An Uncertain Model
The question was simple: how to crack the South? How to organize the workers in the most anti-union region of the nation? This problem was at the core of “Operation Dixie,” the name given the organizing campaign launched by the Congress of Industrial Organizations in twelve Southern states in 1946. The stakes, as informed people in and out of the labor movement all understood, were very high. Operation Dixie was the culmination of a long search to find a way to organize the nation’s skilled, semiskilled, and unskilled workers under one huge institutional umbrella that covered the entire country. The dream of “one big union” was an old one, first nursed along by individual labor spokesmen in the first half of the nineteenth century, shaped further by the Knights of Labor in the 1880s and by the Industrial Workers of the World in the first decades of the twentieth century. After more than a century of experimentation, a breakthrough was finally achieved in the Northern mass production industries in the 1930s with the introduction of the sit-down strike. The lessons learned throughout this long struggle, and how those lessons were interpreted in the immediate postwar period of 1945–1946, determined in decisive ways the shape of the CIO’s Southern organizing campaign.
As it had come to exist in the opening decades of the twentieth century, the American working class was a diverse conglomeration of ethnic groups. There were “old stock” British Americans whose roots were in the artisanal trades of the colonial era or who, in the South, formed a yeoman class of smallholders on the land. There were, in addition, the earliest immigrants who had come to dominate certain trades, such as Irish carpenters or the German and Bohemian cigar makers who shaped the formative years of Samuel Gomper’s experience. And finally, there was the flood of “new immigrants,” the earliest dating from the Irish potato famine in the 1840s, but vastly augmented by the surge of Italian and other southern and eastern European immigrants who came to America in huge numbers between 1870 and the outbreak of World War I. These new Americans and blacks not only predominated in the emerging mass production industries, they had the meanest jobs in those industries. They stoked the furnaces in the steel mills, labored in the searing heat of the paint shops of the new auto industries and, in general, worked where the physical tasks were the hardest and the pay the lowest. They spoke a different kind of English, in Italian, Slavic, and Yiddish accents, lived in the most teeming ghettos, and otherwise were separated—and separated themselves—from the rest of American society. Socially and culturally, as well as economically, they suffered countless variations of American prejudice.1
The American Federation of Labor under Samuel Gompers could not address the needs of this pivotal section of the American working class. An historical segmentation divided the growing millions of workers in the mass production industries from the skilled workers in the traditional crafts. Workers named Higgins, Hopewell, and O’Connor labored as carpenters, electricians, and painters; the steel, auto, rubber, and electrical industries were full of Kowalskis, Bialics, and Barzinis; and a good percentage of the Browns and Harrises in their ranks tended to be black. As historian Herbert Gutman pointed out, the new American working class of the industrial era was overwhelmingly composed of immigrants, children of immigrants and blacks.
The structure of the AFL effectively sidestepped the ethnic problems inherent in the composition of the twentieth-century American working class. The combination of the emphasis on organizing the crafts and the tradition of “autonomy” for each trade effectively codified racial, ethnic, and class prejudice within the trade union structure itself. One therefore had to be somewhat free of these inherited prejudices even to contemplate industrial unionism, in which all the Kowalskis and O’Connors and Barzinis would amalgamate in “one big union.”
One path that could lead to this conclusion was ideological. As ideology would come to be a divisive issue in Operation Dixie, both within the ranks of organized labor near the end of the 1940s and within the larger society at the onset of the cold war, it is appropriate to review briefly the internal tensions that had long been at work in the American labor movement. The same interpretations of American capitalism that induced a worker to be a socialist also provided explanations as to why the working class was divided and why employers routinely pitted strikebreakers of one ethnic group against striking workers of another. In this sense, to be a trade union Socialist was to be an advocate of a world view that went beyond questions of wages and working conditions to include broad social and cultural attitudes as well. Those working-class institutions such as the IWW that saw ethnic divisions as fatal to the unity of workers warred consciously against prejudice as a prerequisite to successful organizing and strike actions. In their songs that characterized prejudiced workers as “scissorbills” who acted as their own worst enemies, the Wobblies were engaged in a kind of cultural war to redefine social relations throughout the whole society. Ideological beliefs were a potentially powerful force not only against the AFL as an institution, but against the racial, ethnic, and class prejudices that were imbedded in the very foundation of the AFL’s structure.2
But workers could dissent against the Gompers philosophy on narrower, tactical grounds as well. One did not have to be a Socialist to see that a work force that was only marginally organized could never amass the political authority to change the existing ground rules governing labor-management relations. One did not have to be a Socialist to see that most American workers were not skilled craftsmen who had mastered old-line trades. One needed only to be able to count in order to grasp that the industrial future lay in the mass production industries and in their variegated work force, which lay beyond the reach of the traditional craft unions.
