"Organize the Unorganized: Rise of the CIO"

A podcast from Dr. Benjamin Fong, with support from Jacobin

Trailer: "Organize the Unorganized: The Rise of the CIO"

There have been many moments of labor upsurge in America, including the influx of members into the Knights of Labor in 1886, the dramatic growth of unions during and in the immediate aftermath of World War I, and the great public sector unionism surge of the 1960s and 70s, but none matches the scale of the 1930s, when millions of workers were unionized under the aegis of the great labor federation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO. If we’re looking to get millions of private-sector workers into the labor movement, there’s really one time to look to, and that is the ascendant period of the CIO.

In "Organize the Unorganized," Fong dives into the rise, importance, and legacy of the CIO through the voices of prominent labor historians and activists.

Episode 1: Under the Blue Eagle

The first episode of Organize the Unorganized sets the stage for the story of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, first getting into the history of the organization from which it broke off, the American Federation of Labor, and then describing three developments that raised workers’ expectations in the lead-up to the founding of the CIO: the broken promises of welfare capitalism, the National Industrial Recovery Act, and the mass strikes of 1934.

Episode 2: Powerful Personalities 

On the second episode of Organized the Unorganized, we kick things off with an account of the institutional formation of the CIO, and then get to the organization’s key personalities. John L. Lewis, the founding president of and driving force behind the CIO, unsurprisingly gets a fair amount of time, and we focus in particular on the reasons for his bold leadership at this decisive moment in history. We also introduce Sidney Hillman, the only other real center of power in the organization besides Lewis in the early CIO, as well as some of the key organizers of the CIO, most of whom hailed from the United Mine Workers of America.

Episode 3: Sit Down!

On the third episode of Organize the Unorganized, we examine the three initial major victories of the CIO in rubber, auto, and steel. We begin by recounting the story of the “first CIO strike” at the Goodyear complex in Akron, Ohio, a victorious strike that put the CIO on the map. We then turn to the great General Motors strike in the winter of 1937, perhaps the most iconic confrontation of the period and generally recognized as the CIO’s transformational victory. We end briefly on the steel organizing campaign, whose success was drawn in part from the threatening militancy of the CIO.

Episode 4: Taking Stock

How was it that the CIO was finally able to make good on the decades-old dream of industrial unionism? In this episode, we outline four factors that were the keys to the CIO’s success. First, there was a political opportunity that the CIO took advantage of. Second, there were militant and disruptive tactics employed that were effective given that political opportunity. Third, there was the great energy and commitment of the Left as channeled toward the stable end of collective bargaining. And finally, there was what podcast guest Lizabeth Cohen has called the “culture of unity” bred by the CIO. The first factor was covered in Episode 2, and the second in Episode 3, and so we won’t rehash that material here. This episode is thus focused on the latter two: the influence of the Left and the culture of unity.

Episode 5: Little Steel

This episode is devoted to the Little Steel strike in the summer of 1937, a tragic failure for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee and the CIO, and one that illustrated the limits of the New Deal order. It might appear excessive to devote an entire episode of the podcast to one strike, but Little Steel was in many ways a turning point, a key hinge in our story. To capture it well we also need to delve into the more general history of steel organizing in America, a fantastically brutal affair that reveals the soul of American capitalism.

Episode 6: From the Docks to the Killing Floors

On this week's episode of Organize the Unorganized, we cover some of the key CIO unions not yet discussed in great detail, including the UE, ILWU, TWOC and PWOC. There were many other unions that formed the CIO - unions in oil, printing, transport, retail - but the four that we’re covering on this episode were four of the biggest and most influential that we haven't yet gotten into.

Episode 7: War

The early period of the CIO could be said to have ended with the Little Steel strike in 1937, when the limits of the New Deal order were dramatically illustrated in the brutal repression and failure of the strike. But the CIO continued to grow through the '40s, and it was the war escalation that provided the context for it to do so. This episode is devoted to the CIO's role in and relation to the war effort, and what it meant for this labor upsurge.

Episode 8: Is There an Ending to the CIO?

This penultimate episode of Organize the Unorganized concludes the story of the CIO. We cover first the communist purge in the late 1940s, as well as Operation Dixie, the failed campaign to organize the south. We then get to merger with the AFL in 1955, and the afterlife of the CIO in the Industrial Union Department and its contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.

Episode 9: Lessons

This final episode of Organize the Unorganized is devoted to key lessons of the CIO moment. All of the guests on this program were asked about this basic question, and we try to represent all of their answers on this episode. The negative lessons, points where guests were keen to note the differences between the 30s and the present moment, focused on the changed economic situation and the issue of labor law. The more positive lessons pertained to union democracy, overcoming divisions in the working class, mass organizing, raising expectations, and seizing the moment.

"Lewis came to town and spoke to a rally and said, ‘I want you to do something for yourselves.’ And that just hit a chord."

– Daniel Nelson

Interviews with sources

If you enjoyed the episodes, check out a variety of interviews with experts featured on the show.

Interview with Bryan Palmer, professor emeritus of history at Trent University and author of "Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Truckers’ Strikes of 1934," "James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890–1928," and "James P. Cannon and the Emergence of Trotskyism in the United States, 1928–38."

Interview with Melvyn Dubofsky, professor emeritus of history and sociology at Binghamton University and author of "The State and Labor in Modern America"; with Stephen Burwood, "The Great Depression and the New Deal"; with Warren Van Tine, "John L. Lewis: A Biography"; and with Joseph A. McCartin, "Labor in America: A History."

Interview with Lizabeth Cohen, Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies and Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of History at Harvard University. Cohen is the author of many books, but most notable for this project is her book "Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939", winner of the Bancroft Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer.

Interview with Jeremy Brecher, a historian and documentarian, and author of many books — his great history of the American labor movement, "Strike!," being the most applicable to this project. 

Interview with Daniel Nelson, professor emeritus of history at the University of Akron and author of "American Rubber Workers and Organized Labor, 1900–1941."

Interview with Steve Fraser, a historian and author of many books, most notably for this project, "Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor," a fantastic biography of one of the most important figures in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Interview with Robert Cherny, professor emeritus of history at San Francisco State University and the author most recently of "Harry Bridges: Labor Radical, Labor Legend."

"There were workers thirsting for a new kind of unionism — the organization of the unorganized, and the organization of mass production workers and the organization of new sectors."

– Bryan D. Palmer

"The real clash was not between skilled and non-skilled. The clash was over whether it would pay off to unionize the mass production workers." 

– Melvyn Dubovsky

"In many unions, as in many institutions in our society, leadership just felt that it could do what it wanted."

– Lizabeth Cohen

"When workers join together, they have the power to oppose the most powerful forces that confront them, and to win very significant concessions."

– Jeremy Brecher

"It may be that in the ’30s more was possible with the CIO than was achieved, but what was achieved was enormously important in ensuring democracy."

– Steve Fraser

"Time and again in labor history, you see that when unions have an authoritarian leadership, that leadership loses contact with the rank-and-file and makes bad decisions."

– Robert Cherny