What is “Alternative Unionism”? - Staughton Lynd

What is “Alternative Unionism”? - Staughton Lynd

An article by Staughton Lynd about the militant unionism of the 1930s.

The unionism described in here has been called “community-based unionism” or “solidarity unionism.” Elizabeth Faue says community-based unionism “emphasized local autonomy and community-level organization” and “opposed bureaucratic unionism.”1 By whatever name, this alternative unionism was democratic, deeply rooted in mutual aid among workers in different crafts and work sites, and politically independent. The key to the value system of alternative unionism was its egalitarianism. The seniority system later negotiated by CIO unions caused some workers to lose their livelihood in a layoff, while others continued to work full-time. In contrast, the Independent Textile Union in Woonsocket, the first industrial unions in rubber, and the anthracite workers of eastern Pennsylvania in the 1930s all favored schemes to share or “equalize” the work among all workers who had completed the probationary period, regardless of seniority.2 The same attitude was evident in the response of the new, independent local industrial unions in Barberton to the Roosevelt recession of 1937–38. According to John Borsos, until the work available dropped below a certain number of hours (typically twenty-four hours a week), Barberton unions insisted that it be equally shared.3

The organizational forms of alternative unionism included federal labor unions, ad hoc factory committees, and improvised central labor bodies.4 Historians have supposed that the general strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco in 1934 were isolated events. We suggest that, on the contrary, these local general strikes were characteristic of what Rosemary Feurer and Gary Gerstle call the “mobilization” of working-class communities.5 In the absence of effective national organizations from which they could seek help, rank and filers were obliged to turn to each other and create horizontal networks that in turn generated a distinctive organizational culture and set of attitudes.

Numerically, the self-organization of the rank and file in the early 1930s was at least as effective as the top-down efforts of the CIO a few years later. I have found that this was the case in steel.6 The picture was similar in other industries. By June 1935 there were a hundred federal labor unions in Summit County, Ohio (including the city of Akron), with 60,000 members.7 In Flint the citywide council of federal labor unions said it had 42,000 members in March 1934, and AFL records indicate that there were 14,000 members who paid dues. These numbers were roughly equivalent to the 25,000 members claimed by the organizer Bob Travis immediately after the Flint sit-down strike of 1937.8 Similarly, the United Textile Workers Union witnessed an extraordinary increase in southern membership, from only a few thousand in July 1933 to between 85,000 and 135,000 (a third to a half of the southern textile labor force) a year later.9

A Wobbly Resemblance

I have been struck by the resemblance between the “alternative unionism” of the 1930s and the rank-and-file militancy of the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW). The following evidence, for the most part unknown to me before this project began, supports that impression.

In the anthracite coal fields, IWW membership from 1906 to 1916 rivaled that of the United Mine Workers (UMW). Perhaps as a result, Michael Kozura points out, “anthracite miners continued to rely on illegal wildcat strikes and other forms of direct action, refused on principle to submit grievances to arbitration, tenaciously resisted the contractual regulation of their labor, opposed union dues check-off, habitually rebelled against the UMW’s dictatorial leadership, and sustained this militant syndicalism into the late 1940s.”10

Individual Wobblies or former Wobblies were often involved in the local industrial unions of the 1930s. Len DeCaux wrote of his fellow CIO militants that “when the CIO lefts let down their hair, it seemed that only the youngest had no background of Wobbly associations.”11 Specific examples abound. Tom Klasey, who helped organize AFL members at Chevrolet in Flint, had been an IWW activist in the Pacific Northwest during World War I. In Austin, Minnesota, organization of the Independent Union of All Workers (IUAW) was led by Frank Ellis, who was “a Wobbly and had taken part in the Wobbly free speech fights out in Everett, Washington,” and the IUAW itself was remembered by a contemporary as “the old Wobbly, the old IWW’s local.” Blackie and Chips, the “1934 men” who taught Stan Weir the history of the San Francisco general strike, were among the many older seamen who paid dues to the IWW until 1936. John W. Anderson jumped up on a car fender to become the chairperson of the 1933 Briggs strike in Detroit, worked as a volunteer IWW organizer for three years, and later became a dissident local union president in the UAW. Freeman Thompson, who joined the National Miners Union in the early 1930s and objected when asked to join the United Mine Workers a few years later, “seemed to have some IWW experience in his background.”12

A Wobbly style of organizing was sometimes evident even when flesh- and-blood Wobblies were not. David Montgomery has suggested that “in many ways the struggles of 1916–1922 . . . presaged those of at least the early 1930s, that is, before the founding of the Committee for Industrial Organization and the enactment of the Wagner Act.”13 The Westinghouse plant east of Pittsburgh is an example of such continuity. Montgomery describes how just before World War I the Westinghouse workers created an in-plant organization that “devoted itself to struggles around demands, rather than negotiating contracts.”14 More than twenty years later, when the CIO established itself in the same plant, bargaining was at first carried on in the same Wobbly manner. According to Ronald Schatz:

