Chapter Twenty-Four: The Communists in the Building of the C.I.O. (1936-1940)

24. The Communists in the Building of the C.I.O. (1936-1940)

The building of the C.I.O. unions was the greatest stride forward ever made by the American labor movement. It changed the whole situation of the trade unions and brought the working class to new high levels of industrial and political strength and maturity. In this historic movement the Communist Party played a vital and indispensable role. It acted truly as the vanguard party of the working class.

As we have seen in Chapter 21, the Committee for Industrial Organization was established late in 1935 under the leadership of John L. Lewis. Its first main concentration was upon steel. In June 1936, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, led by Philip Murray, was formed; district headquarters were set up in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Birmingham, and some 200 full-time organizers were put into the field. The eight associated C.I.O. unions, especially the miners, were prepared to spend millions in the work.

The steel workers were ripe for organization. Many were paid as little as $560 per year, as against a $1,500 standard cost-of-living budget; and long hours and tyranny prevailed in the shops. The workers were inspired by the world-wide proletarian fighting spirit of the period. So the organizing work was immediately successful. By the end of 1936 the S.W.O.C, which had virtually swallowed the old, fossilized Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers, had 150 local unions with 100,000 members.

Meanwhile, dramatic and decisive events were also happening in the automobile industry. The United Automobile Workers, which had been formed by the A.F. of L. but later joined the C.I.O., succeeded in building, by December 1936, an organization of about 30,000 members. Demanding an agreement with the General Motors Corp. and being refused, the workers, whose earnings then averaged but $20 per week, began to strike—in Atlanta and Cleveland. Finally, by January 1937, 51,000 were on strike, and they tied up 60 G.M. plants in 14 states, employing some 140,000 workers. 

The center and decisive point of the strike was in the major G.M. plants in Flint, Michigan, the heart of this great industrial empire. There the workers, patterning their actions after a strike of rubber workers in Akron a few months earlier, and in line with workers' experience in France and Italy, occupied the plants. It was a "sit-down strike." The workers barricaded themselves in the workshops, set up a military-like discipline, beat off all armed attempts of company gunmen and police to recapture the plants, and threatened to resist with every means any attempt of the state militia to dislodge them, as the company was demanding from the governor. The solidarity of the workers was unbreakable, and after 44 days of struggle the great $1.5 billion General Motors Corp. capitulated, recognizing the union and granting substantial improvements in wages, hours, and working conditions.1

The G.M. strike, particularly in its key Flint section, was one of the most strategically decisive strikes in American labor history. It made the first real breakthrough for the C.I.O. into territory of open shop monopoly capital, and its effective sit-down tactics were a tremendous inspiration to the entire working class. The other C.I.O. campaigns thereafter went like wildfire, with the sit-down tactic being used successfully in many places. On March 8th, some 63,000 workers of the big Chrysler Corp. also went on strike (about two-thirds of them sit-downers), and they won a victory after a short struggle. Then, indeed, the unionization of the auto industry proceeded with great strides.

In steel also, dramatic success was being achieved. On March 2, 1937, the country was amazed by the announcement of an agreement between the S.W.O.C. and the United States Steel Corp., covering some 240,000 workers in its basic plants. The agreement established the eight-hour day and 40-hour week, provided for a 10-cent hourly wage increase, and for grievance committees, seniority, and other improvements. At long last, after nearly half a century of struggle, the unions had finally blasted their way solidly into the greatest open shop fortress of them all, Big Steel.

These decisive successes in steel and auto, the heart of basic industry, did not, however, complete the organization of these two great industries. "Little Steel"—the Bethlehem, Inland, Republic, and Youngstown companies—held out and with traditional violence, in May 1937, smashed the strike of 75,000 of their workers. In the infamous Memorial Day massacre in Chicago 10 picketing workers were killed and over 100 wounded by the police. In auto also, the great Ford empire managed to resist the current ground swell of unionization. But both Ford and Little Steel, within the next four years, finally had to submit to the organization of their workers. 

