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Moments of Rupture: The 1930s and the Great Depression

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Black and white picture of a group of men holding picket signs

First installment of OrgUp’s “Moments of Rupture” feature! The organized working class tipped the balance of power in the 1930s.

With this article from Michael Goldfield and Cody R. Melcher we introduce our new “Moments of Rupture” series.

Our title comes from the well-known formulation by British scholar Perry Anderson. Building on ideas offered by Antonio Gramsci, Anderson suggests that most of the time political struggle takes place as the “war of position,” painstaking work to make small advances or defend what has been gained. One could argue that most radical politics in the United States between 1975 and 2016 fit that description.  But occasionally, politics turns to the “war of maneuver,” in periods of dizzying and dramatic change when hosts of opportunities present themselves.

We call these “moments of rupture,” and identify three in modern U.S. history:

  • Radical Reconstruction (1865-1877)
  • The Thirties/the Great Depression (1930-1945)
  • The Long Sixties (1955-1975)

In each of these, the existing arrangement of power between the major parties was radically altered, because new historical actors intervened: a million or more enfranchised freedmen in the first case; the organized working class, led in part by class-conscious Marxists, in the second; a vast array of liberation movements sparked by the Black freedom struggle in the third.

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We begin our series with this piece analyzing lessons from the 1930s.

At the end of the article we offer suggestions for further reading along with discussion questions and a suggested role-play exercise. Our hope is that readers will use this material in union meetings, study groups and classrooms to better understand and act in this crisis- and opportunity-filled moment.

The labor upsurge of the 1930s and ’40s in the U.S.: Lessons for today

Union growth tends to take place in huge waves. As the most astute analysts have noted, during normal times very little seems to happen. Then, often unexpectedly, enormous gains are made. To be sure, there is plenty that organizers can do during the quieter times, not only to make important, if seemingly small gains, but also to prepare for the massive gains that will come with the next upsurge. It is our belief that most workers want and all workers need and benefit from unions. But what holds back union growth during normal times?

Two interrelated factors hold back the growth of unions. First, the initial development of unions is often thwarted by strong resistance from employers and the government. Unions historically have rarely been accepted at first, making many workers at times rightfully fearful that the risks of supporting a union could be severe. Second, the effectiveness of opposition to unions is enhanced by the structural characteristics of union organizations. As some analysts have noted, unions are different from most other voluntary organizations. Unions, by their nature, claim either explicitly or implicitly to represent a large majority of the workers in a particular unit, be it a skilled division, factory, university, enterprise, company, or industry; they especially need an overwhelming majority of worker support if they wish to exercise or threaten to use their ultimate weapon, the strike.

Whatever the sentiments of their potential constituency, organizers of new unions generally have problems breaking through these threshold barriers. Once these barriers have been broken, that is, when takeoff has taken place, growth often occurs more or less automatically. In the 1930s, steelworkers, like Amazon workers in delivery and fulfillment centers today, faced especially high barriers to takeoff, due in good part to the power of the small number of employers in the industry, the large size of the individual workplaces, and the immense amount of resources and lawlessness employers were willing to expend to keep their workforces non-union. Thus, steel workers had a difficult time initially gathering momentum in building their unions. In contrast, coal miners, working in much smaller workplaces, often owned by individual companies, faced much lower barriers, engaging in strikes and walkouts far more frequently in the early 1930s, when most other workers were relatively quiet.

One can see this phenomenon sharply in the steel worker organizing campaign of 1936 –1937. The steel towns along the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were tightly controlled by the steel companies, with many of the elected local government offices held by steel company officials. Police forces were an adjunct of the companies’ private police. In Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, the site of the enormous steel complex of Jones and Laughlin (J&L), there were over 10,000 registered Republicans in 1928 and only 35 registered Democrats. In 1933, J&L organized a private group in Aliquippa armed with submachine guns to break a strike in nearby Ambridge. The initial organizing in Aliquippa was slow and painful, often seeming to go nowhere.

