Industrial unionism as liberator or leash? The limits of "rank-and-filism" in American labor historiography.
It would be difficult to imagine two more divergent approaches to workingclass history than one finds in these volumes. Their emphases vary widely. In some ways, Robert Zieger's book is a throwback. Although it is amply informed by the insights of the new labor history, it chronicles the industrial workers' movement through its institutional expression, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The essays collected by Staughton Lynd, meanwhile, explicitly reach beyond the CIO in search of what Lynd calls "community-based unionism" or "solidarity unionism."(2) The structural differences between these books are equally sharp. Lynd and his colleagues approach the history of American workers in the 1930s in pointillist fashion through individual case studies of strikes, communities, or organizing struggles. Zieger, by contrast, ranges across industries, regions, and decades to offer the first archive-based synthesis of CIO history. Nor are these volumes written with the same goals in mind. The purpose of his book, Lynd informs readers, is to help present-day activists dissatisfied with their "hierarchical and bureaucratic" unions rediscover evidence of an "alternative unionism that preceded the CIO."(3) Zieger, on the other hand, eschews any attempt to discover a usable past. Instead he aspires only to "get the historical record of the CIO as right as I can."(4)
Beyond these considerable differences lies another, still more important disagreement. These volumes offer astonishingly different interpretations of the success of the industrial union movement itself. To Lynd, the rise of the CIO is nothing to celebrate. This organization, he argues, was ruled by conservative bureaucrats. Its growth undercut a more radical, democratic, "horizontal style of unionism" that was flourishing in "that heroic spring" of American labor militancy, the 1930s.(5) Zieger, on the other hand, portrays a CIO that was less a labor bureaucracy than a "fragile juggernaut" contained by forces it could not master. Nor does Zieger put much stock in the notion that "there was a leftward-tending working-class militancy in the 1930s that the CIO bureaucracy defanged or diverted."(6) That the CIO accomplished as much as it did for rank-and-file workers in a culture so inhospitable to sustained class struggle is to him quite remarkable.
How could these authors arrive at such different understandings of the labor history of twentieth-century America ? And what if any larger significance does their disagreement hold? A closer look at these volumes suggests some answers.
Staughton Lynd's book contains nine essays in all. These essays range widely in their choice of subjects, from Pennsylvania coal miners to California longshoremen. Yet they are united by a perspective that Jonathan Zeitlin, in another context, has termed "rank and illism."(7) That is, these essays share a desire to uncover an alternative tradition of militancy beyond the scope of institutional unionism, one that was rooted deeply on the shop floor, in workers' cultures and communities, a tradition often at odds with union leaders.
One group of writers locates this alternative tradition in the initiatives carried out by grass-roots radicals in the 1930s. Rosemary Feurer presents an essay on a Communist-led nutpickers' union in St. Louis. Mark D. Naison studies the Arkansas-based, Socialist-led Southern Tenant Farmers' Union. And Peter Rachleff includes a piece on the International Union of All Workers (IUAW), a forgotten radical group that organized Hormel meatpackers in Minnesota.
Other contributions are distinguished by an effort to re-examine labor defeats from a rank-and-file perspective and to suggest "that history could have been different," as Lynd puts it.(8) This approach typifies Janet Irons's study of the failed 1934 national textile strike in the South. She intimates that this defeat was avoidable. Eric Leif Davin takes a similar approach to his examination of the collapse of the labor party movement in the mid-1930s. He argues that labor leaders missed a window of opportunity for the development of an independent labor politics at a time when masses of workers seemed to support a more radical political course.
An attempt to explore the existence of community-based cultures of struggle characterizes the contributions of Elizabeth Faue, John Borsos, and Michael Kozura. Faue limns the gendered contours of labor solidarity in Minneapolis. Borsos describes the formation of a community-based "solidarity unionism" in Barberton, Ohio.(9) And Kozura offers up perhaps the most fascinating account in the collection. He examines the moral economy of coal bootlegging - the practice of looting abandoned mines for fuel in the Depression-era anthracite towns of northeastern Pennsylvania.