In the meantime, militant and successful organizing campaigns were proceeding in various other industries—radio and electrical, maritime, metal mining, textile, lumber, transport, shoe, meat-packing, leather, rubber, aluminum, and glass, among white collar workers, etc.—but a description of all these campaigns would pass beyond the scope of this outline. Suffice it to say that by the end of 1940 the C.I.O. unions encompassed some four million workers, a growth of over three million in four years. By the time World War II began to engulf the world, the organizing drive of the C.I.O. had proved to be an unqualified success; the heart of trustified industry was unionized.


As the demand for industrial unionization began to grow during the early thirties in the A.F. of L., Daniel J. Tobin, head of the Teamsters Union, "scornfully characterized the unskilled workers in mass production industry as 'rubbish.' 2 This was a true, if unusually frank, expression of the real attitude of the top leaders of the A.F. of L. toward the problem of organizing the basic industries. Give them the skilled workers, and the fate of the rest did not concern them. With this attitude, Green and Co. tried to stifle the current big spontaneous upheavals of the masses. They refused to grant the workers industrial charters; they expelled the C.I.O. unions in an attempt to break up the organizing drive at its inception; they condemned the sit-down strike as illegal and a harm to organized labor; they repeatedly had their craft unions play strikebreaking roles; they seconded every employer condemnation of the C.I.O. as "red." But the workers, with their wonderful fighting spirit and solidarity, and especially under Communist influence, smashed through this A.F. of L. sabotage (which had been so fatal in past union drives) and carried their organizing campaigns and strikes through to success.

By a historical irony, however, the A.F. of L. unions also profited hugely from the great mass organizing movement which their top leaders were doing so much to scuttle.  Several of the more alert unions—machinists, teamsters, electrical, boilermakers, hotel, and restaurant, etc.,—took advantage of the favorable situation and organized workers on all sides, paying little attention to jurisdictional lines. They became mass, semi-industrial unions, all increasing heavily in membership. Communists were active in all of these campaigns. By 1940 the A.F. of L., in spite of losing several unions to the C.I.O., numbered about as many members as the C.I.O. did. At no time, however, did the A.F. of L. top leadership put on a general systematic campaign to organize the awakening workers. It was one of the more significant aspects of the labor situation that the growth of the C.I.O. and the influx of large numbers of unskilled workers into the craft unions had a restraining effect upon the reactionary course of the leaders in the A.F. of L. 

There was a noticeable relaxation of gangster control and of the crass corruption that had so long been such a disgrace to the A.F. of L. leadership. The Federation also began to take a little more interest in progressive political programs, to be achieved through legislation. The old apoliticalism of Gompers, which opposed legislation on wages, hours, and working conditions as tending to liquidate the trade unions, was now a thing of the past. There was even a substantial decline in redbaiting in A.F. of L. unions.3

At their 1940 conventions the C.I.O. and A.F. of L. represented 3,810,318 and 4,247,443 members respectively. The total for the whole labor movement, including the independents, was about ten million. During the great organizing campaign of the late thirties the C.I.O. directly added to itself some three million members, and the A.F. of L., as compared with 1935, grew by 1,750,000. The railroad unions had practically overcome the disastrous losses of the 1922 strike, and the original eight C.I.O. unions increased by some 800,000. The C.I.O. principal unions at this time were the miners with 600,000 members, steel workers 535,109, auto workers 206,824, packinghouse workers 90,000, and transport workers 90,000. Up to 1940, the total gain to the trade union movement in the broad campaign initiated by the C.I.O. was about seven million members.

Although at this time the C.I.O. and A.F. of L. were about the same size numerically, the former was the most basic and promising section of the labor movement. This was because it was founded principally upon the heavy industries, and because of its more advanced policies, its more progressive leadership, and the greater influence of the Communists in its ranks.


The key to the great success in building the C.I.O. during these years was the high solidarity and fighting spirit of the workers, which was assiduously cultivated by the Communists. This spirit was bred of long years of tyranny under the open shop, of the bitter destitution during the great economic crisis, of the feeling of economic and political power that the workers had gained through the successful strikes since 1933, and of their realization that they had beaten the Republican Party in the elections of 1932 and 1936.

The high morale was all-pervasive, running through the ranks of the workers, the unemployed, the Negroes, the foreign-born, the women, and the youth. Its central symbol was the sit-down strike and its highest expression the unbreakable unity between the employed and the unemployed. Although there were never less than ten million unemployed throughout this whole period, and there was also a developing economic crisis in 1937, the strikes were extremely solid, it being very difficult to recruit strikebreakers to take the place of strikers. It was this unparalleled proletarian solidarity and militancy that— apparently with ease—defeated the employers and forced open the way for the unionization of the trustified industries.

