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Organizing, Politics, Mood: Reflections on the 1930s

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Women in 1930s style coats and hats gather around a table that has a sign on the side reading "Learn to Vote" in Englisn and Yiddish. A campaign poster for FDR hangs on the wall.

Political and workplace organizing inform and strengthen each other. Morale—a collective sense of possibility—fuels both.

“History is not dead. It is not even past.” —Faulkner

For labor and the left, the interwar period (1919-1939) has become history in Faulkner’s sense—our constant common companion.

To the extent that we think historically, we are often drawing poetry from the tragic years that witnessed the rise of versions of far-right xenophobic nationalism in the heart of civilized Europe. Hitler’s victory, above all, recast world politics, necessitating fundamental changes in orientation by actors at every level of society.

Today, with the resurgence of an aggressive right-wing xenophobic nationalism (some, not all, of the supporters of Trumpism; Alternative für Deutschland; Boris Johnson; and so on, all on top of LePenism in France, which has a much longer lineage), we are ever in mind of the interwar failure of democracy.

But when we say, today, “never again” (never will we accept fascism), the lesson that most draw is that, once in power, the Hitlers of the world must not be appeased. Neville Chamberlain is the bad guy.

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Less often is the problem stated as stopping the rise of fascism in the first place. The interwar period, and especially the 1930s, has much to teach us about labor organizing and its relationship to politics, as well as the role of class-conscious union members in the broad anti-fascist front. We can see the vital role played by committed activists; the complex interweave of shop-floor organizing and electoral politics; and the way that morale—the essence of intangible—becomes a material force.

The crucial role of dedicated activists

The Labor Upsurge of the 1930s and ‘40s in the U.S.: Lessons for Today,” by Michael Goldfield and Cody R. Melcher, published on this site last year, prompted me to think again about this rich historical period. Goldfield and Melcher rightly highlight the vital role that organized or ideologically-committed activists played in the 1930s upsurge. They also note the breadth of orientations that informed the work of key activists—from formal members of the Socialist Party or Communist Party to members of smaller organizations; syndicalists, Trotskyists, all varieties of socialists (plus, as we on the secular left often fail to acknowledge, Catholic unionists). On the far Left, this is often told as the story of the great moment in 1934 when their organizers could touch off powder kegs of rank and file workers’ militancy, essentially staging a string of successful local general strikes—Toledo, Minneapolis and the Bay Area.

Goldfield and Melcher point to the longer-run tasks for organizers outside of such heightened moments. Here, they highlight Wyndham Mortimer, the exemplary rank and file organizer, who spent more than a decade at the White Motor plant on the east side of Cleveland, starting in the early 1920s. Mortimer would later play a pivotal role in the sit-down strikes in Cleveland and Flint that broke open the CIO project of organizing mass production.

Either a submerged member or sympathetic fellow traveler of the Communist Party, over the course of many years, both inside White Motor and across the vast, then open-shop landscape of metal working Cleveland, Mortimer carved out space for unionization among production line workers. Essentially, we might simply say, the lesson for the 2020s from the 1919-1939 period is—yes, let’s dig in for the long haul at Amazon, and at other key employers and locations along the supply chain.

Change from above or below?

Polemics rage among activists and academics over the question of change coming from above or below. In this case, “above” is the New Deal Democratic Party politicians who swept into power in 1932 and maintained strong majorities until the 1946 election. “Below” is mass struggle—often reduced to striking.  Which basket should organized labor put its eggs in?

Goldfield and Melcher correctly observe that enduring positive change for the working classes comes ultimately only from significant pressure from below. But they argue that the locus of activity—and therefore, the direction of organized labor’s resources—should be the plants and Main Street rather than City Hall and Capitol Hill. In reality, the working class moves history through political as well as workplace organizing, and these inform and influence each other.

After assuming office in March 1933, President Roosevelt enjoyed large New Deal majorities in both houses of Congress and was, therefore, able to pass landmark pieces of legislation that, among other things, appear to have balanced the playing field between capital and labor in the latter’s favor. An orthodox New Dealist reading of this history sees the president and his team in Washington as the heroic actors. But, as Goldfield/Melcher and others on the Left point out, the tempo of struggle quickened in this period. Their great independent action from below produced the three great strikes of 1934—Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco.

In my view, a balanced reading of the whole period would suggest that the rising tide of workers’ organizing activity actually pre-dated even FDR’s 1932 victory. (Note the apt comparison with the Civil Rights Movement, which enjoyed a significant history long before Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The 1936 race could be cast as one between a popular champion and the “economic royalists” who would turn back the clock. FDR’s landslide victory was an upset.

Morale as a material force

For the whole era, my main point is that workers’ collective self-confidence and fighting spirit were on the rise, unevenly, even before 1932. Workers were already desperate. In the coal fields, going back many years, in the centers of steel, auto and tire production, organized stirring was going on before FDR’s first victory.

