Skip to main content

labor For a Model of Working-Class Mass Organizing, Look to the CIO: An Interview With Steve Fraser

The level of anti-capitalist sentiment in the US today hasn’t been seen since the 1930s. Labor radicals seized that moment to create the pivotal Congress of Industrial Organizations. We should take lessons from their achievements — and their misstep

A speaker at a podium with a full house of workers behind him and a huge banner CIO
Philip Murray, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), is shown addressing the opening of the CIO Fourth National Convention in Detroit on November 17, 1941. ,Bettman

The following is an interview conducted for Organize the Unorganized: The Rise of the CIO, a Jacobin podcast series produced in collaboration with the Center for Work and Democracy.

Subscribe to Jacobin Radio to listen to the series (and don’t forget to rate us five stars so we can reach more people).

Steve Fraser is a historian and author of many books, most notably for this project, Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor, a fantastic biography of one of the most important figures in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

In this interview, Fraser helpfully articulates both sides to many debates among historians about the meaning of the CIO moment: success was made possible by both the Roosevelt administration and working-class upsurge from below; the CIO was both radical and a container of revolutionary impulses; workers were both angry about the basic conditions of their work and alienated from the society that produced those conditions. His perspective on these debates helps us to appreciate the significance and accomplishments of the CIO without romanticizing it.


What was the CIO, and what is its primary historical significance?


The CIO was the first enduring mass organization of the industrial working class in America. There had been many attempts before that, but it’s the CIO that emerges as the ongoing successful institutional project to organize large sections of the industrial working class in America and make a permanent breakthrough — or what seemed to be a permanent breakthrough — in collective bargaining, which had been a very difficult thing for the labor movement to achieve outside of the ranks of craft workers before the CIO came along.

We all have a tendency to be present-minded in the way we do history. That’s kind of inevitable, built into the way we live. And if you would ask this question in, say, the 1960s, “What’s the significance of the CIO?”, it would be a different answer than you’ll get today. In the ’60s, it would’ve been a more ambivalent response, because then, while the CIO obviously had made an enormous achievement in winning industrial democracy for large sections of the working class, there was also this notion that the CIO had short-circuited more revolutionary developments, that something called corporate liberalism had co-opted what might have been the more far-reaching attempts by the CIO to really challenge capitalism.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

And that’s because at that moment the enemy, so to speak, seemed to be a kind of liberalism, which was under assault from a lot of different directions because of its behavior in the world — in Vietnam and race matters, and so on and so forth. You ask that question today, when liberalism is itself under attack by the Right, and it looks different. The CIO emerges as a bastion of democracy, a great democratic achievement, and it was. And one looks back at that with a kind of yearning that that could happen again today, especially given the deindustrialization and deunionization of so many sections of the working class today.

This is also the context for the CIO, for the inspiring of people, for the confidence-building that we can do this. There is a shift in the zeitgeist, and working people generally are fighting back. And so I think sometimes Roosevelt, the NIRA, and 7A get a little bit too much credit. After all, Roosevelt was never prepared to enforce 7A; it never was enforced, and it was ignored again and again and again. Two different labor boards were established under the NIRA, and neither did much. Only in unions that were already strong, like in the garment trades, did the NIRA have any real effect. You could use it to support already-established unions in those sectors. So on the one hand, yes, the CIO is a phenomenon that emerges out of this political context: Roosevelt is key, the New Deal is key. But there’s also this activity from below, which is I think inspiring to people and gives workers courage later on to form the CIO.


How did the CIO finally realize the dream of industrial unionism?


To some degree, it had the assistance of an administration that increasingly relied on working-class support for political survival. Initially, that’s not the case: Roosevelt and the New Deal are quite friendly toward the business community. The NIRA is a corporatist attempt to allow big business to discipline itself, and Roosevelt is not an advocate of the National Labor Relations Act until very late in the game. But the business community deserts him. He has to move, and the administration has to move, increasingly to the left to rely on working-class people for support — and I think that is understood by the original organizers of the CIO and becomes increasingly helpful. In the Flint sit-down strike, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins is of help to the fledgling United Auto Workers (UAW). The La Follette Committee exposes the machinations of corporate America to deny what by this time were the rights established by the NLRA. So that’s one reason.

