Statement of the International Committee of the Fourth International
Globalization and the International Working Class

Mythologizing the CIO

In asserting that the answer to the crisis facing the workers’ movement is for the AFL-CIO to “play hardball,” Spartacist hearkens back to a mythical past of the American unions. This is based on an extremely one-sided and, therefore, false presentation of the origins and early evolution of the CIO. In reality, the seeds of the subsequent degeneration of the unions were already present in the political foundations upon which the CIO was established.

It is certainly the case that the Congress of Industrial Organizations emerged in the second half of the 1930s as the product of a mass upsurge of the industrial working class. The Depression fueled a social movement with revolutionary implications. The socio-economic catastrophe generated not only explosive discontent, it undermined the confidence of tens of millions in the capitalist system itself.

But it was by no means foreordained that this movement would be restricted to a struggle for industrial unions, rather than developing into a revolutionary, political movement, directed consciously against the capitalist system. That the upsurge never went beyond a narrow trade union form, institutionalized moreover in a labor movement based on the defense of the profit system and the political subordination of the working class to the capitalist parties, was the result, in the first instance, of the calculated actions of the CIO leadership, working in tandem with the Roosevelt administration and utilizing the political support of the Stalinist Communist Party.

Those within the top leadership of the old American Federation of Labor who broke with their fellow bureaucrats in 1935 to establish the CIO—John L. Lewis, Sidney Hillman and others—set out to channel the rising militancy of mass production workers into an industrial union organization that would be loyal to the profit system and would obtain the official sanction of the capitalist state. They acted in response to unmistakable signs that the working class was beginning to move along a revolutionary trajectory, and that socialist forces were beginning to win a mass audience. The year before, general strike movements had rocked three major cities—San Francisco, Toledo and Minneapolis, and in each case socialists, Stalinists and Trotskyists had played leading roles.

Roosevelt responded by pushing through the Wagner Act, providing legal sanction for the formation of unions and establishing the National Labor Relations Board to regulate the establishment of industrial unions and bring the force of the state to bear on their political character. There is no question that his administration encouraged Lewis and company in their effort to establish an industrial union movement that would be subservient to the basic interests of American capitalism. This was of a piece with his New Deal reforms, which represented a more far-sighted defense of the profit system, against the threat of socialist revolution, than many leading American capitalists at the time were capable of conceiving or accepting. The top CIO leaders shared this basic aim, and their ability to consolidate the CIO was ultimately dependent on the sympathy of the federal government under Roosevelt.

A detailed analysis of the early years of the CIO is beyond the scope of this statement, but the most salient facts demonstrate the degree to which the consolidation of the industrial unions in America depended on the support of the federal government. Following the victory of the sit-down strike against General Motors in early 1937—which erupted largely behind the backs of the top CIO leaders and was, to a great extent, led by local militants and socialists—most of the major organizing struggles of the CIO met with defeat.

The only significant breakthrough the CIO achieved in steel prior to 1941, was US Steel’s agreement to recognize the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) in March of 1937, just a few weeks after the auto workers’ victory at GM. And this came not as the result of a struggle, but rather a corporate decision made by US Steel executives, who concluded that SWOC would serve as a stabilizing force in the mills.

The drive to organize the second tier of major steel manufacturers, the so-called “Little Steel” firms such as Bethlehem, Republic and Inland, met with violent resistance from the employers and collapsed in the summer of 1937. By that point the CIO as a whole was foundering. The fundamental incompatibility of the right-wing political perspective and class collaborationist orientation of the CIO leadership with the aspirations and needs of the working class was already evident.

In 1938, Leon Trotsky urged the Socialist Workers Party, then the Trotskyist movement in the US, to adopt the demand for the CIO to break from Roosevelt and establish a labor party, and to elaborate a socialist program of transitional demands for such a party. He did so precisely to give the SWP a tactical lever for freeing the mass movement from the stifling framework of reformist trade unionism. The new union movement had reached an impasse, he explained, and the upsurge of the working class would either take an independent political form, or it would be driven back and demoralized.

