Fragile Juggernaut

These questions of labor and democracy are pertinent in 2024. They are questions about which there has been too-little serious investigation in over a generation, over which interval the stories of labor in the New Deal have tended to congeal into celebratory hagiographies. But in light of the challenges we confront in the present, we think it an appropriate opportunity to invite public participation in the ongoing process of rethinking and rediscovery that gives permanent life to the study of the past. “The depository of historical knowledge,” as the philosopher Walter Benjamin once observed, is “the struggling, oppressed class itself.”

What was the CIO?

Detail of mural painted by Ben Shahn, Hightstown, NJ

This essay introduces a collective project of inquiry into the history of the US workers’ movement, taking the form of a Haymarket Originals podcast, Fragile Juggernaut, and an accompanying newsletter series. What is there to learn from the history of industrial workers’ struggles in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s? This is the question taken on across twenty or so episodes by the six hosts of the podcast: Tim Barker, Andrew Elrod, Ben Mabie, Alex Press, Emma Teitelman, and Gabriel Winant—we like to call ourselves the Fragile Juggernaut Organizing Committee. Fragile Juggernaut will present the odyssey of American labor as a historical narrative, but also as a source of inspiration and example, a litany of strategic innovations and acts of courage and compromise, and a site of interpretive and political disagreement. How can we appropriate their triumphs and defeats as lessons for our moment?

After decades of defeat, workers are on the move again. Many of those interested today in a revived labor movement know that unions once exercised real sway over the national economy and politics in the US. And the distant memory of how the labor movement was built holds great symbolic power: as thousands of union organizers have asked in meetings, how did they do it in the 1930s? The United Auto Workers named and conceptualized their recent, triumphant “Stand-Up Strike” in explicit homage to their union’s breakthrough sitdown strikes of 1936–1937. Beyond the ranks of organized labor, politicians from every tendency speak reverently of a vague midcentury idyll in which (to quote Joe Biden) “unions built the middle class”—specifically in manufacturing, “the sector that built the middle class.”

But in the age of hedge funds and Amazon drones, few interested in labor’s cause are familiar with the facts of how workers actually organized themselves in the era of manufacturing and landline telephones (that’s if you were lucky; in 1936, two American households out of three had no phone at home). Even fewer recognize just how much disruption, and internal struggle within the existing labor hierarchy, it took to organize this power—or the transgressions involved.

That history is the subject of a new project—a podcast series and newsletter under the title of Fragile Juggernaut, produced in conjunction with Haymarket Books—that explores the history of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or the CIO. At a moment when interest in the possibilities of unions is once again on the minds of the young and in the pages of the news media, it is time to debate the legacy of the national union federation that challenged the labor movement to transform itself into a behemoth capable of shaking the halls of Washington and Wall Street. How and why have US workers related their workplace organization to their political strategy? How have the factors of race, ethnicity, skill, gender, nationality, and religion contributed to workers’ division and their unity? When economic inequality and racism have grown into violence, what role have unions played in relation to the causes of disorder? How have workers reconciled their broadly shared need for collective action on a mass scale—the discipline and bureaucracy required for collective bargaining—with their varying levels of militancy and solidarity across the workforce? How have activist groups contributed to, or undermined, the broader project of working-class organization? What has shaped the relation of union leadership to rank and file in American labor history?

These questions of labor and democracy are pertinent in 2024. They are questions about which there has been too little serious investigation in over a generation, over which interval the stories of labor in the New Deal have tended to congeal into celebratory hagiographies. But in light of the challenges we confront in the present, we think it an appropriate opportunity to invite public participation in the ongoing process of rethinking and rediscovery that gives permanent life to the study of the past. “The depository of historical knowledge,” as the philosopher Walter Benjamin once observed, is “the struggling, oppressed class itself.”

The Era of the CIO

The era when industrial workers became powerful in the US lasted about two decades, from 1935 to 1955—or from the Great Depression to the Korean War. In 1935, a group of national unions formed the Committee for Industrial Organization within the existing hierarchy of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to embrace the controversial idea of “industrial unionism”—representing all workers regardless of occupation, race, gender, contractor or employee, at all the companies within certain industrial boundaries. In 1937, the AFL expelled these unions, which renamed themselves the Congress of Industrial Organizations. For the next eighteen years, through World War II and the onset of the cold war, the CIO fought for industrial unionism as an alternative labor movement.