When Aliquippa workers finally rose up, achieving the threshold required for takeoff, passivity was no longer a topic of conversation. In spite of company loyalists and company and city police, Aliquippa workers rose up, 100% of them striking. As a Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) researcher wrote, “It was something of a revolution, too. Aliquippa rose up against a tyranny that had held them in bondage for years. For all practical purposes, the workers took over the functions of government. They were in complete control. Only for less than two hours were city police even in sight. The picket lines were absolutely effective. No one got through, not even the police who tried to force through an allegedly empty bus.” He continued, “The strike is doing wonders for the men. Remember Jefferson once said something about a revolution every twenty years or so being a blessing? The same is true of a strike. There is real solidarity now. And certainly no fear. In fact, workers go out of their way to thumb their noses at company police by whom they had been cowed for years . . . Thousands, yes thousands of men have joined the union during the last few days, and especially after the strike was called. And they are eager to pay their dues and get their button.”

Other organizations (e.g., political parties, business organizations, and neighborhood groups) may have threshold problems too, especially in their attempt to attain initial legitimacy, but they do not have the demands for overwhelmingly majoritarian status built into the life and death of their organizations. Often the combustible material and the stock of grievances accumulate over a long period of time; that is, the underlying causes must be separated from the proximal or immediate causes. Attempts to apply a cost/benefit analysis to the involvement of workers in these upsurges usually fail. Equally important is the lack of any useful indices for important factors that affect working-class behavior, such as the intensity and discomfort of work, and the disrespect and arbitrariness of management. Frito-Lay workers in Topeka, Kansas struck in July 2021, not only for pay increases, but against forced overtime, for regular days off, against the grueling pace of work, and to be treated with more respect. Likewise, Nabisco workers in five states struck in August and September 2021, against forced overtime, brutal scheduling requirements, and cutbacks in health care, while the company was making enormous increased profits.

In addition, it is not always clear to what degree the accumulated grievances must affect the whole potentially mobilized constituency. It is not necessary for all to be near the point of spontaneous ignition. Successful actions often stimulate and are imitated by constituencies whose stock of grievances is not nearly so strong. It is never obvious what determines whether a whole sector is ready to ignite (as with the whole public sector in the 1960s) or whether the upsurge will be limited to one local constituency, as with the highly militant 1946 Buffalo, New York teachers’ strike.

The causes and contexts of these upsurges vary greatly, although sometimes there have been dramatic breakthroughs that have sparked other organizing.

Some of the most important waves of labor upsurge and union growth in the United States can be noted briefly:

  1. What W.E.B Du Bois calls the “general strike” of four million slaves that took place during the U.S. Civil War (1861 – 1865). This is not traditionally regarded as a labor strike, but there is a good argument to be made that it was.
  2. The enormous strike wave, and union upsurge, spurred by the largely successful railroad workers’ strikes and subsequent Knights of Labor organizing throughout the whole country including the U.S. South in the 1870s and 1880s.
  3. The successful national coal miners’ strike of 1897, which encouraged hundreds of thousands of other workers to strike and organize.
  4. The labor upsurge during and after World War I, 1914 to 1920, when union membership climbed from roughly two million to five million.
  5. The period of the 1930s and 1940s, as union membership went from less than three million in 1933 to almost 15 million in 1945 while strikes escalated.
  6. The public sector union upsurge of the 1960s and 1970s, where government unionization went from a tiny amount to almost 40%. This surge was influenced by and bore a complicated relationship with the enormous social movement upsurge of the period, beginning with civil rights and including the movements against the Vietnam War and for women’s equality.

These periods, despite their successes, were uneven. They included both dramatic victories and often stunning defeats. To put these upsurges in context, it is useful to look at the types of leverage and power different groups of workers have.

Workers’ power and leverage

Two central questions arise: what allows workers to have power in a capitalist society, and why do some groups of workers seem to have more leverage than others? By “power,” we mean here the ability of individuals, groups of workers, or a whole class to realize their interests, either narrowly (e.g., a small wage increase or improved working conditions), broadly, or completely.

Drawing on the seminal work of Erik Olin Wright and Beverly Silver, we distinguish between structural and associational power. Structural power is that power that workers have solely on the basis of their relation to the economic system. Structural power consists of two main types. First is that power which results strictly from the labor market. How easily can workers be replaced? Certain highly skilled workers are difficult to replace, at any time. This would be true of skilled electricians and plumbers on construction projects, but also all-star home-run hitters and pro-bowl quarterbacks. The services of these workers become even more precious when there is competition for their labor. Competing sports leagues, for example, at times have created a premium for the most skilled athletes, often dramatically raising their salaries. As the sports labor market becomes international, this competition increases, as one can see today in sports like soccer and to a lesser extent in hockey, basketball, and baseball.