An arrangement existed whereby plant managers would meet with the leaders of UE Local 601 to negotiate about such issues as hours of work or layoff policy, then depart to post the results of their discussions as if management had merely consulted with the union leadership. Although there were few if any Wobblies . . . in the plant, the local had arrived at an IWW-style bargaining relationship. There were no contracts; all agreements could be abrogated by either party at any time; and grievances were settled quickly according to the strength of the workers on the floor of the plant.15

As at Westinghouse, the spirit of alternative unionism often carried over into the strongest local unions of the emerging CIO. Many CIO unions, not just in anthracite mining and electrical work but also in the automobile, rubber, and steel industries, initially opposed “workplace contractualism” in the form of the dues check-off and written contracts.16 Sylvia Woods, who belonged to a UAW local in Chicago during World War II, recalled, “We never had check-off. We didn’t want it.”17 In rubber, sit-downs at General Tire, Firestone, and elsewhere convinced workers that “progress did not have to await a formal contract.”18 Goodrich Local 5 in Akron, whose 13,000 members made it the largest local union in the United Rubber Workers, for several years in the 1930s deliberately declined to enter into a collective bargaining agreement.19 Similarly, John Sargent recalled the years without a contract at Inland Steel as the union’s best years in winning wages and benefits for its members.20

The sit-down strikes in Akron and Flint, far from being planned by the national CIO, arose spontaneously from below and were initially opposed by CIO leaders. David Brody writes, “President Sherman Dalrymple of the Rubber Workers at first opposed the sit-downs. Spontaneous sit-downs within the plants accounted for the initial victories in auto and rubber.”21 Ronald Edsforth confirms that the Flint strike “caught the U.A.W. hierarchy by surprise. They had not planned any action until the first of the year.” Although CIO and UAW leaders supported the Flint sit-down once it was under way, their difference with the rank and file over timing was also a disagreement about the authority to start strikes.

It seems to be a custome [sic] for anybody or any group to call a strike at will,” Adolf Germer, the CIO representative, complained to John Brophy, the CIO representative, in November 1936.22 Louis Adamic investigated the sit-downs soon after they occurred and concluded that:

many of the rank-and-file automobile and rubber workers, as well as many of the organizers in the field and some of the organizers in the offices of the rubber and automobile unions, thought the world of the sit-down when I asked them about it. The top leadership of these unions, however, like the responsible leaders of the C.I.O., seemed to view it with misgivings. Some did not know what to think of the “damned thing,” as an Akron leader called it. None went so far as to fight it, but to some of them it looked like “dangerous business” in the long run even if now it helped to organize unions. They at once liked and feared it. Some feared it, perhaps, because it deprived the regular labor official of much of his authority; others because the sit-down was too spontaneous and seemingly haphazard. Too anarchic. It threatened to play the devil with the collective bargaining idea.23

I emphasize that I am talking about the character of the alternative unionism of the 1930s, not its causation. In many communities, such as the southern textile towns Janet Irons describes, the alternative unionism of the early 1930s developed free of any apparent influence from IWW or other radicals. In some situations, such as the St. Louis nut-pickers’ strike, the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union or the first sit-down in the Alabama steel industry, Communists, Trotskyists, Socialists, or Musteites played the role that Wobblies did elsewhere.24 Much more research would be needed to support any general theory of causation. An essentially localized movement that took form more or less simultaneously in literally dozens of communities is unlikely to show any single dominant pattern of cause and effect.

I think it is clear, however, that a community-based, horizontally bonded “culture of struggle,” with roots in such epic battles as the 1916 Westinghouse strike, the Lawrence, Massachusetts, strikes of 1912 and 1919, and community-based strikes in coal mining and cotton textile towns during the 1920s,25 also pervaded the alternative unionism of the early 1930s and the first years of many CIO local unions.

Because of the affinity between the character of the alternative unions we have uncovered and the tradition of the IWW, we have chosen as a title the words embattled workers in both settings used. When Wobblies approached Everett, Washington, on the steamer Verona in November 1916, Walker Smith reported, “Sheriff McRae called out to them: ‘Who is your leader?’ Immediate and unmistakable was the answer from every I.W.W.: ‘We are all leaders.’”26 Likewise on March 7, 1932, about 3,000 unemployed Ford workers tried to march from Detroit to Ford headquarters in Dearborn, and at the Dearborn city limits, about fifty Dearborn police and private police from the Ford plant blocked the road. “‘Who are your leaders?’ an officer called out. ‘We are all leaders!’ someone shouted back.”27 After these words were spoken, the authorities in each situation opened fire, killing five men in Everett and four in Dearborn.

Alternative Unionism and the CIO

There appear to be three basic ways of looking at the CIO in relation to the alternative unionism of the early 1930s.

The first view is that at the outset of large social movements there is often a period of mass enthusiasm, egalitarianism, and “primitive democracy” (the phrase was coined by Sidney and Beatrice Webb), but as the movement grows and settles down to its serious tasks, an efficient centralized bureaucracy inevitably takes over. In this view the bureaucratized business union movement that the CIO had become by 1950 was natural and inevitable.