In the process, the number of workers who were members of labor unions exploded nearly sixfold, from 2.8 million in 1933 to 16.4 million in 1953. What organized and propelled this historic phenomenon of membership growth was competition within organized labor instigated by the CIO’s success. While its initial victories in auto, rubber, and steel signaled the starting gun, with the CIO organizing some two million new workers and doubling its size by the peak of World War II, the federation never represented more than half of union members. Rather, it was in response to the CIO’s challenge that the AFL finally undertook the kind of organizing its leaders had resisted throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, absorbing nearly four million members in the same period.

That challenge is the subject of the new Fragile Juggernaut series. Through its open espousal of class conflict, its research and communications about the most powerful owners and managers of the American economic oligarchy, and its power to force these executives and stockholders to the bargaining table, the CIO established the foundations for the modern labor movement. The organizing successes industrial unions won where established unions had failed before created the very features of organized labor we now take for granted, for better and for worse: the Labor Board representation election, the card-check agreement, the dues-checkoff, the grievance procedure, the Political Action Committee (PAC), health and retirement benefits, cost-of-living adjustments, and more. This creation, traversing periods often distinguished in American history—the Great Depression, the New Deal, World War II, the onset of the cold war, and the Korean War—can and should be recognized by the common element of an independent alternative within the labor movement. This fact touched all facets of American life. The structure of the economy changed, along with the pattern of American politics; but so did the presence of working-class people and their power in culture and society more generally, on the radio and in the movies, and in the routines of everyday life. It was the age of the CIO.

How the CIO Came to Be

The impetus to this incredible union growth was the realization, slow and then sudden, that no amount of election horse-racing or legislative speculation would yield real, meaningful material changes in the lives of working people.

This recognition became widespread early on during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. While FDR’s influence is remembered as a key component of the birth of the modern labor movement, this masks a profound transformation—since he did not campaign as a champion of collective bargaining. In fact, not one of his 1932 campaign speeches mentioned organizing rights. Instead, the centerpiece of the early New Deal, the National Recovery Administration, was a sop to business: suspending the antitrust laws to allow corporations to restore profitability on their terms. For this gargantuan concession, the President and his allies in Congress offered formal, token participation to workers’ representatives in the formulation of the Recovery Administration’s new “codes of fair competition.” It did not take long for the public to see that White House promises of making the business system fairer had resulted instead in further entrenching powerful business groups. Only when White House promises began to ring empty did many workers—then as today—begin to turn toward the kinds of collective self-help, joining unions and taking action in picket lines and strikes, that would demonstrate the possibility of a rebirth of the labor movement.

But popular enthusiasm for labor unions was only one element in the formula that produced the CIO. The catalyst was a decision among radicals—communists primarily, but also socialists, Trotskyists, syndicalists—to direct their disappointment in the two-party system into the concrete task of defending existing unions and participating in their fumbling attempts to grow. In the era of Al Capone’s mob-dominated laundry unions, and in light of the Republican Party-aligned Building and Construction Trades, the problems with organized labor as a transformative agent were commonly understood. But despite these challenges, the radicalism of the era coalesced around a ubiquitous decision: while they might disagree on who or how, activists agreed that organized labor would be the instrument of transformation. Making this revolution required, at a minimum, building up the unions in order to take leadership within them.

These twin forces of popular enthusiasm and radical commitment crested in 1934, well after the famed One Hundred Days of the early New Deal. Throughout 1934, the revolt from below became impossible to ignore, as major cities erupted into armed conflict: San Francisco, Minneapolis, Toledo, Kenosha, and across the textile mill towns of the Southern Piedmont. The most dramatic strikes occurred where the local business elite was recalcitrantly anti-union. Toledo, Ohio, was more or less a maquiladora town, churning out low-wage auto parts to be assembled in Cleveland or Detroit. Minneapolis was still run by the open shop Citizens’ Alliance. On the San Francisco waterfront, unlike in other West Coast ports, longshoremen could only access employment through the shape-up, which they called “the slave market.” In each of these cities, small radical cells committed to engage in and expand local union contract fights into the kinds of community-wide struggles that brought the first signs that another labor movement was coming into existence.

