To Make Unions Resonate Again, Study the CIO’s History
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Lisa Phillips is an associate professor of history at Indiana State University and the author of A Renegade Union: Interracial Organizing and Labor Radicalism (University of Illinois Press, 2012). The following interview covers a lot of material related to the Congress of Industrial Organizations moment, shedding light on the CIO’s role in organizing unskilled workers and its complex relationship with issues of race, gender, and political ideology. It circles around the case of District 65, a radical, independent union that was the subject of Phillips’s book.

The conversation delves into the CIO’s spotty record on overcoming racial divisions, the unique story of District 65 and its fraught relationship with the CIO, the organization’s approach to organizing women workers, and the influence of communists during this pivotal moment in labor history. Phillips also explores how the CIO paved the way for the civil rights movement and reflects on the lessons from the CIO era that are applicable to the present-day challenges facing the labor movement.


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


The CIO was an outgrowth in the organized labor movement in the early ’30s of people who were frustrated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL was the national-level labor movement for primarily skilled workers. The way it was organized was around craft. Some people within the AFL were frustrated by that structure, and so they organized an industrial offshoot within the AFL. They eventually decided to break away and become a rival voice at the national level for unskilled workers. So its historical significance is that it brought millions of people who wouldn’t have been brought under the AFL umbrella into the labor movement. At the time, early to mid-’30s, it was a wave. It was a significant social economic movement, a wave of class uprising.


Could you describe the CIO’s record on overcoming racial and ethnic divisions?


Well, it’s spotty. The CIO is an umbrella organization of lots of local unions. Some of the local unions that were organized under the umbrella of the CIO did very well on that. The union I wrote about, District 65, purposely organized across racial lines. And some of the unions that were communist inspired went out and organized with that goal in mind too.

Other members of the CIO just didn’t do that. If black workers or workers of color of any kind came in, they didn’t create segregated unions or anything. But it wasn’t as purposeful, it was more, “Okay. We have workers of color here, we’ll bring them into the fold.”


District 65 has an interesting relationship to the CIO, and its story casts a particular light on this point in history. What was District 65?


District 65 was a union of very left-leaning people, some members of the Communist Party, which was not unusual for the time. This was a time of economic collapse. Worldwide, there was an interest in communism because the Soviet Union’s economy seemingly hadn’t faltered to the extent that the capitalist economies had.

And so the members of 65 who led that union were very much inspired by, if not themselves, communists. The Communist Party in the ’20s and ’30s took racial segregation head on. It was one of the first voices in the United States, at least in the form of a political party, to do so. They pushed labor union organizing to deal with the connections between economic and racial discrimination. The two went hand in hand for 65 organizers.

The union was headquartered in New York City. It organized tiny warehouse shops all through Manhattan that were otherwise ignored by organized labor. Those were the places where, especially, black workers were employed.


Could you talk a little bit about the fraught relationship of District 65 with the CIO?


If there’s one thing that’s consistent with 65’s history, it is that if it didn’t like the umbrella organization that it was a part of, it left. District 65 was dedicated to a vision of combating racial and economic discrimination, and gender discrimination too, though not as directly. When the CIO fit that and supported 65 in doing that, it stayed with it. When it didn’t, it found another home.

It started out being independent, then it joined the CIO in the ’30s, when their visions meshed. Then during the McCarthy era, starting after World War II, it was targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as being dangerous and subversive — just like the UE [United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America] and the ILWU [International Longshore and Warehouse Union]. But it left the CIO before it could be expelled, though it would’ve been expelled.

In the 1960s, it joins directly with the UAW because the UAW offered some support for what it was doing. And then in the late ’60s, early ’70s, it tries to form its own labor federation, the National Distributive Workers Union. They wanted to focus on warehouse distribution, again where many black people, especially in the South, were working.

So it continually tried to find a home that fit its core vision. And when that home, like the Cold War CIO, didn’t fit, it just left. It had some money to do so, but it struggled. It wasn’t an easy thing to leave the umbrella federations, with all the support they provided.


How would you characterize the CIO’s approach to organizing women workers?


