225.

20 Brecher, p. 193.

21 Guerin, pp. 102–103 and Cochran, p. 95.

22 Julius Jacobson, ed., The Negro and the American Labor Movement (New York: Doubleday Books, 1968), pp. 188–189.

23 Preis, p. 16.

24 Brecher, p. 193.

25 Foner, pp. 200–201.

26 Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream (London: Verso, 1986), pp. 62–63.

27 Davis, p. 63.

28 Cochran, p. 156.

29 Cochran, p. 156.

30 Davis, p. 63; Brody, p. 68.

31 Lance Selfa, Socialists and the Democratic Party (Chicago: International Socialist Organization, 1988), p. 6.

32 Davis, p. 67.

33 Davis, p. 67 and Brody, p. 69.

34 Eric Chester, Socialists and the Ballot Box: An Historical Analysis (New York: Praeger Pub Text, 1985), pp. 68–69.

35 Chester, p. 69.

36 Preis, pp. 47–48.

37 Preis, p. 48.

38 Preis, p. 49.

39 Cochran, p. 46; Klehr, pp. 171–172, 366; Alex Callinicos, Trotskyism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), pp. 17 and 19.

40 Roger Keeran, The Communist Party and the Auto Workers’ Unions (New York: International Publishers, 1980), p. 185.

41 Cochran, p. 107.

42 For an analysis of Stalinism in Russia, see Tony Cliff, Trotsky: The Darker the Night the Brighter the Star, 1927–1940, Volume 4 (London: Bookmarks, 1993); Tony Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia (London: Bookmarks, 1988). Klehr, p. 171.

43 For example, even after the 1929 stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, the October 28 issue of the Daily Worker was preoccupied with other issues. Its main editorial was reserved for an attack on Socialist Party leader “Norman Thomas, Candidate of the Third Capitalist Party.” Klehr, pp. 13–14.

44 The persecution of Trotsky culminated in his murder at the hands of Stalin’s assassins in Mexico in 1940. See Cliff, Trotsky, p. 381. The American Communist Party’s relentless campaign against Trotskyists included physical assaults periodically throughout the 1930s and ’40s. See James P. Cannon, The History of American Trotskyism (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), pp. 65–74; 123–124.

45 Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Depression (New York: Grove Press, 1983), pp. 18–22.

46 Robin Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), pp. 73–75.

47 Kelley, pp. 72–73.

48 Kelley, pp. 44–45.

49 Kelley, p. 102; p. 161; p. 74.

50 Naison, p. 37; pp. 213–214; p. 87.

51 Naison, p. 149.

52 Naison, p. 58.

53 Naison, p. 62.

54 Naison, p. 82.

55 Theodor Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia: The Formative Period (New York: Octagon Books, 1986), p. 551; Klehr, p. 348.

56 Kelley, p. 132; p. 50.

57 Kelley, pp. 143–144; Foner, p. 231.

58 Klehr, p. 178; Chester, p. 45.

59 Klehr, p. 205.

60 Chester, p. 43; Klehr, p. 206.

61 Naison, pp. 37–38.

62 Naison, pp. 65–66.

63 Naison, p. 174.

64 Naison, p. 182.

65 Naison, p. 170; Chester, p. 45.

66 Klehr, p. 207.

67 Chester, pp. 45–46; Klehr, p. 222.

68 Membership statistics are cited in Chester, p. 58.

69 Brecher, p. 197.

70 Brecher, p. 198.

71 Brercher, p. 198.

72 Cochran, p. 114.

73 Cochran, p. 118.

74 Preis, p. 53.

75 Preis, p. 54; pp. 59–60.

76 Preis, p. 60.

77 Brecher, p. 217.

78 Preis, p. 61.

79 Brecher, p. 225.

80 Preis, p. 54.

81 Brecher, p. 227; Chester, p. 73.

82 Guerin, p. 115.

83 Cochran, pp. 96–97.

84 Cochran, p. 97; p. 100.

85 Chester, pp. 73–74.

86 Cochran, p. 138; Chester, p. 83.

87 Preis, pp. 53–54; Chester, p. 71; pp. 73–74.

88 Chester, pp. 71–72.

89 Chester, p. 80.

90 For a more detailed account of the Pontiac strike, see Chester, pp. 78–83.

91 Preis, p. 72.

92 Preis, p. 73; Chester, p. 90.

93 Davis, p. 68.

94 Preis, p. 69.

95 Preis, p. 70.

96 Guerin, p. 105.

97 Cochran, p. 143; pp. 145–147. It should be noted that many Black party members also resigned in protest earlier–in 1935 when it was discovered that, while the CP was campaigning for Ethiopian independence after Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, the Soviet Union continued to trade with Italy. See Naison, pp. 290–291.

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