Though often poor, and always overworked, the workers who organized these strikes and membership drives were not only concerned with wages or hours. They revolved around authoritarianism at work, whether that was concretized by the abuse of a flesh-and-blood manager or impersonal pressures of the speed-up. The forms that democracy on the job would take varied by jobsite and were hardly uniform; often, this kind of collective control over the work process would not even be recorded by the formal collective bargaining agreement. What the strikes accomplished exceeded the contract, and maybe their biggest conquest was not a concession from employers but a qualitative transformation among the participating workers themselves: a new “social warrant” that connected quotidian grievances to a larger struggle for self-emancipation. The newspapers, the workers, and even their families recorded how “different” the participants were, how they had been transformed by these strikes: “The old order of things shall never come back to us,” one longshoreman said. “We are all brothers now.”

The movement would quickly leap across frontiers guarded by union jurisdiction, racial segregation and ethnic chauvinism, and steel bayonets: one participant and eventual chronicler, Art Preis, named it “labor’s giant step.” It seemed, indeed, to burst forth everywhere from the working-class worlds of young second-generation Americans—street gangs, social clubs, movie theaters. They were citizens now—whether their parents had escaped from Alabama or Russia; anglophone; modern. There would be no ignoring them.

The Structural Opportunity

While American capitalism had provided the tools for rising productivity, mass production, and economic growth, the business world created after the Civil War had come to treat labor as any other commodity. Unguided by social considerations, left to the uncoordinated profit-seeking of entrepreneurs and financiers, new industries such as railroads, steel, electrical devices, automobiles, meatpacking, garments, and coal were prone to boom-and-bust cycles: prices would rise above wages until markets evaporated, investment values collapsed with profitability squeezes, and unemployment rapidly increased. These cycles punctuated the Gilded Age, leading to the creation of the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission in 1913 and 1914. But neither reform was capable of stabilizing the internal volatility of the capitalist system, which became intolerably evident with the financial crisis of 1929 and the Great Depression.

As today, one solution to economic volatility discussed throughout the decade before the crash was the expansion of the domestic market—mass consumption. But as this would require increasing workers’ share of the sales dollar, raising wages, it was not a solution with an organized political constituency behind it. Likewise, provision of housing, healthcare, and education for a working-class public required pooling resources and building new institutions, from state unemployment insurance agencies to cooperatively owned and managed multifamily housing. Public or private agencies might be made to do this, and could be aided by subsidies to do so, but these too would require new organized political constituencies to make the demands for raising taxes or compelling adaptation of the business system to things like Blue Cross, the Social Security Administration, or multi-firm master contracts. Stabilizing and humanizing the US business system—a goal even some farsighted capitalists understood to be crucial—therefore was impossible for existing political leaders to undertake on their own. What they required was increasing workers’ political and economic power. Naturally, most employers could only stand to acknowledge this inconvenient, irresistible reality briefly if at all. Even an accommodation that would benefit the capitalist system as a whole would have to be forced upon them.

The CIO and Its Dilemmas

By organizing two million new workers in the auto, steel, rubber, and electrical industries from 1935 to 1937, the CIO built this power to defend the reforms we associate with the New Deal. The epochal fulfillment of this task came in Roosevelt’s reelection in 1936, a presidential campaign marked by unprecedented class language. Accepting the party’s nomination in Atlantic City in June 1936, six months into the new CIO organizing drive, the White House incumbent denounced the “royalists of the economic order” who “have maintained that economic slavery was nobody’s business.” The language could have just as easily been heard in the mass meetings the new CIO leaders had been staging across the industrial heartland of the Midwest, and was part of the general movement for social transformation that saw Roosevelt’s landslide victory, with 523 electoral college votes, winning every state but Maine and Vermont.

Yet establishing a new mass union insurgency was only a precondition for transforming American capitalism or, as many partisans urged, the establishment of an American socialist republic. In 1937, a recession began in what the President and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes called a “strike of capital.” Industrial production fell by one third. The political structures and business leaders whose intransigence had pushed the Roosevelt Democrats to the left during the election remained in positions of power; within the first weeks of the second term, the New Dealers quickly turned their sights on the bastion of property and privilege, the Supreme Court—whipping a Senate majority to pass legislation expanding the number of seats on the judicial body. But in the 1938 midterms, the President’s project of realigning the Southern Democratic Party away from its segregationist ruling class stalled, and the New Deal majorities eroded in the 1939–1940 Congress.

