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Anticipate Change, Study Our History

Even though the American union movement has made unprecedented improvements since the Sweeney takeover in 1995, we cannot point to unqualified success in the main criteria. We do not have a larger percentage of the workforce organized, and we have not won in the political arena. As 2005 comes thundering down on us, we can see continued tightening of anti-labor government and wholesale erosion of American workers' rights. It seems like a good year for a general discussion and a national AFL-CIO convention in late July. Both are underway.

Communists take a long view of all social developments. That usually means that we look a long way forward. In order to anticipate future events, we also look a long way back. In other words, those who hope to contribute to the 2005 discussion need to be studying what happened before.

This history book will help: Robert H. Zieger, The CIO 1935-1955. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 1995.

Zieger points out the strengths and weaknesses of the Congress of Industrial Organizations during the times of American labor's most dramatic successes. It helps correct a lot of commonly held illusions. For one, people nowadays think that reliance on politics, especially the Democratic Party, was not a component of the great advances of the 1930s & 1940s. In fact, the CIO was closely linked to Roosevelt through its greatest years.

Another common illusion is that Walter Reuther of the Autoworkers Union brought the CIO its greatest accomplishments during his presidency 1952-1955. In fact, Reuther presided over the CIO's downturn, loss of direction, and eventual merger, under less than favorable terms, into its old nemesis, the American Federation of Labor.

A third myth done away with in Zieger's book is that communists played only a marginal role in labor's giant accomplishments, or even, as is commonly believed by union staffers today, that they played a negative role. In fact, communists were always on the front lines. When they were driven out of leadership positions by government action, spies, stool pigeons, reactionary religious leaders, and opportunist union officers, the CIO's progressive activism was severely blunted. Zieger points out that losing the communists was especially disastrous for the CIO's race and gender fairness programs. Another big loss for the union movement was a general decline in union standards of honesty and good representation for their members.

Zieger's own anti-communism is evident from his conclusions in the final part of the book, but it is not supported by the facts he presents. Rather, it looks like the same disclaimer that almost all labor historians have bowed to since 1947. Interestingly, the AFL-CIO removed its constitutional ban on communists as union officers only two years after Zieger's book was published.

In 2005, unionists will be arguing for further progressive changes in our American unions. Many of the "new" procedures suggested will be nothing more than re-implementation of CIO policies from a half century ago, when we took some very productive and some very counterproductive steps. Our future actions will benefit greatly from reviewing what happened before.