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labor Unions Can’t Be Rebuilt Piecemeal. We Need To Go Big.

The 1930s rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations led to millions of people being union members for the first time. The lesson of the CIO is that it’s necessary to harness the collective power of the working class on a grand scale.


Erik Loomis is a professor of history at the University of Rhode Island and the author of A History of America in Ten Strikes (New Press, 2018) and Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Loomis presents here a strong case in favor of the idea that the CIO did about as well as it could do to exploit the political-economic conditions of the 1930s.

In Loomis’s view, the CIO harnessed the disruptive power of the sit-down strike, a tactic that Loomis argues was difficult to pull off successfully and understood its perception by a public that believed in the mythology of private property. They profited from the investment of the communists, even though the communists’ contributions were mixed. And against those who say they should have helped found a labor party, Loomis argues that their investment in the Democratic Party paid off handsomely in neutralizing the typical business-government collaboration.

Loomis concluded our interview by emphasizing the importance of going big. In many ways, our present moment is one of lowered political horizons, and it’s easy to retreat to small-scale, local, or personal projects. But the lesson of the CIO is that it’s necessary to harness the collective power of the working class on a grand scale.

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


The CIO, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, was the first large-scale attempt in American history to organize the large industrial workplaces on an industrial union model. It succeeded, by and large, and then remerged with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1955. The significance of this can hardly be overstated. You had millions of workers that the AFL either could not, or in many cases would not, organize, who were demanding economic justice and were desperate for unions.

And so the CIO, under United Mine Workers of America leader John L. Lewis, broke away from the AFL in 1935 to start an alternative federation that was dedicated to mass-scale organizing. The CIO also wanted to be involved in electoral politics in a way that the American Federation of Labor had been reticent to be, going back to its founding in 1886.

Again, in terms of this broader significance, the CIO led to millions of people being union members for the first time. It led to the American working class rising in their economic power. It led to the labor movement being a core part of Democratic Party politics. It led to the attempts, some of which were successful and some of which were not, to influence basically all parts of American society, including parts that do not seem directly connected to the labor movement. And by and large, it brought the American working class into an era of prosperity that it had never seen before, and arguably has not seen since.


For roughly fifty years until the CIO broke from it, the AFL was the labor federation in the United States. And given its craft orientation, it was narrow and limited in its aims. How did this narrowness constrain previous moments of upsurge?


Yeah, it’s not as if the CIO came out of nowhere. You had half a century of radical and mass-based organizing that appeared from time to time, particularly in 1919 when there’s a huge upswelling of labor activity, and the AFL simply was not willing or able to take advantage of that. So with the AFL, you effectively have a vacuum in American labor because it is so backward-looking.

The AFL is really an organization of the nineteenth century. It’s a movement that in some ways was already dated when it was founded in 1886. It’s a movement that’s based on the idea of a worker, particularly an Anglo-Saxon worker, whether that was a native-born American or perhaps an English immigrant, like AFL leader Samuel Gompers was, who stood up for himself and with his fellow workers in his very specific job in order to maintain an independent manhood that would not be pressed down by companies or by the government.

The AFL aimed to protect people who were skilled workers in very specific jobs, people who bore an identity by which they could organize themselves to protect their interest as these very specific workers with very specific needs. This meant lots of different kinds of unions, even at one workplace. So even railroad workers, for instance, organized into brotherhoods that were specific to the job, not as railroad workers per se.

The AFL also simply would not organize women. It would not organize African Americans, by and large. It would not organize Asian Americans, and in fact it actively attempted to halt the organizing of Asian Americans. It would not organize children, who were a big part of the workforce. And it really was quite hesitant in organizing a lot of the Eastern European laborers. And so, you have a scenario in which you have these moments of uprising, but there’s no institution that’s willing to actually work with these people in order to get them a union, get them a contract, and get them that kind of dignity that they deserve.

Occasionally you would have some group organizing, and that group would be moved to one of the established unions, a union that claimed jurisdiction over this particular industry, and then that group would be given second-class status within that union because it didn’t fit the politics of a conservative labor movement. It might have been ex-IWW [Industrial Workers of the World] people, for instance. In those cases, maybe the group would not be given voting rights in the union because leadership was so determined to maintain this backward-looking, nineteenth-century vision of labor. It’s amazing that this goes almost unchallenged within the labor movement until the 1930s.