A factor highly favorable to the organization of the workers was the deep split in the ranks of the top bureaucracy of the trade unions—as distinguished from the split in the labor movement itself. Previously, attempts at mass organization had to face the united and usually fatal opposition of the upper leadership, who based themselves primarily upon the skilled. Hence, organizing campaigns in the basic industries had to be undertaken by the rank and file or by independent unions, with all the money, organizers, and prestige of the conservative union leadership arrayed against them. Except for this top opposition, the mass production industries could have been organized long before—certainly during World War I or during the Coolidge years. But now, with the Green-Lewis split in the bureaucracy and with Lewis pushing for organization, it became possible to tackle the job seriously for the first time with the real power and prestige of solid trade unions behind the campaign. Success was thus assured from the outset.

The hard-boiled employers—in steel and auto, for example—caved in with surprising ease before the advance of the C.I.O. Even the Girdlers and Fords could not long resist the organizing movement. Their "Mohawk formula" and all other approved and tested strikebreaking methods had lost their potency. This was primarily because the intense fighting spirit of the workers destroyed ruthlessly the company unions, spy systems, gunman control, and the rest of the open shop demagogy and terrorism which the employers had been building up for a generation, and which had hitherto been so drastically effective in preventing unionization. The leaders of U.S. Steel, General Motors, and other trusts, facing an aroused working class, feared that an open struggle would bring about even more radical labor organization than what they finally got. The Communist Party, dynamic force in the whole movement, was at the time advocating a joint strike movement in steel, auto, and coal mining; and such a broad strike was definitely a practical perspective. So the big magnates of industry made the best of a bad situation, and they set out to try to control the new unions that they could no longer forestall. After all, "labor lieutenants" like Green, Woll, Frey, and Co. were not very terrifying people to contemplate dealing with, and such figures, they apparently hoped, would also come to lead the C.I.O.

In fighting against the formation of the C.I.O. unions, the employers were hampered because the current Federal Administration was not the facile and effective strikebreaking machine that it had been in the past. Roosevelt was not a Grover Cleveland smashing the 1894 American Railway Union strike, a Woodrow Wilson giving the green light to Gary and his steel union-crushers in 1919, nor a Warren G. Harding tearing to pieces the 1922 strike of the railroad shopmen. Instead, Roosevelt, a liberal, favored unions in a moderate way, more especially in view of his need for their support against the violent attacks that extreme reaction was making upon him. He recognized that the days of the old-time open shop were over. But without the great militancy of the masses little union-building would have taken place under his regime. Indeed, in co-operation with William Green, Roosevelt had "compromised" out of existence the strong union drives in steel and auto in 1934, by referring their demands to labor boards which knifed them. The Administration also condemned the vitally important sit-down strike tactic. And Roosevelt's Wagner Act, although a real improvement over Section 7 (a) of the N.I.R.A., was anything but the all-decisive "Magna Carta of Labor" that union officials called it. While it recognized the right of the workers to organize, the latter had to fight to make that right real. The Wagner Act was a reflection of the great contemporaneous advance of the workers, not the cause of it. Minus the aggressive spirit of the workers, this act would have remained only a paper declaration without real substance, had it ever been written at all.


The Communist Party fully supported the C.I.O. program of establishing new industrial unions in the basic, unorganized industries. Although the C.I.O. was split off from the A.F. of L., the Party in no sense identified this broad independent mass movement with the narrow left-wing dual unionism which the Party had long opposed-despite certain deviations of its own during the T.U.U.L. period. The traditional left dual unionism had the effect of withdrawing the militant elements from the unions and isolating them from the general labor movement in small unions, but nothing like this took place with the founding of the C.I.O. On the contrary, the C.I.O. was in every sense a broad mass movement.

The Communists played a decisive part in the great strikes and organizing drives that established the C.I.O. This was evident on the very face of things. It was to be seen in the highly militant character, as remarked in Chapter 21, of the methods and spirit of the general movement. The new unions certainly did not learn their militant organizing spirit, intensified political activity, internationalism, more enlightened Negro policy, shop steward system, rank-and-file democracy, anti-racketeer fight, mass picketing, union singing, sit-down strikes, slow-down strikes, and sound fighting policies from the old-line trade union leaders who officially headed the historic movement. Nor did they get them from the Trotskyites or Socialists, who took very little part in these struggles. And the I.W.W. tradition was long since inactive. Stolberg, a redbaiter who hated the Communist Party and loved its enemies, in 1938 said of the Trotskyites as participants in these struggles: "The Trotskyites in the C.I.O. we may dismiss." And of the Socialists, who were not much more of a factor than the Trotskyites on the fighting-organizing line, Stolberg also stated: "The Socialist Party has no clear trade union policy in the C.I.O. or elsewhere."4 Significantly, almost the whole of his book is devoted to describing Communist influence in the C.I.O. The plain fact is that the ideological spirit of the great union-building movement and its militant tactics were chiefly a direct reflection of the big mass influence of the Communists, who were everywhere active in the work of organization and struggle. The C.I.O. took over the bulk of the immediate program of the Trade Union Unity League.

Actually, the "Old Guard" Socialists opposed the C.I.O. and its program. At the Tampa convention of the A.F. of L. they voted to expel the C.I.O. unions. And it was under "Old Guard" pressure that Dubinsky got cold feet, withdrew the I.L.G.W.U. from the C.I.O. and brought it back into the A.F. of L.

The Communists were well fitted to play their vital part in the C.I.O. drive. For years they had paid major attention to the question of organizing the basic industries, and they had assembled vast practical experience, as well as many mass contacts. They had conducted innumerable T.U.E.L. and T.U.U.L. strikes and Unemployed Council and Workers Alliance activities in many heavy and trustified industrial centers. The Communist Party, with its system of shop groups and shop papers, also had valuable connections among the most militant workers in many open shop industries. The left wing had hosts of other such contacts in these plants through the various Negro, foreign-born, and other mass organizations in which it had an important influence. All of these connections the Party set in motion when the great organizing drive got under way. The 15-year struggle of the Party in the basic industries trained thousands of fighters, who later formed the very foundations of the C.I.O.

These basic contributions of the Communists to the building of the C.I.O. are now conveniently ignored or denied by the present right-wing leadership. But occasionally some credit is given our Party. Thus, Alinsky, in his "unauthorized" biography of John L. Lewis, which was written in close collaboration with the latter, says of the role of the Communists in building the C.I.O.: "Then, as is now commonly known, the Communists worked indefatigably, with no job being too menial or unimportant. They literally poured themselves completely into their assignments. The Communist Party gave its complete support to the C.I.O. . . . The fact is that the Communist Party made a major contribution in the organization of the unorganized for the C.I.O."5

As the general C.I.O. movement developed the Party published a series of pamphlets, outlining in detail the ideological case for industrial unionism, effective methods of organizational work in mass production industries, the elements of strike strategy, and the principles of the construction and operation of democratic industrinl unions. These pamphlets summarized the constructive experience of the I.W.W., the T.U.E.L., the T.U.U.L., and the independent industrial unions over the past generation, and also that of the organizing campaigns in the A.F. of L., such as those in meat-packing and steel in 1917-19. They were given a wide circulation, and in many instances were to be found in local C.I.O. headquarters, serving as handbooks on organization for those doing the field work.6

In discussing necessary conditions for the success of the general organizing campaign then getting under way, the Party laid down as the most fundamental of all, as condition number one, that there be developed free working relations between the progressives and Communists in the movement. This was in accord historically with the best experience of the labor movement, in all phases of its growth. As the Party put the matter: "The organization work must be done by a working co-ordination of the progressive and left-wing forces in the labor movement. It is only these elements that have the necessary vision, flexibility, and courage to go forward with such an important project as the organization of the 500,000 steel workers in the face of the powerful opposition of the Steel Trust and its capitalist allies."7

A handicap to the maximum work and growth of the Communist Party during this general period was the developing opportunism of Earl Browder, its general secretary. Browder, with no mass union organizing experience and no talent for or appreciation of such work, preferred to maneuver opportunistically with top union and political leaders. He constantly sought to dampen the insistent working and fighting spirit of the Party. Especially he shied away from actively recruiting Party members in the basic industries, for fear that this would antagonize the top C.I.O. leaders. Such opportunist tendencies, which a few years later were to mature as a full-fledged system of revisionism and liquidation-ism, caused much friction in the top leadership of the Party and they worked against the organizational growth of the Party and the broadening of its influence among the masses of workers.

