Labor’s Giant Step

Lessons for today from yesterday’s wins

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Labor’s Giant Step: Twenty Years of the CIO must go to the top of any labor activist’s reading list. It details the “independent life” of the militant union federation, Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), from its founding in 1935 to its taming and merger with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1955. This history tells stirring tales of the audacity, fearlessness and creativity of rank-and-file workers at a time when socialist and communist radicals were a leading force, and union organizing was at its peak in the U.S.

Art Preis, himself a union militant and Trotskyist (supporter of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky), recounts the story’s beginning in the midst of the Great Depression, when millions of workers and their families were hungry and homeless. Most laborers were locked out of the skilled craft-based unions of the conservative AFL. In order to win unionization and better lives, they fought to build the new, mass, industrial unions of the CIO, such as the United Auto Workers, in which all those employed in an industry were united in one powerful union.

Rise of industrial unionism. Educated, agitated and organized by radicals, laboring people mounted mass general strikes in Minneapolis, San Francisco and Toledo, Ohio. With new tactics like getting unemployed workers to join the picket lines, massive assistance from the women of their “ladies auxiliaries,” and reaching out for widespread community involvement, they won victories that shook the ruling class to its core — and led to the formation of the CIO.

Workers joined the new organization in droves. They struck in Flint, Michigan, Oakland, California, and Detroit. They went out in the South, the coal mines of Virginia and Kentucky, and so many other places. They defied court injunctions against mass picketing. Often they fought pitched battles with police, National Guard and company security thugs shooting to kill. They invented sit-down strikes, where workers occupied plants to keep out scabs; “flying squads” of roving mass pickets; and secondary boycotts against companies doing business with those being struck.

Preis pulls no punches. Those who deserve scorn get it. He takes apart the liberal myth that Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Truman were “friends of labor,” documenting how both freely broke strikes to protect excessive profits for bosses and to build the anti-Communist witch hunt. He shows how top labor officials undermined their members’ efforts at economic justice to placate the politicians and the employers they fronted for, details that help us recognize such problems today.

Deadly attacks: Taft-Hartley and McCarthyism. Radical leadership and the grit of frontline workers gave the movement clout up to the post-World War II McCarthy era. But throughout the war years (1941–45 for the U.S.), big business strategized, passed anti-labor legislation, and red-baited workers and their militant leaders. Members of the Stalinist Communist Party were prominent in the labor movement. But even though they supported Roosevelt’s and then Truman’s every attack on workers during and after the war, they were singled out along with Trotskyist radicals as persona non grata.

The infamous Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, passed by Republicans with strong support from Democrats, prohibited all the most successful tactics: sit-down strikes, secondary boycotts, mass picketing, wildcat strikes, solidarity or political strikes, and closed shops. It gave a green light to so-called “right-to-work laws” that ban union shops except when allowed by employers. These swept the South and are now in force in more than half the states. The law also forced union officials to sign anti-Communist pledges. Most unions expelled radicals.

Now, after 70 years of declining unionization, stagnant wages and lost benefits, workers are fed up and fighting. Democratic politicians continue to sell out progressive labor legislation, giving new impetus to radical organizing. The time is ripe for labor’s next giant step.

Send feedback to Patrick Burns, labor activist and retired union carpenter, at

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