A second interpretation of the CIO in its relation to alternative unionism is that everything depends on the ideology of the leadership. Had Communist leadership been able to survive, it is argued, the CIO might have been very different. This way of looking at things tends to lead to campaigns to replace the top personnel of existing AFL-CIO national unions.

While the authors of these essays naturally differ somewhat among themselves, they lean toward a third way of viewing the 1930s. We propose that the CIO from the beginning intended a top-down, so-called responsible unionism that would prevent strikes and control the rank and file. It is true that CIO leaders could not get employers to the bargaining table with merely verbal persuasion. For this reason, they were forced to turn the ranks loose against the corporations. Their ultimate objective, however, was succinctly expressed by John L. Lewis, who in effect told the Senate committee sponsoring the Wagner Act, “Allow the workers to organize, establish strong governmental machinery for dealing with labor questions, and industrial peace will result.”28

Ronald Radosh characterizes Lewis’s motivation similarly: “The ‘dangerous state of affairs’ [of 1935] might very well have led to ‘class consciousness’ and ‘revolution as well.’ Lewis hoped that it could ‘be avoided,’ and he pledged that his own industrial union was ‘doing everything in their power to make the system work and thereby avoid it.’”29 David Brody also writes about Lewis’s interest in taming the new local industrial unions of 1933-35:

Much of Lewis’s sense of urgency in 1935 sprang from his awareness of the pressure mounting in industrial ranks. A local auto union leader told Lewis in May 1935 of talk about craft unions taking skilled men from the federal unions. “We say like h--- they will and if it is ever ordered and enforced there will be one more independent union.” Threats of this kind, Lewis knew, would surely become actions under existing AFL policy, and, as he warned the Executive Council, then “we are facing the merger of these independent unions in some form of national organization.” That prophecy, Lewis was determined, should come to pass under his control.30

Brody rightly stresses that a CIO led by Lewis, a lifelong Republican who “made no bones about his contempt for democratic processes that he considered injurious to the efficient operation of the union as a ‘business proposition,’” was likely to display “a remarkable opportunism... With John L. Lewis as the heroic figure of the 1930s, it is not any wonder that those great days did not transform American trade unionism into a social movement.”31

Many observers on the scene at the time the Wagner Act was passed predicted with essential accuracy what would eventually happen to the CIO. These observers included spokespersons for the AFL, the American Civil Liberties Union, the IWW, and the Communist Party of the United States, as well as A. J. Muste and many rank-and-file workers. William Forbath writes of the views of the AFL:

As Furuseth, Frey, and the other AFL anti-injunction campaign veterans darkly prophesied, the Act inaugurated a regulatory regime that, in administering the new liberties, might resurrect many of the old restraints. If the old guard grossly underestimated the good that would flow from the new order, they were not wrong about the possibility that within it many of the old common-law restraints on collective action might reassert themselves. The federal courts have interpreted the NLRA [National Labor Relations Act] to prohibit virtually all forms of secondary strikes and boycotts, and the Supreme Court has upheld this bar against constitutional challenges.32

Still more incisive were the predictions of Roger Baldwin and Mary Van Kleeck, spokespersons for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In 1933, three days after the enactment of the National Industrial Recovery Act, Baldwin, the executive secretary of the ACLU, wrote to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins expressing fear that the bituminous coal code might include the following objectionable features:

1. exclusive representational status for the majority union,

2. the dues check-off, and

3. the closed shop. Baldwin thought that all three provisions would have the effect of chilling the activities of minorities, such as the Progressive Miners, which was then contesting the hegemony of the United Mine Workers.33

In 1934, when the first version of the Wagner Act was proposed, Van Kleeck wrote Senator Robert Wagner advising him that the ACLU would oppose his bill because of the “inevitable trends of its administration.” Fundamentally, Van Kleeck stated, “I believe that it is impossible ‘to equalize the bargaining power of employers and employees,’ since necessarily the decision to produce at all . . . rests with the employer.” Under this condition of inequality, Van Kleeck went on:

The danger is that the effort to regulate industrial relations by requiring of employers certain “fair practices,” while appearing to impose those obligations upon them, necessarily brings the whole subject within the scope of governmental regulation. This involves a certain assumption as to a status quo. To prevent or discourage strikes which have for their purpose gradual increase in the workers’ power in a period when fundamental economic change in the ownership of industry can clearly be envisaged may only serve to check the rising power of the exponents of human rights, and indeed to protect private property rights in exchange for obligations which are likely to be merely the least common denominator of industrial practice.