Another reason the CIO succeeds is that given that zeitgeist, it practiced what we nowadays call social unionism. That is to say, the CIO was very conscious of itself as fighting not only for the rights of specific workers, say, in the steel industry or the auto industry to establish collective bargaining rights, but was also part of a broader social movement to establish dignity, a voice, a real political influence for the working class in America, and I think that gave the union enormous political traction and clout in the country.


How did the sit-down tactic play a role here?

Today we would call them “factory occupations” since we live in the world of Occupy. The tactic had emerged already in Europe in the 1930s, in France and elsewhere. It was picked up in America initially in the rubber industry, where there were the initial sit-down strikes, and they electrified the country, at first very favorably. They later become a problem for the CIO, but initially they spread like wildfire. Of course, the one at Flint is key to getting General Motors (GM) — with the help of Perkins, Michigan governor Frank Murphy, and others — to finally capitulate and recognize the UAW. They give the workers leverage.

Flint, of course, was a linchpin, just paralyzing the whole industry because of the kind of work that was going on at Flint for GM, so it was very shrewd to do there. The whole community was mobilized to support the sit-down people, the Women’s Auxiliary and many other groups they’d bring to bear helping and supporting the Flint workers. And then the sit-down strike spreads all over the country, not just in factory settings, but in department stores and up across the country and all over the place. It’s a wave. It’s an irresistible wave that corporate America finally has to reckon with.

There are two things I think going on in corporate America. On the one hand, some elements of corporate America want to stabilize the workplace. They really do, and they’re prepared to recognize collective bargaining institutions if they can count on the leadership of those union institutions to discipline the workforce. Because a lot of these places had become the site of constant turnover, strikes, wildcat strikes. It’s very destabilizing for corporate America to live like that.

On the other hand, they don’t want to cede their authority over the shop floor; they’re very reluctant to do that. To some degree, the CIO is aware of that. Sidney Hillman, for example, was acutely aware of that. The union was the most stabilizing force in the garment industry since the 1910s, really. It established stability in a workplace that had been highly unstable, full of pockets of workers who would walk out at a moment’s notice. So there’s a certain kind of willingness already there, and then the sit-down strikes makes that even more imperative. I think that’s part of why the steel industry after GM is forced to capitulate, why Myron Taylor at US Steel says, “Well, maybe we better settle ahead of time.” Now, of course, plenty of Little Steel companies don’t do that, and there’s very violent confrontations between the CIO and Republic and the other Little Steel companies. But I think those are some of the reasons.


Why did the key CIO leaders all seem to come from the coal-mining and garment industries? Was there something particular about miner and garment-worker organizing?


In the case of Hillman and David Dubinsky, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, and to some degree the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, pioneered something that in the ’20s was called “the new unionism,” and the new unionism was very conscious of building a kind of social movement unionism. It didn’t restrict its concerns to strictly collective bargaining ones. So it pioneers in the establishment of cooperative housing, of health insurance, of unemployment insurance. These were real innovations for a union to engage in in the ’20s, and Hillman and the Amalgamated are celebrated for that. They also build ties to political and even managerial elites who see the need for that kind of reform, even people within the Taylor Society like Morris Cooke and others; Keynesians who realize that unless you establish the basis for mass consumption capitalism, the system itself was in jeopardy.

Look, the CIO was successful to some degree because it had the energy of radicals, communists, socialists. These are people with long views — dedicated, experienced organizers, whether they came out of the Socialist Party, sometimes a few out of the International Workers of the World (IWW), mainly out of the Communist Party. The leaders of unions like clothing or miners, they fight these radicals, but they also realize their value and work with them. Not Dubinsky though; he became just violently anti-communist and wouldn’t have any dealings with them.