In the heart of the Great Depression, the AFL was actually opposed to unemployment insurance for workers. The idea behind this for the AFL was that anything that’s not negotiated in a contract could be taken away by the government, if it’s given by the government. Maybe there’s some truth to that. But they also just didn’t like dependence, especially on the government. They thought it would undermine the autonomy of the single male worker. This ideal led it to support positions totally disconnected from the realities of the Great Depression.

It really took an extremely rare rank-and-file rebellion within the American Federation of Labor just to get the labor movement to support something like unemployment insurance, which eventually would become law. So, the AFL was really just, in many ways, hopelessly out of touch in the 1930s.


Aside from breaking with this backward-looking vision, what else made the CIO successful?


It’s a combination of tactics and context. The reality is that I think it would’ve been very difficult for the CIO to do this at a different time in American history. But the Great Depression, the wholesale rejection of the Republican Party in 1932, and the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt really opened up new opportunities for legislative change. I think that one of the real binding issues in American labor history, especially when compared to Western Europe, is that employers and the government have really worked together to crush unions. And the number of unions that have succeeded in the face of the government just openly siding with corporations is very small.

In some of the core CIO victories, the corporations basically expected these newly elected Democratic governors or FDR himself to send in the military to crush the strike. And these Democratic governors wouldn’t because they had been elected with worker support. That really changes everything. And so, some of it is the fact that this happened at a moment in which workers, and just Americans generally, were so angry at the system that they elected really brand-new people with brand-new ideas.

Another factor here was a fear of communism among the American labor movement. Key foundational figures in the CIO, such as John L. Lewis, were concerned that in the vacuum of not having unions for all of these industries, the communists were going to be able to come in and successfully organize them outside of the labor movement and into real left-wing radicalism. Certainly, the communists had some success in this before the CIO, including unemployment marches in 1931 and ‘32, and with the gigantic uprising of workers in 1934, which spurred the Roosevelt administration to pass the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.

I think another key point here is that Lewis was the head of the [United] Mine Workers, which was really an exception with the AFL because it was an industrial union. Because so much of the coal was consumed by the steel industry, there was really no way that Lewis could create long-term unionization and a strong organization in the Mine Workers without also organizing steel workers. The AFL was not really willing to engage in that kind of industrial organizing to create what would eventually become the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, and later the United Steelworkers of America within the CIO. So Lewis was also acting to promote his own interests and the interests of his union in creating similar kinds of models. When the AFL simply refuses to play along, Lewis finally leaves.


You talked about the combination of context and tactics. One of the key tactics that the CIO moment is known for is the sit-down strike. What did this tactic mean for the emergence and success of the CIO?


I think that the sit-down strike is one of these tactics that can be romanticized, outside of its appropriate context. But the Flint sit-down strike is the key moment, with workers occupying parts of plants, and it did change the equation to a certain extent. People have debated where exactly sit-down strikes began. Maybe the US, maybe Europe. But it was an occasionally used thing until the mid-‘30s.

In Flint, you have a pretty organized group of workers occupying Fisher Body Plant no. 1, which was a General Motors (GM) facility. By sitting down and staying in there, the idea was that first, it would show workers’ responsibility. They would do this but do this in a respectable way. And so, drinking wasn’t allowed, and they were very clean. A lot of the early examples of the sit-down strike really emphasized this respectability narrative. But it was also just an effective tactic. It would prevent strikebreakers. The problem with the traditional strike is that you leave the factory, and even if you have pickets around the factory, generally the courts and the police were working on the side of the companies, and so would basically force the allowance of strikebreakers into the factory. The sit-down was intended to prevent that. The idea, at least theoretically, was that a company would not want to destroy its own facility.

However, it’s worth noting that GM would’ve been happy to destroy its own facility. GM wanted the police to go in and kick those people out at any cost. And this is, I think, a key part of this broader story. The reason that it doesn’t happen (and it’s worth keeping in mind that the Flint police force was completely bought and sold by GM) is that the workers of Michigan had elected a guy named Frank Murphy to be governor. Murphy had campaigned on never betraying workers. He had said would not use the police or the National Guard to break a strike. He’s close to FDR and is a good strong liberal governor, but nobody really knows how he’s going to react to this. In fact, he has a panic attack as it all goes down.

