The debates in labor: Lessons from our past

Read the 1946 political action program of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and much of it sounds like it could have been written for today. It is a fighting program calling for a national health care system, shorter hours, organizing the South (“Operation Dixie”), raising the minimum wage, child care programs, low cost housing, abolition of the poll tax, boosting public education, benefits for returning veterans and much more.

Coming out of World War II, the prestige of American labor was at an all-time high. Labor had been critical in mobilizing the war effort to defeat fascism. This enhanced status was also true for Communists and the left around the world. Communists and labor were recognized and rightly appreciated for their crucial role in defeating fascism.

U.S. labor had also sacrificed for the war effort. Wages were held to a 15 percent increase at the same time that living costs went up 35 percent. Plus a wave of plant closings and layoffs hit the basic industries as war production orders stopped.

The 1946 CIO program was a vivid expression of the militant mood of labor coming out of the war. A wave of strikes swept across the country in 1945 and 1946, including the Oakland General Strike. The CIO program represented a united front of the industrial unions for regaining ground lost during the war years. There was general agreement in the CIO to take the program on the road, including the prospect of a coordinated strike of the main industrial unions in support of its major points.

The CIO program spoke to the needs of the whole working class, not just union members. Thus, for example, it did not focus on insurance schemes based on individual employers or workplaces, but rather demanded legislation to establish a national health care system.

Empire strikes back

Needless to say, the captains of industry, the Truman administration, and the capitalist class did not think this was a good development. They moved immediately to nip it in the bud. Republicans in Congress, aided by pro-big-business Democrats, introduced the Taft-Hartley Act to gut labor’s right to organize. Taft-Hartley outlawed labor solidarity, including boycotts, respect for picket lines and solidarity strikes.

Taft-Hartley also required every union official at all levels to sign an annual affidavit declaring that “he is not a member of the Communist Party nor affiliated with such party.” A union whose officers did not comply could not be certified as the bargaining agent with the NLRB. In effect, this gave the employer a free hand to commit unfair labor practices. Taft-Hartley also contained a provision for the employer to call for a de-certification election if the union officers did not comply. A typical pattern would be: a strike would take place; the employer would initiate an NLRB decertification vote; the Congressional House Un-American Activities Committee would come into town and hold hearings, issuing subpoenas to the union officers. If the officers refused to testify, the employer would fire the officers and HUAC would cite them for contempt.

The efforts to cripple and divide labor and the working class also had a political and ideological side. Anticommunism and the Cold War were used to silence dissent and curb civil liberties and labor rights. For example anticommunist hysteria was used very effectively to mute opponents of the Taft-Hartley Act in Congress.

The government openly intervened on the side of big business to promote anticommunism and to remove militant leaders of labor and the mass movements of the day. This was the role of congressional committees and government. By the time popular revulsion against this tactic reached its height in 1954 with the Army-McCarthy hearings, the damage had been done. Big business, the extreme right in Congress and the cold warriors in the government had effectively used anticommunism to cripple labor and stop its progressive political program in its tracks.

Anticommunism and the CIO

Anticommunism also divided the labor movement and turned it inward on itself. Following its 1949 convention, the CIO expelled 11 of its most militant and pacesetting unions, reducing its membership by one million. This led to an orgy of raiding of the unions that had been expelled. Turned inward, this fight led to witch-hunts and redbaiting in most of the unions and drove out some of the most dedicated and militant union activists. The plans to organize the South and unorganized industries were set aside.

This was particularly damaging to labor because of the longtime role that Communists played in the fight for industrial unionism, against racism and in the founding of the CIO. Communists stood out as militant organizers, as promoters of unity and rank-and-file democracy. Communist are always partisan of labor and the unions because we see them as the best weapon workers and the people have for defending themselves against the system of capitalism, a system built on exploitation, inequality and the rule of big business.

Anticommunism in the labor movement helped promote the leadership of those in labor who preferred to “get along” with big capital rather than mobilize the membership to fight for gains. In an atmosphere of inner turmoil and external economic, political and social attack, “business unionism” was consolidated. That trend dominated the leadership of the labor movement for the next 40 years. These years of “partnership” were also years of decline in union density, rank and file activism and labor’s political clout.

Rank and file re-emerges

The left in labor began to re-emerge as a force in the 1970s and early 1980s. Rank-and-file movements sprang up in almost every union, including miners, teachers, steel, auto, teamsters and public workers. Black, Latino, Asian-Pacific and women’s caucuses also grew. These movements challenged class partnership ideas and promoted militancy and fight back in labor. Many opposed the war in Vietnam. And once again Communists, especially young Communists, joined in with other left and with center forces to help build these important rank-and-file movements in labor. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, leaders of these movements began to enter into elected leadership positions in labor, including in the AFL-CIO. This development came at a time when labor was once again under extreme attack, starting with the Reagan administration.

The election of the Sweeney/Chavez-Thompson/Trumka leadership in a contested election with the labor movement’s old guard marked a big turning point for labor. Once again, labor militants and the left were welcome as a legitimate part of the labor movement. Once again, a powerful left-center coalition of forces is moving labor into a more vigorous fight against corporate power.

Lessons for today

The building of the CIO and the organizing of the basic industries in this country in the 1930s and 1940s is one of the labor movement’s most important achievements. Workers, armed only with their unity and their determination, beat back the largest most powerful corporations in the world. And they did it in the face of powerful political and government forces, who in the service of big business, were equally determined to crush labor and its allies.

Sounds like today, doesn’t it? Once again the gloves are off in the class struggle and for labor. The ultra-right and the transnational corporations are not in a “labor partnership” mode. They see a chance to roll back the labor movement. Once again, the power arrayed against labor has launched a multi-sided attack that is both economic and political. And once again, it is going to take greater unity, greater militancy and a long view to withstand this attack and make progress for labor.

The left and Communists again have an important role to play. From our point of view, we see a mighty alliance with organized labor at the core, united with the African American, Latino, Native American and Asian Pacific communities, women, and youth, as well as the immigrant community and the LGBTQ movements. This alliance is the force capable of rolling back the attacks on labor and the people. Thus, we can be depended on to be the best fighters for building the broadest possible labor/community coalitions and in fighting for labor’s leading role in all the people’s movements for peace, justice and equality.

The view from here

We see labor unity as the cornerstone of labor’s strength. Therefore we can be counted on in labor to be champions of the fight for equality and diversity. We will work tirelessly to involve labor in all struggles to end racism and discrimination. And we will throw ourselves into all struggles to prevent splits and fragmentation of the labor movement.

From our vantage point, global capitalism demands a global labor response. Thus we will be consistent in promoting international labor solidarity and opposing pro-corporate trade schemes. And we will fight for an independent labor foreign policy that does not allow the State Department or the government to determine who our friends and allies are around the world. Global labor ties should serve labor, not the program of global corporations.

Lastly, from our Marxist, class struggle point of view, we see labor as superior to capital, and ultimately stronger. We see labor as the future of humankind. We see labor as the hope of all people for a good life. We truly believe in the last verse of labor’s beloved anthem, “Solidarity Forever,” which describes labor’s role:

“In our hands is placed a power
Greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies,
Magnified a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world
From the ashes of the old
For the union makes us strong.”

Scott Marshall ( is chair of the Communist Party’s Labor Commission and active in SOAR, the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees.