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When Labor Walks

April 2024
5min read

What history says about the new split in the AFl-CIO

The house of labor has divided against itself once again, and predictions are rife that it is about to fall. When Andrew L. Stern led his Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and three other key unions out of the AFL-CIO during its convention this past summer, it seemed to many a nearly suicidal move, considering how badly the ranks of American labor have already been diminished by globalization, the changing nature of the workplace, and a hostile federal government. The four departing unions constitute about one-third of the organization’s total membership. Yet if history is any guide, look for this division to rejuvenate those unions that are staying and going.

Stern is one of the very few rising stars in labor by dint of his unprecedented success in organizing workers in the fast-growing service sector. His SEIU walked—along with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Unite Here, which is mostly composed of the plucky old garment workers’ unions —because they claimed that the AFL-CIO as currently structured is helpless to halt labor’s long decline. The portion of unionized private-sector workers has dwindled over the past 50 years from a high of 35 percent to a mere 8 percent. In response, Stern proposed a new coalition, to be called Change to Win Coalition, that would concentrate less of labor’s resources on election battles and more on membership drives, including daring multiunion efforts to organize such giants of the new economy as FedEx and Wal-Mart.

Stern’s exodus was greeted with a predictable round of vituperation from leaders of the 52 unions remaining under the AFL-CIO umbrella, several of whom accused him of being a self-interested, grandstanding egotist.

Yet however counterintuitive it may seem, the walkout will probably help the labor movement, not hurt it. As in most aspects of our national life, contention and debate are signs of vigor, while unanimity and compliance signal stagnation. Even at the height of its success in the mid-1950s, the AFL-CIO lost two of its most powerful unions, albeit for very different reasons. When the Teamsters defiantly elected the Mobbed-up Jimmy Hoffa their president in 1957, the union was ejected from the AFL-CIO. Eleven years later Walter Reuther led his United Auto Workers (UAW) out because the AFL-CIO did not live up to his idea of dynamic social unionism. Neither loss hurt much. The UAW went on pursuing its own useful agenda, pushing for social justice and educating political leaders, before quietly returning to the fold years later. Meanwhile, the rest of organized labor benefited by distancing itself from the corrupt Teamsters.

Still, with as much pressure as American work-ers are under today, their plight could hardly be considered worse than it was, say, during the Great Depression. Yet that era, in which unemployment soared to one-quarter and perhaps even one-third of the work force, produced labor’s widest and most bitter split—and its greatest gains.

At the outset of the Depression the labor movement was as moribund as it has ever been in this country. The big manufacturers had seized upon the reactionary atmosphere that prevailed in the years just after World War I to provoke a series of bloody strikes and lockouts that all but crushed unions in most industrial fields. The owners had relied on the complete support of government at all levels in these bitter battles, on the active intervention of the courts against the unions, and the added muscle provided by police, state militias, and even federal troops.

But with the failure of the national economy, this entire political calculus suddenly changed. The backlash filled Washington, and even many statehouses and city halls, with labor’s allies. First, the famous Section 7a of President Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act, and subsequently, the Wagner Act, for the first time guar-anteed labor unions everywhere the right to organize. Almost overnight the union movement had been granted unprecedented federal protection, and many locals and individual organizers moved to take advantage of this fact. When business ignored the law and tried to crush these organizing efforts, violence once more roiled the nation.

For practically the first time in American history, Washington reacted by either supporting the workers or at least refusing to back the owners. Victory hung in the balance for the unions, but the American Federation of Labor, the nation’s only significant sur-viving labor federation, was nowhere to be found. It had become all but terminally cautious and hamstrung by its long-standing aversion to organizing industrial, mass-production workers. Instead, the AFL hid behind incredibly byzantine rules regulating each member union’s jurisdiction by craft and region. The results were predictable. By 1937 the AFL could count, at most, 3.4 million workers in its ranks, out of a total wage-earning work force estimated at 40 million.

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.

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