But it is also the case that FDR’s 1932 victory and especially the 1936 upset victory bolstered workers’ confidence and contributed mightily to the new mood, the spirit of 1937 that made the CIO accomplishments possible. (Terminologically, one can distinguish between the broad atmospheric mood, for whole collectivities, and morale. We can understand morale as the collective spirit of a union or organizing committee or key decision maker(s) engaged in struggle. So, for example, we can talk of the mood of the Midwestern industrial working class in 1937 versus the changing morale of the sit-downers inside the plants in Flint in January-February.)

FDR’s 1936 upset victory bolstered workers’ confidence and contributed mightily to the new mood, the spirit of 1937 that made the CIO accomplishments possible.

As with the two other great Popular Front electoral victories of 1936—France and Spain—the interrelationship between workers participating in politics and workers engaged in direct (economic or social) action was close. Isn’t this because winning in politics gives workers confidence in their battles with the bosses? In other words, cannot political outcomes affect workers’ collective mood quite as much as industrial victories? If politics is concentrated economics, will not some political victories, even those not in precisely the color we would have liked to order, elevate workers’ collective mood significantly?

Workers engaged in collective action do so on the basis of organizations, traditions and beliefs received from the past. But a collective spirit—a sensibility of solidarity, self-confidence, positive belief—prevails over those practices and institutions.

Think about the difference between a typical—boring—local union meeting and sitting in the stands as the Cleveland Browns win their first playoff game in a generation. That is the difference in spirit that I’m driving at when I suggest that we need to focus on collective moods as well as the strategies, resources, organizational infrastructure, etc., that are the material necessities in any organizing campaign.

In the course of fighting to form unions, workers changed their ideas about their situation and its possibilities (“workers’ consciousness changes in struggle”), developed a greater sense of collective self-confidence and, yes, in modest Flint 1937 ways stormed the gates of heaven. A full portrait of an era needs to come to terms with the changed sensibility; and in my view the impact of the 1936 election was palpable.

Organizing and politics

Unfortunately, both the academic and the progressive activist dialogues have mostly taken these factors—the capacity of progressive legislators to bring change “from above” versus workers’ power to take the reins themselves and change them “from below”—as opposed. It becomes something of a chicken and egg question. This then informs what is taken to be the $64,000 question: Organizing or politics?

Thus, Goldfield and Melcher write, “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.”

Permit me to parse this on the basis of my own experience, as I’ve been in the room for some of these discussions.

Some elements in labor do believe that material support for Democratic candidates is essential to passing progressive legislation. And it is true that, at the margins, resources (staff and money) normally dedicated to contract or organizing campaigns will be diverted temporarily to political campaigns. But this is far from a single decision—there are more than 60 national or international organizations in the U.S. labor movement today, not to mention thousands upon thousands of union locals, citywide councils, state bodies, regional, etc.

Even with declining membership and density, in big parts of the country, what organized labor does in major elections can have a decisive impact. But union presidents and organizing directors face all kinds of counter-pressures—the decision to back Sanders or Obama or whomever is always contested (not least among organizers and other staff who believe electing “corporate Democrats” is, well, a diversion from our main task: organizing the unorganized).

Additionally, the question is far more complicated than supporting Democrats versus organizing. The most capable organizers in the U.S. labor movement are precisely the people that major political candidates want running their operations in key states and key moments. When a Stewart Acuff or Dave Eckstein (long-time leading labor organizers) digs into a “political assignment,” like turning Ohio blue—they do not approach it with a pure outlook of “let’s just get out the vote, let’s just check a box.” No—we attempt at least to do “political” organizing in a way that compliments and contributes to our longer-run objectives (which have to do with organizing the unorganized).

In all three of the 1936 Popular Front cases, a political victory for the left (or the center-left) against a threatening far-right cloud led to upsurges of industrial activity. Workers’ confidence in their own ability to organize was enhanced and, as Goldfield and Melcher point out, a small change in workers’ sensibility can lead big differences in organizing outcomes.

Whatever the policy differences between candidates, I’m suggesting here that, for labor, the most important consequence of an election with sharp differences between candidates (1932; 1936; 2016; 2020 in the United States, to be certain) are far less about policy than about the impact on workers’ self-confidence. “We can win” (when formerly we thought it was impossible); “The president wants you to join a union” (which president? FDR or John L. Lewis? It doesn’t matter—we have friends in high places). The mood of the American working class, demoralized, divided, cautious after 1929, was by 1937 still uneven but—a significant section believed it was striding from victory to victory. In this context, the vast majority of the class-conscious workers who built the CIO unions did not see support for a Popular Front slate as counter to their efforts to build permanent union organizations in heavy industry.

The vast majority of the class-conscious workers who built the CIO unions did not see support for a Popular Front slate as counter to their efforts to build permanent union organizations in heavy industry.

