American workers were deeply divided in the 1930s, not least by race and ethnicity. To organize greater swaths of the working class, the Congress of Industrial Organizations realized that solidarity had to make a big leap from theory to practice.

Members of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) gather with signs to picket outside a mill in Greensboro, Georgia, May 1941. (PhotoQuest / Getty Images)

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).

Lizabeth Cohen is Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies and Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of History at Harvard University. She is the author of many books, but most notable for this project is her book Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939, winner of the Bancroft Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer. Making a New Deal is perhaps best known for introducing the idea that the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) bred a “culture of unity” that was key to its success. As Cohen wrote there:

The CIO’s effort to create a culture of unity that brought workers of different sexes, races, nationalities, and locales together was so basic to its organizing philosophy that it permeated all CIO union activities in Chicago on and off the shop floor. Solidarity, of course, was the age-old cry of labor movements, but it had a very particular significance to the industrial unionists trying to organize America’s factories in the 1930s. If any theme prevailed in this historic drive to bring unions to manufacturing workers throughout the vast United States, it was the recognition that workers themselves must change to prevent the kinds of divisions that had doomed similar efforts to organize them in the past.

Our interview covered a lot of ground, including the prehistory of the CIO, the key reasons for its success, and what lessons can be drawn from the CIO moment for the present.

Benjamin Y. Fong

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

Lizabeth Cohen

The Congress of Industrial Organizations was born in the midst of the Great Depression, founded in 1935, but it came after a long struggle of many decades to organize the ordinary workers in manufacturing and mass production plants. There had been efforts, back to the nineteenth century, to organize unskilled workers when most of the unions were really a very different kind of animal that organized skilled workers. So the Knights of Labor and others made efforts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to organize unskilled and semiskilled workers, but all of those efforts seemed to fail.

And the AFL, the American Federation of Labor, which had a very different approach, was never very supportive because it was contrary to its own philosophy to organize the skilled. So it was a long struggle, and it was only in the mid-1930s, when conditions changed, that it became possible to organize the typical rank-and-file worker in steel, meatpacking, rubber, auto, all of the mass production industries that were so crucial to the twentieth-century economy.

Benjamin Y. Fong

Why was the AFL so attached to craft unionism long past the point when conditions had moved beyond it?

Lizabeth Cohen

The American Federation of Labor thought that its own success depended on guarding the gates, on making sure that it was an elect group of workers, and that ordinary workers who were not as skilled as they may have been would not be allowed in. And skilled workers’ market value would depend on the fact that they were the elite of the labor movement. So they were invested in keeping that line of distinction very strong, so that only people who were really in the craft and in the craft union would be able to be members. They felt that would be the best way of safeguarding their own pay, their own benefits, and the fact that they would be privileged in the eyes of employers. And that distinction would be, in fact, the basis of their privilege.

Benjamin Y. Fong

What was the role of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in spurring the great worker upsurges of the mid-1930s?

Lizabeth Cohen

I argue in my book Making a New Deal that the NIRA provision in Section 7(a), which gave workers the right to collective bargaining, was crucial to the emergence of the CIO. It was both inspiring and provided, ironically, a vehicle that employers didn’t expect it to.

The National Industrial Recovery Act provision that gave workers the right to collective bargaining was crucial to the emergence of the CIO. It was both inspiring and provided, ironically, a vehicle that employers didn’t expect it to.

It was inspirational in that here was national legislation saying that it’s okay, in fact it’s a good thing, for working-class people in factories and mass production plants to organize, that they had a right to organize and to collective bargaining. That’s saying, “You know what? The federal government, FDR gives you permission.” So that was important.

But what happened was that employers then set up company unions that mirrored what had been prevalent in many cases in the 1920s. And then workers, inspired by Section 7(a), used those vehicles to elect representatives in those company unions who were much more sympathetic to real unions. And so it gave these workers who were seeking much more than just welfare capitalism, paternalism, and the usual kind of pat on the back from an employer a way of getting representation and a voice with their employers.

I saw this when I studied Chicago, for example. In the steel mills, the employee representation plans that companies set up became dominated by workers who were much more radical than the companies would have liked. And so it became a way for the CIO to then work within that structure and ultimately take it over and push for real unions.

Benjamin Y. Fong

The dream of industrial unionism had been around for decades before the mass production industries were actually organized. What were the most important things that the CIO did to finally make it happen?

Lizabeth Cohen

The CIO’s promise to ordinary workers was, yes, an ideal that had been around for a long time, but it was particularly fueled by some of the welfare capitalist efforts that employers made during the 1920s in response to the big labor organizing drives after World War I. Those 1920s welfare capitalist programs were far from dependable, and they did not deliver much of what was promised. Employers would say, “You’re going to get paid vacations, you’re going to have representation in some kind of an entity in the plant that would be like an employee representation council. You’re going to be able to buy stock in the company.” There were all these promises but, in fact, very few employers actually delivered on them in the 1920s.