Two years later he wrote: “The rise of the CIO is incontrovertible evidence of the revolutionary tendencies within the working masses. Indicative and noteworthy in the highest degree, however, is the fact that the new ‘leftist’ trade union organization was no sooner founded than it fell into the steel embrace of the imperialist state. The struggle among the tops between the old federation and the new is reducible in large measure to the struggle for the sympathy and support of Roosevelt and his cabinet.” [1]

Prior to 1941, the real membership of the CIO never reached the 2 million mark. At the beginning of that year the United Mine Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the two previously established unions that had formed the backbone of the CIO at its founding, accounted for some 40 percent of dues-paying members. The total number of workers actually brought into unions under the auspices of the CIO had rarely reached a million. The United Auto Workers, SWOC and the United Rubber Workers had a combined dues-paying membership of under 200,000, fewer than the Amalgamated Clothing Workers alone.

The year 1941 saw the real consolidation of the CIO. The labor federation and its affiliates won union contracts at Ford, the Little Steel companies, the major electronics manufacturers and other vital sectors of industry. Union security provisions, such as the automatic dues checkoff, made their appearance, as did no-strike clauses, binding grievance procedures and other measures designed to contain the militancy of the rank-and-file.

But this growth and consolidation underscored the reliance of the CIO on the support of the government, and further institutionalized the statist character of the new unions, because it was directly bound up with the preparations of American imperialism to enter World War II. The Roosevelt administration supported the union victories in early 1941 and cultivated the CIO leadership, because it saw the CIO as a necessary and critical force for mobilizing the industrial working class behind the war and imposing the labor discipline which the war would require.

The CIO leadership, for its part, eagerly sought and gratefully accepted the more aggressive backing of the federal government. It argued that union recognition and the establishment of contracts were vital to stabilizing the home front and securing the interests of American capitalism in the global conflict. Already in 1940, the UAW’s Walter Reuther presented a plan for union collaboration with management and the government in the expansion and coordination of war production and in May of that year, Roosevelt appointed Hillman to the National Defense Advisory Commission.

Throughout the war the CIO’s basic role was to enforce labor discipline. Immediately following Pearl Harbor, both the CIO and the AFL voluntarily adopted no-strike pledges and agreed to enforce wage controls. The CIO, through its participation in the National War Labor Board, collaborated with big business and the government to police the working class, whose militancy remained at a high level, as reflected in the scores of strikes that erupted in defiance of the no-strike pledge.

The CIO presented itself as the epitome of patriotic support for the war effort and, more generally, the “American way of life.” President Phillip Murray and other CIO leaders published tracts calling for the permanent establishment of corporatist relations between the unions, the employers and the state, including the formation of industrial councils and other joint labor-management structures.

In return for its role in suppressing the class struggle, the CIO demanded the extension and institutionalization of union security measures, such as the closed shop, firm contracts and, above all, the dues checkoff. It argued that these were necessary to strengthen the union apparatus in holding the workers in check. “The union,” declared one CIO tract of the period, “assumes the responsibility to see that no stoppages of work occur, that all workers adhere to the contract machinery to settle grievances peacefully, and that wages and other vital cost factors are pegged generally for the life of the contracts.” [2] Without a union shop and the dues checkoff, the argument continued, union officials would be forced to accommodate themselves to dissident workers, whose withholding of dues would serve as a form of blackmail.

On this corporatist foundation CIO membership rose dramatically in the course of the war, as did the treasuries of the CIO and its affiliated unions. The bureaucracy consolidated its grip over the mass of workers on the basis of its newfound wealth and the official sanction of the state.

With the emergence of the Cold War, the CIO threw off its lingering radical pretensions and aligned itself firmly behind the anti-communist crusade of American capitalism. The purge of left-wing and socialist elements, on the one hand, and the participation in US efforts to subvert radical and pro-Soviet labor organizations around the world, on the other, were the logical outcome of the political orientation of the CIO from its formation.


Trotsky, Leon Trotsky on the Trade Unions, New York, Pathfinder, p. 73


Robert H. Zieger, The CIO: 1935-1955, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, p. 146