Review: The CIO 1935-1955

Against the Current, No. 58, September/October 1995

Dan La Botz

The CIO: 1935-1955
by Robert H. Zieger
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995,
476 pages, $45.

ROBERT H. ZIEGER’S The CIO: 1935-1955 will take its place on the labor history shelves next to Philip Taft’s history of the American Federation of Labor, and near the works of John R. Commons and Selig Perlman. Zieger’s work will be for many years the standard work and definitive history of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

With a masterful command of the archives of the CIO, its affiliated International unions, and government agencies, as well as the large secondary history in this field, Zieger has produced a very readable and comprehensive institutional history dealing with all the major events, personalities and issues.

At the same time, for the field of labor history, Zieger’s CIO represents a conservative turn both in form and content. This narrow institutional history is fundamentally an apology for the labor bureaucracy of the CIO, particularly Sidney Hillman, Philip Murray and above all Walter Reuther.

Those who look for a critical perspective on the U.S. labor establishment are likely to find The CIO disappointing, for Zieger has written what is in effect the Whig history of the labor bureaucrats, one which demonstrates the inevitability and desirability of their long-term tenure.

The fundamentally establishment character of Zieger’s book is unfortunate at a time when today’s labor movement is in such dire need of critical thinking.

Traditions Disappeared

I believe that Zieger is correct in his view that labor unions are the most important institutions of the U.S. working class and that they belong at the center of labor history. But the genre of institutional history, at least when so narrowly conceived, tends to reify the working class, the labor movement and even the union as an institution.

The CIO appears cut off from the surrounding society and historically from its own traditions. While in the opening pages Zieger mentions the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World as earlier struggles for industrial unionism, he fails to convey the importance of these earlier movements as models, even if failed models, and as examples for the CIO.

There is no illusion to Debs and the American Railway Union, a crucial defeat in the process. Consequently, the reader of The CIO has no sense of the trajectory of U.S. working class history, or the sense of purpose and direction inherent in workers’ struggles leading up to the CIO.

Similarly, because this is an institutional history, Zieger begins his book in 1935 rather than beginning with the Great Depression or with the three great precursor strikes of 1934: Toledo Autolite, the Minneapolis Teamsters and San Francisco longshore.

An account and analysis of those strikes, with their respectively socialist, Trotskyist and Communist leaders, their working class militance and their character as virtual local civil wars, would have given the reader a different understanding of the CIO’s potential, achievements and failings.

Zieger has divided the CIO’s history roughly into three parts: the 1930s, World War II, and the postwar period up to the 1955 AFL-CIO merger. The emphasis on the CIO as an organization often leads Zieger to pass over illuminating moments.

He would have done well, for example, to stop for a few pages and describe at least one of the great sitdown strikes of the 1930s in order to give the reader the feel of the movement. Breaking the fundamental rule of story telling, Zieger tells is the strikes were “dramatic,” but fails to show and make us feel their drama.

Just as Zieger tends to pass over the movement, so too he tends to platy down the role of individual personalities. Zieger does not pause to sketch in a paragraph or two the character and temperament of the actors.

One wonders why Zieger failed to make use of the psychological insights in Warren Van Tine and Melvin Dubofsky’s John L. Lewis or in Fraser’s Labor Shall Rule in order to craft a short profile of the principal figures. But because he didn’t, we don’t really see the important role played by Lewis’ bravado and swagger, by Murray’s insecurities and anxieties, or by Hillman’s exceeding ambition.

We don’t really see this “fallible” men, ass Zieger calls them, transforming themselves into labor statesmen, and certainly that was also key to the creation of the CIO as an institution.

An Organizational Synthesis

What Zieger is really good at doing, however, is showing the gradual organizational structuring of the CIO, the stages in the transformation of a mass movement into a corporate institution. Even specialists will learn a good deal from Zieger’s account of the CIO’s growth and solidification through the establishment of new structures, negotiation of contracts and the decisions of government agencies.

Zieger in this sense is for labor history what Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. is to business history, that is, the purveyor of an “organizational synthesis” in the field of labor studies. And just as Chandler’s work never questions capitalism as a system and implicitly sings its praises, so Zieger tacitly accepts and praises the labor bureaucracy.

“In this book,” writes Zieger in the Introduction, “it is my aim to get the historical record of the CIO as right as I can.” Zieger indicates that he wants to write “a reliable record of the past.” And because it is written in the institutional history genre, the book gives the sense of being just such a straightforward, merely factual account of the CIO, an account deriving directly from the documents.

Certainly CIO derives from studious attention to the documents. Yet Zieger’s history–in its apparent dispassionate style–is also a passionate partisan account.

In his Conclusion, Zieger lists “six major contributions” of the CIO that made it a “positive force in American life.” Those six, paraphrased here, are:

* The creation of industrial unions.

* The negotiation of collective bargaining agreements which brought to workers greater dignity, decency and a higher standard of living.

* Organizing African Americans and playing a positive role in their struggle for civil rights.

* Driving the Communist Party out of the CIO.

* Helping to win the war against fascism.

* Establishing the CIO PAC in the Democratic Party.

Most readers will recognize this as the Reuther platform in the CIO. This is history written from the winners’ standpoint.