But in the end, although GM is demanding that he call the National Guard, he refuses to do it. It’s really only after he refuses to call the National Guard that GM sits down and says, “Okay, we give up,” which again goes back to the issue I mentioned earlier. If unions can neutralize that government-corporate alliance (and you can’t really ever expect government to be on the side of unions in the United States, that’s really rare), so they don’t call in the cops or the army, then it really changes the whole perspective.

So that tactic got a ton of play, and you saw different versions of it pop up very quickly. But it’s worth noting that it’s a very, very difficult tactic to pull off. If we’re going to talk about Flint, it’s probably also worth a brief discussion of the failed attempt by a newly forming union with the CIO called the United Chocolate Workers to use a sit-down strike at its plant in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in the big Hershey plant. This was a complete and unmitigated disaster, in part because they did not have the political support, in part because Hershey bought his milk off of local farmers. The local area was completely opposed to it, versus the solidarity culture you had in Flint. And in fact, the United Chocolate Workers never organized that plant.

So if we’re thinking about the sit-down strike, we do need to understand that it has some pretty sharp limitations to it, and by no means worked in all cases.


Part of the CIO leadership’s skittishness about the sit-down was that they felt the public was turning against this tactic. Why was that?


People turned against the sit-down strike in part because it felt like an attack on private property. We have to understand that unions were not exactly popular among the American people as a whole. I think this is always worth noting, that even at the very peak of the labor movement, huge parts of the country were effectively totally unorganized. This will come back to seriously haunt the CIO down the line.

What you have here is a lot of Americans who strongly believe in this mythology of private property, and that very much includes many union members and the leaders of the labor movement. Some CIO lawyers were pushing a legal idea that people had a right to their job, that their job was a sort of property. Let’s just say the American courts were not very welcoming to this idea. And so, it really felt like, for many Americans, that this was a radical tactic that was perhaps communist — sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn’t — and that really threatened the core identity of an America that defended private property.

Truth be told, the Supreme Court simply declared the tactic unconstitutional in 1939. So one of the reasons that you don’t see it today is that it’s outright illegal. If we’re talking about sit-down strikes in the present, first of all, rather than just romanticize it, I think we have to consider, first and foremost, is this a good tactic? Would this actually work in a given workplace? And then secondly, what are we going to do about the fact that it’s illegal? Now, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do that. I’m not making evaluations or judgements here, but the fact is that the courts declared it unconstitutional.


You just mentioned the geographical limitations of the CIO, and they did try to expand, specifically to the West and the South. How did its western venture go?


Being located mostly in a fairly small number of states, one of the CIO’s strategies was to expand to other parts of the country, and the West Coast made sense. The West Coast had a relatively robust union tradition, at least compared to, say, the Great Plains or the South or other places where it really needed to expand if it was going to succeed in the long term.

But what the West Coast really lacked, at least until World War II, was the large-scale industries that the CIO is really based upon. These West Coast unions are mostly pretty small. They’re longshoremen, which are people who load and unload boats. They’re timber workers, but there’s not a River Rouge in the timber industry. There are some big companies, and then there are a ton of tiny companies, but there’s not a gigantic space for organizing, which really was something that, say, the UAW [United Auto Workers] or the steelworkers were able to take advantage of.

There were miners, farmworkers, and a lot of them had very strong communist ties, or at least radical ties. There are still, in the ’30s, remnant IWW members in some of these areas. And that’s really the last place that the IWW had people identifying like that. And so, it’s a weird fit. Culturally, it’s a weird fit. Their politics are very different. The structures of work are very different.

This changes somewhat when the auto, airplane, and shipbuilding industries begin to move out to California in World War II. But in those early years, yeah, it’s unions with a really strong radical edge, many of which had a lot of former IWW members in them. This did not always go over very well with Lewis, but to some extent, it also didn’t go over well with some of the other communists operating in places like New York because West Coast socialism was of a much more independent character.