Perhaps skilled workers were the most likely workers to get those benefits and take advantage of them. But the promise was out there, and I suggest in my book that this welfare capitalism agenda became a kind of ideal of moral capitalism, and it became an aspiration. Workers said, in the 1930s, “Capitalism can be made to work if our bosses are actually more moral and equitable and deliver on the kinds of promises that would make American capitalism work better for everybody.” That was the attraction, I think, that many workers had, that they didn’t necessarily think they had to overthrow capitalism. They wanted to make it work better and particularly work better for them.

So the CIO stepped in and tried to push for the kinds of things it knew that workers really wanted. They wanted benefits. They wanted some vacation. They wanted seniority in promotions rather than having to win the favor of a foreman and bring all kinds of treats to the boss. They wanted a fairer, more moral workplace. And so the CIO made that one of its major ambitions for workers. And one of the most important things it had to do in building a constituency was take on the kinds of divisions that had undermined workers’ success in the past.

As I’ve mentioned, there was a big effort to organize unions after World War I, and many of the same kinds of industries that would succeed in the late 1930s and during World War II had been the sites of those organizing campaigns after World War I. But they had failed there, and they’d failed for a lot of reasons. That included the fact that the workers were still very divided among themselves. In many cases, they were first-generation immigrants who spoke different languages, lived in distinctive ethnic neighborhoods, and didn’t have a lot to do with people of other ethnicities.

The CIO had to get workers to feel that they were part of a unified working-class strategy. And that meant overcoming those ethnic differences and particularly overcoming those racial divides.

And of course the big divide was race. The employers, in many cases, recruited African Americans to be strikebreakers. They lived in very isolated neighborhoods, many of them recent migrants to the North from the South, and many of the white ethnic working class saw African Americans as really the enemy. So when the CIO sought to be more successful in the 1930s in its organizing campaign, it recognized that it had to overcome those social divides. It had to get workers to feel that they were part of a unified working-class strategy. And that meant overcoming those ethnic differences and particularly overcoming those racial divides. And the union employed a variety of strategies for doing that.

It helped that, by the 1930s, yo’’re dealing with workers who have in fact shared more experiences. Many of them are second generation, not first generation. They speak English. They shared a lot of mass cultural experiences I talk about in the book. They listened to the same radio programs, they went to the movies, they shared music. There were ways in which they had a common culture, and the CIO went out of its way to build on that common culture, and in fact make the CIO part of that common culture.

Benjamin Y. Fong

Some historians see the ’30s as a potentially more revolutionary moment that the CIO constrained and disciplined. What do you think of that perspective?

Lizabeth Cohen

I think it’s very important to recognize that workers can be attracted to a working-class institution like a union without being politically radical and wanting a totally different kind of political system. And I saw, when I investigated and researched working-class life, values, voting, and cultural life in Chicago in the 1930s, that many of these workers really did believe in America. Some of them had served in World War I. They felt that they were loyal Americans, they paid their taxes, to the extent people did at that time. They voted when they could, many of them becoming citizens in the late 1920s and early 1930s and voting for the first time and voting for the Democratic Party in most cases.

They believed in America, and they believed in the promise that America held out, but they felt that the system wasn’t fair. And it is a great irony that employers had touted this welfare capitalism in the 1920s and recognized that workers want fair wages, they want a living wage, they want some benefits, they want a short vacation. They acknowledged all that, and then they didn’t deliver in most cases. And in the cases where they did, by the time the Depression hit in the early 1930s, they reneged on whatever promises they had held out.

The workers believed in America, and they believed in the promise that America held out, but they felt that the system wasn’t fair.

So workers found themselves with, on the one hand, these ideals and these expectations, and on the other hand, a failure on the part of their bosses to actually deliver. And so many of them felt that they were just asking for what was their due. And that has an important lesson for today: you can really appeal to people’s loyalty and patriotism and not hold out the idea that unions are in some way un-American, but in fact make the case that this is very much the American way, to give everybody a fair share.

Benjamin Y. Fong

How did friendly federal, state, and local politicians aid in the CIO’s cause, and just how friendly were they?

Lizabeth Cohen

The federal government was crucial. Roosevelt did appoint a secretary of labor, Frances Perkins, who was very favorable toward labor, and he did speak in terms of the ordinary worker and the need to actually deliver a decent living to that worker. So I think that this support was crucial. And when I did my research on Chicago, I found many letters, for example, that ordinary people wrote to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt complaining when they didn’t feel they were being treated properly. So they really felt that the president was on their side.

