Labor History Re-examined: Is Change to Win A New CIO?

Many have been quick to compare the Change to Win Coalition’s split from the AFL-CIO to the split of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1935. Shortly after SEIU and the Teamsters left the AFL-CIO, labor journalist Harold Meyerson wrote in the Washington Post that the Change to Win leaders are “harking back to the old CIO, which…roared out of the old AFL determined to unionize America’s industrial workers.”

Similar comparisons have been made in other news stories—and by some of the Change to Win leaders themselves. According to this version of history, the CIO adopted a “Change to Win” program—new structures, more money for organizing, thus achieving density and industry strength—and saved the American labor movement.

The history of the 1930’s labor upsurge is far more complex than this version suggests, illustrating the weakness of arguing that revitalization is a matter of shuffling structures or bold new leaders.


Structural change in labor was more an outcome of the 1930’s upsurge than the spark itself. It was a product of several years of mass labor militancy, and that militancy—both before and after the CIO split—was greatly aided by major changes in the political climate.

These political changes facilitated major pro-labor legislation, including the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which granted many U.S. workers collective bargaining rights. Emboldened by these new rights, 900,000 workers struck in 1933, and more than 750,000 joined unions. About two-thirds of them affiliated with the AFL, the rest with independent or Communist-led unions.

The strike wave intensified the following year. Three citywide general strikes, sparked by Teamsters in Minneapolis, auto parts workers in Toledo, and longshoremen in San Francisco, convulsed the nation. In all, nearly 1.5 million workers struck in 1934.

The AFL leadership was horrified at these developments, since workers were organizing themselves industrially, not by established crafts. Forced to accept these workers into their ranks, the AFL granted special “federal charters” affiliating these factory-based locals directly to the AFL, outside the existing structure of the federation. The number of federal AFL locals grew from 307 in 1932 to 1,788 in 1934.


But even this upsurge did not suffice to crack the resistance of the nation’s largest industrial corporations, General Motors, Ford, the steel giants, General Electric, Westinghouse, the rubber manufacturers or the meatpackers.

More legal and political change—accompanied finally by the split in the American Federation of Labor—had to occur before the modern labor movement would be established in 1937.

Though the Supreme Court declared the NIRA unconstitutional in May 1935, the industrial mayhem of 1934 compelled Congress to respond almost immediately by enacting the National Labor Relations Act, which was signed by President Roosevelt in July 1935, enshrining collective bargaining as a right for nearly all U.S. workers.

But the AFL bitterly opposed the creation of the NLRB, believing, writes historian Nelson Lichtenstein, that “the activist, newly powerful government agency…tended to marginalize craft union claims in favor of CIO-style bargaining units.

“‘We will mobilize our political and economic strength in an uncompromising fight until the Board is driven from power,’ declared AFL President William Green in 1938.”


Here was the basis for a split in the labor movement, a divergence in views so radical that no compromise was possible. The AFL opposed the mass upsurge in worker militancy of 1933 through 1935, and coalesced with the National Association of Manufacturers and racist, labor-baiting legislators from the South to attack and amend the most important piece of labor legislation passed in American history.

And so the split came, in Atlantic City in October 1935—not over how to allocate dues or induce unions to develop better industrial strategies—but over support or opposition to the very idea of organizing millions of new workers into the labor movement. Today’s arguments within labor frankly seem trivial in comparison to those that divided workers sixty years ago.

Still, the organizational restructuring and legal gains were not yet enough to unleash the tidal wave of organizing that built the CIO. It took Roosevelt’s watershed, landslide re-election campaign in 1936, which unleashed a spirit of empowerment and citizenship among tens of millions of immigrant and black workers in factories, fields, and mills across the country, to open the door to industrial unionism.



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“The 1936 election mobilized the ethnic working class as no other, decisively confirming the power of the emergent Roosevelt coalition,” Lichtenstein writes in his biography of UAW co-founder Walter Reuther.

In the auto centers, workers often shut down their lines and crowded the windows to cheer him. In Flint, with a dues-paying UAW membership of but 136, over 100,000 lined the streets.

In Pontiac, where the UAW had no members at all, the Detroit News reported a ‘tremendous gathering.’ Half a million lined the streets from Hamtramck to Detroit, and more than 250,000 gathered at City Hall Square to hear Roosevelt lash the auto magnates.

Clearly, organizational density was not a prerequisite for upsurge in the industrial Midwest of 1936.

The Roosevelt landslide was amplified by a series of “Little New Deals” that transformed the politics of scores of industrial centers across New England and the Midwest. This crucially opened up the space for workers to organize without fear of instantaneous police or military suppression, and set the stage for the Flint sit-down which began with the wildcat shutdown of the Fisher Body plant on December 30, 1936.

“‘You voted New Deal at the polls and defeated the Auto Barons,’ union organizers told Michigan workers late in 1936. ‘Now get a New Deal in the shop.’”


Six weeks later, on February 11, 1937, General Motors acceded to a four page contract granting recognition to the United Auto Workers and agreeing to multi-plant negotiations. In the months that followed, five million American workers joined an industrial action, and almost three million joined a union. The strategy of the Committee on Industrial Organization was validated as powerful new unions sprang up throughout American industry.

At the heart of the 1930’s upsurge was rank-and-file self-organization in the workplace. In many places it was led by radicals and other union activists who had committed themselves to helping workers achieve a measure of justice at work and in society, but in many other places workers simply organized themselves first and sought organizational affiliation later.

Organizational change followed these developments, and was crucial to the ultimate victories of 1937.


What does this history have to do with today’s labor movement? Wal-Mart is no GM, workers today are watching television or surfing the Internet instead of congregating in working-class neighborhood taverns, and the legislative achievements of the ‘30s have actually reduced the likelihood of an economic collapse on the order of the Great Depression.

Furthermore, today’s Democrats today seem to be sliding further and further away from the ideas, rhetoric, and spirit of FDR and the New Deal. How can the experiences of the ‘30s shed light on whether Change to Win’s proposed changes would be useful or effective, or help us to develop alternative proposals for change?

First, this history casts a cold light on the Change to Win coalition’s split with the AFL-CIO over frustrations with the federation’s structure and rules. The disagreements plaguing today’s labor leaders pale into insignificance when compared with the depth, ferocity, and consequences of the divisions in the labor movement of 1935.

Equally important, a careful reexamination of labor history suggests that ideas, politics, and grassroots worker mobilization are far more important than organizational structure in the formula for reviving labor.

There’s nothing wrong with a focus on industrial organizing and density. But history clearly demonstrates that there are no shortcuts to rebuilding our movement, and that it will take far more than a few mergers and a reallocation of per capita dues to produce the reversal in labor’s fortunes that everyone so desperately desires.

And history suggests that we need a reform program that puts far greater weight on political and ideological change, rank-and-file education and empowerment, and a commitment to reinvigorating collective bargaining as well as building density, for a real labor revival to take hold.