What do you see as the more general limitations of the CIO project?


There’s a bunch, but one again was an inability to organize in large parts of the country. I think it’s worth noting that in 1955, half of all CIO members were in five states, and there were almost none in many other states. So there were some structural problems, certainly.

The CIO also just stalled out. It hit fast, right away. It wins at GM, US Steel, Chrysler, but that’s it. Even when FDR was unwilling to send in the military, like in Little Steel, which was not so little despite its name, the companies would resist unionization with violence. The head of one of these companies, a guy named Tom Girdler, was basically buying up all of the poison gas he could get to potentially use against workers. In fact, he is responsible for the Memorial Day Massacre in 1937. This puts a limitation on that first big wave of organizing.

In many ways, World War II is what puts the CIO over the top because FDR and the Roosevelt administration are determined to be as close to strike-free as possible during the war. And so, they come up with these deals in the National War Labor Board that effectively institutionalize the CIO by forcing these recalcitrant companies, such as Ford, Little Steel, and a lot of others, to acquiesce to having a union. But when the union wins in that way, you don’t necessarily have a culture developed that’s going to continue to create union militancy.

It should be said as well that these are very top-down organizations. Lewis was top-down as you can possibly get. So a lot of the CIO unions were very undemocratic and really did not have a lot of interest in allowing workers to control the agenda from the shop floor up. So there are some internal issues as well, and there are battles between communists and non-communist workers too that will eventually play a pretty big role in undermining the CIO.


Some historians believe that there was a widespread anti-capitalist mood at the time that the CIO played a role in constraining. What do you think of this idea?


I tend to be skeptical of that kind of statement. I think it’s very easy for left-leaning historians of the movement to want to read a lot into this history that maybe isn’t there. I think there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical that there was large-scale, true anti-capitalism among the American working class. I guess that would run straight up against what we were just talking about earlier with the reaction to the sit-down strike, which was not popular even among all workers.

We know now as well that there was significant disagreement and infighting in locals, sometimes fighting between communists and non-communist workers. Certainly, especially during the war, the communists were very good at maintaining control and dampening any kind of working-class uprising. That’s for sure. But I don’t know that you would have had a significantly more radical and more sustained movement if the communists had not played that disciplinary role.


Another claim that’s often asserted about the CIO moment is that they should have invested more in founding a labor party. Was the CIO too invested in the Democratic Party? Or was the Democratic Party what made possible the CIO?


I tend a little bit more toward the latter on that. I mean, I’m very familiar with those arguments. I don’t think they make much sense. In truth, the number of successful third-party movements in American history is almost zero. And I think people who want more of a multiparty democracy often will push this kind of a line. But within the winner-take-all structure of American politics, I don’t know that it really would’ve been very effective.

It may have led to other outcomes in certain places. Let’s say, in Detroit, not working within the Democratic Party may well have led to scenarios by which you have more radical people get elected to be mayor or congressperson. In areas that are truly dominated by one political party, going an independent route is a way to create a difference between the radicals and the more moderate or conservative Democrats. So, there, at the local level, I think there was some potential.

Now, it’s fair enough to say that the CIO never really grew to be more than a junior member of the Democratic Party. Despite all the work that people like Sidney Hillman did, despite people like Walter Reuther really trying to create a Democratic Party that took labor’s concerns seriously, as in postwar France and England, it didn’t happen. It’s easy to look back and say, “Well, that was a mistake,” and that a Labor Party would’ve made a difference. But again, I’m not really sure that it would’ve, because I don’t know how it would’ve operated in any way that would’ve been particularly useful.

Moreover, I don’t think that it would’ve attracted the number of workers that a lot of people think that it might have. Working-class people have multiple interests in their lives. If you look at, say, the big UAW plants in the late ’30s and ’40s and into the ’50s, there are a lot of Southern workers in those plants. They’re both black and white, and part of this migration north. Many Southern white Democrats who are moving up north have very close ties to the Democratic Party for historical reasons.

I think it’s projecting to say, “Oh, the workers are there for the picking. Large numbers of these workers would’ve voluntarily joined a labor party, and it would’ve been successful.” I don’t really see that. Again, if you look through American history, when have unions had success? It is when they’ve been able to neutralize that government-business alliance. And that’s one thing that having the CIO within the Democratic Party was at least partially able to do. Not fully, but partially, and it was a big reason for their success.