There was another very harmful tendency at the time—to overestimate the progressive character of the top leaders of the C.I.O. This wrong tendency was exemplified by Browder's extravagant adulation of Lewis and Murray, in turn, as the super-greatest of American labor leaders. Not enough attention was given to the fact that the "progressive" role being played by these leaders at the time was essentially opportunistic and that, when opportunity beckoned to them from another quarter, they would quickly drop their "progressivism," as they eventually did. At most, it was only skin deep.

John L. Lewis, Sidney Hillman, and their co-workers were apparently convinced of the value of Communist co-operation, because from the outset the organizing work and the leading of innumerable victorious strikes were done by a combination of the left-center forces—that is, Lewis, Hillman, the Communists, and other progressives. This working combination, although largely informal while Lewis remained president of the C.I.O. (up to the end of 1940), was a matter of common knowledge. As F. R. Dulles says, "Lewis did not hesitate to draw upon their [the Communists'] experience and skill in building up the C.I.O." 8 Practically everywhere, therefore, Communists became active and effective members of the big organizing crews. With the accession of Philip Murray to the presidency of the C.I.O., the left-center bloc was, for some years, even more definitely consolidated, and it became virtually a working alliance. The C.I.O. could not have succeeded upon any other basis.

The Communists worked very diligently to build and strengthen the left-center bloc. They refrained from grabbing for office in the new unions, and they gave unselfishly of themselves to the organizing work. As an example of the Party's co-operative spirit, in 1939 it liquidated its system of trade union fractions and shop papers. The Party's trade union fractions—educational groups of Communists in the local unions—were dissolved to end all fears that they were formed for the purpose of controlling the unions. The Party's shop papers, which had performed invaluable services in the initial stages of the C.I.O. campaigns, were also given up for the same general reasons.

It was this left-center bloc, the working combination of progressives and left-wingers (mainly Communists), that carried through successfully the great organizing campaigns and strikes which unionized the basic industries and established the C.I.O. It was also this combination, throughout the ten years it lasted, that made the C.I.O. the leading section of the American trade union movement and a constructive force among the organized labor unions of the world. Mr. Murray and his friends, however, in the post-World War II years, have seen fit to break their connection with this left-center bloc, which has been of such vital importance in the life of the C.I.O.—but of all this more later.


In 1936, when the campaign began, the Communists had many valuable contacts with which to help organize the steel industry. The Party had branches in the main steel towns and mills, and it also had many scattered individual steel worker members. There were also a large number of left-wing members in the political and fraternal organizations of Negro and foreign-born workers in these areas. The T.U.U.L. had conducted several strikes and led many unemployed movements among steel workers over the years, and the Communists were very active in the steel organizing campaign of 1933-34. Besides, the national chairman of the Party, William Z. Foster, had led the great steel strike of 17 years before and was well known throughout the industry.

Co-operative relations, an informal united front, existed between the Communists and Philip Murray, head of the S.W.O.C, in carrying on the steel campaign. Of the approximately 200 full-time organizers put into the steel areas on the payroll of S.W.O.C, some 60 were Party members, as Murray well knew. The Party gave many of its best workers to the campaign, including a number of Negro organizers. Among them were Gus Hall, Ben Carreathers, John Steuben, and Pat Cush. All its local units and contacts were stimulated to work; for the Party the organization of the steel workers became the first order of business. W. Gebert was the Party's liaison with the S.W.O.C, and he held many conferences with the heads of that organization.

One example of the effectiveness of the Communists' organizing work was the national conference of Negro organizations held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on February 6, 1937, to help organize steel. There were 186 delegates, representing no organizations with a total membership of 100,000. The conference was brought together by Benjamin L. Carreathers, a leading Negro Communist of Pittsburgh and full-time organizer for the S.W.O.C. The Party rallied all its Negro worker contacts to make this basic organizing conference the success that it was. The great importance of the conference may be grasped when it is realized that there were then about 100,000 Negroes working in the steel mills. 9 The intense activity of the Communists on the Negro question was a basic reason why the Negro workers joined all the C.I.O. unions in such numbers and also why the C.I.O. took its generally advanced position regarding the Negro people.