Even workers with lower-level skills, however, may be difficult to replace when they stick together in full solidarity. Thus, when then-President Richard Nixon attempted to replace striking New York City postal workers in 1970 with National Guard troops, the ineffectiveness of the latter in handling the mail forced the president to capitulate. The centrality of the postal system at that time in New York City for Wall Street, the nation’s financial center, played an important role. The skills of coal miners are difficult to replace, except by other miners. Thus, when large numbers strike and experienced miners cannot be found as replacements, strikers have a great deal of leverage. When coal miners struck during World War II, they declared correctly that one could not mine coal with bayonets. Less skilled workers can at times be easily replaced. Yet when the labor market is tight—that is, when there are few available workers due to very low unemployment (as was the case in many industries during World Wars I and II) or as seems to be the case today, when a rapid recovery has created uneven shortages of workers needed to fill jobs —even these workers become difficult to replace, and the leverage of all organized workers increases.

While not absolutely distinct from labor market leverage, the type of leverage that workers have because of their location in the economic system, namely their workplace bargaining power, is worth identifying. This has several dimensions. Certain groups of workers have the ability, when they stop work, to cause their employers or even the whole society a great deal of grief. Manufacturing workers—for example, those making certain products, or even those in key departments—have the ability at times to shut down a whole employer, or even a whole manufacturing industry. Workers at Boeing in Seattle have had the ability to postpone the delivery of the latest aircraft, a reason the company has developed a backup non-union facility in South Carolina. This has also historically been true of automobile workers making certain components that are manufactured at only one location (sometimes brakes or engines).

Then there are workers whose broad strikes would threaten to bring the whole economy to a standstill. In the nineteenth century, railroad workers occasionally exercised this power. Truck drivers and airline employees have this potential power but have never used it. Coal miners during the 1930s and 1940s had this power (which they no longer have today) and at times used it. At the other end of the spectrum, university professors—though they may have highly specialized, irreplaceable skills—have very little workplace leverage. When they go on strike, they may shut down a university (on the off-chance they all stick together), but the people they mainly inconvenience, at least in the short term, are their students, themselves not powerful economic actors.

Associational power comes from the support of various allies in one’s struggles. These allies can be other workers and unions, outside groups, whether racial, ethnic, or immigrant organizations, students, community activists, political organizations, or a myriad of other forces. All workers gain additional power from having broader support. Some groups, however, need this outside support much more than others. For those workers without a large amount of structural leverage (be they easily replaced textile workers or others), associational power is essential.

With this background, we wish to focus on some of the lessons from the 1930s and 1940s, particularly looking at what things worked well and what things did not.

What strategies have worked- lessons from the 1930s and 1940s

One of the most important things that more radical activists did in workplaces during the relatively quiet 1920s and early 1930s, before the big upsurge took place, is commit themselves to long-term in-plant work. More traditional, often conservative, unions and officials tended to show up briefly, either during strikes or organizing campaigns, collect dues money, then leave after the strikes or union drives were defeated. This history of abandonment tended to leave workers demoralized, and resentful of the fact that unions had collected money from them, then absconded. Thus, many unions, when they came back later felt it necessary to initially waive initiation fees and dues until stable organizations were established.

Left-wing, more radical activists, in contrast, tended to remain even after defeats took place, doing the slower, more long-term work of building a core of in-plant activists. In auto, for example, small groups of Communists established groups, secretly putting out in-plant newsletters. They also visited sympathetic workers at home, much like Amazon United workers are doing today. This activity continued throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, even when the prospects for mass organization and strikes seemed small. When the stock market crashed in late 1929, these groups helped organize unemployed workers, often engaging in mass struggles outside the plants.

As employment increased, and militancy and the desire for organization rose in 1933 and 1934, these small groups often took the initiative in organizing their plants. At White Motors in Cleveland, for example, the in-plant group led by Communist Party (CP) member Windham Mortimer successfully organized an early auto workers union. Similar activities took place at the Briggs plant in Detroit. In Flint, Michigan, the center of General Motors auto production, these small groups were the core of organizing for the famous 1936–7 Flint sit-down strike which led to the unionization of the whole company.

Similar activities took place within the nation’s steel mills, in West Coast longshore, in meat packing and meat slaughtering, in coal, among teamsters in trucking and warehousing, and in many other industries.

