By Ed Grystar

April 9, 2024

 

Jacobin magazine has a recent interview with Erik Loomis, “Unions Can’t Be Rebuilt Piecemeal. We Need To Go Big.

The main focus of the interview is looking back on the CIO in the 1930s and advocating a “Go Big” approach to labor today. One would expect to find historical examples explaining the strategies of the class-struggle organizations which helped to bring about America’s most tumultuous and successful labor upsurge – the formation and struggles of the CIO.

Loomis gives an overview of the particular circumstances leading to the creation of the CIO, notably the depression, FDR, and the particular interests of John L Lewis – but chooses to gloss over the years of on-the-ground organizing by left-wing radicals within the labor movement, particularly communists. Apparently there is nothing to learn, discuss or debate about the strategy and tactics employed by communist and left organizers who built many independent unions and worked in unions affiliated with the moribund AFL.

Despite tremendous attacks and repression, left organizations like the TUEL (Trade Union Educational League) were able to provide leadership and instill a class struggle vision which involved mass labor struggles and a powerful nationwide unemployed movement – the foundation of the largest labor upsurge in the USA and the building of the CIO.

Without the historical context of the type of bottom-up organizing which built the CIO, Loomis has no suggested path or ideas for present day organizers to debate. Why is the credibility of unions on the rise yet the officialdom of labor is both unwilling and incapable of harnessing this energy to build a popular independent movement?

Although Loomis admits, “[rebuilding the labor movement has] to happen through size and power,” He also says, “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.” In reality, the situation workers face today is not that different than faced in the decades leading up to the creation of the CIO, and there are obvious lessons for. organizers today to learn in the history of the TUEL and TUUL, the communist-led organizations which predated the CIO.

In particular, radicals through the TUEL and TUUL focused on a class struggle approach when working within existing unions, organizing the unemployed, and finally creating their own independent unions which eventually morphed into the CIO.

The Building of the CIO: Role of the TUEL and TUUL

One can’t seriously talk of the CIO’s emergence without understanding the role played by the communists in the period after the 1919 steel strike and the tumultuous years leading up to the CIO.

William Z. Foster, leader of the 1919 Steel Strike, was elected to lead the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) when it was formed in 1920. It worked within existing unions to push for the merging of conservative and ineffective craft unions into industrial organizations, in sharp contrast to the AFL which was not interested in actual mass organizing, but instead focused on cooperative outreach to the business community. And to unite organized labor with the broader working class, the TUEL also focused on organizing the unemployed and independent political action.

The AFL promoted itself as a “respectable” partner to business, expelling thousands of its own members and viciously red-baiting the TUEL. This purge led to the formation of a number of new and independent unions offering a class struggle based union alternative to the craft mentality of the AFL.

The TUEL led mass strikes in Gastonia, North Carolina, Passaic, New Jersey and coal miners’ struggles in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, West Virginia, Alabama and Ohio which led to the formation of the National Miners Union in Pittsburgh in 1928. Beyond this, the TUEL organized thousands of workers in the needle trades unions of NYC to fight against the corrupt and violent AFL union leadership which policed sell-out contracts.

New leaders took over the furriers union leading to a huge 1926 NYC strike of more than 10,000 led by the TUEL. Thousands were beaten by police, arrested and jailed, but it ended with a five day work week. The AFL expelled the union and got the manufacturers to collaborate with the old
discredited leadership to reinstate the 50 hour work week. Another strike in 1927 was necessary to win back the gains of 1926.

These were real mass struggles fought by the workers themselves, attacked by police, company stooges and red-baited by the AFL. It’s this type of activity by workers which shaped the landscape of labor in the 1920’s. To not discuss these monumental battles and their significance deprives readers of insight into why and how the CIO was born and practical lessons for today.

TUEL Reorganizes as TUUL

The 1929 founding convention of the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) in Cleveland was a major shift in that it moved to openly espouse the organizing of the unorganized into industrial unions and linked the struggle with the fight for unemployment insurance. Unlike the AFL, special recognition of the needs of women, blacks and youth were made and promoted. The TUUL argued that the expulsion of many class conscious militants necessitated the creation of independent unions but stressed this was only if the existing unions were hopelessly corrupt or compromised. Many stayed in the existing unions and worked to change them from the inside.

The TUUL had working affiliates in mining, food, textile, fur / leather / needle, sheet metal, marine, agriculture, and auto. Mass strikes, rallies, and relief efforts were led by the TUUL throughout the country as workers joined and fought street battles with police, company spies, and corrupt AFL unions to better their lives. Readers should investigate these efforts as the parallels today are eerily similar.

