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CIO-UAW Fight

Books

By Tom Crane

THE STORY OF the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) and the United Auto Workers (UAW) in the Depression reveals the greatest victories of the American labor movement in winning union representation for thousands of unorganized industrial Workers.

A coalition of forces from government, industry, and conservative labor leaders fanned anti-communist hysteria to defeat the CIO-UAW goal of an independent international labor movement.

Since every movement has its leaders, the CIO cannot be understood devoid of John Lewis, or the UAW of Wyndham Mortimer. At first Mortimer, an auto worker and ex-miner, was willing to organize the industrial auto workers within the framework of the conservative "craft" orientated American Federation of labor (AFL), despite its resistance. It took Lewis's breakaway Committee (soon to become a Congress) in 1935 to lead the way for the UAW. Under the new CIO umbrella, Mortimer, responding to the auto workers' surge for unity, led the great General Motors sit-down strike of 1937.

He tens his life story in a simple, modest account in Organize! My Life as a Union Man. His unique capacity for personalization may fool the reader into discounting Mortimer's role in the UAW. No one should be mistaken: Wyndham Mortimer was a giant of the labor movement. He was so effective an organizer that his so-called allies in labor had to silence him. His fighting spirit shines in Organize! He recalls an incident when he first arrived in Flint, Michigan, to organize the GM plant there and was greeted by a phone threat on his life. "How would you like to go to hell?" I shot back, but the person had hung up. I was fifty-two years old and nobody had taken me out in a box yet; I'd be damned if this was going to be the first time!"

Len Decrux did not come from a poor mining family like Mortimer, but an upper-class British background. He too spent his life in the labor movement, mostly as a Labor reporter. His "personal history." entitled labor Radical, tells the story of the CIO, its creation as a force for an independent labor movement and its demise as another AFL

THE MOST significant failure of America's labor movement was the inability of the AFL to incorporate unorganized industrial workers. The phenomenon of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, in the early 1900's had already indicated that the AFL was incapable of expanding beyond it own craft orientation. Today, history has repeated itself in the AFL-CIO's fat complacency.

Mortimer strongly suspects that the AFL entered a "gentlemen's agreement" with the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), mass production industries and in return NAM, would not molest AFL craft unions. From every level of activity Mortimer met resistance from the AFL Executive Council. Yet he realized, "While the shortcomings of the AFL were many, and very irritating, we recognized that it remained the center of union activity in the country. The 1935 AFL convention in Atlantic City provided the opening for Lewis's CIO split and Mortimer's home for the new forming UAW.

The CIO faced the central problem of direction. Was the only job of the CIO to organize industrial workers to bring them a "piece of the pie"? Or would the CIO provide the organization for an independent international labor movement?

One cannot deny the importance of the accomplishments of the CIO-UAW campaigns of the thirties. Before these victories, when a worker discussed unionization, he was liable to immediate dismissal from work and a livelihood was precarious struggle subject to the whims of the employer or a rampant economy. Unionization brought job security, a true seniority system, unemployment compensation, severance pay, pensions, and Social Security.

These struggles were all preceded by the initial fight for union recognition as a sole bargaining agent for workers. The GM sit-down strike broke this barrier, which business swore would never fall. The flood tide brought non-union workers to the doors of every CIO affiliate no matter what local. Mortimer found himself negotiating for strikers from power to aircraft industries under the auspices of the UAW because, as he put it, "it was the only CIO union thereabouts.

FOR THOSE in the CIO who envisioned the movement as the future stronghold for labor solidarity, the combined forces of FED, business, and selfish divisive labor leaders destroyed this goal. Despite Lewis's enormous contribution to organized labor, he was incapable of forging real working-class Independence. DeCaux, his close ally, admits, "He had no clear idea of such a goal," Lewis basically played a power politics game within the rules of this system. While on the one hand he responded, almost instinctively to desires of workers, he also dealt with Roosevelt when the need arose.