How would you describe the communists’ role in the CIO?


Well, it’s a very complicated role. There’s no question that communists were able to organize some of the most effective unions in the CIO. Unions on the west coast and smaller unions like [the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers], which was active in Southwest mining, largely organizing Mexican miners. These unions did a great job in bringing economic justice to workers who were really marginalized. These were areas that even other CIO unions were really not going to go in and organize. They were also influential within some UE [United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers] locals, and at the UE national leadership level. So there were spots within the CIO in which the communists made critical and very important changes.

But I think that the communists also hurt themselves a lot. That’s a big part of the story too. There was a whole debate in the ’70s and ’80s. People had said that the communists in the United States were taking orders from Moscow, and others called them a bunch of red baiters. And then the archives opened in Moscow, and lo and behold, they were in fact taking orders from Moscow.

I think it’s important that we recognize this, especially when you’re talking about the foreign policy issue as we’re moving toward World War II. When the orders came from Moscow to change positions on the war, especially around Germany, other workers were like, “What the heck is going on here? Yesterday, they said this. Why?” Workers thought they were being gaslighted at that point.

So you have a lot of workers who were at one time favorable to a lot of what the Communist Party was doing in their union, these workers stop trusting them. Communists were also running tickets for locals. I’m not blaming them for this; it’s legitimate to run a ticket in an election. But the non-communists who might have lost those elections sure felt empowered to complain to the government that communists were taking over their locals. When the Dies Committee starts in ’38, which eventually becomes the House Committee on Un-American Activities, these non-communist workers complain about communists that have taken over their unions. So it’s a complicated scenario.

At the same time though, the communists also did more than almost anyone else to bring black Americans into the CIO. This is also really important to recognize because one of the other limitations of the CIO in the broader scheme was division by race. Even if leadership was pro–civil rights, that sure as heck didn’t mean the rank-and-file were. The Detroit hate strike in ’43 had UAW members participating. There’s lots of examples of that going on in the ’30s and ’40s. There’s a racial division that the CIO had to deal with. In some unions, like the Packinghouse Workers, the organizing really becomes a combination of both labor and racial justice.


The CIO rejected the AFL’s racist and exclusionary practices, but how did it approach issues of racial and ethnic division?


It was really hard when CIO leadership, whether at the international level or at the local level, tried to take on racial issues. It would tend to be over things like hiring on the job, but also issues like public housing, which the CIO was very heavily involved in, that you would sometimes see really significant rank-and-file reactions against leadership for doing things like trying to create desegregated public housing.

Public housing was supposed to be for the workers, the white workers, or so they believed. Then black workers were moving into Detroit, Chicago, or Milwaukee, and these white workers revolt against their own unions. You see this on a number of occasions as early as 1940 or so. You see workers actually vote for Republican candidates based on a white-backlash ticket over the issue of desegregating public housing. This is just after they won the UAW.

So, it’s not necessarily a deep alliance, and this is something that union leaders have to take on very carefully. It’s not that long before this that a lot of these industries — steel, mining, and a couple others — are incredibly divided by ethnicity between different white ethnic groups. These divisions had gotten in the way of organizing in, say, the mining industry. And so, the race and ethnicity issue is really tricky.

By the ’30s, packinghouse work, which was such difficult work, had become a pretty heavily black industry. In that scenario, because of an already relatively high level of black labor in that industry after 1919, creating more of a multiracial union fighting against segregation made some sense and could be effective. But in other areas, like some of the UAW locals, again you had large numbers of migrants coming up in places like Kentucky and West Virginia and Tennessee, with long histories of white supremacy. So okay, yeah, they’re activated on class now, to a certain extent. They’re voting. They’re becoming strong union members and all of this, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was going to cut against their racial prejudices.

A lot of this is around hiring after the March on Washington Movement forces Roosevelt to desegregate industries that are doing defense work, which is basically all industries in the war. So you begin to see, say, African Americans hired for jobs other than as janitors and the like. And white workers often react very negatively to that.