Finally, a bold call to fuse the roles of scholar and activist marks Lynd's introduction and a concluding essay by worker/intellectual Stan Weir. These veterans of past labor struggles urge rank-and-file activists to search the past for alternative models of union organization. And they are confident that the history of the 1930s holds lessons for today.
Altogether, then, the approach suggested by these essays fits well within one influential and well-established stream of new labor history scholarship - an effort to capture the experience of labor's rank-and-file. That is what makes the collective verdict that these essays render on the CIO so very startling. This volume, its editor tells us, condemns the CIO in no uncertain terms. "We propose," Staughton Lynd argues on behalf of his contributors, "that the CIO from the beginning [Lynd's emphasis] intended a top-down, so-called responsible unionism that would prevent strikes and control the rank and file." CIO unions, he argues, were "governmental monopolies" that "practiced top-down decisionmaking," "sought to regulate shop floor activity from above," and "ardently sought to discourage" radical political alternatives.(10) A good deal of the recent scholarship has considered such charges and convicted the CIO on lesser counts in these areas.(11) But no recent work of history has delivered a harsher verdict on the CIO than Lynd advances here.
Arguably, Lynd overstates the evidence of his contributors in reaching this verdict. At least two of his most careful authors seem to arrive at conclusions at odds with their editor's. Elizabeth Faue's discussion of Minneapolis labor organizing, for example, makes no mention of the relentless, undemocratic character that Lynd imputes to the CIO. Indeed, Faue speaks rather more convincingly of the nuances and contradictions that shaped workers' organizing strategies inside and outside the CIO. Over time, she tells us, workers "have shifted emphasis toward and away from the community; they have incorporated state strategies and excluded them; they have striven to focus energies in the narrow terrain of craft identity and to broaden them to include all members of the productive class."(12) Similarly, Rosemary Feurer does not tell us how a bureaucratic CIO crushed the "distinctive community-based approach" to labor struggles that Communists had developed among nutpickers in St. Louis. Rather, she argues that there was a "connection" between the Communists' work and the subsequent rise of the CIO in St. Louis.(13)
Regarding the remaining essays in this volume, however, Lynd may be on firmer ground in advancing his claims. Generally they paint either a harsh view of the CIO, a sanguine view of 1930s labor militancy outside the CIO, or both. Peter Rachleff argues that the CIO undercut a more radical union alternative in Minnesota meatpacking plants. Mark Naison points out that affiliation with the CIO was the death-knell for the interracial Southern Tenant Farmers' Union. And Janet Irons tells us that southern textile workers fared best when they abandoned national union leadership altogether and relied upon "independent efforts to build solidarity locally and regionally."(14) Supplementing this negative portrait of mainstream industrial unionism, the authors of these and other essays recount a veritable prairie fire of 1930s labor militancy that the CIO helped snuff out. In Minnesota, Rachleff tells us, meatpackers exhibited a militant "horizontal solidarity."(15) In Barberton, argues Borsos, workers built a solid foundation of solidarity unionism. In the Pennsylvania anthracite fields, meanwhile, companies and state authorities "lost control of the situation," according to Kozura, when unemployed miners engaged in the "guerilla warfare" of raiding abandoned mines for coal.(16) Nor could the two-party system easily contain this militancy, Eric Davin tells us. According to his account, a major section of the labor movement was prepared to weld such broad discontent into a labor party in 1936 before national union leaders subverted their dream.