And then there were members of Congress, like Senator Robert F. Wagner, who were behind some of the crucial legislation, like the Wagner Act, that really made it possible for the CIO to organize. And there were also Democratic governors who were quite supportive, but I think there were limits, and there often were limits on the local level. And one of the ways we see that limit is with an event like the Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago. The Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) had been able to sign a contract with US Steel, and it was pushing now for what was called Little Steel, smaller steel companies, to join the ranks of SWOC.

It was always a struggle to get government on your side, but the message was that it was actually crucial to have it.

There was a big picnic around Memorial Day in 1937, and when workers tried to march to the plant from this big open field, they were met by the Chicago police. Many of them were hurt, and a few were actually killed. And that was a reminder that the state was not always on their side. There were limits, and local police were often a representation of that limit. And you could also be in a state, of course, where there wasn’t going to be that kind of support. As time went on, the situation would change. At the national level there was legislation, like the Taft-Hartley Act, that would limit the power of unions to use many of the tactics that had been so successful in the 1930s. So it was always a struggle to get government on your side, but the message was that it was actually crucial to have it.

Benjamin Y. Fong

You just mentioned Little Steel, and I want to ask a little bit more about the significance of the failure of the Little Steel strikes for the CIO. Before then, the CIO enjoyed a period of rapid ascendance — victories in rubber, auto, with US Steel. And then Little Steel was the confrontation that really changed the course for the CIO in many ways.

Lizabeth Cohen

It sent the message that this was not going to be a picnic (literally a picnic, in this case), that there would be impediments, and that not all steel companies would come around. Now, there were employers who fought the union in a different way by actually trying to live up to some of that welfare capitalist promise of the 1920s.

A steel company that represented nonunionized welfare capitalism in Chicago was Wisconsin Steel, which was a part of International Harvester. It had a very different trajectory than South Works and Gary Works of US Steel, which were not very far away. Wisconsin Steel had the ability to sustain a company union and fight off the SWOC because it delivered the kind of paternalism that many of the workers wanted. I point out in the book some of the particular conditions that made that attractive. The steel mill was located in a neighborhood called South Deering, very far in the southeast of Chicago, very isolated as a neighborhood. Anybody who worked in that steel mill had to live in that neighborhood. It just wouldn’t be possible to travel the long distance to get there otherwise. And the company basically said to its workers, “We’ll go out of our way to make sure that you are living in a neighborhood that remains white.” That had an important meaning to those workers. So there was a kind of racial component to the company’s ability to keep out the SWOC.

Benjamin Y. Fong

Another debate among historians regards the CIO’s mixed record on race. On the one hand, it explicitly disavowed the racist and exclusionary practices of the AFL and did organize in a more inclusive way, having great success in some areas. But it had a mixed record in others. How would you characterize the CIO’s approach to racial and ethnic division?

Lizabeth Cohen

During the 1930s, the important message was that this is going to be a union made up of people of different ethnicities, different races, and that is the way we’re going to win this struggle. As time goes on, the steel workers, for example, change. They become a lot more conservative as a union, a lot more top-down. And over time it becomes clear that there is a racial divide within the union, and there is a kind of agreement between the union and the companies that while African American workers will still be in the union, they will get the least desirable jobs — often the dirtiest jobs, the lowest-paying jobs, the jobs where there’s less opportunity to move up.

So there gets to be, as you move into the 1950s and 1960s, much more discontent on the part of African American workers about their place in the United Steelworkers of America. But in the 1930s, I would say there’s more jubilance that, “Hey, we’re no longer being viewed as the strikebreakers. We are being recognized as crucial to unionizing success.”

Benjamin Y. Fong

In Making a New Deal, you talk about workers being very much ideological, in that they were not just concerned about bread-and-butter issues, but not necessarily anti-capitalist. Could you expand on that?

Lizabeth Cohen

I think that they valued being represented in collective bargaining, having a say about working conditions, and making sure that seniority was actually delivered on. Otherwise, this was a matter of who won the favor of the foreman for getting the shift that you wanted or being able to take the vacation time you wanted. They wanted fairness. They wanted morality in the workplace. In that way, I would say that they did have demands that were not just bread and butter; they were about the character of the experience of working in the plant. They also wanted a grievance procedure, so that if they had a complaint, it was clear who you would complain to. And if there could not be a solution, that there would be an arbitration process.

Workers did have demands that were not just bread and butter; they were about the character of the experience of working in the plant.

So, again, fairness at the workplace. But they were not Communist. That’s an important point. There were very successful and important Communist organizers, without whom the CIO would not have succeeded. They had a lot of skills. But this was a time when the Communist Party had vowed to join the Popular Front, to join with the Democratic Party, and to work within the system, to fight fascism in that way. And so a Communist leader in the organizational efforts of the unions was not viewed necessarily as promoting a Communist alternative to capitalism, but rather as being a skilled organizer who would help achieve unionization.