Van Kleeck concluded by acknowledging that Senator Wagner’s bill explicitly protected the right of workers to strike, but she insisted that “pressures would inevitably be exerted on the National Labor Relations Board to discourage strikes in favor of less disruptive methods of resolving conflicts.”34

Van Kleeck’s analysis of the proposed Wagner Act was echoed by Baldwin. In 1934 Baldwin wrote Senator David Walsh that the machinery proposed in the pending legislation would “impair labor’s rights in the long run, however much its authors may intend precisely the contrary.” In 1935 he wrote Senator Wagner that the ACLU would oppose creation of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) “on the ground that no such federal agency intervening in the conflicts between employers and employees can be expected to fairly determine the issues of labor’s rights. We say this from a long experience with the various boards set up in Washington, all of which have tended to take from labor its basic right to strike by substituting mediation, conciliation, or, in some cases, arbitration.” Baldwin urged Senator Wagner to consider “the view that the pressures on any government agency from employers are so constant and determined that it is far better to have no govern- mental intervention than to suffer the delusion that it will aid labor in its struggle for the rights to organize, bargain collectively and strike.”35

Many rank-and-file workers expressed similar views. In the textile industry, employers used National Recovery Administration (NRA) boards to impose the hated stretch-out (where workers are required to do extra work for little or no additional pay), while workers boycotted the cotton textile labor board and shifted their struggle to the arena where they had more leverage—on the ground in the South. For textile workers, Janet Irons concludes, “government intervention proved disastrous.”36 Daniel Nelson maintains that rubber workers in Akron had concluded by early 1935 “that reliance on the government meant broken promises and endless delays.”37 C. J. Francis, the recording secretary of the National Match Workers’ Council, wrote in like spirit to Francis Biddle, chair of the NLRB: “We cannot or at least will not use the agency set up by the Federal Government.” Experience had taught these unionists that even a favorable decision would only lead to endless employer appeals. “We are not going to stand for this and as we see it, our only hope is through strike and to battle it out on the picket line,” C. J. Francis declared.38

From the Beginning

Our view of the relationship between the alternative unionism of the early 1930s and the CIO is exemplified in an incident narrated by Peter Rachleff. In March 1937 at Albert Lea, Minnesota, truck drivers and warehouse workers went on strike. They were joined by Woolworth’s clerks and workers at two plants of the American Gas Machine Company, who went on strike, and in the manner of that heroic spring, occupied their places of work. The Independent Union of All Workers coordinated all three actions. Every night the IUAW Drum and Bugle Corps paraded past each of the embattled work sites. The strikes held for two weeks. Then the sheriff and 150 special deputies stormed the offices of the IUAW and arrested sixty-two people. In response, 400 workers at nearby Hormel left their jobs and drove in a caravan to Albert Lea. As Rachleff recounts, “There they marched down the main street to the jail and demanded that all the prisoners be freed. When the brand new Albert Lea police cruiser pulled up, the crowd surrounded it, took the cops out, rolled it over, set it on fire, and then slid the charred remains into the lake across the street. Armed with crowbars, individuals from the crowd began to pry open the bars on the windows of the jail.”39

Governor Elmer Benson, who had won election on the Farmer Labor ticket, thereupon appeared on the scene as a mediator. The settlement he proposed and eventually negotiated had three elements. First, all imprisoned workers were to be freed. Second, the company was to recognize and bargain with the IUAW. Third, the IUAW was to affiliate with a national union within sixty days. As it worked out, different IUAW local bodies joined different national unions, and the “one big union” at a city and regional level that the IUAW had nurtured for four years fell apart.

What did affiliation with a national union represent to the Albert Lea business community and to a governor anxious for social peace? Why was this chosen as the quid that would compensate the bosses for the quo of emptying the jails and agreeing to bargain?

Corporations like U.S. Steel at first responded to the labor ferment of the 1930s with a localized strategy. They formed local company unions or reasserted their traditional control of local communities through company-owned housing, company stores, and local governments staffed by company supervisors.40 When coal miners turned up to picket with the steelworkers at U.S. Steel’s Clairton coke works in 1933,41 when independent federal local unions in Barberton marched on each other’s picket lines in strike after strike from 1934 to 1936,42 and when 170,000 southern textile workers, many of them organized in local “homegrown unions,”43 showed that no part of the country was safe from the rank-and-file fever in 1934, then, in Janet Irons’s words describing the Cotton Textile Institute, many corporations decided “to elevate the struggle to [a] national level. They hoped to thereby circumvent the local strategic leverage that mill workers had gained.”44

Business came to recognize that the national union, whether AFL or CIO, with its vertical structure, its interest in a predictable cash flow from membership dues, and its demonstrated readiness to give away the right to strike and to police the shop floor, offered an alternative strategy of control perhaps more promising than the local company union. U.S. Steel espoused the new strategy in March 1937, in part, it seems, because “union firms had the advantage of avoiding the disruptions incident to conflict over unionization,” as at Flint.45 General Motors followed suit and became, in Ronald Edsforth’s words, “a model for other large companies to follow in the 1940s.”46 [John Sargent emphasizes how “the companies became smart” and “realized that the best way to handle the situation was to work with the international leadership of this union.”]47

Accordingly, in contrast to those who emphasize the difference between the original CIO unions and what they became after World War II, we stress those features of national CIO unionism that from the beginning (or very shortly thereafter) distinguished CIO unionism at the national level from the horizontal, community-based unionism of the early 1930s.