Taken together, these essays present an arresting account indeed. If only the CIO had never formed, they seem to suggest, then perhaps a militant, grassroots unionism would have tapped the well-spring of workers' anger and resulted in a genuine restructuring of American society. Though rousing, this version of history is not entirely convincing. Indeed, upon deeper probing, the claims regarding the character of worker militancy that are advanced in these essays appear suspect. There is something troubling, for example, about the willingness of Borsos to characterize the labor militancy that he chronicles with a term - "solidarity unionism" - that comes from present-day labor militants rather than the mouths of 1930s workers. Nor do the apologetic words of Kozura's coal bootleggers - "It was something we had to do, there was no other way" - encourage the reader to accept the author's description of the "class-war mentality" that existed among miners.(17) And surely Davin is misguided to argue that 1936 Labor Party sentiment was so strong that in "New York City the Non-Partisan League chapter actually transformed itself into a third party." The party to which he refers - the American Labor Party - was not produced by any such parthenogenesis. It was created largely by Sidney Hillman, the CIO's machiavellian political tactician, in order to aid Franklin Roosevelt's re-election. Its emergence signified less the cresting of third party sentiment than its smooth conversion to New Deal loyalism.(18)
But the tendency to overdramatize the very real labor militancy of the 1930s is not the only problematic characteristic of these essays. Two other themes that pervade this collection are also worthy of note. The first theme suggests that unions are true workers' institutions only on the local level. Once enveloped in a national structure unions become inevitably bureaucratized and conservative, this argument goes. Thus Rachleff applauds the "local democracy" of Hormel workers, Irons likes "homegrown unions," and Borsos tells us that the local movement, rather than the international union, deserves the credit for building workers' solidarity in Barberton. By contrast, these essays give us national unions that "worked against . . . workers' independent efforts," as Irons puts it.(19) The logic of these essays comes very close to implying that workers are better off with less organization rather than more.
The second theme is similarly surprising. It holds that the U.S. federal government played little or no role in aiding the labor organizing of the 1930s. When it appears in the pages of these essays - which is rarely - the federal government is seen either as an inconsequential force or as an ominous threat to "horizontal solidarity." Tellingly, most contributors don't find the New Deal labor reforms significant enough to warrant mention in their studies. Borsos is one writer who feels obliged to mention them - but only to dismiss their significance. "Much has been made of the [1933 National Industrial Recovery Act's] section 7a, which purportedly gave workers the right to organize," Borsos tells us. But the Barberton, Ohio, workers he studies paid little heed to such legislation, he assures us. Rather, they simply adopted an attitude of "we'll take care of ourselves."(20) In Janet Irons's account of the 1934 textile workers' strike, meanwhile, the New Deal government seems second only to national union leaders in anti-worker treachery. And the tone of the volume in general suggests that the 1935 Wagner Act, by allowing the organization of national industrial unions, was a setback for workers rather than a limited charter of liberation. To Lynd, such evidence suggests a plan of action for the present. CIO-style national unions, he believes, are to be condemned for restraining workers' latent militancy and rationalizing capitalism (if only temporarily). Local unionists, therefore, ought to "coordinate their efforts, without belonging to the same organization."(21) Nor should workers seek solutions through a government historically hostile to their interests. Rather, as the globalization of the economy increases and as New Deal reforms are rolled back, workers ought to imitate their early 1930s forebears, reject bureaucratic unions, build solidarity in their communities, and abandon major parties for independent politics. Unfortunately, Lynd seems more intent on advancing this agenda than on accurately assessing the character of 1930s unionism.
Robert Zieger advances no equivalent battle plan. Yet his findings will undoubtedly prove more instructive to Lynd's intended audience in the long run. Although he is not shy about offering his own politically-informed judgements on the most contentious points of CIO history, Zieger tells us that he is "not primarily concerned with explaining what has happened to the labor movement since the 1950s." Rather, he simply wants to "compel acknowledgement of the difficulty of the choices that historical actors faced."(22) We should be grateful for Zieger's modest approach. It has given us a book that is likely to be for a very long time the starting place for all students of mid-twentieth century American labor history. The remarkable achievement of Zieger's book is that it offers us a twenty-year history of a complex social movement whose national scope is remarkably well illuminated without sacrificing an appreciation of its local nuances and complexities. Zieger points out the tendency among both opponents and friends of organized labor to discount the CIO's contributions. And he takes it as his task to weigh their criticisms against the evidence. He does so relying upon both the relevant archival records and a sensitive reading of the most recent literature.
Zieger's findings strike a different chord from those contained in We Are All Leaders on the three issues that most distinguish the Lynd collection: the nature of national union structures, the character of workers' militancy in the 1930s, and impact of federal government intervention on the workers' movement of that era.
