Power at the Point of Production

Sit-down strikers in Flint. (Wikimedia Commons)

Power at the Point of Production

The reason for the resistance of the leaders of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to industrial unionism boiled down to a simple point: unskilled workers had no leverage. Skilled tradesmen, if they banded together, posed a real threat to employers and could therefore negotiate over wages and working conditions. The unskilled, however, were easily replaceable, and so many AFL leaders felt that trying to organize them was just a waste of resources.

In the 1930s, thanks to their willingness to take up a wide range of militant tactics, mass-production workers in the United States demonstrated that they did possess leverage: what has been called “power at the point of production.” They did not just withhold their labor. They brought the gears of mass production to a grinding halt through sit-down strikes, mass picketing, blockades, and other such disruptive tactics.

The third episode of Organize the Unorganized: The Rise of the CIO examines the three initial major victories of the CIO in rubber, auto, and steel. Labor historian Daniel Nelson begins by recounting the story of the “first CIO strike” at the Goodyear complex in Akron, Ohio, a victorious strike that put the CIO on the map. We then turn to the great General Motors strike in the winter of 1937, perhaps the most iconic confrontation of the period and generally recognized as the CIO’s transformational victory. That episode is recounted with help from audio archival material from Genora Johnson Dollinger, leader in the Flint Women’s Emergency Brigade, and interviews with many guests. The episode ends by briefly describing the steel organizing campaign, whose success was drawn in part from the threatening militancy of the CIO. The subject of steel organizing will be taken up in more detail in Episode 5.

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