May 16, 2008

An Eye-Witness Report

Labor’s Biggest Organizing Victories
Occurred During the Depression Years

(Final Article in Four-Part Series)

By Harry Kelber

The AFL was faced with a critical problem in the early1930s: Its craft unions had become increasingly ineffective in the mass-production industries (auto, steel, rubber, electrical and other sectors) that now dominated the American economy. Moreover, giant corporations in these industries were hiring tens of thousands of semi-skilled and unskilled workers to staff their assembly lines, while the AFL unions remained largely limited to skilled craft workers.

The AFL’s “Old Guard” responded to the problem by proposing to place all newly-organized workers into “federal” unions, later to be distributed to the various crafts. This angered the leaders of the few industrial unions within the AFL’s ranks. At the same time, there was an upsurge of organizing by independent industrial unions that coalesced into a reform movement

The issue of industrial unionism came to a head at the 1935 AFL convention in Atlantic City, when the Executive Council announced that it did not consider it “advisable to launch an organizing campaign for the steel industry,” as it had promised at the 1934 convention. A bitter three-day debate followed, with the craft union principle upheld by a vote of 18,204 to 10,933.

Shortly after, the presidents of eight AFL unions met to consider a course of action. Led by the dynamic John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers, the largest union in the federation, the group consisted of Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, David Dubinsky of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers, Charles Howard of the International Typographical Union, Thomas F. McMahon of the Textile Workers, Harvey C. Flemming of the Oil Field, Gas Well and Refining Workers, Max Zaritzky of the Hatters, Cap and Millinery Workers and Thomas H. Brown of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers.

The eight men created a Committee for Industrial Organization to promote industrial unionism, while operating within the framework of the AFL. The Executive Council ordered the group to dissolve. The CIO reacted by starting to collect funds for a steel organizing drive. When the AFL convention met in Tampa in 1936, the CIO group did not appear, and was excommunicated by the delegates. The break was now complete.

The Spectacular Progress of the Steel Organizing Campaign

The Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) got off to a good start. By the end of 1936, it had organized 100,000 workers and set them up in 150 locals. A huge victory came when Myron Taylor, chairman of the United States Steel Corporation, after meeting secretly with Lewis, agreed to recognize the SWOC as bargaining agent and granted employees a wage increase and an eight-hour workday. By May 1937, SWOC had signed more than 100 contracts and its membership had grown to 300,000.

But SWOC suffered its first defeat at the hands of the “Little Steel” companies. When SWOC called a strike at Republic Steel, Tom Girdler, company president, fought back, using police to attack picket lines with tear gas, make mass arrests and herd strikebreakers into the plant. On May 30, Chicago police used guns to attack 300 strikers and supporters during a protest march. Ten demonstrators were killed. Labor commemorates the event as the “Memorial Day Massacre.”

Sit-Down Strikes Helped to Organize Auto Industry

Meanwhile, the CIO had begun an organizing campaign in the auto industry, centered in Detroit, where the main factories of the “Big Three” (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) were located. After some stormy internal conflicts, the officials of the United Automobile Workers decided to demand recognition from General Motors. When GM refused to deal with the union, the UAW called a strike at its Flint plant in January 1937.

The strike was as unusual as it was effective. Instead of walking out of the plant and forming picket lines, the workers just sat idly at their workbenches. GM officials denounced the sit-down as an invasion of company property and ordered the police to remove the strikers by force. The strikers held their ground, even when the company turned off the heat and the police used tear gas.

Michigan Gov. Frank Murphy refused to call out the state militia to evict the strikers. Finally, on Feb. 4, at the request of President Roosevelt, a meeting took place between Murphy, William Knudsen, GM chairman, and John L. Lewis. After a week of meetings, the trio produced an agreement in which General Motors recognized the UAW as bargaining agent for its members and promised there would be no discrimination against union members in its hiring policy.

The sit-down tactic became widely popular wherever unions were contemplating to call strikes. Between September 1936 and June 1937, almost a half-million workers participated in sit-down strikes in textiles, rubber, glass, and many other trades. Sit-downs came under public attack as trespassing on private property; they were denounced by the U.S. Senate and virtually banned by a Supreme Court decision in 1939. Both the AFL and CIO abandoned the tactic on the grounds that their demands could be achieved without resorting to illegal means.

The CIO made gains in other industries as well. It set up the Textile Workers Organizing Committee, which, by the end of 1937, had won contracts for nearly half of the nation’s textile workers. Campaigns among rubber workers brought contracts with Goodyear, Goodrich, Firestone and United States Rubber, covering 60 percent of the workers in the industry. Strong organizing drives were made among workers in the apparel, radio and electrical equipment, packinghouse and telephone industries. At the end of two years of activity, the CIO could boast a membership of 3,700,000 members.

* * * * *

We have written this series to acquaint today’s trade unionists with the historic achievements of workers and their unions during the Great Depression. At a time when union organizing shows minimal progress, we should be reminded that 70 years ago, the CIO was able to organize such corporate giants as General Motors, U.S. Steel, General Electric, Westinghouse, Chrysler, Philco and dozens of others. It brought tens of thousands of women workers and members of minority groups into the labor movement.

In those days, the charismatic John L. Lewis, the CIO’s top leader, commanded media attention; his speeches and statements, frequently containing references to the Bible and Shakespeare, were always considered newsworthy, Other CIO leaders publicly carried the message of unionism through interviews and speeches. Today, top union leaders are rarely seen or heard on national radio and television, so that workers remain ill-informed about how the labor movement can help them.

In the 1930’s, the local union played an important role in the lives of many union members. The monthly membership meetings were usually well attended. The union hall was a gathering place for members, where they could socialize or engage in serious discussion. Today, very few large unions hold regular membership meetings. Far too many members don’t know what’s going on in their local unions — or even care.

In those early years, labor, in conjunction with the New Deal, won Social Security, unemployment insurance, a worker rights law, the minimum wage and 40-hour workweek — all in three years! But in the past 30 years, we haven’t won a single piece of pro-worker legislation — and after four years, we still haven’t pressured Congress into passing the Employee Free Choice Act.

There are things that our unions can learn from the labor movement of the 1930’s, especially one important lesson: “Everything is possible if the effort is made.”

Copies of the first three articles of ”The Depression Years” can be down-loaded by visiting our web site: The Labor Educator

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