Workers in the Great Depression were beaten down but desperate for change. When a militant new labor federation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, raised their sense of political possibility, they seized the opportunity and unionized en masse.

Sit-down strikers during General Motors’ Chevrolet autoworkers strike, January 7, 1937. (Tom Watson / NY Daily News Archive via 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).

Jeremy Brecher is a historian and documentarian, and author of many books — his great history of the American labor movement, Strike!, being the most applicable to this project. We covered a lot of ground in this interview, starting with the prehistory of the Congress of Industrial Organizations [CIO] and the reasons for its success. Brecher then offered what he called “the notorious Brecher line” on how we should make sense of the CIO’s role in the tumult of the 1930s. Some historians believe the CIO helped discipline labor unrest; others that it provided the organizational vehicle that the working class desired. Drawing on his mentor, the labor historian David Montgomery, Brecher believes we ought to see working-class aspirations within their particular contexts, and as changing in response to the generation of new political possibilities.

One definite shortcoming Brecher attributes to the CIO is giving in to management prerogative. Workers got better wages, benefits, and grievance procedures, but they didn’t get further control over the conditions of their own work. Despite this, Brecher still believes the CIO to be a model instance of what is possible when workers overcome the issues that divide them and unite in common struggle.

—Benjamin Y. Fong

Benjamin Y. Fong

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

Jeremy Brecher

The CIO really has to be understood as a convergence of two forces. One was a desperate desire for workers to organize themselves, and to be able to act collectively in response to the great miseries of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the tremendous pressures that were put on workers in the workplace, in a context where management and corporations had almost a complete free hand to determine what work life was like for working people. The other part of the CIO as a historical development was the emergence within the established labor movement of a thrust toward new forms of unionism, which would bring all workers in an industry into one union.

What began as a committee within the American Federation of Labor [AFL] got thrown out and purged because of its views and activist behavior. This became the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which was a federation of the unions that supported the idea of industrial unionism.

These two forces came together, interacted, and formed the historical uprising of working people that we often refer to as the CIO. It was a combination of an emerging mass movement and an institutional movement within the trade union structure.

Benjamin Y. Fong

Could you say a little bit more about what that institutional structure of the AFL was like before the CIO?

Jeremy Brecher

The American Federation of Labor goes back to the late nineteenth century. We use the word trade union today to refer to labor unions generally, but this meant specifically craft unions that represented an individual craft like tinsmiths or shoemakers or metalsmiths of various kinds. The examples here show how deeply embedded this model was in a previous era of industry and industrial organization. These crafts were by and large part of the nineteenth century mode of industry, which was transformed in the twentieth century by machine production, the rise of mass production, and the rest of the technological revolutions that led to modern industrial society as we knew it in the twentieth century.

The AFL was very much a federation of separate organizations. In fact, critics used to describe it as the American Separation of Labor because it had such a strong emphasis on what they called craft autonomy, which was the right of each of these craft unions to determine its own politics with very little regard to the rest of the American Federation of Labor or the rest of the working class.

They held that unions were for elite workers who had the power and the dignity of these craft workers, and it was their role to preserve that power.

These unions were extraordinarily dedicated to this model, partially because it did give them some strength in the older industrial forms. Those industries depended on these particular highly skilled craftsmen. They were also, in many cases, fiefdoms for very small leadership cliques, who often stayed in office for a decade, even two or three decades, often fathers and sons being in dominant positions in the same unions and specific ethnic groups also being in control. They felt they benefitted by preserving a closed circle of who was in their union, who was in their craft as organized workers. They were generally quite resistant to the idea that the broader workforce could be part of their union or could be part of unions at all. They held that unions were for elite workers who had the power and the dignity of these craft workers, and it was their role to preserve that power.

Benjamin Y. Fong

As you mentioned, there was a racial and ethnic aspect to the AFL’s attachment to craft organizing. How did they reinforce the existing exclusions and prejudices that the CIO strove to overcome?