The course of Roosevelt’s second term—four of the CIO’s first six years—revealed the profound challenges and prolonged struggle that would be necessary to make good on industrial unionism’s promise to refashion American society around the economic betterment and social dignity of labor. It also revealed the contradictory pressures in the Popular Front coalition between labor and liberals; as they pressed closer to FDR and CIO chief John L. Lewis, the radicals who had anchored the movement’s deep reach in democratic shop floor committees, caucuses, and newspapers dissolved some of their own social base—hoping to cast themselves as sans-culottes of this Jacobin Second New Deal, tribunes of a now popular fight for anti-fascist Social Democracy. This Popular Front with liberals and political elites came at  a cost to their own ability to organize a rank-and-file current of the movement on the job.  “A year before Pearl Harbor,” Nelson Lichtenstein has written, “the CIO remained but a tentative and incomplete structure.” Dues-paying membership bottomed out at 1.35 million. The CIO unions laid off organizers and canceled organizing drives.

What happened? Unemployment from the recession caused workers’ dues to evaporate. There was also middle-class backlash against the increasing militancy, especially the sit-down strike—a tactic that GM executive Alfred Sloan called “a dress rehearsal for Sovietizing the entire country.” Even the liberals in the Roosevelt Administration shared this revulsion. With these setbacks came new doubts about the movement’s strategic course, which turned to factional conflicts that festered for years. Meanwhile, the CIO challenge to the AFL had reinvigorated the older federation. The AFL had recovered its pre-split membership by 1938, and grew by almost a million members by the time the US formally entered WWII.

Labor’s War at Home

For those in government, the political and economic solution to the impasse of the late 1930s was military spending. Rather than the planned economy for domestic social purposes, the New Dealers and their erstwhile opponents in big business came to understand that they might plan a full-employment economy for foreign objectives: protecting access to export markets, ensuring US ownership of foreign investments, currency convertibility, and a world safe for US corporations. That it was European and Japanese fascism standing in the way of these objectives allowed many leaders of the CIO to embrace World War II.

Federally controlled wages held below controlled prices soon revealed the domestic problems engendered by this alliance with capital to prosecute the war. After Pearl Harbor, to ensure maximum war production the leaders of both the CIO and the AFL had pledged not to strike for the duration of hostilities. In exchange, the wartime government granted “maintenance of membership” and “union security” clauses in the contracts negotiated under expanded wartime powers. Union leaders were learning a new function of serving what the government defined as the public interest: stabilizing labor relations regardless of local grievances. The CIO, trapped between coalitional bargaining and conservative backlash, and increasingly bereft of its earlier infrastructure of the radical shop floor nuclei, was pressured to adopt new strategies.

The left wing within each of the CIO unions (except, notably, Communist Party leadership, who urged adherence to the no-strike pledge) deftly exploited this situation. The number of strikes during each year of the war actually grew above the heights of the 1930s—now as much against the government as against the employer. In a situation when workers were essential, and officially deprived of civil liberties to ensure performance, the working class in World War II flipped this dependence into a heightened leverage, maneuvering the structures for national collective bargaining into instruments to redress their local grievances. To resolve this upsurge in illegal strike activity, employers were forced to negotiate with workers below the formal union leaders, while the federal government itself regularly seized struck properties to guarantee continued production under wage rates employers were unwilling to pay.

The war had bottled up the tremendous political energies generated by workers’ organizing over the previous decade. As soon as the wartime labor regime was relaxed, between 1945 and 1946, enormous strikes erupted in every major industry. Hitchhiking from Long Beach where he was discharged from the military back home to Philadelphia, George Strauss—who would later become a leading academic expert in the exciting new field of “industrial relations”—spent a night in a Peoria, Illinois rooming house. In Peoria, auto parts workers, steelworkers, and railroad workers had all walked out. “It seemed the whole world was on strike,” he later told the historian Ronald Schatz.

