When Labor Walks

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An unlikely savior was on the way. John L. Lewis was a Midwestern coal miner who easily contained a wealth of contradictions within his formidable carcass. Bull-chested, endowed with an enormous head, a pair of eyebrows that would have made Pierre Salinger envious, a great shock of hair that inevitably evoked the adjective leonine , and a visage that bore more than a passing resemblance to Dr. Seuss’s Grinch, Lewis liked to maintain that “my stock-in-trade is being the ogre.” Largely self-educated, a high school dropout whose speech was freely peppered with grandiose pronouncements and biblical allusions, he was possessed of a dry wit, and an occasional need to play the buffoon that hid a ruthless will.

Elected head of the United Mine Workers (UMW) in 1920, Lewis had spent a decade padding his own salary while his union fell apart around him. By 1933, as Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren van Tine wrote in their fine biography of Lewis, he was characterized by contemporaries as “merely a labor boss of the most conventional kind,” “a big-bellied, old-time labor leader … an autocrat … egotist, power seeker,” and “essentially reactionary.”

Yet Lewis also had a rare eye for the main chance. Before the mine owners fully grasped what was going on, he had invested the UMW’s depleted treasury in an audacious organizing drive and brought over 90 percent of the nation’s bituminous coal miners into the union fold. But coal was a declining industry even in the best of times, and Lewis soon turned his eyes to where the real power lay, the great mass-production industries, such as steel and automobiles. He proposed that the AFL devote its money and manpower to a massive organizing drive, much like the one the UMW had just conducted.

The AFL’s Executive Council balked, and the whole issue came to a showdown at the federation’s 1935 convention. During nine straight hours of exhausting debate, the AFL’s leaders held firm to their hidebound rules and jurisdictions. Lewis responded with a typically florid speech, in which he asserted that, “The labor movement is organized upon a principle that the strong shall help the weak.” The craft unions, “mighty oaks” that they were, must help the fledgling industrial unions that thus far could not “withstand the lightning and the gale.” They must “heed this cry from Macedonia that comes from the hearts of men,” or else “despair will prevail where hope now exists” and “High wassail will prevail at the banquet tables of the mighty.”

High wassail or low, a solid majority of delegates still declined to back Lewis’s big idea, and the convention dissolved in bitterness. Within a month Lewis had led seven like-minded union presidents into a new labor federation, the Committee (soon to be the “Congress”) for Industrial Organization, or CIO. There he rallied to him men who would become some of the titans of labor’s golden age, includ-ing Sidney Hillman, David Dubinsky, and Max Zaritsky, of the various garment unions, and Philip Murray and John Brophy, of his own mine workers. Together they would launch the famous organizing drives in the steel, auto, garment, and other mass-production industries. By 1937 the CIO had more members than the AFL.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Spurred into action at last, the AFL increased its own organizing budget fivefold and finally discarded its moldy rules and regulations. The competition between the rival federations would take some farcical turns as they battled over the allegiance of the same workers. But both organizations continued to grow by leaps and bounds, until organized labor emerged as a major economic and political force in this country for the first time. The AFL and CIO soon saw how petty their remaining differences were and merged into one, big, hyphenated federation. That was where the trouble began. Despite the best efforts of many dedicated individuals, the union movement has yet to regain the momentum it had when it subjected itself to some good old capitalist competition—the very sort of competition, of course, that the big capitalists themselves so often abhor.

Will the most recent labor split have the same salutary effect? It’s difficult to say, particularly considering the enormous pressure levied against most unions by today’s globalized economy. Then again, unregulated globalization seems just as capable of provoking a political backlash against itself as unregulated domestic capitalism was back in the 1930s. Whether or not this comes about, it is likely that labor can only benefit from having one federation that concentrates on the electoral battlefront and another that devotes itself to organizing in the trenches.