Jeremy Brecher

Most of the AFL member unions excluded African Americans. They were often based in specific ethnic groups. They might be Irish, they might be Jewish, they might be, as they said in those days, old stock American — what we would probably now call white Anglo-Saxon Protestant American. And they were also, in most instances, exclusionary toward women. They pursued policies that were based on the idea that the man should be the breadwinner and women shouldn’t be working outside the home. And they used that as an argument for why men should get a so-called “living wage,” a wage that supported a family without the wife working. So not only was it a union exclusion, but it also represented a broader ideological social exclusion.

Benjamin Y. Fong

The Depression hits, and unions are for the most part decimated. Then [Franklin D.] Roosevelt is elected and the National Industrial Recovery Act [NIRA] is passed. What role did these events have in generating new worker upsurges, particularly in 1934?

Jeremy Brecher

The worker upsurge of 1934 represented a confluence of effects, from the nitty-gritty experiences that workers were having in the workplace and in the economy to policies that were coming out of the Roosevelt administration and the New Deal. The union movement and worker organizations as a whole had been largely decimated by the Depression and by the ability of employers to simply drive out any form of collective organization in almost all workplaces. At the same time, because the intensification of work and the cutting of wages was so extreme, you had small, desperate outbreaks in 1933 and 1934 of workers simply unwilling to tolerate the conditions they were facing. And that began to find organized expression in local union formations of various kinds.

There’s a fascinating book edited by Staughton Lynd that portrays, in city after city and industry after industry, local unions that were formed in this 1933–35 period, often industrial in their orientation but very locally based. At the same time there was a desperate national situation that the Roosevelt administration tried pretty experimentally to respond to. And one of the first major initiatives was the NIRA, or the National Industrial Recovery Act. Essentially what it did was to suspend the antitrust laws so that employers in an industry could fix prices and conditions and establish an industrial code. This is because there was a race to the bottom, in which there was competitive wage cutting among the employers. Eventually this reached the point where it was devastating for the employers as well for the workers.

The National Recovery Administration allowed them to fix prices, hours of labor, and other conditions. The empowerment of large capital by the NIRA was partially countered by (or at least they wanted to create the impression that it was countered by) also allowing workers to organize. The NIRA included a section that ostensibly guaranteed the rights of workers to organize, made it illegal for employers to fire workers simply for joining a union, and gave workers other kinds of protections like that.

The core attraction of the CIO unions was that workers wanted collective power, and they understood they needed to have some kind of self-organization for that.

In practice, it was very poorly enforced. But the idea that workers had rights, including rights to organize and rights to act on the job without the employer being able just to fire them, created first of all a sense that, “Gee, maybe we do have the right to organize. Maybe we do have the right to concerted action, and they can’t just step on us the way they’ve been stepping on us.” Second, it created a situation where unions or organizing bodies were created and many of them on an industrial basis. And tens of thousands of workers poured into those believing that they would be protected when they joined, and that they would have the collective strength to be able to make some improvement in their conditions. So all of those factors come together.

A particular piece of it is that there was one main industrial union in the AFL, and that was the United Mine Workers, which represented hundreds of thousands of coal miners. And the United Mine Workers, led by John L. Lewis, immediately perceived the psychological and political impact of the National Recovery Administration. And they sent organizers into the field saying, “The president wants you to join a union,” without noting that they meant it was the president of the United Mine Workers, not the president of the United States. Since Roosevelt was immensely popular in working-class communities, coal miners in particular poured into the union, in the context of the National Recovery Administration.

Benjamin Y. Fong

How did the CIO finally make good on the dream of industrial unionism?

Jeremy Brecher

Well, the first thing that has to be recognized about this is that workers wanted unions. And from all their previous experience, either most workers were excluded from the craft unions, or the craft unions were extremely weak in confronting modern industry on behalf of anybody except tiny, residual, skilled craft groups that were able to hold onto some power within modern industry. But most workers were excluded from craft unions because they weren’t craft workers. In any event, it was not a vehicle for them to realize power because their power had to be based on the hundreds of thousands of employees facing gigantic corporations like General Motors and US Steel coming together as a mass force in order to have the power to actually shut down and have an impact on those large modern industries.