Benjamin Y. Fong

To stick with the Communist issue for a moment, how would you describe their overall influence within the CIO?

Lizabeth Cohen

The Communist Party’s members helped with unionization in many of the industrial workplaces in the United States. It was crucial that they had a lot of skill, they were very focused, but they also allied with local leaders. And that is important. You’re not just talking about outsiders coming in. There were sometimes outsiders who came in, but they allied with local Communist Party members and non–Communist Party members. And that is a really important lesson, that you need to have people who speak to the local community, who are viewed as part of their world, not just outsiders.

But there were limits to how much the CIO would tolerate Communist activism. Someone like John L. Lewis was basically anti-Communist, and he would not have tolerated their participation if they had been more strident. They walked a very fine line and contributed tremendously.

Benjamin Y. Fong

One issue that is very pertinent to contemporary unionists and contemporary rank-and-file activists is union democracy. There were obviously differences between the key CIO unions: the United Auto Workers was much more a bottom-up story, whereas steel organizing is more top-down. But, on the whole, the CIO didn’t have a great deal of concern for union democracy. Was this a hindrance in the long term?

Lizabeth Cohen

In the 1930s there was by necessity a lot more attention to recruiting the ordinary worker and helping that worker to feel part of this larger project. Over time many unions, like the Steel Workers, become much more top-down and develop a cadre of leaders who made decisions and then sent them downstream to particular steel mills or factories. There is an effort in the late 1960s and 1970s in many unions, the Mine Workers, the Steel Workers, to protest against this top-down structure, which had grown over time.

In many unions, as in many institutions in our society, leadership just felt that it could do what it wanted.

In the ’30s, there was more buy-in and more participation as the unions were forming because, after all, they had to get those cards signed. The labor relations law required there to be elections, so they needed that rank-and-file buy-in. As time went on, and the unions were more established, they weren’t running those elections all the time, and it became less necessary for survival to do that. And in many unions, as in many institutions in our society, leadership just felt that it could do what it wanted.

Benjamin Y. Fong

What would you see as the beginning of the end for the CIO? 1937 with Little Steel, 1941 with the war escalation, 1949 with the expulsion of the Communists?

Lizabeth Cohen

I think that the political shifts that take place in this country after World War II, with the Cold War and the domestic battle against Communists, is the crucial moment. When unionization becomes part of un-American activity, that is a death knell. Now, unions certainly survived beyond that, but we still see the vestiges of some parts of American society being suspicious of unions and unionization. In the 1930s, there was a tremendous fervor and support for unions. People didn’t view it as an un-American act to join a union, to have a union at a plant. It’s the McCarthy period in the 1950s that really changes the atmosphere. That’s when I think there is a general turn against unions and a feeling that this might not be the American way.

Benjamin Y. Fong

We’re in a moment of great interest in unions and labor organizing. What lessons can we take from the CIO moment for the present?

Lizabeth Cohen

I think there are quite a few lessons we can take from what we’ve discussed of why the CIO was successful in the 1930s. I would argue that the culture of unity is still an important message. Employers always try to divide workers, for example by when they were hired, or by separating out the plants or the warehouses where they work. So I think seeking unity across identity groups, across when people actually joined the company, across the nation so they can’t separate out one locale from another — all of those efforts that made the CIO successful are still important today. And I think it means that people at different levels of skill need to be supportive of each other.

The CIO’s culture of unity is still an important message.

I think the message of moral capitalism is also still a valid one. What unions are seeking is a living wage for people, so that they can afford the continually rising cost of rents and homeownership. It doesn’t mean you are seeking to overthrow the United States of America if you want to join a union. You want to make capitalism work for more Americans. And over the postwar period and into the twenty-first century, we’ve become more and more unequal in income and wealth in this country. So there’s an important argument to be made that American society doesn’t work with these extreme forms of inequality, where the CEO is paid hundreds of times more than the average worker.

I think another lesson is that you need both national organizers and locally known and respected leaders. It has to be a collaboration between those who are known by the community of workers and those who come in with the skills and networks of a national union, so that, if there is a strike, there’s access to sophisticated and knowledgeable organizers who know how to actually win these battles. But it can’t be just national headquarters coming in; they need to meet up with locally recognized and respected leaders.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that the CIO’s success came toward the end of the Depression in the 1930s and into the war. Employers were more motivated to meet them when they felt there were economic prospects that they wanted to make sure they benefited from. Today, the economy is doing pretty well, and employers are hiring and desperate to hire more. They see demand out there for their goods, and they are motivated to pay a better wage and to give better benefits. We’re seeing that. And so we need to take advantage of the economic opportunities, despite all the fears of recession and the warnings that are constantly being made, particularly by the Republicans. We have a really strong economy right now. And I think it’s a very good time for unions to take advantage of that.

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