So for leadership, it was very much a walking on eggshells thing. It’ll continue that way. We know, for instance, that Walter Reuther, head of the UAW, helped to pay for the March on Washington. He speaks at the March in 1963. And UAW locals are furious about this and rejecting proposals to desegregate jobs. So it’s always a real challenge for pretty progressive union leaders on race.


When would you say that CIO moment was over?


You could say that by 1949, when the communists began to be expelled, that whatever potential the CIO had, it’s gone by then. It’s only a few years before the merger. But you could also argue that by ’41, the potential was gone when they bought into the war. Or in 1937, when they lost to Little Steel.

You can make arguments for any of those dates. I would say though personally that the strongest argument is for the later date, for ’49. In the end, the CIO existed to organize people on an industrial basis within the American capitalist system. And during World War II, it was very successful in doing that. These unions became financially secure, which was a real issue.

I don’t think it’s a failure to be involved in the government in the way it was. In some ways, this is what these organizers had wanted. I think that if we look at the CIO as little more than a radical challenge to capitalism, then yeah, I think it makes sense maybe to argue for these earlier dates. But the ultimate goal of the CIO was still in the air during the war and then immediately after the war with the strike wave in 1946.

But the passage of Taft-Hartley in ’47 — which makes a lot of what the CIO had done in the early days illegal, things like sympathy strikes and such, as well as creating right-to-work and forcing communists out of the unions — and then in ’49when that really happened, that’s the end of the CIO moment.

I think the eviction of the communist unions was probably inevitable. I don’t think there’s actually a way that the American labor movement survives in any form that it looks like today if this doesn’t happen, because you have to remember that it’s not just that Taft-Hartley passed, but it passed with overwhelming support that was massive. It overrides [President Harry] Truman’s veto. It’s not like it was close.

So, the unions had very little support in American public life in 1947. It’s very easy, I think, to say, “Well, the CIO screwed up by evicting the communist unions.” Maybe it did. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe they needed to do that just to survive. But I think it is safe to say that by undercutting the radical edge of organizing, the actual reason for a CIO to exist anymore is pretty much gone, because they’re just not organizing in the same way after 1949.


What lessons does the CIO moment have for the present?


I would really focus on the issue of bigness. We are in a moment in which there’s a lot of emphasis on individual autonomy and small-scale change and things like, I don’t know, organic food and symbolic gestures.

In labor circles, I think that’s led to a kind of romanticizing of the IWW. That’s an organization that a lot of particularly younger people look to as an inspiration. And there’s some good reasons for that. Certainly, the cultural productions were amazing. They did great visuals. And there was a focus on a kind of decentralized, individualized way of making change without compromising with the state or anything like that.

I don’t have any particular problem with this except to note that it was an abject failure. The IWW never really succeeded in American life. And where it did, it disappeared almost immediately after that success. There’s not a lot of evidence that you can organize the American working class based on individualistic means.

The CIO brought collective power to the working class. The CIO brought millions of people into a movement by organizing big companies all at once and moving into industries that had never had unions before. And all of a sudden, there are millions of union members in an industry.

If we’re going to succeed in building a labor movement, rebuilding a labor movement today, it’s going to happen through size and power. There’s a lot of interest in independent unions that are going to keep independence from those big union bosses or whatever. You’re never going to build the American labor movement back that way. There are too many workers in America to rebuild the labor movement in groups of twenty or thirty or even one hundred. You need thousands and thousands of people to be joining the labor movement at the same time, which is what the Teamsters, for instance, are trying to do with Amazon. It’s why SEIU [Service Employees International Union] is trying to fund movements that would organize Starbucks and things like that, because they know they’ve got to target the big industries.

I think bigness is not something that a lot of Americans are very comfortable with today. Bigness is the way of the future if we want to actually have the kind of collective power that we need to make the change. That, to me, is the lesson.


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Erik Loomis is professor of history at the University of Rhode Island and author of A History of America in Ten Strikes (New Press, 2018) and Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Benjamin Y. Fong is honors faculty fellow and associate director of the Center for Work & Democracy at Arizona State University. He is the author of Quick Fixes: Drugs in America from Prohibition to the 21st Century Binge (Verso 2023).

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