Aside from the small in-plant groups that slowly organized and put out newsletters, additional activities varied a great deal. In Minneapolis, militants led by Trotskyist activists organized a local within the Teamsters union developed close relations with militant farmers’ organizations and worked to organize the unemployed to support the unions. Though Minneapolis Teamsters had important structural power—they had the ability to stop the movement of goods throughout the region—they also used their allies, associational power, to good effect. Farmers supported them and supplied food to the strike kitchens, the unemployed groups discouraged strike breaking and supplied extra picketers. They also broke with craft traditions and organized truckers and warehouse workers together.

At International Harvester, then the dominant agricultural and construction equipment manufacturer in the U.S., radical activists worked inside the company’s extensive Employee Representation Plan (ERP) throughout the company chain. Radicals did likewise in steel, while they also formed broad caucuses with other militants in the more conservative union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. When large numbers of workers were laid off by Ford, many from the enormous River Rouge plant outside Detroit, thousands of them took jobs with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) designed to hire laid-off workers. The WPA focused on public infrastructure projects, from sidewalks to schools to bridges. Activists helped unionize these WPA workers. When they were called back to work at Ford, these formerly unionized workers provided some of the key troops for the successful strike and unionization of Ford in 1941.

Solidarity critical to success

Of special importance for the success of unions, especially during periods of mass struggle and highly resistant managements, is solidarity. Solidarity is perhaps easier during periods of mass upsurge, but it is not unusual during normal periods as well.  One can see this illustrated in a comparison of the 1970 postal strike with that of the 1981 PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) strike.  Postal workers in New York City especially had complete solidarity, no one crossing picket lines, which allowed them to effectively utilize their important structural power.  They had large rallies and meetings, and high-level enthusiasm.  When then-President Richard Nixon tried to break the strike by calling in the National Guard to sort and deliver the mail, the troops did not have the knowledge or expertise to do so effectively.  Wall Street, at the time, which depended on the timely delivery of mail demanded and forced Nixon to settle with the union.

PATCO, in contrast, called a strike without the full support of its membership. 11,000 controllers struck, while 3,000 stayed at work.  The government then used supervisors and several thousand additional military air traffic personnel to keep the airplanes in the sky.  So, despite having important structural power, PATCO was not able to utilize it. Furthermore, PATCO, assuming it did not need allies, i.e., associational power, had burned their bridges with most of the rest of the labor movement, especially other airline personnel (pilots, baggage handlers, flight attendants, and others) who could have helped win the strike.  They were among the only national unions (out of over 100 others) that had supported the Reagan presidency, relying on their political contacts, rather than the support of their fellow workers.  PATCO lost its strike and saw its members fired, while postal workers won their demands.

Still, even during periods of mass upsurge, workers often feel powerless and afraid. These feelings are often widespread, as we saw with the campaign to organize Amazon workers at the Bessemer, Alabama fulfillment center. Some organizers gamble that striking first, even before a union representation election, could galvanize workers and instill confidence. This happened in certain steel mills and meat processing plants in 1935 and 1936. At the Flint, Michigan GM plant, small groups of activists initiated the seizure of several of the auto plants in late 1936, leading eventually to an overwhelming vote to certify their unions. They also utilized associational power, as thousands of workers from Michigan and elsewhere came to Flint to support their picket lines. The broad public support that the sit-down strikes had forced Frank Murphy, the allegedly pro-labor governor, who was under enormous pressure from the auto companies and other capitalists, not to call in the National Guard, evicting the strikers, inevitably causing numerous deaths. Similarly, a strike against Ford—a violently repressive employer—drew a range of outside supporters, including civil rights organizations, chief among them the National Negro Congress and the NAACP. The strike forced an election, which the union won overwhelmingly.

The situation at International Harvester’s central McCormick Works in Chicago was more complicated, but ultimately aided by extensive in-plant work over many years as well as a strike. Both these activities led to the left-wing Farm Equipment union winning a certification election, and the government finally forcing the company to settle with the union in 1941. The 7,000 workers at McCormick Works, the original plant and the focus of the 1886 Haymarket affair, were aided by the active support of the several thousand, already unionized, workers at IH’s Tractor Works, located across the street, providing another form of associational power. Especially important for the success of many of the organizing campaigns of the 1930s and 1940s was this active support from important allies. In looking at these earlier struggles, the importance of this “outside” support may seem obvious. Yet, this is something that many unions in the current period avoid, much to their detriment.