Advocacy of industrial unionism, therefore, was not restricted to labor radicals. The political and economic weakness of the AFL, grounded in its narrow craft base, translated into a lack of effectiveness in the organizing and bargaining process itself—a weakness that a growing number of AFL partisans themselves could see with increasing clarity in the 1920s. After the first great surge of labor consciousness had peaked in the 1880s and 1890s, organized labor in America counted over 5,000,000 workers in its ranks—4,000,000 in the AFL and the bulk of the remainder in the craft-oriented railroad brotherhoods. But by 1930, it was evident that two generations of unsuccessful attempts to penetrate the mass production industries not only had kept the majority of American workers out of the ranks of organized labor, but had left the crafts themselves more vulnerable to corporate opposition. By the time of Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932, AFL membership had shrunk to little over 2,000,000. One of the AFL’s nearest approximations to an industrial union was the United Mine Workers. By 1929, mine worker membership had shrunk in the face of intense corporate opposition to 84,000 dues payers—20 percent of the work force.3
It is not surprising, then, that a great many working-class advocates felt that Gomper’s federation was hopeless and attempted to build independent unions. They ran afoul not only of their corporate opponents, but also faced the kind of cultural isolation to which socialism itself had been confined. If organizers had to convince American workers to become Socialists as a first step in freeing themselves from the narrow organizing tactics of the AFL, the history of 1900–1935 indicated that the task lay far beyond their capacity.4
As a result, a great amount of energy was directed toward reforming the AFL from within by persuading the organization to transcend its craft orientation and adopt the industrial union approach necessary to unlock the mass production industries. Indeed, efforts in this direction dominated the interior life of the AFL in the 1920s and 1930s. Years of resolution-passing and jockeying over semantics induced the AFL under intense pressure in 1933 to agree to the chartering of federal unions, in which workers were organized outside the jurisdiction of particular internationals. Thus they were “federated” directly to the AFL.5 That experiment, designed to offer a rudimentary path around craft jurisdiction problems so that organizers could approach workers in the mass production industries, had ended in utter disaster in the abortive strikes of 1934. Desperate organizing campaigns in the automobile industry in the Midwest, textiles in the South and Northeast, and steel and other basic industries in the East had all failed. In the course of these often massive efforts by the progressive wing of the AFL, militant workers in hundred of mills and factories—the backbone of future organizing efforts—had been identified and fired by management. The federal unions themselves had been reduced virtually to empty shells populated more or less equally by bruised and intimidated workers and by watchful company spies.6
The organizing failures of 1934 seemed to verify the beliefs held by both factions in the AFL: to old-time traditionalists, the failed strikes revealed conclusively that the federal union concept was as unworkable as they had always said it was. Labor’s progressives had never really liked the federal union approach either, but experimented with it as a step in the long campaign to induce the AFL leadership to accept responsibility for the great majority of American workers engaged in mass production.
As a practical matter, organizers familiar with America’s mass production industries knew that union status could never be won without long and probably desperate recognition strikes that would fully test the internal cohesion and group solidarity of the strikers themselves. Should victory be achieved, the thought of breaking up the instrument of victory—the local union the workers themselves had created in order to stand against management—seemed an insane proposition. The dismantling of the federal union meant dividing the workers into dozens of new groupings, under the control of people they did not know, had not fought alongside, and who sequestered themselves in far-off headquarters of “brotherhoods.” The idea might harmonize with the institutional habits of encrusted twentieth-century craft structures, but it simply did not speak to the organizational demands of the industrial age. So felt labor’s progressives in 1935, and so they had felt for the better part of two generations. Corporate capital commanded big production units; only a big union could contest such centralized power.7
The creation of the Committee for Industrial Organizations in 1935 addressed the institutional prerequisites, but it was the successful “sit-down” movement that began against General Motors in 1936 that provided labor with the tactical means to challenge corporate power in the mass production industries. Even more to the point, the organizing experience of the late 1930s provided the CIO’s leaders with the dominant ideas that were to govern Operation Dixie at war’s end.