Another example of the systematic Communist organizing work in the steel campaign was the national conference of the organizations of the foreign-born. This was the work of W. Gebert, Party organizer in the steel industry, and it had the endorsement of Philip Murray and Clinton Golden. The conference, held in Pittsburgh on October 25, 1936, brought together 447 delegates, officially representing 459,000 members of many Lithuanian, Polish, Croatian, Serbian, Slovenian, Ukrainian, Russian, and other groups, 10 including several important Catholic organizations. Gebert was chairman, and Murray and Golden spoke. In view of the huge number of foreign-born workers in the steel industry, this conference was obviously of basic importance in the organization work.

The Young Communist League was also responsible for the holding of numerous broad conferences in various steel centers, to win the support of the young workers for the drive. Communist women took similar measures. In the steel areas the entire Party was active in the work of organization, and its influence in bringing the masses into the union was undoubtedly very great.

The Communists and other lefts, although becoming influential in the steel union in many localities, never got a corresponding position in the top leadership. This was partly because the C.I.O. leaders, realizing that steel was the key to the general organization they were building up, took elaborate precautions to keep tight control of the new steel workers' union. They manned all the key official union posts with coal miners, from Philip Murray on down, and to this day an authentic steel worker leadership of the union has not developed. Indeed, not until six years after signing of the agreement with Big Steel did Philip Murray even permit the closely-controlled S.W.O.C. to become reorganized into the supposedly democratic United Steelworkers of America.

More basic, however, in the failure of the left to consolidate its forces in steel were its own errors and shortcomings, typical of the Browder period. These included inadequate criticism of the Murray leadership, failure to build the Party and its press in the shops and mills, failure to develop independent union election activities, and the like. Devoting themselves whole-heartedly to the building of the union, as in the case of other industries, the Communists did not pay enough attention to the question of developing a progressive union leadership. The Communists and lefts in the steel industry were in a strong enough position locally at the time to have insisted that representative steel workers be brought into the top leadership; but they failed to do so. So the miners union functionaries, many of whom were mere chair-warmers and time-worn bureaucrats, retained full control of all decisive top positions.


When the A.F. of L., in 1935, was compelled by the demand of the automobile workers to charter an international union, the United Automobile Workers, the Communists already had a long record of activity in that industry. Raymond, McKie, Schmies, and others were well known as loyal fighters. There were many C.P. shop units and individual members in the plants. The T.U.U.L. had also conducted several local strikes, the Unemployed Councils had organized scores of demonstrations of the unemployed, and for 15 years the Party in its general political agitation had laid constant stress upon union organization. So that when the U.A.W., late in 1935, quit the A.F. of L. and became part of the C.I.O., the left wing was a central factor in the young union. Says Alinsky: "When Lewis turned to help the auto workers, he saw that they were being organized and led by the leftists. The leaders and organizers of the U.A.W. group in General Motors were the left wingers Wyndham Mortimer and Robert Travis. These two built the union inside the great General Motors empire. If Lewis wanted to take the auto workers into the C.I.O. he had to take their left-wing leadership."11

The main stroke in organizing the auto industry nationally, as we have seen previously, was the big G.M. sit-down strike of January 1937. After this resounding victory, it was only a question of gathering in the mass of auto workers now thoroughly ready for organization. It is no exaggeration to say that the G.M. strike organized the United Auto Workers. Indeed, this may also be said, within limits, of the whole C.I.O.; for this strategic strike produced such a tremendous wave of enthusiasm and fighting spirit among the workers throughout the basic industries that their organization into the C.I.O. unions became largely routine.