So the core attraction of the CIO unions was that workers wanted collective power, and they understood they needed to have some kind of self-organization for that. And the CIO at that critical time, when that desire was very strong, came forward and essentially created organizing committees: the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, the Rubber Workers Organizing Committee, and so on. They said, “We will be the proto-union for you folks in this whole industry. Just sign up and then you’ll be organized in a way that you can be a collective force against your employer.”

Benjamin Y. Fong

Can you talk about the importance of the sit-down tactic to the CIO’s initial success?

Jeremy Brecher

Sit-down strikes as a tactic have a very long history. In fact, there is evidence that there were sit-down strikes on the pyramids in Ancient Egypt. Sit-downs emerged as a tactic at many different points in American labor history, and other places around the world. In the context of the early 1930s, the birth of the sit-down as a tactic was pretty clearly in Akron, Ohio, in the rubber industry. There is a story, which was collected at the time by a labor journalist named Louis Adamic, that it had actually started at a baseball game, where the players objected to the umpire and said his calls were unfair. They sat down until they got a new umpire. And then a few weeks later, there was a grievance in one of the rubber plants, and they said, “Well, why don’t we sit down just like we did on the baseball field?” And thus the Akron sit-downs were born.

They were not initially a trade union tactic. They were rather something that was used by work groups to gain some immediate power vis-à-vis their employer. It would often involve a group of ten or twenty workers if they had a grievance. It was often over the question of setting piece rates. They would just sit down, and then the managers would have to come down and bargain with them. And it turned out to be a very powerful tool, specifically in the rubber plants, because they were highly, highly integrated in their production. If you closed one department for an hour, you could shut down a whole factory with fifteen thousand to twenty thousand workers. And this is exactly what happened.

It became a tradition that if one group of workers had a sit down, all the other workers in adjoining parts of the plant would sit down, and they would stop a whole section of the plant. They developed a capacity for collective action through their experience in using this. And it eventually was adopted in Akron as a tactic. And in fact, this is essentially what forced the rubber companies to recognize the CIO and accept trade unionism in their plants.

There were student sit-down strikes, there were gravedigger sit-down strikes, and of course there was a huge sit-down strike first in Flint, and then also in Detroit and throughout the auto industry.

However, something that’s not so well known is that the CIO, once they got union recognition, had a strong policy against the sit-down strike. They were actually deliberately breaking up sit-down strikes, telling workers that they didn’t have any right to hold sit-downs, and eventually they kind of suppressed the sit-down strike in the industries that they controlled, like rubber and later on like auto and steel. But they were never really able to suppress them permanently, and they constantly reemerged in the form of wildcat strikes throughout the subsequent history of the American labor movement, right down to today.

After Akron, other people began seeing that this was happening, and they said, “Hey, why don’t we try to do that.” And sit-down strikes spread massively. By 1936, there were literally hundreds of thousands of workers in hundreds of companies having sit-down strikes in the most unbelievably varied forms. There were student sit-down strikes, there were gravedigger sit-down strikes, and of course there was a huge sit-down strike first in Flint, and then also in Detroit and throughout the auto industry, which eventually forced General Motors to recognize the United Auto Workers. That in turn had a huge impact on US Steel, which agreed to recognize the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, soon to be the United Steelworkers, as a better alternative to going through the trials of having to combat a sit-down strike.

Benjamin Y. Fong

What was the reaction to this wave of sit-downs like?

Jeremy Brecher

Employers, media, most government officials, and a huge proportion of the clergy were against unionism in general and didn’t like strikes at all. The propertied classes were tremendously upset about the sit-down strikes and saw it as the beginning of a seizure of private property and industry and lord knows where it would all end.

The reality was that sit-downs were extremely peaceful, and that one of their strengths was that they were a way to avoid picket-line violence. Typically in that era, some group would just be hired by a local government or by employers, and they would go and start fights on the picket line, creating a violent situation. And then that would be used by the media to say, “Oh, this is terrible. This is a communist revolution,” and so on. And it was much, much harder to do that with the sit-down strikes. So you would have to find some concrete evidence that the broader public turned against the sit-down strike.