First, national CIO unions were from the beginning, and aspired to be, “semipublic institutions, licensed by the state.”48 As government monopolies, they could insulate themselves from competing labor organizations by law instead of proving their superiority in practice or, as in European economies, sharing the representative function with other unions. This surrender of autonomy represented a fundamental departure from labor tradition in the United States.49

Second, national CIO unions from the beginning practiced top-down decision making. Independent local unions, such as the Independent Textile Union in Woonsocket, were typically led by people who continued to work at least part time in the shop. In contrast, the national CIO encouraged the proliferation of full-time officers and staff representatives, paid by the national union.50

Likewise the national CIO deliberately broke up militant local industrial unions like Local 65 of the Steelworkers in South Chicago and Local 156 of the UAW in Flint. Lizabeth Cohen narrates the disillusionment of George Patterson, who founded the Associated Employees at U.S. Steel South Works in Chicago and led it into the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), where it became Local 65 of the United Steelworkers of America.

Grassroots spontaneity and local concerns often were subordinated to the national CIO agenda. This imposition of “top-down” control happened first and most dramatically in steel, where the national leadership of SWOC began very early to tie the hands of its locals. At the start, district officers were appointed, not elected, and even after elections were held starting in 1944, it became virtually impossible to unseat District 31’s director, Joe Germano. Locals also had little fiscal independence. Member dues went directly to the steel union’s central office. As early as January 1937, Bittner was telling his organizers in Chicago, “We are dictating policy of all lodges until steel is organized. Democracy is important, but at this time collective bargaining and higher wages are the issues.” When Bittner decided to divide South Works Local 65 into four, more controllable locals, . . . George Patterson... despaired: “Democracy from the bottom up, that we had practiced in Local 65, was now difficult to pursue...” Steelworkers who had managed to overcome the fragmentation their employers had encouraged now had to contend with a union leadership also intent on dividing them. Similar frustration over lack of autonomy arose when the grievance committeemen elected by the different departments of South Works decided they would rather meet with the company’s managers alone: “lo and behold, they found that there was always going to be a [SWOC] staff member coming into the meetings in order to see that the union would be guided.” It did not take long for Patterson and other veterans of the Associated Employees to realize that “what we wanted” was not of concern to the men at the top. “They were hand-picking what we would call ‘yes-men’; anybody that could stand and talk and didn’t bow to their thinking was gradually eliminated.”51

Ronald Edsforth tells a similar tale of the destruction of UAW Local 156 in Flint by the UAW and CIO hierarchies: “By the end of June [1937], Bob Travis and the rest of the local union’s radical leadership had been removed from office and transferred to assignments that were deliberately scattered all over the country. Thousands of Flint workers protested this purge, but to no avail. A committee of five was put in charge of Local 156’s affairs for the rest of the year. This committee, which contained no one from the union’s radical ‘Unity’ caucus, cracked down on the militants within the auto plants.”52

Third, whereas the rank-and-file unionism of the early 1930s emerged from and depended on direct action inside and outside the shop, national CIO unions from the beginning sought to regulate shop floor activity from above and to prohibit shop floor activity not approved at higher levels of the union. “In the next few years following the sit-downs, the main task” of the CIO was “to domesticate the popular insurgency,” Steve Fraser writes. Thus, he explains, in Flint “a second conflict that pitted the International Union and GM management against rank-and-file shop-floor organizers supplanted the more celebrated battle between union and corporation. The emerging bureaucracy of the UAW took steps to dismantle the steward system, reduced the authority of local unions while augmenting the power of the International, and perfected the modern grievance procedure and committee system.”53

Because they were separated from the shop floor and concerned about controlling it, national CIO leaders were insensitive to the shop floor’s chief complaint: inhuman working conditions. Irons explains:

Unions were now tied to an agenda set by the federal government rather than by their own membership. What the government determined to be legitimate grievances the union could fight for; what government policy ignored were inadmissible grievances... [In 1938 the] new CIO-organized Textile Workers Organizing Committee (TWOC) encouraged southern workers to join unions because, thanks to the Wagner Act, the government was now behind them. But southern workers’ protests against the stretch-out were ignored by the TWOC, as the union fought for goals that jibed more easily with government goals: increasing purchasing power and stable unions.54

Finally, from the beginning the national CIO leadership ardently sought to discourage independent labor politics and to tie the CIO to the Democratic Party. Eric Davin has brought to light the very substantial labor party movement during the early 1930s. In those years local labor parties fielded candidates in at least twenty-three communities and came to control the local government of at least one community, Berlin, New Hampshire. In at least ten other communities central labor unions endorsed the idea of a labor party, as did state federations of labor in Rhode Island, Vermont, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. At the 1935 AFL convention, where the Committee for Industrial Organization was created, a variety of unions submitted proposals for a labor party and a resolution to that effect failed by only a few votes.55