‘Wall to wall’ in Alabama

Coal miners not only struggled for themselves but took a broad view of their role and responsibilities within the labor movement as a whole. This was certainly evident in the coal mining counties of northern Alabama. In Walker Country, just northwest of Jefferson County (the latter containing Birmingham), coal miners like their compatriots elsewhere became fully organized in 1933. They then proceeded to organize workers in virtually every other industry and occupation, “wall to wall.” Not only coal miners but the many woodworkers, hod-carriers, washerwomen, preachers, and schoolteachers all became organized. According to the Union News, the Walker County CIO newspaper, the county was the most highly unionized in the country, with, at least according to one report, even school principals unionized. What was the case in Walker Country was also so in many other counties in northern Alabama where coal miners were organized. Coal miners were also the strongest supporters of the Farmers’ Union, which was successful in northern Alabama in organizing Black and white sharecroppers and renters, not merely in Walker County, but in Bibb, Tuscaloosa, Marion, and Shelby Counties.

The coal miners in Alabama provided leadership and support for all other workers in their struggles, using their important structural power to provide associational power to workers who had less structural leverage. Textile workers in Alabama were among the earliest to organize in the South. Among southern textile workers they were in the vanguard, if you will, of the events leading up to the nationwide 1934 textile general strike and by far the strongest contingent in the South. They were strengthened by their ability to count on the ready support of the more than 23,000 organized coal miners in the state, as well as a state government more reluctant than many others, especially in the South, to mobilize its repressive powers in support of textile company owners, whose political strength they had to weigh against that of the highly unionized workforce.

Miners were also critical in many places to organizing the nation’s steelworkers. This was clearly the case in the steel center of Birmingham, Alabama, with its approximately 20,000 steelworkers. First, it should be noted that the mineworkers’ union contributed millions of dollars and scores of organizers to the overall national campaign in steel. While miners protested many things about the union, including its lack of democracy under the dictatorial regime of John L. Lewis, and successfully fought against the leadership in 1936 for a convention resolution in support of a labor party, we have found no record of any complaints in any archive or newspaper about the use of their dues money or paid officials to aid the organization of steel. Mineworkers themselves were far from passive supporters. In Pennsylvania steel towns, especially in the Pittsburgh area, police-state conditions prevailed before 1936. Speaking in public and calling rallies in support of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee led at least to loss of jobs, often to arrest, and occasionally to death. At times, armed contingents of coal miners, sometimes numbering in the many thousands, marched into steel towns to ensure that the rights of free speech and assembly allegedly guaranteed by the Constitution would be peacefully respected. To an important, although somewhat lesser degree, the UMWA also lent money and staff to the early organizing efforts in the automobile industry.

‘Wall to wall’ in the upper midwest

A similar phenomenon took place in the upper Midwest. The initial spark for activity came from the several thousand workers at the main Hormel meat plant in Austin, Minnesota. A varied array of worker activists was involved in the early organizing there, including Trotskyists, Wobblies, Communists, and others. In a series of department- and plant-wide work stoppages in 1933, they organized the plant and formed a union. When the company refused to yield on a wage increase, the workers seized the plant and won the raise.

The Hormel workers soon organized everyone else in Austin—truckers and warehouse workers, barbers and beauticians, waiters, waitresses and bartenders, construction tradesmen and laborers, WPA laborers, automobile mechanics and service station attendants, laundry and dry-cleaning workers, retail clerks, and municipal employees. They then branched out into other communities, even publishing a radical newspaper called The Unionist, edited by Carl Nilson, a Trotskyist from the Twin Cities. They had a drum and bugle corps, an extensive library, strike kitchens, a theater, and education classes. They often mobilized thousands of workers in the area to support strikes and other labor activities; they defended workers’ rights to speak freely and to rally in other cities.

The tactics used in more recent union successes are worth noting. The UAW, of course, failed abysmally at the Toyota TMMK plant in Kentucky.  Yet, construction unions there were overwhelmingly successful.  Toyota originally tried to hire non-union construction labor to build the plant and to do maintenance once the plant was built.  The unions defeated these attempts and gained all union workers in both instances.  They mobilized thousands of construction workers to demonstrate, including disrupting Toyota events and exposing some of their detrimental practices.  They formed alliances with construction unions in nearby states and nationally to refuse aid to Toyota; this aid was vital for support.  Similarly, teachers in West Virginia mobilized their constituencies in massive demonstrations.  In Oklahoma, thousands of teachers occupied the state house, helping gain their demands for better pay, more staffing, and smaller class sizes.  The successful organizing of catfish farm workers in Mississippi emerged as civil rights struggles, mobilizing community members (an important form of associational power) and forcing political leaders to actively support them.  The overwhelmingly African-American workforce at Delta Pride, the nation’s largest producer of catfish, not only won union recognition in 1990, but improved pay, safer working conditions, and more respectful treatment.