Who was Sidney Hillman?


Hillman is a Russian Jewish immigrant. His experience in Russia was with the 1905 Revolution. He was a member of the Jewish Bund, which was the socialist-allied Jewish organization of working-class people under the tsar. So he’s a dedicated socialist before he ever gets to America. And he comes to America via England, and he shows up here and becomes just a shop-floor worker in Chicago at Hart Schaffner & Marx. And he’s there for one of the first big strikes in the garment industry.

Hart Schaffner & Marx is a key player in the garment industry, and modern. It’s not a sweatshop; it’s a modern factory. Big, a lot of employees. Hillman is there, and he’s a horribly inefficient worker. He’s really bad at his job, but he’s part of the strike, and he has this political experience from Russia. Then he moves to New York and helps found, in a struggle against one of the old craft worker unions, the United Garment Workers, and the Amalgamated is born out of a struggle against that craft union.

Then he becomes the darling of a kind of liberal left — the Women’s Trade Union League, Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, these liberals who see that industrial capitalism is undergoing these constant crises, and that the labor question keeps disturbing things. There’s a kind of sometimes open, sometimes sotto voce civil war going on, and they need to do something about it. Hillman seems like the kind of guy they’re looking for, and so they befriend the Amalgamated, they argue legal cases on its behalf. And Hillman becomes this celebrated “new unionist” in the ’20s before the CIO was formed.


Was the CIO a channel through which working-class aspirations were institutionalized, or was it essentially a constraint on bottom-up organizing efforts?

Well, I guess I would say both are true, but in its early years, I would lean toward the former. I think the CIO was a legitimate, genuine, from-below surge that represented the desires and needs of the working class. I think that the leadership increasingly becomes cognizant of the fact that if the union is going to endure, these very delicate, fragile, new institutions — powerful as they might be in any particular instance — need to establish ongoing relations with corporate America. To do that, you need to rein in rank-and-file militancy, especially on the shop floor. These corporations are very reluctant to give up control of the shop floor, so this does create a tension between this developing bureaucracy and the rank and file, especially in unions like the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) or the UAW.

But who knows, could that moment have developed beyond the institutionalization of collective bargaining through the CIO and its political representation by the Democratic Party? I’m of two minds about that. I do think there was a lot of potential on the ground to move beyond that. For me, the early years of the Depression are the last moment, until maybe now, of a kind of anti-capitalist culture. Anti-capitalism was rife throughout the society, not just among working people. The last time that was the case was probably in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when capitalism was really under the gun, and you had the Socialist Party. Anti-capitalism was an influence in the IWW. It was an influence, in its own way, in the Populist Party. These were all mass-movement critiques of capitalism, and I believe in some ways, the CIO was the final act.


In his history of the CIO, Robert Zieger says that the CIO leaders “thought they knew their constituency, which, they judged, was angry, not alienated.” Were they right?


Well, I’m not sure what the difference is between anger and alienation. If you’re angry, you’re alienated. Look, you’re in a country that has enormous respect for private property. That’s our culture. And you’re occupying factories, you’re taking over coal mines, you’re stopping milk deliveries, you’re stopping evictions from happening. That’s anger. I’d say that’s also alienation from the normal order of things, from the sanctity of private property. To seize a factory and stop it from running, this does not happen in America, in a culture that has a kind of worshipful attitude about the inviolability of private property.

In hindsight, yes, of course, it didn’t go beyond this. But the trick of being good at history is trying to get inside the heads of people at the time. You look back, and the CIO became a highly bureaucratized institution, which was more and more, relatively speaking, conservative in its instincts. And so you say, “Well, that was always going to happen. That was in its genes.” I don’t think that’s the case. I think history’s more contingent than that, and I think that given the times, it could have been a real rupture.