Early in 1936 John L. Lewis and Sidney Hillman founded Labor’s Nonpartisan League, in the words of Steve Fraser, “as a way of circumventing third party movements.”56 A few weeks later, when the nascent UAW held a meeting in South Bend, defeated a resolution to back Roosevelt, and unanimously called for the formation of a farmer-labor party, Lewis directed Adolf Germer, the CIO staff representative, to strong- arm Homer Martin and the delegates into reconsidering.57 During World War II, when third-party enthusiasm revived, the CIO created the Political Action Committee to “discourage every move in that direction.”58

Staughton Lynd is an American conscientious objector, Quaker, peace activist and civil rights activist, tax resister, historian, professor, author and lawyer. This excerpt is from Stuaghton Lynd’s recent book, Doing History from the Bottom Up, available from Haymarket Books.

  • 1. Elizabeth Faue, Community of Suffering and Struggle: Women, Men, and the Laboring Movement in Minneapolis, 1915–1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 4. For solidarity unionism, see Staughton Lynd, Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1992).
  • 2. Gerstle, Working-Class Americanism, 143, 145; John Borsos, “Ironing Out Chaos: The CIO-ization of the United Rubber Workers, 1933–1941,” unpublished manuscript, 13–14; Michael Kozura, “We Stood Our Ground: Anthracite Miners and the Expropriation of Corporate Property, 1930–1941,” herein. [See also the account of UE organizer Mia Giunta concerning sharing work equally during layoffs at a Connecticut manufacturing plant in the 1970s, in Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers, ed. Alice Lynd and Staughton Lynd, expanded ed. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011), 330.]
  • 3. John Borsos, “‘We Make You This Appeal in the Name of Every Union Man and Woman in Barberton’: Solidarity Unionism in Barberton, Ohio, 1933– 41,” herein.
  • 4. See, for example, Daniel Nelson, American Rubber Workers and Organized Labor, 1900–1941 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), 116–17 (factory council), 117–69 (federal labor unions); Ronald Edsforth, Class Conflict and Cultural Consensus: The Making of a Mass Consumer Society in Flint, Michigan (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 130–36 (strike committee of 120 members), 162 (citywide council of federal labor unions), 181–83 (in the aftermath of the Flint sit-down, the UAW acts as a “general workers union,” organizing bus drivers, department store clerks, taxi drivers, etc.).
  • 5. Rosemary Feurer, “The Nutpickers’ Union, 1933–34: Crossing the Boundaries of Community and Workplace,” herein (in St. Louis the ability to build community mobilizations was the key to working-class strike success); Gerstle, Working-Class Americanism, chap. 4, “Citywide Mobilization, 1934–1936.”
  • 6. See Staughton Lynd, “The Possibility of Radicalism in the Early 1930s: The Case of Steel,” in Workers’ Struggles Past and Present: A “Radical America” Reader, ed. James Green (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983), 191–92, 205n6 and n11.
  • 7. Nelson, American Rubber Workers, 145. Sidney Hillman told his biographer, Mathew Josephson, that during the NRA period over 40,000 rubber workers had been organized. David Brody, “The Emergence of Mass-Production Unionism,” in Workers in Industrial America: Essays on the Twentieth Century Struggle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 90.
  • 8. Edsforth, Class Conflict, 162, 265n11, 176.
  • 9. Janet Irons, “The Challenge of National Coordination: Southern Textile Workers and the General Textile Strike of 1934,” herein.
  • 10. Kozura, “We Stood Our Ground.”
  • 11. Len DeCaux, The Living Spirit of the Wobblies (New York: International Publishers, 1978), 143.
  • 12. Edsforth, Class Conflict, 159 (Klasey); Shelton Stromquist, Solidarity and Survival: An Oral History of Iowa Labor in the Twentieth Century (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993), 40, 115 (Ellis and the IUAW); Stan Weir, “Unions with Leaders Who Stay on the Job,” herein (Blackie and Chips); John W. Anderson, “How I Became Part of the Labor Movement,” in Rank and File, ed. Lynd and Lynd, 35, 61–62, 65; Steve Nelson with James R. Barrett and Rob Ruck, Steve Nelson: American Radical (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981), 91–92 (Freeman Thompson).
  • 13. David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 457.
  • 14. Ibid., 322 (committee), 319 (IWW).
  • 15. Ronald W. Schatz, The Electrical Workers: A History of Labor at General Electric and Westinghouse, 1923–60 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), 73.
  • 16. “Workplace contractualism” is offered by David Brody to characterize “the essential characteristics of the union workplace regime that emerged out of the great New Deal organizing era in the mass-production sector of American industry.” Brody, “Workplace Contractualism in Comparative Perspective,” in Industrial Democracy in America: The Ambiguous Promise, ed. Nelson Lichtenstein and Howell John Harris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 176.