His maneuverings went bankrupt in 1940 when he received no new deals from FDR and endorsed Wendell Wilkie, the Republican candidate. Convinced that labor would get concessions from that did, this was Lewis's only trump card to ensure CIO's Independence. Other alternatives were very few, but to ask labor to abandon FDR was going too far despite Mortimer's lack of faith in the President. "If, in his efforts to get the economy back and functioning, a few crumbs in the form of WPA and CCC fell to labor, it was incidental and not because FDR was basically pro-labor."

Lewis ran the CIO from the top. There were all too few Wyndham Mortimers closely attuned to the rank-and-file. Disputes were waged at the highest level of the Union bureaucracy where jealousy and factionalism were prevalent.

On the one hand, men like Lewis and Mortimer believed in class struggle, meaning that the labor movement had to be united and independent of corporate and government domination. On the other hand, la group led by such men as Homer Martin, Sydney Hillman and Philip Murray thought that labor's fight was merely a struggle for power which could be best accomplished using already established channels. Hillman was FDR's labor lieutenant, always trying to catch the President's ear. He was forced on more than one occassion to order strikers back to work when FDR or business interests so pressured. In just such a conflict Mortimer was finally removed from leadership in the UAW because he sided with the strikers in the aircraft union he organized.

To these men, labor's fight was not one against an opposing class, nor was the CIO meant to lead an independent working class. Their basic philosophy rested on the old "happy family" assumption that a strong labor movement needed viable industries to provide badly needed jobs.

These forces used fierce red-baiting to link the organizing work of Lewis, Mortimer and their allies to political affiliation with Soviet Russia. To presume Moscow domination of this group discredited the activities of all left-leaning people as well as the few real communists who, in fact, strongly belived in the CIO's goals. For those many thousands who couldn't afford to pay rent, the communists in spite of all this propaganda, were looked upon as true friends who led the antieviction campaigns.

MORTIMER'S sympathies for the Party stemmed not from any love of Joe Stalin but from the street realities of a union organizer.

I am aware of the fact that we in America have been brainwashed and intimidated until such words as peace and socialism are never mentioned in polite society. But these two words must be heard loudly and constantly.

Anti-communism destroyed most of the progress of the thirties, leaving the rebellous CIO a docile partner of the AFL. Despite the political orientation of the leadership of the AFL-CIO. Mortimer remained forever optimistic:

Presently, as in the past, the greatest hope of American labor is in the rank-and-file membership, the men and women who pay their dues and who maintain unity and solidarity at the bench, the lathe, and the assembly line. When a little more experience has taught them a few more facts of life, they will decide they have had enough. The leaders who have forgotten their origin and mission will be swept aside. Their places will be taken by younger and more militant leaders, fresh from the shop, mill, and factory. rest assured, this new and younger leadership is already in the making. We may not yet have heard their names but to double that these future leaders exist is to doubt the whole of American labor history.

DeCaux's story is vitally relevant to Cambridge radicals. Coming from a background similar to that of many people at Harvard, he spent his life serving the labor movement.

Although, partly due to his legacy, he chose to become a labor writer, he put in his time in dirt poverty. One starts to suspect him of reverting to a soft life when he did find a relatively soft job on a labor paper. But he is one step ahead of the reader's thoughts:

I was aware all this was allecting me. With an appeased stomach, a regular salary, and work that is pleasant and socially useful, one doesn't sweat it so much. A lot of things can wait--including the revolution. I still wanted it, but with less subjective urgency maybe.

Radicals at Harvard or from any middle-class area suffer from this phenomenon. While we all indulge in this sort of "easy radicalism" we must accept that, for most of us unwilling to change our social class completely, we are not the leaders of the Movement. Standing above the day-to-day struggle, we are still capable of rendering effective aid even if most of us will probably help in semi-professional elitist capacities as intellectuals, journalists, doctors,or lawyers.

Middle-class guilt is a boring display of political infancy Our task is to dig in, In whatever way possible. We should accent what we are, recognize and deal with our faults and work from there to defeat the madness of imperialism.

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