So, one can conclude that today, as in the 1930s and 1940s, mass organizing, rallies, disruptive tactics, and strikes, along with the cultivation and mobilization of important allies, are key components of successful organizing. Especially important in the successes of that era are the championing of the rights and issues of all workers, especially those who are most oppressed, be they racial, ethnic, gender, religious, or other groups. Those organizations that did this often had the strongest bonds of solidarity. Some of the greatest victories took place where such solidarity was developed. The decline of such stances is one of the major reasons why the labor movement is weak today.

Unions break the color line

The example of interracial unionization during the ‘30s and ‘40s illustrates the continued importance of the labor movement to the Black liberation struggle, and vice versa. In the early 20th century, Black workers were occasionally used as strikebreakers, “imported” from the South by employers and labor agents explicitly for that purpose. Many white workers in the North (incorrectly) blamed Black workers for the ultimate failure of the major strike wave during WWI, which fed a concomitant wave of race riots throughout the industrial North. Left-wing, union organizers in the ‘30s and ‘40s, particularly Communists, realized the necessity of interracial organizing and fighting white supremacy inside and outside of the labor movement.

Especially relevant in this context is the West Coast waterfront strike—a CP- led walkout of longshoremen in every West Coast port that culminated in a bloody general strike in San Francisco, and, finally, union recognition. Prior to the strike, Black workers had only been employed on the docks as strikebreakers; only an extremely small percentage of these Black strikebreakers worked on the waterfront permanently (1.4% of the longshoremen in California were Black in 1930). Both to avoid a broken strike, and to further the CP imperative to eliminate Black oppression in the U.S., the CP played a vital role in pushing the unions they led toward a break with white supremacist ideology and practice. Specifically, CP leaders spoke at Black churches and “implored Blacks to join [them] on the picket line”; as longshore organizer Harry Bridges put it, “I went directly to them. I said: ‘Our union means a new deal for Negroes. Stick with us and we’ll stand for your inclusion in [the] industry. . .Almost without exception, they stuck with us… The employers were frustrated in their attempt to use them for scabs.”

This pattern was repeated throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The CP (often under the auspices of the CIO) unionized industries that had only hired Black workers as actual or potential strikebreakers by ensuring racial inclusion in the benefits of unionization, working to eliminate the special oppressions of African Americans, and disabusing white workers of the efficacy of exclusionary responses. Steel, an industry whose workers incorrectly perceived their previous unionization attempts to have been frustrated by Black strikebreaking (specifically during the Great Steel Strike of 1919), was organized largely by Communists, a significant number of whom were Black members of the left-led National Negro Congress.

Some newly organized Black and white steelworkers started their own “civil rights revolution” by desegregating everything in sight, from restaurants and department stores to movie theaters and swimming pools. In meatpacking, the story is remarkably similar: Black workers were first hired in the industry from 1916 to 1921 as strikebreakers (especially during the national strike of 1920–1921). During the 1930s Black workers were at the forefront of organizing, largely under the leadership of the CP and their interracial commitments. The same pattern was also evident in auto, especially during the campaign to organize the Ford Motor Company; electrical, especially in the South; tobacco, cannery, and agriculture.

Role of legislation during upsurges

How do working-class movements grow and where should activists be putting their energies to facilitate and support these movements? Many people, including most leaders of today’s labor movement, believe that unfavorable laws hold unions back. If one could only elect more union-friendly Democrats, especially to Congress, pass more favorable laws (like card check, and increased penalties on employers who violate labor laws), then union decline could be turned around, and the working class movement would grow substantially. Yet, one lesson from earlier periods, especially the 1930s and 1940s, is not to rely on supposed pro-union legislation. Such legislation is almost always a consequence of successful labor struggles, hardly ever their impetus. While we would certainly have no objection to more favorable union legislation, we do not think that should be a major focus of resources.