It’s worth mentioning here that as American labor law developed, and as we developed the National Labor Relations Act, the question of whether the protections that were given to workers and unions in the newly emerging labor law were constitutional was very much contested. And there was a great shift in Supreme Court opinion on this in which the decision was made that yes, the protections given by the National Labor Relations Act of workers and of unions were constitutional, and they did not violate the fundamental property rights of employers.

That radical shift in court opinion was made while the large auto plants in Michigan were being occupied by the sit-down strikers. The Supreme Court also, in another decision, ruled the sit-down strikes illegal, but they legalized more orderly and conventional types of union organization. Was it because the plants were being occupied by workers, and they had to do something to have a legitimate channel in order to prevent this terrible threatening activity? You’d have to be able to read the minds of the justices. But to make a sudden change in a fundamental legal principle like that, you need some kind of explanation that indicated that they had something in their minds that hadn’t been there before.

Benjamin Y. Fong

You mentioned the way that the CIO reined in the sit-downs. Did they constrain a more revolutionary moment, or were they right to try to trade in the disruption for stable, collective bargaining?

Jeremy Brecher

Well, I think there’s truth in both views and that both views are oversimplified. Let me start by saying that there were things that the CIO contributed that were tremendously important to making that upsurge happen. One was the idea of inclusive unions and the fact that they organized both black and white workers. In many cases they organized women workers, and they were very multiethnic in their approach. They involved workers across lines of different classes of unskilled, skilled, different crafts, and so on. they played a tremendous role in people being able to overcome those barriers that had been so important in keeping workers separate and weak. Of course, there’s no way to tell whether that could have happened without the role of the institutional CIO.

There’s no question that by creating a form in which people could pour in, and then say, “Yes, we are all together in this organization,” they played a tremendous role in making this upsurge happen. A second thing is that the CIO created an institutional form that had experience and that employers could see themselves negotiating with. It did play a role in reducing the view of employers that the only way to deal with this was violence and repression.

The CIO created an institutional form that had experience and that employers could see themselves negotiating with.

There’s no question that there was self-organization, city by city, as documented by Staughton Lynd and his colleagues in the early years of the 1930s, and that these were often much more inclusive than previous forms of unionism. And they were very democratic, self-controlled organizations. But they had one big weakness: they had great difficulty connecting and organizing themselves beyond the local context.

In High Point, North Carolina, for instance, there was a strike of all of the textile workers, and they closed down many mills that were controlled by many different employers. Then they created the Industrial Workers’ Association of High Point, which had committees in each of the different workplaces, but it functioned as a common union throughout the industry. However, they did not find a way to connect with other workers in their industry or in their same companies around the country. Their bargaining power was only with reference to the local employer, not to the industry as a whole. Again, one of the things the CIO contributed was a way for workers to come together nationally in a whole industry, and then, if employers became willing, they could bargain in a whole industry. That represented a big change.

Benjamin Y. Fong

So did the CIO ultimately deliver what the working class at the time was hoping for?

Jeremy Brecher

Speculation about what workers really think is always somewhat questionable, and what workers want is not always what it may appear on the surface. My great mentor is a labor historian, David Montgomery, who once said, “What workers want is a function of what they think they can get.” Some say, “Oh, they only wanted to have better working conditions, or they only wanted to have higher wages, or they wanted a communist revolution, or they wanted the guy who’s bossing them on the line to get off their back.” All of those things have to be contextualized in the terms of what people thought were the real possibilities. If the possibilities changed, then people’s definition of what they wanted would often change as well.

Frederick Douglass, who had been a slave and became a great antislavery abolitionist leader, said something to the effect of, “The man who has a cruel master wants a kind master. The man who has a kind master wants no master at all.” The point is that what workers want is in large part a function of what they think they can get.