Zieger is at his best when analyzing the nature of the CIO itself. Here his analysis rejects the central motif of the Lynd collection, the relentless conflict between rank-and-file militants and conservative national union leaders. According to Zieger, CIO history was far more complex than this. Lynd posits a CIO hostile from the beginning to rank-and-file militancy. But Zieger reminds us that it was dissident unionists like John Brophy, Adolph Germer, Katherine Pollack Ellison, Len DeCaux, and Powers Hapgood, members of American labor's heritage of dissent, who worked with John L. Lewis to breathe life into the early CIO. The resulting organization did not emerge only to control the rank and file as Lynd suggests. To be sure, Zieger tells us, "a good deal of the history of the CIO" was "bound up with the tension between local concerns and grievances, on one hand, and industrywide or national programs on the other."(23) But this tension was neither unusual nor necessarily baneful in his mind. Rather, to succeed, the CIO of necessity had to be both a local "liberation movement" that could "fire workers' imagination" and a disciplined national organization that could maneuver through "the maze of changing legal and political boundaries to build an organization . . . in a hostile environment." These two aspects of the early CIO were more complementary than contradictory.(24)
Furthermore, Zieger's CIO is scarcely entrenched enough as an institution to quash a rank-and-file rebellion. Staffed by a mere corporal's guard and kept firmly under John L. Lewis's thumb until the eve of World War II, the CIO was but "an abstraction to many workers, a proud rubric rather than a concrete entity. It played virtually no role in collective bargaining and was only sometimes involved in organizing."(25) And the rival groups that its leaders most feared were not marginal militant organizations like Peter Rachleff's IUAW, but rather the powerful craft unions of the American Federation of Labor, which had launched an effective counterattack on the CIO by 1938.
Nor were the mass of workers whom the CIO's campaigns targeted incipient radicals, according to Zieger. Here is a use of social history concerns and data different from Lynd's. To illustrate his point he cites polling materials from the 1930s and 1940s to delineate workers' ambiguous consciousness. Although they render an incomplete picture, these data support the view that workers accepted some hierarchies of wealth and income even while they insisted on their right to organize and gain a full measure of social citizenship. Animated by such contradictory views, Zieger's workers were alternately militant and quiescent. Their behavior was responsive to values and aspirations that made "rank-and-file sentiment" often "complex and internally conflictual." And their communities were as likely to maintain workers' "strong attachments to the central features of American society" as they were to provide a basis for militant solidarity.(26) Thus, while Zieger grants that the American working class was often angry during the Depression era, he does not believe it was alienated. Its militancy aimed above all at the attainment of security, stability, and dignity.
In Zieger's account this fundamentally cautious working class did not view Depression-era federal legislation as either hostile or unimportant. Rather, industrial workers believed that the New Deal government represented an overwhelmingly favorable force and they responded fervently to the government's protection of their right to organize. Local unionists, Zieger points out, "gave no stock to the argument that governmental intervention might undermine worker militancy or somehow compromise the union." They understood perfectly that raw courage and local solidarity were no match for corporate power; federal intervention was necessary if workers were to achieve permanent industrial unions. But Zieger is equally willing to point out the "heavy price" of labor's reliance upon government. This relationship of dependency, especially as it took shape during World War II, served to "distance union leadership from rank-and-file workers." Despite these costs, however, the CIO had little choice from the beginning but to cultivate friends in government if it was to survive as a viable organization.(27)
Zieger's verdict on the CIO's political marriage to the Democratic Party - "in general appropriate and necessary" - is no less balanced. To be sure, Zieger concedes, this marriage was "dangerous" and involved "compromise and disappointment." But organized industrial workers lacked viable alternatives, he argues. And ultimately the CIO leadership believed that it needed to conclude pragmatic political alliances if it were to "defend, protect, and advance labor's cause."(28) Nor was this belief misplaced. In the era of the New Deal and World War II, the CIO had every reason to believe that both the federal government and the Democratic Party were susceptible to the influence of organized industrial workers. Not to have pursued that strategy during a time when it seemed to be working would have been to invite the marginalization of the movement.
