The CIO Was One of the Most Successful Anti-Racism Movements in U.S. History

How industrial unionism laid the groundwork for today’s anti-racist struggles.

Michael Beyea Reagan

Members of the United Packing House Workers of America (CIO), who went out on strike, are shown holding a meeting in 1946. Bettmann/Getty

The following is an excerpt from the book Intersectional Class Struggle (2021, AK Press).

In the 1930s, a new type of union, an industrial” union that welcomed all workers in a single workplace emerged as the cutting edge of working-class struggle. Previously, unions and employers both had a long history of racism and support for white supremacy. Certain jobs were reserved for whites, and Black workers were kept out of factories and union halls. This had catastrophic consequences for the working class. For example, in the 1919 Steel Strike, employers brought in 30,000 Black and immigrant workers to break the strike staged by white workers and their racially exclusive unions. Long prevented from joining those unions, and the labor movement in general, Black workers crossed the picket lines. With that, employers got production moving again, defeated the strike, and prevented worker organizing for the next 15 years.

In the 1930s, as the labor movement thought about how to win during the Great Depression, the lessons of the 1919 Steel Strike loomed large; workers’ movements would have to be anti-racist and intersectional if they were to win. The strength of the model of industrial unionism was that it required overcoming racial divides within the workplace. New organizations, such as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), ran anti-racist trainings to facilitate Black and white workers organizing together to fight employers. It formed interracial social groups and sport teams, challenged public displays of racism, and highlighted the treatment Black workers faced on the job. This was largely the influence of the communist and other leftist organizers in the union, for whom anti-racism had long been part of their practice of labor organizing. But at its core were the ideas that Black and white workers have a common enemy in capitalists and capital, and that efforts to divide workers by race weaken working-class power. With these union campaigns, along explicitly anti-racist lines, unionization at places such as General Motors in Flint or in the mills of U.S. Steel finally became possible.

In the estimation of the historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, the CIO was one of the most successful anti-racist efforts in U.S. history. Probably the greatest and most effective effort toward interracial understating among the working masses,” he writes, has come about through the trade union.” He believed that shared class interests were a mechanism to overcome ingrained racial hostility. Because of the CIO, workers in the steel and automotive industries have been thrown together, Black and white, as fellow workers striving for the same objects. There has been on this account an astonishing spread of interracial tolerance and understanding.” Those victories breaking down white supremacy were won through intersectional class struggle; in Du Bois’s words, Probably no movement in the last thirty years has been so successful in softening race prejudice among the masses.” Black workers were harmed the most by racism and white supremacy, but white workers were harmed too as their unions were broken and their living standards eroded by taking the side of employers in supporting white supremacy against working-class solidarity. In short, all workers have a collective interest to overcome white supremacy and labor-market competition together. In practice, this often means prioritizing the Black freedom struggle or movements for civil rights to build that solidarity.6

Like these other examples, the contemporary struggle against incarceration and police violence is intersectional. In Michelle Alexander’s book on mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow, Alexander links the issue of policing and American racism, the fact that the capitalist incarceration system disproportionately detains and imprisons people of color, to the class stratification of American society. She argues that the modern incarceration system is but the latest manifestation of a centuries-long process of enforcing a permanent Black underclass in America. As a lawyer, Alexander’s emphasis is on voting and restrictions to civic participation. But in her work it is clear how mass incarceration, as well as the systems of Jim Crow and slavery, have much broader impacts on the Black working class and on the class as a whole. Incarceration is a mechanism of social control: it permanently disrupts one’s ability to work, disrupts family relations, and isolates and alienates people from one another. For Alexander, mass incarceration is an appendage of the capitalist state that enforces a rigid structure of racial class stratification. 

In another example of the power of labor to challenge white supremacy, in Florida in 2018, prison workers struck for a month to refuse poor conditions and unpaid work, which they called slave labor.” Similar strikes in California and other states led to a nationwide prison strike later that year. Focusing on their labor, a major source of their power, prisoners were able to challenge the prison-industrial complex, one of the major institutions of white supremacy. With this emphasis on labor and direct action, intersectional class struggle strategies benefit social movements and group empowerment even far from the traditional workplace. They also show how to address complex intersections of state power, white supremacy, and capitalist exploitation.

In all these examples, the structure of Black oppression is indelibly infused with the class structure. In her book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, the activist and scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor explores the origins and causes of the Black Lives Matter movement. She argues that at the root of the black awakening in Obama’s America” was a class-stratified Black community. Those better suited to benefit from the legacy of the civil rights movement were able to integrate into U.S. ruling circles, such as the Obamas, Powells, Whartons, and others. The rest of Black society was left behind, increasingly criminalized, and given over to neoliberal policies that left communities to deal on their own with gripping poverty and militarized policing amid the war on drugs. The result is that Black protest bubbled up from the bottom. Through direct action, mostly riots and disruptive protests such as blocking freeways, the movement was able to force the issue of deadly policing onto the national agenda. In some instances, it was able to win important gains, such as limiting police access to military hardware.

This is not to say that race is fundamentally all about class. It is to say that these issues are intersectional — and not just between race and class. For example, police violence is also gendered, as the routine violence exhibited by police officers is a deadly manifestation of toxic” masculinity. It is gendered too in the relative invisibility of the women and trans people killed by police violence. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues, without a grounding in emancipatory revolutionary class politics, it is unlikely we can adequately address the racism and injustice of police violence and other issues that concern us.

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Michael Beyea Reagan is a historian, teacher, and activist in Seattle, Washington.

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