The focus of the CIO was on negotiating contracts that would provide higher wages, negotiated hours of wages, and a grievance system that would provide some kind of fairness so that people couldn’t be fired or disciplined without an independent decider, other than just the boss who’s on their case and doesn’t like them. Another piece of this, which did not arise immediately but developed over time, was seniority systems, so that hiring and layoffs and job advancement would be determined by a seniority system, which again was primarily a way of countering favoritism. These are the kinds of things that were in the early CIO contracts.

If a historian says that they didn’t include Red Revolution because the workers weren’t making Red Revolution a goal, that historian has strong reasons for saying so, and I wouldn’t question that judgment. But in my studies of the CIO, a very major motivation of workers was to get some degree of direct control over the conditions of work — not necessarily to take over and become the owners of the factory, or to have the factory taken over by the government and run as a socialist enterprise, but they did want some direct counterpower on the shop floor in the workplace.

And the CIO unions, by and large, were committed to the idea of what came to be known as management’s right to manage. In fact, John L. Lewis once said, “A CIO contract is all a company needs to protect itself against sit-down strikes, lie-down strikes, or any other kind of strike.” So he was actively marketing the CIO to employers as a vehicle for controlling rank-and-file direct action around working conditions on the job. And there are extensive accounts, particularly in the auto industry, of how the United Auto Workers sent in what were described as strong-armed men into the plants to stop the workers from striking around immediate, on-the-job conditions and grievances.

So from that point of view, the idea that all the workers wanted was what was in the CIO contracts, and that they didn’t have other objectives that had to do with wresting some degree of control over production for themselves, doesn’t hold up. I would say that the evidence that they did have such objectives in particular situations, in particular groups of workers, is very strong.

Benjamin Y. Fong

How did the communists play into the CIO moment?

Jeremy Brecher

This is an area in which the ideological predispositions of the historians, whatever they may be (and they’re spread across the spectrum), are perhaps particularly difficult to lay aside. I would include myself in that. My view of this is partially shaped by what I think about communism, Bolshevism, the spontaneity of the masses, and all those things. Labor historians who are committed to the class struggle are bound to have a not fully detached view of these questions. Having said that, I’ll do my best.

First of all, in the period before the rise of the CIO, the Communist Party organized communist unions, they had their own federation, the Trade Union Unity League, which then became the Trade Union Education League. It had tiny cells in many companies and many industries. And when the industrial unionism of the CIO came on the scene, there were very, very few internal organized groups within most of those companies, and most of those industries. So rank-and-file communists inside the factories were in a critical position to begin organizing and to draw other workers in. There’s lots of evidence that rank-and-file communists functioned very much on their own, as grassroots organizers, in ways that were not a product or instigated by communist leadership, either the leadership within their unions or the national leadership of the Communist Party.

Once it was run, the sit-down strikes and the wildcat strikes should stop, and they should be replaced by what we would today call orderly collective bargaining.

But the Communist Party made building the organization of the CIO a central objective in its strategy, and in a complimentary way, John L. Lewis put a very significant number of communists on the CIO payroll, and said, “Just go out and organize.” In a sort of cannon fodder way, not as an organized political force, but as hired organizers for the CIO, communists also played a role as activist militants. However, Lewis and the top CIO brass were very aware of the potential political threat that this caused and were very concerned to keep communist influence under control. There’s a famous quote when Lewis was confronted about having had all these communists organizing the CIO, and he said, “When you go hunting, who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?” In addition to the lovely metaphor calling communists dogs, which I’m sure was probably not unintentional, it was also a highly contemptuous statement that he was in control, and that people didn’t need to worry about this. And in fact, those organizers were largely fired within a fairly short period of time.

Communists also had their own bastions within some of the unions. The one that I’ve studied most deeply was the Mine, Mill and Smelter workers, where they had major leadership roles and major organizing power, though not nearly as much at a grassroots level. In that union, there were actually rank-and-file movements against the communist domination of the movement. You would not describe these as ideologically right-wing, as they would have been people who saw themselves as mainstream CIO and who were puzzled by why Lewis and his associates allowed their union to be dominated by a communist clique. They would go to Lewis’s top associates and say, “Why do we have these communists dominating our union?” And the answer was, “We know what the situation is. You’re good boys, we like you, but this isn’t the time to move. We have it under control. Just go back home. We’ll take care of it.”