Undoubtedly the most controversial component of Zieger's political analysis comes in his treatment of the Communist party and its role in the CIO. American Communists provided less than 1 percent of CIO membership. Yet they exerted a great deal of influence within the federation, leading several of its most important union affiliates. Recent historiography has tended to celebrate their influence. Not only were Communists dedicated organizers, they were also more militantly anti-racist and anti-sexist than non-Communists, this literature holds.(29) Zieger does not contest this picture. Indeed, he credits Communists as a key force in shaping the CIO into a truly progressive organization. But if Lynd's book unqualifiedly celebrates labor radicals, Zieger's argues that Communists instead left an ambiguous legacy for labor. He faults party members for their fealty to Stalinism and suggests that their conflicted loyalties damaged the American movement. Because they would not sever their loyalty to a foreign government amid the rising tensions of the Cold War, Zieger judges their purge from the CIO in 1949 to have been a necessary action. In hindsight, Zieger admits, it has been possible to view the post-1949 CIO as a mere factotum for America's postwar foreign policy. But he cautions readers to remember that its leaders "were not privy to the real nature of their own government's international agenda."(30) The CIO's brand of anti-Communism was not the same as the brand that gained ascendancy during the McCarthy era. That difference, he believes, is important and worth remembering.
Zieger's desire to make that kind of brave yet subtle distinction is perhaps what most distinguishes his book from Lynd's collection. While Zieger holds a magnifying glass over the CIO, judiciously revealing both its strengths and its flaws, Staughton Lynd seems to hold up a looking glass, blocking out the complicated reality of the CIO and mistaking his own political vision for an accurate rendering of 1930s industrial unionism. Not surprisingly, Zieger's book is a vastly superior guide to the union upsurge of the Depression era: his scope is wider, his research deeper, his approach more nuanced, his judgements more tempered, his willingness to tolerate ambiguities and to qualify conclusions is far greater. But, perhaps most importantly, his moral tone is ultimately fairer and thus more persuasive. Few of the Lynd contributors, for example, demonstrate toward the national union bureaucrats whom they condemn anything approaching the respect that Zieger accords the Communists whose expulsion from the CIO he justifies.
But these two books invite readers to more than a simple comparison of their scholarly merits. Placed side by side, they suggest some important insights regarding the present state of U.S. labor history in general and the limitations of "rank-and-filist" history in particular.
The new labor history sought to go beyond the institutional study of unions in order to achieve two goals: to dispel a sense of determinacy from labor history and to recognize the agency of working people. The desire to accomplish these ends was a major impulse behind that strand of American labor historiography that strove for a rank-and-filist perspective. Judging by these two books, however, rank-and-filist labor history may have reached something of cul-de-sac. Of these books, surprisingly, it is Robert Zieger's neo-institutional history of the CIO that comes closest to achieving the goals once esteemed by rank-and-filist historians. Although he relies to a large degree on the insights of the purportedly sterile tradition of institutional labor history, it is Zieger who restores both a truer sense of indeterminacy to the past and of human agency to his actors. The brand of unionism that ultimately emerged from the industrial upheavals of the Depression era was not simply foreordained, Zieger's account implies. It was the product of many shifting forces, unforeseen events, unintentional outcomes, ironic twists, and, of course, human actions. Human agency was crucial, he makes clear. But human agency is no mystical, transhistorical force. Rather it is rooted in and constrained by historical structures - political, cultural, economic, ideological - transmitted from the past. By contrast, most of the workers in Lynd's collection seem little more than heroic victims of large forces - bureaucratic unions, bourgeois parties, a leviathan state - over which they have no control or influence. Ironically, Lynd's search for "the perspective of rank-and-file workers," as he puts it, ends up emphasizing their victimization by the CIO rather than their limited liberation through it.(31)
A second observation is suggested by a comparison of these books. Placed beside Robert Zieger's careful history, Staughton Lynd's breezy dismissal of the CIO as a regressive force strikes one as rather slanted and lacking a solid basis in the evidence. It seems more the result of a desire to construct a usable past that might serve present-day activists than an effort to understand the complex nature of 1930s labor militancy. To be sure, not all of Lynd's contributors are equally motivated by this desire, as some of the better essays in We Are All Leaders bear out. Still, Lynd's stridency raises questions about the extent to which rank-and-filist labor history risks falling hostage to the effort to find solutions to American labor's growing crisis.