As we have seen, the biggest increases in union membership and strikes have not happened incrementally, but in enormous, often unforeseen upsurges.  Tremendous union growth happened during World War I and its aftermath, with virtually no enabling legislation.  The upsurge in public sector union growth involving many millions of government workers in the 1960s and 1970s took place before public sector bargaining laws were passed. Rather, those laws were a consequence of enormous union growth and strikes, especially by public school teachers, led by the successful 1960-1961 New York City strike of 50,000 teachers.  At the time New York state had perhaps the most draconian anti-public sector bargaining law in the country, the Condon-Wadlin Act, which not only failed to stop the teachers’ strike, but which politicians were afraid to invoke given the solidarity of the teachers.  A virtually unanimous academic literature states that the early upsurge in the 1930s, especially that of the coal miners was caused by the inclusion of the symbolic pro-union Section 7(a) in the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act. But the archival evidence is clear: coal miners were effectively organized on the basis of a massive upsurge before the legislation was passed. Similarly, the Wagner Act itself was largely a response to the 1934 radical-led strikes and was only finally held to be legal after the upsurge had swept the country in 1937.

The historical lessons are simple. Unions today abandon organizing and put huge amounts of energy and resources into electing Democrats in what has proven to be the futile attempt to gain more favorable labor laws. Many who call themselves socialists, unfortunately, do the same. While we have no objections to labor unions organizing politically, especially at the local level as an adjunct to organizing, we do not think that should be a major focal point of resources. In order to get favorable legislation passed, the labor movement not only diverts its resources from organizing, but acts like any other “interest group” and largely absconds from the larger issues of the working class, especially the struggle for racial equality. It has sacrificed solidarity and militancy for “respectability” and the results have been catastrophic decline and concessions. Taking lessons from the upsurges of the past are our greatest hope for upsurges in the future.


Discussion questions

  1. What is structural power? What is associational power? Can you think of a job you’ve held where you had either kind of power? What would it take to develop that power?
  2. Thinking over some of the examples of upsurges presented in the article, is one kind of power more important than the other?
  3. Do you agree with the authors’ conclusion that focusing on reforming labor laws is a distraction from the work needed to rebuild the labor movement? Why or why not?
  4. What are the tactics and strategies organizers used to spur successful labor upsurges in the past? Which of these can you imagine using today, in your workplace or community?

Role play

You are members of a left organization that is debating political priorities for the coming few years. One person should play the role of moderator of the convention, and the rest of you should divide into four groups. Each group takes a position to develop and present to the whole group. Take 15 minutes to develop your proposal. The moderator should bring everyone together, have each group present their idea, and lead a group debate to vote on a path forward.

Group 1: Your group presents the plan to focus on building a national campaign to change labor laws. The changes would make it easier to form a union, increases penalties for employers who violate labor laws, and make it possible for independent contractors and gig workers to form unions and engage in collective bargaining.

Group 2: Your group argues for members to focus on organizing with co-workers wherever they work: in coffee shops, in universities, at grocery stores and so on. You know it might not be possible to form a union everywhere, but you argue for the need to build study groups, clubs, or any kind of workplace group possible.

Group 3: Your group argues to focus on organizing workers who work in strategic industries, such as transport and logistics.

Group 4: Your group argues that focusing on the labor movement is a dead end. It is not possible and/or desirable to organize unions in the current period.


Further reading

Dan Clawson, 2003. The Next Upsurge. Cornell University Press.

Dana Frank, 2012. Women Strikers Occupy Chain Stores, Win Big: The 1937 Woolworth’s Sit-Down. Haymarket Books.

Michael Goldfield, 2020. The Southern Key: Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s. Oxford University Press.

Michael Goldfield, 1987. The Decline of Organized Labor in the United States. University of Chicago Press.

Michael K. Honey, 2008. Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign. W. W. Norton & Company.

Robin D.G. Kelly, 2015. Hammer and Hoe: Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression. University of North Carolina Press.

Brandon Magner, 2021. “The PRO Act Is the Most Ambitious Labor Law Reform Bill in Generations.” Jacobin.

Cody R. Melcher. 2020. “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce: WEB Du Bois, Left-Wing Radicalism, and the Problem of Interracial Labor Unionism.” Critical Sociology 46(7-8): 1041-1055.

Mark Meinster, 2020. “How Unions Can Lay the Ground for the Next Upsurge.” Labor Notes.

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At the River I Stand

With Babies and Banners: Story of the Women’s Emergency Brigade


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