Two New Podcasts Explore History of the CIO

March 9, 2024

This article was updated on Wednesday, March 13, to include coverage of the final episode of Organize the Unorganized, and on Thursday, March 14, to reflect the fact that Organize the Unorganized can now be found under its own name on most podcast apps.

The past two months have seen the release of two new limited-run podcasts about the history of the CIO, the federation of industrial unions that arose from and led the worker upsurge of the 1930s and 1940s.

Organize the Unorganized is produced by the Center for Work and Democracy at Arizona State University and Jacobin magazine. Its nine episodes tell the story of the CIO in a crisp, newsroom style, through the voices of prominent labor historians and of the participants themselves. Episode Six begins with a clip of founding UE Director of Organization James Matles from a speech he gave to a UE convention in the 1970s, and features an interview with historian James Young, whose 2017 book Union Power is a history of UE Local 506. Matles is also heard in Episode Eight, about the red-baiting that brought an effective end to the CIO.

Fragile Juggernaut, produced by a group of journalists, organizers and historians and sponsored by Haymarket Books, is taking a longer and deeper historical view. Four episodes have been released so far, each of which is about an hour and a half long, and the series is still exploring the history of the U.S. working class before the CIO. (By contrast, Organize the Unorganized sets the historical scene for the founding of the CIO in one 40-minute episode.)

“Something of a miracle happened”

The CIO was organized as the “Committee for Industrial Organization” by eight unions in 1935 and formally founded as a labor federation at a convention in Pittsburgh in 1938, changing its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. UE was the first union chartered by the CIO, and by the 1940s was the third-largest union in the federation, after the United Auto Workers and the Steelworkers.

Benjamin Fong, the host of Organize the Unorganized, describes the significance of the CIO in an article for The Dispatch, the paper of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union:

[I]n the 1930s, something of a miracle happened: millions of workers sought and gained recognition from some of the biggest corporations at the time—General Motors, US Steel, Goodyear. And not only that, but their gains stuck and laid the foundation for the most prosperous time for working people in American history. [ … ]

On [the CIO’s] watch, steel, auto, rubber, meatpacking, electrical manufacturing, and many other industries went from non-union to almost fully organized in the space of a few years. To get some sense of the scale and rapidity of the transformation in labor relations the CIO was able to enact, imagine Amazon, Fedex, and Walmart becoming fully unionized by 2028.

Organize the Unorganized tells the story of how that “miracle” happened. The first episode lays out how the American Federation of Labor’s tradition of organizing different crafts (electricians, machinists, carpenters, etc.) into separate unions had proved unable to bring organization to any of the country’s mass-production industries. (In the electrical manufacturing industry, for example, 37 separate craft unions claimed jurisdiction over the workers who would come to make up UE.) In contrast, the founders of the CIO believed that all workers in an industry should be united in the same union — and furthermore, that all workers should be welcomed into the union, regardless of race, sex, creed, nationality, or political beliefs.

Rising worker militancy in 1934 — especially the longshore strike on the West Coast and a truckers’ strike in Minneapolis — convinced John L. Lewis, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, that the time was right to organize the mass production industries, and Episode Two takes a deeper look at Lewis’s history and personality. Episode Three tells the heroic story of the sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, which won recognition for the UAW at General Motors in early 1937, and Episode Five explores the defeat of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in the “Little Steel” strike later that year. Those two episodes in particular demonstrate both the importance and the limits of the support that “New Deal” Democrats gave to the CIO. Michigan Governor Frank Murphy’s refusal to send in troops to expel the Flint sit-down strikers was crucial to their victory, but when the Chicago police shot and killed ten demonstrators during the Little Steel strike, President Roosevelt infamously declared “a plague on both your houses.”

Episode Six, which includes a section on UE, also tells the story of three other important CIO unions. Following successful coast-wide strikes in 1934 and 1936, longshore workers on the West Coast utilized their power on the docks to “march inland” and organize the warehouse industry. They left their AFL-affiliated union and founded the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which affiliated with the CIO in 1937. In the meatpacking industry, which employed a high percentage of Black and Mexican workers in a conscious attempt to divide workers by race and prevent unionization, the CIO’s Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee successfully built a strong interracial union. In the textile industry, by contrast, the Textile Workers Organizing Committee was largely unable to overcome entrenched anti-unionism in the South.

“A double-edged sword”

In Episode Seven, Fong and his guests explore how the mobilization for World War II was crucial to the consolidation of the CIO. Eager to avoid disruption in production for the war effort, the Roosevelt administration pressured companies to recognize CIO unions. (Ford, the “Little Steel” companies, and Westinghouse, the last major holdouts in the auto, steel, and electrical manufacturing industries, finally negotiated contracts with the UAW, Steelworkers, and UE in 1941.) In exchange for a “no strike” pledge, the War Labor Board granted unions “maintenance of membership” (a kind of union shop), which led to a doubling of union membership during the war. However, unions’ increased leverage during the war was “a double-edged sword,” in the words of historian Rick Halpern, as the need to enforce the no-strike pledge led many CIO unions to become more bureaucratic and less interested in building worker power on the shop floor.

Episode Eight looks at the effective end of the CIO as a dynamic social movement at the end of the 1940s. At its 1949 and 1950 conventions, the CIO voted to expel eleven of its most democratic and progressive unions, including UE and the ILWU, on charges of “communist domination.” It is chilling to hear the audio of UAW President Walter Reuther, who led the charge for expulsion (and whose union had been actively raiding UE shops for several years at this point), describing other unions as “a cancer” that has to be removed from “the body” of the CIO.

Lessons for Today

Having largely given up on organizing the South, or maintaining political independence from the Democratic Party, the CIO merged with the AFL in 1955 to form the AFL-CIO. However, as the podcast points out, the CIO’s original broad social vision, of uniting workers across race, gender and nationality to fight for a society where working people can live a decent life, lived on — most notably in the campaigns for racial and economic justice led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the final episode of Organize the Unorganized, which was released on March 12, Fong’s guests shared their thoughts about the lessons of the CIO for today’s labor movement. They cautioned against drawing too many parallels between the 1930s and today, given the changes in the economy and in labor law, but offered five broad “positive lessons,” as Fong terms them: union democracy; unity across racial, gender, and other divisions; meticulous organizing on a mass scale; raising workers’ expectations; and seizing the moment. Historian Lizabeth Cohen told Fong, “We have a really strong economy right now, and I think it’s a very good time for unions to take advantage of that.”

While Fragile Juggernaut has yet to reach the founding of the CIO, its in-depth investigation of the history of the U.S. working class before the CIO era — and why labor unions in this country remained fragmented and exclusionary for much longer than their counterparts in other industrialized countries — is both fascinating and valuable. The podcast pays special attention to the distinct experiences of different groups that came to form the U.S. working class. “Native-born” farmers and artisans forced into wage work as the country industrialized, immigrants who came from Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and enslaved people stolen from Africa and their descendents all faced different conditions and adopted different strategies in their struggle for a decent life, sometimes coming together and sometimes remaining tragically divided.

As waves of worker-led campaigns are bringing organization to new industries such as higher education and coffee shops — but entire industries like tech and mammoth corporations like Amazon remain almost entirely unorganized — these investigations of the history, strategy, and significance of the CIO is particularly timely listening.

  • Both podcasts can be found on most podcast apps by searching for their name. Organize the Unorganized can also be streamed on Soundcloud.


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