But while winning dramatic economic gains in these struggles of the late 1940s, CIO unions were unable to break out of the larger strategic tangle in which their alliance with Democratic Party liberalism had ensnared them. Unlike in the 1930s, they no longer found themselves at the forefront of a popular mass movement that could exercise political leadership over the country as a whole. Indeed in the postwar era, the more they won economically, the less independent they became politically—as each victory now had to be tallied against its costs to other interest groups to whom Democratic politicians were equally accountable.

Labor could, in other words, exercise great power, but within narrow and tightening constraints. From this pressurized situation, inflation rose like a jet of steam from a boiling kettle.  Suppressed during the war by price controls that labor fought (and failed) to preserve in peacetime, inflation would prove an enduring dilemma for the kind of mixed economy with an empowered labor movement that World War II created. In both the Korean War of the 1950s and the Vietnam War of the 1970s, the federal government would be forced again by the political pressure of inflation to impose centralized federal controls on prices. Without such controls, the aggressive labor movement created by the CIO’s industrial unions would respond to rising prices with strikes to push up wages—leading to a spiral. But with controls, the question of how the economy would be managed depended on the balance of political power between capital and labor—a balance not in labor’s favor by the era of the Vietnam War and Watergate.

Postwar Failure (1947–1955)

As with inflation, so too the question of national loyalty would come to shape labor’s role and constrain working-class choices in the emerging postwar world. As victory in Europe and Japan curdled into the cold war, employers and anti-labor politicians orchestrated a generalized persecution of labor rights as part of a broader anti-communist political pivot. Accusing the Democrats of conspiring with Soviet Russia, pursuing such “un-American” goals as economic planning or racial desegregation, and causing an apparently irreversible inflation, in 1947 the Republican-controlled Congress moved to weaken unions with the Taft-Hartley Act, which outlawed sympathy strikes and authorized states to pass “right-to-work” laws limiting membership requirements in union contracts. The bill also required the exclusion of Communist Party members from union office, touching off a bitter ideological civil war within the CIO between communists on one side and liberals and social democrats on the other. This was the age of paranoia, the CIO’s dusk, when workers might be watched for what newspaper they were reading or whom they talked to at the bar. Even the Catholic priesthood sniffed and stamped out communism in the Italian and Polish sections of the industrial cities, an activity of Brooklyn’s Father John Corridan, for example, that Hollywood downplayed in favor of his anti-corruption campaigning in his fictionalized portrayal in the classic labor film of these years, On the Waterfront—itself made by the most infamous Hollywood ex-communist snitch, Elia Kazan.

The old forces that had fought most bitterly against the CIO were not, it turned out, banished for good. Most of all, they rejuvenated in the Sun Belt, where they soaked up military stimulus and transformed the backward economies of the South and West in the process. Under the skies of Orange County, Phoenix, Dallas, and Orlando, a residual reactionary formation—landlords, regional bankers, smaller and domestically focused industrialists—blended with emergent entrepreneurial forces in the military-industrial complex, with the resulting alloy strong enough to eventually support a claim to national hegemony. Republic Steel’s Tom Girdler, who once said he “would go back to the farm and dig potatoes before he would sign with the CIO,” became an aviation executive—at the invitation of the Roosevelt Administration, which had itself recently broken a Southern California aircraft strike with federal bayonets. If you had to name the one industry most important to the postwar New Right—the movement that eventually killed New Deal liberalism—you’d probably want to say aerospace.

In this context, structured by the emerging cold war, the leaders of the CIO split over how to operate in a newly hostile national environment where labor was geographically concentrated in the Midwest, the Northeast, and the Pacific Coast—a major problem in the US electoral system. Would the project for social transformation continue into the South, where near misses for industrial unionism had occurred already in 1934 and again in 1948, grinding against that region’s racial and political authoritarianism? Or would the new political limitations of cold war politics be converted into opportunities, with unions embracing the war against communism in defense of their Democratic Party patrons? In 1949 this conflict came to a head with the expulsion from the CIO of national unions with communist leadership, comprising a third of its total membership. Bitter struggles took place plant by plant across the country, as radical organizers who had built their unions in the 1930s were cast in the cold war’s new demonology—not just by bosses, politicians, or leaders of the old AFL, but by their own former comrades.