You can make various interpretations of that. But I would say that they felt that they had what Lenin called useful idiots on their hands. I’m not saying the communists were useful idiots, but I think Lewis’s view was that the communists were useful idiots, and that he had them under control. And of course in the aftermath, that proved true. Lewis and the CIO marginalized the communists to a greater and greater extent, and then eventually purged them.

But the communists were definitely activists, militant organizers. The little communist group in the Flint sit-down strike played a significant role in the strike. The leadership within the United Auto Workers included a significant communist leadership, which became part of many splits and disputes. But there’s no question that in the period of the sit-down strikes for union recognition they played an active and militant role. That was also in line with CIO politics and policy, that the sit-down strike was a useful tool for winning union recognition. Once it was run, the sit-down strikes and the wildcat strikes should stop, and they should be replaced by what we would today call orderly collective bargaining. And the Communist Party in the shops and in the United Auto Workers in particular, supported that, advocated for it, and participated in breaking up sit-down strikes. This is a case where it’s not so simple.

I don’t know of any evidence that supports the idea that workers as a whole had revolutionary aspirations, and that if the communists had only said, “Oh, this sit-down strike is the beginning of a revolution, and you should carry it forward and do all the things as if we were in a revolutionary situation.” Well, that’s not where things were really at, and it’s not where the workers were really at. The idea that somehow the failure of the communists was in not making revolutionary propaganda in the shops is not very attached to reality, I would say.

Benjamin Y. Fong

What would you say are the most important lessons to draw from the CIO moment?

Jeremy Brecher

The first thing I would say that should be learned from the CIO moment is simply that when workers join together, they have the power to oppose the most powerful forces that confront them and to win very significant concessions. A related lesson is that people who are divided and, as we say today, in silos, can come together, bridge those divides, move out of those silos, and form a common organization and a common struggle on a massive scale, enough to make historical change in the structure of the society as well as in the daily lives of working people.

When workers join together, they have the power to oppose the most powerful forces that confront them, and to win very significant concessions.

So this is something that is not an impossible dream, it’s not a fantasy; it’s a historical reality. The CIO moment was perhaps the most dramatic example of this. But as I try to show in my book, Strike!, there are scores and scores of other cases, on various scales, that show the same reality. And I think that’s an important thing. We are constantly told that ordinary people can’t get any control of their lives, that it’s just a silly fantasy that they can, that they can’t get together with people who, at the moment, they’re at odds with, and that they’ll never be able to develop the powers they need to do anything about the conditions they face. The CIO experience disproves all that.

I’d also stress the importance of overcoming horrible divisions, especially racial divisions, which, as bad as they are today, were worse in the period that the CIO developed. They involved much more direct violence, violence between white and black workers in the shop. And yet they were able to overcome that, not to create a racial utopia, but to draw on the fact that they could make people recognize, “You know what? We are going to have nothing but nightmares unless we get together to fight together.” And even people who say, “Well, I don’t really like that other kind of people,” recognized that they had to get together and work together. So I think that’s another big lesson.

I think another lesson has to do with a longer-term outcome of the CIO and the mass industrial union struggles, which is that some of the key things that people were struggling for and that they wanted, they didn’t get. And they didn’t even find their unions fighting for them. I’m thinking specifically about control of the speed of the line. There’s a twofold lesson here. One is the negative lesson that the people who are leading organizations you are part of may not have the same interests that you do. And that’s just a fact that you have to recognize. Just as you have to organize against the bosses, there are times when you have to organize against the leaders of your own organizations. It doesn’t mean you have to overthrow them. Sometimes you do, but other times you just need to create a force to say, “Hey, you know what? We’d be better if we went along with the people that you’re supposed to be representing.” That would be a victory in many cases.

But the compliment to that is that people who face the same conditions and face the same employer have to take considerable responsibility and considerable control for their own well-being. And the union, if they’re part of a union, can be an important part of that. But they also need to be an independent force that’s able to speak up to the union when it’s not adequately representing them and fulfilling their needs.

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