restricted access Labor Day: The Lessons of the Past
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Labor Day:
The Lessons of the Past

Since it is known in the North Florida city in which I live that I am interested in labor history, the local Central Labor Council invited me to speak at its annual Labor Day breakfast (held actually on the Saturday before Labor Day). (Full disclosure: until my retirement, I was a delegate for my union, the United Faculty of Florida, to the Council.) The idea is for me in my activist persona to remind an audience of unionists, community, civil rights, environmental, and gender activists, and other progressive-minded people of what singer Billy Bragg calls “the lessons of the past.” Presumably, edifying stories of labor’s struggles will encourage men and women of good hope in the current fight for human rights in the workplace and in the community.

The assignment turned out to be more complicated than I initially thought. No less a figure than AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka recently has warned that “nostalgia for organized labor’s past is no strategy for our future,”1 but I did hope that lessons drawn from the experience of the CIO–whose history I chronicle in a book published in 19952—could be helpful for today’s activists. Since most in the audience would be occupied with their plates of sausage, eggs, biscuits, and redeye gravy, I’d have to be concise in the brief time allotted tomy remarks.

I soon discovered that I would need only four words with which to convey the lessons of the CIO experience to today’s beleaguered trade unionists and their allies. They are: fight, unite, connect, vote.

The CIO experience of the 1930s and 1940s provides ample evidence of the power of these four verbs. The CIO was a fighting organization: the Flint sit-downers, John L. Lewis’s coal miners, World War II wildcatters; the postwar auto and steelworkers who struck to achieve pension and health care benefits; black and white workers combining to achieve racial equity in the packinghouses of Chicago, Omaha, and Fort Worth—all attested to the centrality of struggle in labor’s story. The words of the Almanac Singers’ “Talking Union” came to mind:

If you wait for the boss to raise your pay You’ll be awaitin’ till judgment day

The CIO also united workers across the lines of race, ethnicity, and job categories. It mobilized first-and second-generation immigrants; Appalachian whites and African Americans; assemblyline workers and skilled tradesmen; and, at least on occasion, men and women. It reached out to the unskilled and to the marginalized. The Packinghouse Workers’ slogan from the 1930s captured this theme: Negro and White/ Unite and Fight.

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CIO head John L. Lewis denounces wage and price reductions at the 35th Biennial Convention of the United States Mine Workers, January 1938. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction number, LC-DIG-hec-24583].

But the CIO didn’t do it alone. It had to connect with allies in the community. Protestant social gospelers; Catholic worker advocates; African-American storefront preachers; the NAACP and other civil rights organizations; liberal and radical academics, publicists, and agitators; and socialists, communists, and Wobblies.

Voting was also critical. The workers’ cause could not be confined to the picket line and the bargaining table. In 1936 John L. Lewis mobilized the CIO’s human and financial resources on behalf of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reelection. And in 1943 the CIO created the first political action committee. CIO leaders, notably Clothing Workers’ head Sidney Hillman, recognized that what you won on the picket line could be lost in the legislative chambers.

Four verbs: fight, unite, connect, vote. Clearly, the CIO experience contains useful lessons for today’s activists. True, today’s workers face challenges very different from those confronting their grandfathers and grandmothers seventy years ago, but the idea that there can be no progress without struggle remains. Like their earlier counterparts, today’s workers have to combat divisiveness. Problems involving immigration, outsourcing, and public-vs-private employment surely pose tests as serious as those involving race, ethnicity, and ideology did seventy-five years. Today, perhaps...