It was the left wing—Communists and their close progressive coworkers—that led the historic G.M. strike to this brilliant victory. The heart of the great strike was in Flint, Michigan. There, as Alinsky says, the union was built and led by the broad left wing, with Mortimer and Travis at the head. The center of the Flint strike was Fisher Body Plant No. 1. There the great sit-down strike began in the Michigan area, from there it spread, and there too it was won. Travis was the union organizer in Flint, where the whole strike found its decisive bulwark and organization. As the national strike progressed, the decisive question was whether or not the strikers, under the heavy pressure of the employers and the city, state, and federal governments, would abandon their sit-down and quit the plants. Had they done so, the strike would have been lost. But due primarily to the unshakable stand of the workers in Fisher Body No, i, and the backing of the local Communist forces, the sit-down was maintained, and eventually the great strike was won. John L. Lewis and Wyndham Mortimer were the main negotiators and signers of the decisive G.M. agreement.

Nearly all of the seven members of the strike committee in the key Fisher Body No. 1 plant were Communists, and their leader, Walter Moore, was the Party section organizer in Flint. The Communist Party in Michigan, of which W. W. Weinstone was the district organizer, gave everything it had to the strike, and not without success. In the later successful general Chrysler strike and other work in further building the union, the Communists were no less active.

The auto workers, unlike the steel workers, developed their own top leadership. This was accompanied by many internal struggles and much factionalism. The auto manufacturers, resolved upon controlling the new union, took a hand in this internal strife. Consequently, at the 1936 South Bend convention, when the Dillon A.F. of L. reactionaries were cleaned out by the rank and file, the employers managed to wangle their new man, Homer Martin, into the presidency of the union. A number of left-wingers and progressives, however, were elected to the top leadership, including Mortimer, Travis, Hall, Anderson, and others. In the winter of 1938-39, Homer Martin (whose chief advisor was Jay Lovestone, a renegade from Communism), fearing he was going to be displaced by the rank and file, expelled the left-wing majority of the executive board, and with the help of a gang of thugs, took over control of the international office by force.12 Dubinsky was a backer of Martin. 

At   the  Cleveland  convention,   in  April   1939,  where   Martin  was exposed and expelled as an agent of Ford, the left-progressives — the "Unity Caucus"—controlled three-fourths of the delegates. Murray and Hillman insisted that R. J. Thomas, whom Lewis later called a "dunder-headed blabbermouth," be elected president. This proposition; the left-progressives mistakenly agreed to accept, instead of electing a progressive to head the union, as they could have done. Murray and Hillman at the same time abolished all vice-presidencies, thus further weakening the position of the left. The main weakness of the Communists and the real progressives in this struggle was that they did not develop a sufficiently independent line, as against that of Addes and Thomas, and Murray and Hillman as well, in the general struggle against the right.

The conservative and incompetent President Thomas, with his persistent knifing of the left-progressive bloc, prepared the way for the rise of Walter Reuther to the presidency several years later. In the 1936-38 formative years of the auto union Reuther was a relatively minor figure. He had just returned from a year's visit to Soviet Russia, where, he said, he had been favorably impressed by what he saw of socialism. For a while he even pretended to be a Communist. It was with the support of the Communists that he managed to locate a job in the shops and eventually become president of the West Side local in Detroit—his main base in his later successful fight for national leadership. Reuther's inordinate ambitions and crass opportunism, however, soon led him in directions other than communism.


The broad progressive forces also displayed high initiative in the organizing work of practically all the other C.I.O. unions. In the maritime industry, on the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts, they built the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union and the National Maritime Union, in a whole series of successful strikes from 1934 on. Harry Bridges, the outstanding figure in this situation, became C.I.O. director on the Pacific Coast. The Atlantic Coast N.M.U. leader, Joseph Curran, now a fevered redbaiter, worked closely with the Communists. The majority of the N.M.U. board were Party members. Altogether, the several new unions in the maritime industry numbered about 125,000 members by 1940.

In the textile industry the Party, as a result of its many earlier strikes and unemployed campaigns, also had many members and contacts, and they all went to work vigorously building the new United Textile Workers of America. This project was under the direct leadership of Sidney Hillman. While quite willing to make a united front with the Communists and other progressives, Hillman always maneuvered to balk their efforts to build up a truly representative leadership.

In the radio and electrical industry the left-progressive group was the decisive organizing force that established the big United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America, now headed by Albert J. Fitzgerald, Julius Emspak, and James Matles. The first president of this union, the notorious James Carey, lost his post at the 1940 convention of the organization because he attempted to push through a resolution aimed at barring Communists and other left-wingers from holding union office. It was a mistake of the progressive forces not to have insisted then that this later-to-be extreme reactionary, who had been repudiated by his own union, be replaced as national secretary of the C.I.O. With vigorous insistence this could have been readily accomplished.