The breakthrough sit-down strike—at the General Motors Fisher Body Plant in Flint, Michigan—had an electrifying impact on the nation’s mass production workers. In the immediate aftermath of the General Motors settlement, sit-down strikes erupted not only throughout the automobile industry, but in the steel, rubber, and electrical industries as well. The number of workers involved in sit-downs multiplied into the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, then millions. Recognition followed: the United Rubber Workers, the United Electrical Workers, the United Steelworkers. Almost overnight, it seemed, the CIO had become the major force in American labor.8 This breakthrough was—in its operative feature of the sit-down strike—more a tactical triumph than an ideological one. It is important to keep this distinction clear, as it bears directly on the strategy the CIO attempted to implement in Operation Dixie.
The sit-down tactic countered the one continuing management weapon that had for over a century defeated workers’ attempts to gain union recognition. Indeed, for workers, the scenario of labor-management conflict had long been both familiar and disillusioning: workers nursing grievances sufficiently overcame their fear of being fired to form a trade union to bargain for them; management refused to bargain; the workers struck and threw up picket lines; management hired strikebreakers; the strikers guarded the plant gates and forcibly prevented strikebreakers from entering; management appealed to political authorities for National Guard troops to “restore order” and “prevent violence”; management additionally obtained court injunctions against the pickets; the troops and injunctions cleared the path for strikebreakers to enter the plant; production resumed; the strike was broken; the union was destroyed. Strategically, in defining the balance of forces between American management and American labor, workers remained without bargaining power. But from a worker’s standpoint, the specific problem was tactical—the inability of workers to halt production without bringing the full power of law enforcement down on the side of management. The sit-down strike provided the long-sought tactical answer; it circumvented the picket line and its associated violence, and the excuse for calling in law enforcement officials. Management was reluctant to mobilize troops to storm factories under conditions that might cause damage to the equipment inside them.9 The sit-down was also a tactic that workers immediately understood and wanted to implement. It offered the prospect of success, whether used by workers who saw themselves as Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, or Communists. After Flint, people believed it would work and, partly because of this belief, it did.10
In summary, the sit-down strike was the tool that allowed the CIO to rapidly mobilize millions of industrial workers in the 1930s. It created, in some ways overnight, an enthusiasm that fired workers and organizers with the belief that management’s tactics could be overcome. In the end, its effect was as much psychological as organizational because it created a transforming “moment” that, in many cases for the first time, indicated to workers that they did have a measure of control over their work lives.
Yet the CIO breakthrough in the North in the 1930s cannot be neatly summarized as the predictable result of one tactical refinement in labor’s approach to organizing. The breakdown of the economic system was a fact of Depression era life that no amount of free enterprise rhetoric could conceal from the society as a whole. The political result had been the New Deal, with its avalanche of social legislation, including the National Industrial Recovery Act. Something on the order of what might be called a supportive “pro-people” culture had come into being as a result of the widespread pain caused by the Depression. In ways not yet predictable, this new circumstance carried a measure of popular sympathy for the plight of ordinary citizens, including mass production workers. Beyond this general political circumstance, the New Deal’s more specific acts seemed to carry less weight.11
The idea of targeting the most powerful corporations—U.S. Steel, General Electric and Westinghouse, Goodyear and Firestone—became a cornerstone of CIO belief. The sit-down era was understood to be the period when the CIO organized all the nation’s basic industries save textiles. This belief was strengthened by the fact that the organization emerged from World War II with active locals in almost all the flagship corporations in America’s industrial sector. The organizing reality, however, was much more complicated. The Ford Motor Company held out for five years, and equally tenacious opposition was encountered at Westinghouse in the electrical industry and at Goodyear in rubber. Even in organized industries, the CIO had difficulty building strong locals. Membership withered by the hundreds of thousands after the renewed economic downturn of 1937, and 250 organizers in steel had to be laid off, even though 30 percent of basic steel remained unorganized. The CIO, which boasted 4 million workers in 1938, actually had a dues-paying total of 1.8 million in 1940.12
Nevertheless, an institutional model was in place, propelled by the sheer momentum of post–1936 events, coming as they did after many decades of frustration and defeat. The way to organize in a given industry was to knock off that industry’s bellwether corporations: this was the Northern model in which the CIO’s tactics, strategy, and organization were grounded as it prepared to take on the South in Operation Dixie.