Real Impetus For The CIO

William W. Winpisinger, President, IAM AFL-CIO  said in The Cold War Against Labor:

It is rather amusing to note how most labor historians choose to ignore what was probably the real impetus to form the CIO and pass much of FDR’s New Deal labor protections. The major impetus was the formation of the unemployed councils in practically every major city in the U.S. during the latter 1920’s and early 1930’s. Spearheading these local drives to organize the unemployed into self-help and mutual support groups, and thence educate them toward
egalitarianism and socialism invariably were local Communist Party organizers, inspire by the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, who survived the Red Scare and smashing of the socialists in the 1920’s. Many were intellectual activists like John Reed. Others were street smart mule-tough veterans of union organizing drives.

It was they, much more than John L. Lewis or any of the AFL hierarchy before or after, who created the CIO and moved FDR to put a labor agenda at the top of his priorities. In fact, FDR did not put the Wagner Act in his first 100 days of legislation. On the contrary, he argued against that step and opted for General Hugh Johnson’s brand of “official company unionism” modeled after labor relations in vogue in Italy, being aped and improvised upon in Hitler’s Germany and Salazar’s Portugal.

Wherever FDR visited in his 1932 campaign, he was confronted by large crowds of organized unemployed people. And these Unemployed Councils were challenging if not controlling established AFL city central bodies around the country. William Green and his conservative building trades cronies clearly were not in command of the situation. And by 1935, both John L. Lewis and FDR had gotten that message.

Linking the conditions of the unemployed directly to organizing the unorganized was integral to the TUUL. Several even had their own Unemployed Councils. Not only did the AFL ignore organizing the mass production industries, they ridiculed and criticized any fight to enact government benefits for the millions of unemployed. AFL President William Green declared unemployment insurance was a “hindrance to progress,” “a dole” that “degrades the dignity of the working man” and subsidizes “idleness.” Uniting workers on the job and educating the unemployed, preventing them from being herded into scabbing, was critical for success.

Separately, working inside the AFL, Louis Weinstock, a communist in the Painters Union, organized the AFL Trade Union Committee for Unemployment Insurance and Relief in 1932. The AFL attacked the Committee as a “communist inspired” effort to ruin the American economy.

On March 6, 1930 the first nationwide demonstration against unemployment was called by the TUUL. More than one million protested in scores of US cities including over 100,000 in New York City where more than 25,000 police officers attacked the demonstrators. Mass organizing took place in many cities for unemployment relief and jobs, including the Ford Hunger March, National Hunger March, and the Bonus March of Veterans who demanded immediate payment
of their WW1 bonus due to hunger. Congress summarily rejected their demands, including when they marched in Washington D.C. on July 28, 1932. President Hoover was pleased to call on General Douglas MacArthur to attack demonstrators with tear gas and bayonets, and burn their tent encampment, killing two infants.

On a quest for justice, this growing power continued to build in the years ahead. This was the essence behind the formation of the CIO. All of the important successes of this period were a result of a bottom-up mass movement which turned American labor from an insular, declining, craft-focused niche into a fighting force for the working-class at large.

But the class struggle always continues. In the years ahead, the forces of reaction among business, politicians and inside labor regrouped after the WWII strike wave and ushered in the era of McCarthyism. Left unions in labor were attacked, resulting in their expulsion from the CIO and deadening the lifeblood of struggle from labor. Many of the labor leaders who fought and participated in past struggles were jailed during the hysteria of Red Baiting. Instead of calling out this purge as one of labor’s greatest setbacks – Loomis treats it as a necessity – to him, it was somehow the role of organized labor to join with McCarthyism and destroy their own organizations.

Go Big or Go Nowhere

A snapshot of today’s predicament for the working class is eerily familiar to that of the late 1920’s. As material conditions gradually deteriorate for American workers, anger grows but remains primarily untapped and disorganized. This need for leadership is juxtaposed alongside polls showing growing public support for unions. Weak and ineffective business unions seeking partnerships with corporations cannot deliver the necessary popular program because their ideology ties them to corporate interests. This is our dilemma.

We can break free by understanding our power is not the inside political game or partnering with corporations but one which educates and mobilizes workers on and off the job – independent political action which inspires workers to battle the corporate monster controlling every aspect of life in the US.

This is the foundation of the movement we need to nurture and grow. A look back at the CIO period can help guide the way forward.

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-Ed Grystar has decades of experience organizing and negotiating labor contracts in the healthcare industry. Past President of the Butler County (PA) United Labor Council, AFL-CIO. Current chair of the Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Single Payer Healthcare.