The role of mood and its organized expression, morale, is underscored by the fact that vital work on strategy, reason and planning also points ultimately to morale. When Napoleon says morale is to physical force, three to one, he is contending that team spirit (collective self-confidence) will ultimately be decisive. Collective self-confidence cannot substitute for material resources; but in a relatively even fight, the more confident, united side will be victorious. Sun Tzu; Belisarius; Lombardi—all the great strategists will, in their way, make this point.

Now, I am not gainsaying the policy differences. In the limit case, any candidate against the NSDAP (Hitler’s party), it seems self-evident to me that all hands on deck is a superior response to left-wing casuistry. In the historical event, New Deal electoral victories coupled with ongoing industrial activity led both to progressive New Deal legislation and to industrial organizing. In Flint 1937, did it not matter that the governor refused to use troops against sit-down strikers?

Listen, learn, teach, learn

Old Marx himself, late in his life, reflecting wearily on a tendentious programmatic debate, opines that “a single step of forward movement is worth a dozen political programs” (Marx to Bracke, May 5, 1875). In other words, formal programmatic matters get swept away by new organizing, new activity. The organic and organizing connections that will have to be built up among workers themselves—the strong bonds that are always the essential core of successful organizing projects—are the focus. Digging in for the long run but focused on practical activity.

To put this in 2020s terms, class-conscious workers and their allies will be going to the polls—and organizing their union brothers and sisters and friends to do the same. They will have an updated argument about Biden versus Sanders but in the end will support a Popular Front against right nationalism (whatever it is called), should it be on the ballot. They are out to defeat threats to democracy, crassness, racism, xenophobia. As in the 1930s, there are those on the left who will hold themselves apart, on formal grounds, from that activity. I think that is a mistake, and an unnecessary one.

Those same workers are also toiling away, non-union at Amazon or union at a public school or city hospital. They are having arguments with their workmates about the border or “January 6” or masks; that is, they are rooted in the day to day matters of their communities. But those class conscious workers want to build power however they can. The task for the labor left—those more-or-less self-conscious actors (be they organizers or historians)—is to connect with that organic, multifaceted struggle. From work such as Goldfield and Melcher’s, we can trace out lessons from the past; they are useful precisely because the next generation of organizers should be able to draw from them.

In inquiry and action, Aristotle suggests our methods should always be appropriate to the subject matter. Organized group life occurs in overlapping organic communities—job site, local hall, bowling alley, backyard BBQ. To me, this suggests participant-observation, throwing ourselves into the whole complicated organized life of the class. In the process, one need not adopt the outlooks of others in the community to be able to appreciate them. Building the movement and learning from past efforts to do so comes down to learning from workers, generalizing, and then teaching back to them, including coming to understand why they care about things that don’t seem to make sense to us. Contradictions abound. We won’t always agree on interpretations or strategy but friendly disagreements can be instructive.

Like the 1919-1939 period, the 2020s and 2030s are likely decades of great potential danger and possibility. Today, after January 6, 2021, more observers and actors in the western world question even the medium-term vitality of political democracy in the west than at any time since Nagasaki. Fighting fascism in the 1930s meant coming to terms with Hitlerism in power. We today have the opportunity to build an anti-racist labor movement. We’ve had a small taste of American-style right nationalism; but keeping it out of full power is the order of the day. If we fail, the road to hoe for organizers will have become dramatically more difficult.

Featured image: Women garment workers teach their sisters how to vote, 1935. Signs in English and Yiddish urge support for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, New York State Governor Herbert H. Lehman, and the American Labor Party. International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs (1885-1985), Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library, via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed CC BY 2.0.


The best entry points for studying labor, the left, organizing and politics in the 1930s would be Irving Bernstein, The Lean Years (Chicago, 2010); The Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1940 (Chicago, 2010); and Nelson Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit (New York, 1995), which is far more than a biography of Reuther.

Mike Goldfield’s important work, The Southern Key: Class, Race and Radicalism (Oxford, 2020), should be read against the backdrop of the great conversation to which he is contributing on American exceptionalism—DuBois; Sombart; Hartz; Katznelson; Greenstone, etc. I make a modest contribution to this literature (and discuss the overall intellectual context) in Glenn Perušek, “Shifting Terrain: Styles of Liberalism, Periodization and Levels of Analysis,” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 15, 3 (Spring 2002): 405-26, reprinted in Shifting Terrain (New York, 2006).

The work of an organizer such as Wyndham Mortimer repays study. In addition to Mortimer’s memoir, Organize (Boston, 1971), see Henry Kraus, The many and the few: A chronicle of the dynamic auto workers (Urbana, 1985); and Heroes of unwritten story: the UAW, 1934-1939 (Urbana, 1993). Kraus was Mortimer’s communications specialist.


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