  • 17. Woods explains: “We said if you have a closed shop and check-off, everybody sits on their butts and they don’t have to worry about organizing and they don’t care what happens. We never wanted it.” Sylvia Woods, “You Have to Fight for Freedom,” in Rank and File, ed. Lynd and Lynd, 126. The organizers my wife and I interviewed for Rank and File told us that the advent of the dues check-off was the single most important cause of the bureaucratization of the CIO. Hence our generalization: “Once unions gained recognition and union dues were automatically taken out of the worker’s paycheck, unions took on a new character.” Ibid., 4.
  • 18. Daniel Nelson, “Origins of the Sit-Down Era: Worker Militancy and Innovation in the Rubber Industry, 1934–1938,” in The Labor History Reader, ed. Daniel J. Leab (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 344.
  • 19. Borsos, “Ironing Out Chaos,” 20, 25–26, citing among other sources Donald Anthony, “Rubber Products: With a Specific Reference to the Akron Area,” in How Collective Bargaining Works: A Survey of Experience in Leading American Industries, ed. Harry A. Mills (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1942), 654: “Although Goodrich was willing by April 1937 to come to an agreement, the first contract was not signed until May 27, 1938. [Local union leaders] felt that unless all demands were won, an agreement would so restrict freedom of action that it would not be worth while.”
  • 20. For John Sargent’s assessment, see “Your Dog Don’t Bark No More,” above. Scholars support his appraisal. After examining the grievance committee minutes at Inland Steel during the late 1930s, and quoting from the accounts of Sargent and committeeman Nick Migas in Rank and File, Lizabeth Cohen states that “at steel mills where the SWOC did not yet have contracts and hence could not control the rank and file, shop floor agitation persisted.” Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 306–07.
  • 21. Brody, “The Emergence of Mass-Production Unionism,” 103.
  • 22. Edsforth, Class Conflict, 171; Germer is quoted in Sidney Fine, Sitdown: The General Motors Strike of 1936–1937 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), 136.
  • 23. Edsforth, Class Conflict, 171. Louis Adamic, My America, 1918–1938 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1938), 414.
  • 24. See Feurer, “The Nutpickers’ Union,” and Mark Naison, “The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union and the CIO,” herein. According to Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 143–44, Communists Joe Howard and C. Dave Smith organized a successful sit-down at the American Casting Company in 1936, only to be fired by the SWOC for acting without authorization.
  • 25. At the Westinghouse plant near Pittsburgh, a key organizer was dismissed and 2,000 men and women walked off the job. By the next morning 13,000 striking workers had linked hands to form a huge human chain around the Westinghouse complex. Giant processions of strikers and supporters gradually closed down the entire Monongahela Valley. On November 1, 1916, a parade, bedecked with red flags and led by a Lithuanian band, invaded steel mills, chain works, and machinery companies, bringing out 36,000 workers. Montgomery, Fall of the House of Labor, 322–25. The Lawrence strike of 1919 is described in The Essays of A. J. Muste, ed. Nat Hentoff (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 55–77.
  • 26. Walker C. Smith, “The Voyage of the Verona,” in Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology, ed. Joyce Kornbluh (Oakland: PM Press, 2011), 108.
  • 27. Franklin Folsom, Impatient Armies of the Poor: The Story of Collective Action of the Unemployed, 1808–1942 (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 1991), 305.
  • 28. Len DeCaux (before he went to work for the CIO) paraphrasing Lewis’s testimony, Federated Press dispatch, Columbia University Oral History Project, April 2, 1935, quoted in “Possibility of Radicalism,” above.
  • 29. Ronald Radosh, “The Myth of the New Deal,” in A New History of Leviathan, ed. R. Radosh and M. Rothbard (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972), 152.
  • 30. Brody, “The Emergence of Mass-Production Unionism,” 103–04.
  • 31. David Brody, “John L. Lewis,” in Workers in Industrial America, 169–70.
  • 32. William Forbath, Law and the Shaping of the American Labor Movement (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 165.
  • 33. Baldwin to Perkins, June 2, 1933, quoted in Cletus Daniel, The American Civil Liberties Union and the Wagner Act: An Inquiry into the Depression-Era Crisis of American Liberalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980), 34.
  • 34. Van Kleeck to Wagner, March 12, 1934, quoted in ibid., 71–73.
  • 35. Baldwin to Walsh, March 20, 1934, quoted in ibid., 75; Baldwin to Wagner, April 1, 1935, quoted in ibid., pp. 101–02. [Senator Wagner, sponsor of the National Labor Relations Act, and Leon Keyserling, principal draftsperson of the statute, had similar apprehensions. In an interview conducted on March 2–3, 1986, a year and a half before his death, Keyserling explained why Section 13 of the NLRA contained remarkably explicit language seeking to protect the right to strike: There was a definite reason. First, because Wagner was always strong for the right to strike on the ground that without the right to strike, which was labor’s ultimate weapon, they really had no other weapon. That guarantee was a part of his thinking. It was particularly necessary because a lot of people made the argument that because the government was giving labor the right to bargain collectively, that was a substitute for the right to strike, which was utterly wrong. Kenneth M. Casebeer, “Holder of the Pen: An Interview with Leon Keyserling on Drafting the Wagner Act,” University of Miami Law Review 42, No. 2 (November 1987): 353.]