Employers on the attack, hostile politicians in power, ideological division in its own ranks—the cold war was too much for the CIO. While it would continue as a powerful economic force through the Korean War, the political independence that had animated its birth and propelled its explosive growth was waning fast. By 1955, it elected to return to the inside game of the old AFL rather than continue its task of new organizing to bring industrial unionism to the millions of workers—in the South, but also in the emerging service industries nationally—who remained unorganized. That year it completed a merger with the Federation, rejoining the divided house of labor, and creating today’s AFL-CIO.

How the CIO Has Been Remembered (By those Few Who Remember It)

If the Age of the CIO was also a high tide for the “Old Left,” our vision of the 1930s and 1940s is now impossible to extricate from the shadow of the “New Left” of the 1960s. The most common assumption—both then and now—treats the stolid, patriotic, probably Catholic industrial worker as the exact opposite of the expressive individualism of the student movement. But this interpretation obscures the similarities: in both moments, masses of young people from outside the white Protestant establishment attempted to transform everyday life and national power structures. “You think you had a counterculture?” asked Dorothy Healey, the venerable Communist Party leader and organizer in the California agricultural strikes of the early 1930s. “I am always amused. We had a counterculture that I would suggest was far more powerful, far more inclusive, than what the generation of the [New Left] had thought they had created.”

As CIO publicist Len De Caux later put it, responsible liberals in 1938 regarded the (illegal) sit-down strike the same way liberals three decades later regarded the urban riots punctuating the politics of the Vietnam Era. In the late 1960s, as wildcat militancy within organized labor kicked off on levels unseen since before the cold war, young people started to remember (and older people to remind them) that the age of the CIO was a product of similar “working-class self-activity”—not simply the maturation of modern industrial relations science.

Naturally, the social movements of the New Left also inspired new looks at race and gender across American history, including within the CIO. The failure of its 1948 southern organizing drive or the brittleness of its patriarchal, heteronormative culture against the pressures of the postwar era’s broader claims of solidarity are only two examples. But the debates instigated by this important scholarship have by now brought the study of working-class history to a strange and unfortunate interpretive impasse. The problem of explaining the decline of working-class militancy after the 1970s—along with employment in the manufacturing industries core to the CIO project—has led many historians into the morass of the false binaries of “culture” versus “structure,” of “material” versus “ideological” politics. Traumatized by the image of Reagan Democrats, labor historians began to emphasize the modesty and conformism of the CIO’s practice, and even theory.

A good example comes from Robert Zieger’s The CIO, published in 1995. It ends with an analysis in the terms of a 1970s CBS sitcom:

Bottom line, and to paraphrase that man of the loading dock, Archie Bunker, “Mister, we could use a man like Walter Reuther again.”

We feel this trite sentimentality is evidence of the need for more, rather than less, open inquiry into the history of the country’s economic and social life. Fragile Juggernaut, the name of our project, is Zieger’s own perceptive phrase, but we are aiming to move beyond his nostalgic conclusion. Workers’ heroic past accomplishments are honored best by continually attempting to bring them into contact and relationship with our own changing historical circumstances—an operation that is not possible if we embalm them for display. The debates in which the CIO is most often invoked are motivated by the labor movement’s long-term decline, and bespeak the experience of defeat and the resulting accrual of defensiveness. Much of labor history has become, in the parlance of organizers, burnt turf.

It is therefore time for a fresh look. For a new generation, the experience of political rule by capitalist oligarchy that dominated the politics of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years—and has continued into the age of Trump and Biden—has offered an opportunity to blow away the historical fog of the cold war and examine anew the historical creation that is our society. In this spirit, we offer an open-ended investigation into the legacy of the age of the CIO, which in the coming weeks and months will include both a limited-run series of recorded episodes and a variety of written essays and exchanges such as this one. To understand workers’ own decisions to participate in new forms of collective life—to live through institutions that contested the country’s legal, economic, and cultural foundations, producing its epochal transformation in the 1930s and 1940s—we invite you to join along.

The Fragile Juggernaut Organizing Committee is comprised of Tim Barker, Andrew Elrod, Ben Mabie, Alex Press, Emma Teitelman, and Gabriel Winant; we thank Andrew for taking the lead and writing the bulk of this introduction.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles

More by this Author