In the woods and sawmills of the Northwest, where the I.W.W. tradition was still strong, the left wing was responsible for building the C.I.O. union, the International Woodworkers of America, whose first president was Harold Pritchett, a Canadian Communist. This union was the result of a breakaway from the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.

The International Fur and Leather Workers Union, the most militant and progressive union in the needle industry, was brought into the C.I.O. when the Communists and the progressives won the leadership of the union at its convention in Chicago in 1937, and withdrew it from the A.F. of L. Organizing the fur industry completely and branching out into the unorganized leather industry, it then quickly tripled its membership. Its leader then and now is Ben Gold, brilliant veteran fighter. Irving Potash is a mainstay in this union.

The Transport Workers Union was organized mainly by the Communists. The president of this union, the redbaiting Michael Quill, at that time proclaimed himself as a leftist among the lefts. He was a pseudo-Communist. The International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, an organization with a great fighting tradition (dating back to the old Western Federation of Miners) and one of the most important basic unions in the United States, was also built by the broad left wing-progressive combination. And so, mainly, were the Packinghouse and Cannery Workers, the Farm Equipment and Metal Workers, the American Communications Association, United Office and Professional Workers, State, County and Municipal Workers, and the American Newspaper Guild. In the building of the other new C.I.O. unions, such as Shoe, Rubber, Aluminum, Flat Glass, etc., the Communists also did their part.

Communists were likewise pioneers, along with other progressive elements, in building many C.I.O. city and state industrial councils. Consequently the councils in nearly all the big cities—New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Seattle, San Francisco, Buffalo, and elsewhere—were led by left-progressive forces, as also were a, number of the state bodies—Illinois, California, Wisconsin, Indiana, Washington, and others.

By 1940 the Communists were a strong influence in the leadership of the C.I.O. This position of influence they had won, in spite of many mistakes, by clear-thinking, successful organizing work, militant fighting on picket lines, and all-around devoted service to the working class. The Communists were everywhere identified in the minds of the workers with the big organizing campaigns of these foundation years of the C.I.O. and with such hard-fought strikes as those of San Francisco, Flint, Ford, Little Steel, and the Atlantic and Pacific coast waterfronts. In the A.F. of L. unions the Communists were less strong, although about one-third of all Communist trade unionists belonged to these organizations. Main Communist positions in the A.F. of L. were in the food, painters, and machinists unions. This comparative weakness in the A.F. of L. was due to neglect of Communist work in that organization and to the concentration upon work in the C.I.O.

Communist influence in the C.I.O. ran far beyond the degree of formal leadership exercised by Party members. As we have indicated earlier, it was to be seen in the comparatively advanced political program of the C.I.O., in its progressive attitude toward the Negro workers, in the up-to-date organizational methods used in building the unions, and in the militant fighting spirit with which strikes were carried through. The Communist Party may well be proud of the role it played in the building of the C.I.O. and the unionization of the trustified industries. In view of this splendid record, charges by A.F. of L. and C.I.O. top leaders that the Communists are trying to "dominate the trade union movement," or even "to break it up," are simply ridiculous.

1 William W. Weinstone, The Great Sit-Down Strike, N. Y., 1937.
2 F. R. Dulles, Labor in America, p. 294, N. Y., 1949.
3 Jack Stachel in The Communist, Nov. 1936.
4 B. Stolberg, The Story of the C.I.O., N. Y., 1938.
5 Saul Alinsky, John L. Lewis, p. 153, N. Y., 1949.
6 Several of these pamphlets were later combined into a book, Organizing the Mass
Production Industries, N. Y., 1937. 
7 William Z. Foster, Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry, N. Y., 1936.
8 Dulles, Labor in America, p. 317.
9 B. L. Carreathers, unpublished manuscript.
10 Laisve, N. Y., Oct. 27, 1936.
11 Alinsky, John L. Lewis, p. 153.
12 Wyndham Mortimer in March of Labor, July 1951

Chapter 25

No comments:

Post a Comment