A New Giant of Labor Emerges

Grant Dunne, Bill Brown, Miles Dunne, Vincent Dunne, and Albert Goldman in 1934. The Dunne brothers were key leaders in the Minneapolis truckers’ strike. (Minnesota Historical Society)

A New Giant of Labor Emerges

American labor history is typically broken up into three periods. In the first, roughly from industrialization through the 1930s, unions and workers struggled against a brutal capitalist class and made limited gains. In the second, the basic industries were rapidly organized, and there was a transformation in working and living standards. And in the third, from the 1970s to the present, those gains were gradually dismantled with deindustrialization and a new employers’ offensive against unions. Another way to describe these three periods could be: before the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), after the CIO, and after the gains of the CIO period were undone.

This rough schematic gives one a sense of the CIO’s historical importance. The CIO moment was the greatest labor upsurge in American history. It was not only a time when workers displayed a great militancy and courage in the face of vicious employers but also one in which they won. They won unions, they won a new labor law regime, and they won life-changing material and social gains. How did they do it? In Organize the Unorganized: The Rise of the CIO, a limited-series podcast from Jacobin magazine and the Center for Work and Democracy at Arizona State University, I’m telling the story of the CIO with the help of prominent labor historians and scholars as well as archival audio material and songs from the period.

The first episode, “Under the Blue Eagle,” sets the stage for the emergence of the CIO. The CIO was first started as a committee in 1935 with the American Federation of Labor, and then it eventually broke off into an independent federation in 1938. What was the American Federation of Labor like before the CIO came along, and why was it necessary to break from this organizational form to organize the country’s basic industries? After answering these questions, the episode addresses three developments that raised workers’ expectations in the lead-up to the CIO’s founding: the broken promises of welfare capitalism, the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, and the mass strikes of 1934. The episode concludes with Robert W. Cherny, who recently wrote an excellent biography of labor leader Harry Bridges, recounting the story of the West Coast waterfront strike, and labor historian Bryan Palmer doing the same for the Minneapolis truckers’ strike.

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