This could have been a terminal crisis for capitalism. Really, people thought that, and I’m not talking about just a bunch of radicals. All kinds, even conservative journalists thought that, that this was an end game that was happening. State capitals being taken over, general strikes . . . this just doesn’t happen. People were angry, and I would say they were also alienated from the status quo. It had failed, and everybody said, “It’s a failure.” And so then what do you do? Well, you try to reform it, or you try to overthrow it.


When do you think that possibility went away? 1937, 1941, 1949? What was the beginning of the end?


Well, it started going away in 1937. There’s a post-’37 reaction against the sit-down strikes, which scares the CIO leadership, and the Roosevelt administration starts backing away from them. At Republic Steel, Roosevelt makes a famous remark: “I’m not taking sides.” Workers are shot in the back at Republic Steel, and he’s not taking sides. He says, “A plague on both your houses.” Well, give me a break. The CIO is aware of that, that it is losing its political allies. And then, of course, ’38 is a political defeat for the New Deal. You get a bunch of Republicans elected. And then the war begins. Obviously, on the one hand, it enhances the influence of the CIO. Hillman is an important official, but his hands are tied increasingly in the war. Business is calling the shots, and with all these state agencies running the war mobilization, the CIO and the labor movement are more and more cosmetic, and Hillman’s power is greatly reduced.

After that, it’s all kind of rhetorical. The Democratic Party increasingly moves away from universal health care, housing, etc. All the landmark social movement unionism, which the CIO used to back, loses its political attraction. And then there’s the Cold War. The purging of the CIO is terrible. The most militant unions, the ones with the most experienced organizers, get purged. Kicking out eleven unions, that’s a killer.


Do you think the CIO would have declined without the war buildup?


There’s no question that the war improved the leverage of the labor movement, because the administration depended on enormous output to fight the war. Now that the CIO was established in the basic industries, the government needed those unions to help produce that enormous output of munitions and aircraft and ships and so on. And so that improved the labor movements’ bargaining leverage, and the CIO was aware of that, which is why it introduced and made attempts to improve its own power, making proposals to comanage, say, the conversion of auto to aircraft production.

This idea of comanagement, which was a European idea, it’s something rarely talked about today. It briefly became a CIO proposal to have these tripartite commissions — government, business, and labor running these industries together. That didn’t get very far, but still that the union was emboldened to pursue that is a function of the war and the needs the government had.

On the other hand, there was a need to discipline the labor force because the war demands enormous production, speedups, overtime, etc., and this produces a reaction on the shop floor. You get all these wildcat strikes. Increasingly, the union bureaucracy is at odds with these strikes and has to put them down. And so you have this odd dynamic where the union is both policeman of the shop floor and, on the other hand, using its leverage to improve its position, but only within the constraints of an economy that’s increasingly run by corporate America.


What do you think contemporary organizers and activists can take from the history of the CIO, both in terms of its successes and its limitations?

Seize the moment. We’re in a moment right now. That, the 1930s, was a moment for all the various reasons you and I have just talked about. I think this is a moment too. Neoliberalism is rupturing. It’s rupturing from the right and the left. It’s destabilized. That’s frightening because there is a quasi-fascist movement on the Right, but for the same reason, for the first time in a while, the labor question is once again a question that people are asking. Obviously, there are strikes. We haven’t seen this many strikes and NLRB elections in a bit, and there are organizing efforts being made in industries that people for a long time have felt were invincible, like Amazon and Starbucks and so on.

There’s also this enormous concern about inequality. There is Bernie Sanders: the Bernie Sanders moment is unimaginable for the previous fifty years, and then suddenly, he’s the most respected politician in America. So it’s a moment. Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — whoever knew about DSA? It had three members and nobody cared. Now it has one hundred thousand members, and there’s this sense that capitalism needs to be interrogated. And even the Right is a sign of that destabilization. To some degree, Trump plays on the collapse of a kind of neoliberal stability. So the lesson for me is: seize the moment, that this is the time. The CIO saw that during the Great Depression, and I’m thinking we’re headed that way now.