More than twenty years ago in the pages of the Journal of Social History, Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese levelled a critique against social history that left out politics. Such history, they argued, threatened to "sink into a neo-antiquarian swamp."(32) Labor historians generally took that warning to heart - ironically, perhaps none more so than Eugene Genovese's old nemesis, Staughton Lynd. But, as Lynd's recent volume makes clear, the swamp of presentism might be just as dangerous as that of neo-antiquarianism for writers of labor history. Those of us who would like to see labor history contribute to the rebuilding of today's labor movement would do well to take note.
Department of History Geneseo, NY 14454-1401
1. A milestone in the appearance of the New Labor history was a 1974 special issue of The Journal of Social History devoted to the new scholarship. It included essays from Hobsbawm, Thompson, Gareth Stedman Jones, and David Montgomery among others. See Journal of Social History 7 (Summer 1974).
2. Staughton Lynd, "Introduction," in "We Are All Leaders": The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s, ed. Staughton Lynd (Urbana, 1996), 2.
3. Ibid., 1,2.
4. Robert H. Zieger, The CIO, 1935-1955 (Chapel Hill, 1995), 5.
5. Lynd, "Introduction," 16, 11.
6. Zieger, The CIO, 227,374.
7. Jonathan Zeitlin, "'Rank and Fillsre' in British Labour History: A Critique," International Review of Social History 34 (1989): 42-61.
8. Lynd, "Introduction," 2.
9. John Borsos, "'We Make You this Appeal in the Name of Every Union Man and Woman in Barberton': Solidarity Unionism in Barberton, Ohio, 1933-1941," in We Are All Leaders, 256.
10. Lynd, "Introduction," 8, 12, 14.
11. A good deal of recent literature dealing with the CIO has adopted a somewhat critical assessment that stresses the limits of its achievements. For examples of this approach, see Steven Fraser, Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor (New York, 1991); Colin Gordon, New Deals: Business, Labor, and Politics in America, 1920-1935 (New York, 1994); Nelson Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor (New York, 1995).
12. Elizabeth Faue, "Paths of Unionization: Community, Bureaucracy, and Gender in the Minneapolis Labor Movement of the 1930s," in We Are All Leaders, 172.
13. Rosemary Feurer, "The Nutpickers' Union, 1933-34: Crossing the Boundaries of Community and Workplace," in We Are All Leaders, 44.
14. Janet Irons, "The Challenge of National Coordination: Southern Textile Workers and the General Textile Strike of 1934," in We Are All Leaders, 91.
15. Peter Rachleff, "Organizing 'Wall to Wall': The Independent Union of All Workers, 1933-37," in We Are All Leaders, 66.
16. Michael Kozura, "We Stood Our Ground: Anthracite Miners and the Expropriation of Corporate Property, 1930-41," in We Are All Leaders, 212.
17. Borsos, "We Make You this Appeal," 208; Kozura, "We Stood Our Ground," 218.
18. Eric Leif Davin, "The Very Last Hurrah?The Defeat of the Labor Party Idea, 193436," in We Are All Leaders, 142. For background on the ALP, see Steven Fraser, Labor Will Rule, 363-4. Tellingly, Davin does not cite Fraser's book in his essay.
19. Rachleff, "Organizing 'Wall to Wall,'" 60; Irons, "The Challenge of National Coordination," 73, 91.
20. Borsos, "We Make You this Appeal," 242, 252.
21. Lynd, "Introduction," 15.
22. Zieger, The CIO, 2, 5.
23. Ibid., 176.
24. Ibid., 22.
25. Ibid., 147.
26. Ibid., 166, 44.
27. Ibid., 64,304, 132.
28. Ibid., 375,133.
29. In Staughton Lynd's book, Communists come in for a mixed review: Rosemary Feurer credits them for building strong egalitarian unions in St. Louis; Mark Naison criticizes them for their faction-fighting with the Socialists of the STFU. But generally recent literature celebrates their influence. For examples, see Michael Honey, Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers (Urbana, 1993) and Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill, 1990).
30. Zieger, The C/O, 376, 275.
31. Lynd, "Introduction," 2.
32. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, "The Political Crisis of Social History: A Marxian Perspective," Journal of Social History 10 (Winter 1976): 214.
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|Author:||McCartin, Joseph A.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1998|
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