The umbrella organization of the CIO did not target women. But when there were women on the ground who were organizing and seeking a home in the CIO, they chartered them.

If we’re thinking about the period, the 1950s and before, the idea among many of the leaders of the CIO was that the reason women had to work was because their husband’s salary or pay was just too low. And this was not inconsistent with the attitude of organized labor in the late nineteenth century into the early twentieth century. So the point would’ve been to organize so that men’s wages would be high enough so that their wives and daughters didn’t have to work. And it wasn’t until the feminist movement of the ’60s that you get some chipping away at that kind of overarching ideology.

Again, the CIO didn’t deny the great, on-the-ground work by laundry workers, beauticians, waitresses. If they were organizing, and they needed a home, the CIO took them in. They didn’t exclude women, but they didn’t purposely organize around the gender divide.

During World War II, within the defense industry, the CIO really pushed for women to be paid a man’s wage, given that men were fighting overseas. So there were key moments when the CIO really pushed for some version of gender equality at important times.


How do you make sense of the communists’ role in this moment?


During the ’30s, when capitalism really felt to people like it was on its way out, the communists had some credibility there. They had some standing, enough standing to push their vision forward. From the communist perspective, in the popular front era, they may have thought that capitalism was on its way out and some version of socialism, some kind of state-centric economy, was on its way in — and that the CIO and the communists would together refashion the economy.

Of course, that didn’t happen. I wouldn’t blame the communists so much for that, and for not remaining independent, as much as I would some communist or socialist CIO leaders who dumped the communists. I don’t know that the communists could have remained independent though, especially through World War II — but maybe if they had taken a stronger stand, I don’t know. It just doesn’t seem possible to me, given HUAC and the anti-communism of the postwar era.


How did the CIO moment pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement?


The way some portray the civil rights movement, as if it were devoid of any emphasis on labor organizing and wages, is just wrong. Martin Luther King Jr emphasized economic issues and labor issues throughout the entirety of his career. He had to downplay that because of fears of being brought up before HUAC.

The McCarthy era was so devastating for many reasons, but one effect on scholarship was to separate the labor movement from the civil rights movement. The newest scholarship is doing a much better job at looking, say, at how the impact of the McCarthy era led King to downplay economic issues until after 1966. And I hope as scholarship progresses, we don’t see as much of a separation as we’ve seen in the past.

Cleveland Robinson was a leading member of District 65. Some of the early organizing that went on for the March on Washington occurred at 65’s headquarters in New York. Arthur Osmond, the union’s original founder, was a part of the early civil rights action. They invited Martin Luther King to the union’s headquarters during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. All of the union’s members heard him speak. They gave money early on. They organized a march in the middle of Union Square for Emmett Till. So yes, many of the union’s founding leaders were integral to the civil rights movement.


What lessons from the CIO moment would you say are applicable to the present?


Somehow we have to make trades work and organizing among trades workers prideful. There was pride associated with being an autoworker in the ’30s. And there was corresponding pride associated with unionizing and gaining great middle-class incomes for autoworkers. There was pride associated with, in 65’s case, organizing small warehouses with ten and twenty people because it meant a better living for those people.

Twenty-five years ago, when I first started teaching, most of the students had family members who were union members. That’s not the case anymore. So they don’t have a way to understand even what a union is. Union density was really critical for young people seeing it as part of their backgrounds, their upbringing. Today, I can talk about it as a part of a history lesson, but it doesn’t stick, it doesn’t resonate.

But I know that my students will tell me that if they work, say, at the local Walmart, they get that anti-union spiel as part of their training. If you multiply that by millions of people who work at Walmart and other companies who do the same, well, that’s another reason why union organizing isn’t viable to them. The only impact or the only relationship they have to it is either none or negative.

So we have to make labor organizing resonate again. I would love to go back to the CIO moment, when people believed in labor organizing as a vehicle to improve people’s lives. We see spots of it today, but I don’t think we’re quite there.


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Lisa Phillips teaches labor, women’s, and African American history at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. She also serves as the secretary of the Eugene V. Debs Foundation.

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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