Now, while there may be general agreement of the importance of the first three points, there is a good deal of debate about the last three. And as the discussion in the end notes makes clear, Zieger is involved in an intense debate over the nature of the CIO with a group of historians whom he characterizes as “neo-syndicalists” and “Trotskyists,” foremost among them Nelson Liechtenstein, author of Labor’s War at Home.

A Road Not Taken

Liechtenstein and the others (Art Preis and Martin Glaberman are mentioned, Staughton Lynd might have been) differ with Zieger on a number of particular points, but they differ most in method. They are interested in the road not taken.

Liechtenstein’s Labor’s War at Home argued that in the course of World War II the workers’ leaders, such as Walter  Reuther, led the labor movement into a collaboration with the corporations and government which ultimately weakened workers’ power on the shop floor and the autonomy of the unions as organizations.

Ultimately the labor movement’s subordination to employer and state led to the bureaucratization of the new unions and the routinization of labor relations. But as Liechtenstein makes clear, there were important moments when it looked as if it might have been otherwise.

Or to consider these matters from another point of view, David Milton in The Politics of U.S. Labor from the Great Depression to the New Deal contends that many of the original organizers and activists who built the CIO starred out fighting for three things: industrial unions, a labor party and socialism. Milton writes:

“The goal of independent organization for which the unskilled and semi-skilled workers of the United States had devoted moire than half a century of sacrifice and bloodshed was finally achieved, but only by abandoning the historic and classic working-class objective of political and economic control over factories and the system of production. In other words, socialism and independent political action were traded off by the industrial working class for economic rights. This historical outcome was neither automatic nor inevitable; the outcome was decided by dispositions of power and the nature of specific political coalitions contending for supremacy.” (Milton, 9-10)

What’s missing from Zieger’s book is precisely that sense of a significant struggle among contending personalities, parties and forces which might have differently shaped the CIO.

Critical Moments

Yet we should be interested in those crucial moments when the workers who created the CIO also–however briefly, incompletely or unsuccessfully) fought for workers’ control of the shop floor, talked about creating a working class political party, expressed reservations about another world war for big business, and dreamed of a more democratic and even socialist America.

Each of those moments held the possibility of other and perhaps better outcomes, and it is precisely the debate about the choices that makes for both exciting and illuminating history. Zieger tends to omit or downplay the importance of the debates.

Each of those critical moments was determined by the relative power of the government, the employers, the labor bureaucrats and the ranks. But Zieger does not give us a no of those powers contesting.

Least of all does he give us a sense of the rank and file, perhaps because his attempts to understand the mentalite or the consciousness of rank and file workers in the CIO depends upon his frequent reference to public opinion polls by Gallup and others.

While such polls have some validity and usefulness, they are only one source. One feels that Zieger might have made better use of oral histories, autobiographies, newspaper articles and social histories to get a feel for the often divided, contradictory or ambivalent character of working-class consciousness.

Race, Gender and Redbaiting

While generally a Reutherite, Zieger does discuss the CIO’s strengths and weakness in its dealing with African American and women workers. He is particularly good at showing how the unions’ masculine ethos and style prejudiced them against women. He also gives a good account of the CIO’s strengths and weaknesses on the racial issue.

Zieger’s account of CIO politics on race and gender nevertheless leaves something to be desired. One never has the sense of the way that these matters really intersect with the union’s larger political project. While arguing for the importance of these matters, Zieger seems to treat them as secondary to the tasks of building the unions, collective bargaining, political action and winning the war.

Many readers, I imagine, will be struck if not shocked by Zieger’s apparent support for the expulsion of the Communists from the CIO. (The discussion is often in the footnotes: See 446, ns. 38 and 39; 450, n. 70.)

Like Walter Reuther, Zieger argues that the labor left was right to drive the pro-Soviet Stalinists out of the unions. The problem historically is that Reuther turns out to represent not a socialist workers’ movement driving the Stalinists out of its ranks, but rather a corporate labor liberal driving his leftist opponents out of the union.

The CIO’s purge of the Communists proves to be part of the Truman-McCarthy anti-Communism which casts a pall over all of American culture for over a decade.

Zieger’s chosen institutional genre makes it difficult for him to incorporate these developments into his history. In explaining the rise of the “new men of power,” Zieger’s institutional approach cuts off the unions from the development of U.S. political economy. The rise and stabilization of the CIO’s bureaucracy had everything to do not only with World War II, but also with the postwar prosperity.

The CIO bureaucracy can only be described and explained by discussing U.S. capital’s imperial hegemony between 1945 and 1968. The bureaucracy’s success in maintaining control over the ranks is understandable only by analyzing the U.S. economy’s dependence on military Keynesianism, i.e. a permanent arms and war economy (to which anti-Communism was politically vital).

Whom Do We Need?

The CIO: 1935-1955 will strand alongside Taft’s AFL, but we will still recommend that students read Irving Bernstein’s The Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-!941 and David Brody’s Workers in Industrial America to understand this period, and we will send them to Liechtenstein and all the other neo-syndicalists and Trotskyists who care about the workers’ road not taken.

Zieger ends his book appropriately enough with a parody of Archie Bunker: “Mister, we could use a man like Walter Reuther again.” Let me quote Ken Paff, national organizer of the reform movement Teamsters for a Democratic Union: “Where’s Debs now that we need him?”

ATC 58, September-October 1995