  • 36. Irons, “The Challenge of National Coordination.”
  • 37. Nelson, American Rubber Workers, 156.
  • 38. C. J. Francis to Francis Biddle, January 10, 1935, Federal and Mediation Service Files, #170-1252, National Archives, Suitland Records Branch, Suitland, Maryland, quoted in Borsos, “We Make You This Appeal.”
  • 39. Peter Rachleff, “Organizing ‘Wall to Wall’: The Independent Union of All Workers, 1933–37,” herein.
  • 40. In the spring of 1934, 25 percent of all industrial workers belonged to company unions, with two-thirds of these organized under NRA auspices. Rick Fantasia, Cultures of Solidarity: Consciousness, Action, and Contemporary American Workers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 36–37. For company towns, see Eric Davin, “The Littlest New Deal: SWOC Takes Power in Steeltown,” paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, 1992.
  • 41. Lynd, “Possibility of Radicalism,” above.
  • 42. Borsos, “We Make You This Appeal” (the Diamond Match strike in 1934, the Columbia Chemical strike in 1934, the Ohio Insulator strike in 1935, the Columbia Chemical sit-down strike in 1936, and the Pittsburgh Valve and Fittings strike in 1936).
  • 43. Irons, “The Challenge of National Coordination,” herein.
  • 44. Janet Irons, “A New Deal for Labor? Southern Cotton Mill Workers and the General Strike of 1934,” paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, 1989.
  • 45. Brody, “The Emergence of Mass-Production Unionism,” 104.
  • 46. Edsforth, Class Conflict , 187, 272n101.
  • 47. “Your Dog Don’t Bark No More,” above.
  • 48. Ronald W. Schatz uses this phrase to describe unions as they were after the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. “Philip Murray,” in Labor Leaders in America, ed. Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren Van Tine (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1948), 250. But the words apply equally well to the status of unions certified by the NLRB as exclusive bargaining representatives at all times after the passage of the NLRA in 1935. As David Montgomery writes of the work of Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson during World War I: “The consistent theme guiding Wilson’s work was that employers should be encouraged to negotiate with legitimate unions and to shun the IWW and other groups deemed ‘outlaw’ by the AFL. Here was the appearance in embryonic form of the doctrine of a certified bargaining agent, which was to be incorporated into the law of the land in 1935.” Montgomery, Fall of the House of Labor, 357.
  • 49. As Christopher Tomlins has most fully explicated, CIO unions surrendered their autonomy in exchange for government assistance in obtaining employer recognition. In fact, he writes, “the legitimacy of collective activity putatively guaranteed by labor relations law had been conditional almost from the outset. During the debates of the 1930s, proponents of the Wagner Act had stressed, both before and after its passage, that collective bargaining was a means to an end, and that the end was industrial stability and labor peace.” The upshot was that “what the state offered workers and their organizations was ultimately no more than the opportunity to participate in the construction of their own subordination.” The State and the Unions: Labor Relations, Law, and the Organized Labor Movement in America, 1880–1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 318, 327.
  • 50. Not until 1943, twelve years after its founding, did the Independent Textile Union hire its first full-time organizers. Gerstle, Working-Class Americanism , 81–82, 269–70.
  • 51. Cohen, Making a New Deal , 358.
  • 52. Edsforth, Class Conflict , 182–83.
  • 53. Steve Fraser, Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor (New York: Free Press, 1991), 403, and “The Labor Question,” in The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930–1980, ed. Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 77–78. Ronald Edsforth says substantially the same thing about the UAW’s efforts to control shop direct action. Edsforth, Class Conflict, 177–78.
  • 54. Irons, “Challenge of National Coordination.”
  • 55. Eric Leif Davin and Staughton Lynd, “Picket Line and Ballot Box: The Forgotten Legacy of the Local Labor Party Movement, 1932–1936,” Radical History Review 22 (Winter 1979–1980): 43–63; Davin, “The Very Last Hurrah? The Defeat of the Labor Party Idea, 1934– 1936,” herein, and “The Littlest New Deal.”
  • 56. Steve Fraser, “Sidney Hillman: Labor’s Machiavelli,” in Labor Leaders in America, ed. Dubofsky and Van Tine, 221.
  • 57. Fine, Sitdown, 90–91, characterizes the resolution to support a farmer-labor party as “a Communist party-line resolution.” However, Kevin Boyle, “Building the Vanguard: Walter Reuther and Radical Politics in 1936,” Labor History 30 (Summer 1989): 433–88, quotes at length from letters by Walter Reuther to his brothers Victor and Roy Reuther, April 22 and May 2, 1936, suggesting that Walter Reuther, a member of the Socialist Party at the time, strongly supported the resolution in favor of a farmer-labor third party and was aware of the many attempts to set up farmer-labor parties throughout the country.
  • 58. David Brody, “The Uses of Power II: Political Action,” quoting Philip Murray, in Workers in Industrial America, 220–21.