From unionizing Starbucks and Amazon workers to thousands of graduate students on strike, we’re seeing a fresh upsurge of union struggle in the United States. And that movement is becoming more militant: the last few months alone have seen a major uptick in strikes, with this year already outstripping the last.
Eric Blanc has weighed in on the upsurge. Assistant professor at Rutgers and writer at Jacobin and elsewhere, he recently sent out and posted a four-part essay (here are parts I, II, III, and IV) responding to the work of Charlie Post as well as Cody Melcher and Michael Goldfield. In it, Blanc wants to convince union organizers our first hope has to lie in the Democratic Party. For him, a key part of our strategy has to be voting for, and appealing to, Democrats. If we do that, he says, Democrats will pass laws like the PRO Act to make striking and organizing easier.
His ideas fly in the face of all the evidence.
Biden and the Democrats have done very little for labor. Democrats have controlled the House, Senate, and White House for almost two years. They’ve refused to push through the PRO Act. They’ve refused to pass major legislation against union busting, which union activists at Starbucks and Amazon are fighting every day and which helped lead to the defeat of an Amazon union in Bessemer. They refused to enshrine abortion rights — a key working class right — into law over a 50 year period. And on and on and on. Regardless of the intentions of a Democrat here or there, the Democratic Party is a sophisticated bureaucratic machine designed to get union votes while keeping labor weak for the sake of the ruling rich.
To try to prove his point, though, Blanc turns to the 1930s. The New Deal laws crafted by Democratic Senator Robert Wagner and supported by Democratic president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), he claims, drove the massive labor struggle of the 1930s. The lesson he’s drawing for us is clear: we should follow a similar path today and base our union strategy on electing the right Democrats.
In all this, where Blanc doesn’t flip the historical record on its head, he ignores it. When we look at history we see a few things. First, Blanc misreads his data. Large strike waves did in fact drive labor’s “allies” like Wagner and Roosevelt to pass laws to help along unionizing. Second, those were no allies. Their legislation was meant — as they themselves constantly said — to stop workers from being able to control and stop their work, and so the flow of profit too. Third, the Democratic Party was successful, at least for a time. With the help of labor leaders, the party unevenly but surely tamed the labor struggle, chained it to itself — and then betrayed it.
The lessons of the 1930s are clear, and they’re the opposite of what Blanc takes them to be. The Democratic Party is a tool built by and for the ruling class. The 1930s are more proof of it. Real gains for the working class and oppressed come from bottom-up self organizing. Today, to win real and lasting gains for the working class, we’ll have to break the hold of any capitalist party over us — and that will mean building our own party.
How to Write History with a Hatchet
Blanc’s four-part essay looks at the causes of the major labor struggles of the 1930s. He says Democratic Party-led legislation — in particular, by unions’ Democratic Party “allies,” Wagner and FDR — played the major role in inspiring and driving unions in their historic upsurge in the 1930s.
He says strikes were important: the legislation known as the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in 1933 — especially section 7(a), which legalized unionizing — inspired many to strike. But according to Blanc, the legislation led the way: the 1933 bill and 7(a) inspired workers to strike and win major gains. Those strikers helped “Wagner and his small cohort of legislative allies” in 1935 to pass an even better bill for workers that has since been called the Wagner Act. For Blanc, Wagner was the working class’s man in Washington.
Blanc’s motivations are pretty obvious. If he can show that Democrats can be good union allies, he can go on to show that unions today should be supporting Democrats. It’s a rearguard move to justify the support, from Jacobin’s editorial board and the DSA’s leadership, for the Democratic Party.
The only issue with this history is the historical record.
Blanc flips the data on its head. He claims there was only a modest uptick of struggle before the 1933 NIRA, and that Wagner turned the NIRA into a tool to inspire a large wave of strikes and unionization afterwards. But the major labor unrest of the 1930s had already started in 1930-1931. That’s about two years before FDR’s election and long before Wagner and his allies were drafting what would become the 1933 NIRA. Charlie Post had already shown this in his earlier piece. The data Blanc cites, too, shows that the percentage of non-farm workers striking between 1930 and 1933 quadrupled.
However, the most relevant data point here is not the number of strikers. It’s workdays idle, which more fully measures how disruptive striking workers were by showing how much productive time was missed through strikes and lockouts. In 1930 there were 3,317,000 work-days idle. In 1931, that number more than doubled to 6,893,000. In 1932, it jumped again to 10,502,000. In other words: in just the first two years of the ‘30s, workdays idle more than tripled.
Second: Blanc also ignores the wider historical context that gives those numbers meaning. For example, he says in passing that global capitalism was in a crisis in the 1930s.
This rather understates things. Capitalism was convulsing in the most catastrophic economic crisis in its global history. In this context, the quadrupling of striking workers and tripling of idle workdays in the first few years of the ‘30s were hardly “modest” disruptions at a time when capitalists were desperate for profits. The bosses needed to limit the extent of competition between themselves to buoy up profits and, crucially, limit the rolling strikes.
The NIRA, and then the 1935 Wagner Act, were designed to give the Democrats tools to end and avoid disruptive strikes (as Wagner’s and Roosevelt’s own words will show). But stopping strikes also had to mean outflanking the radical ideas threatening to push workers into the arms of the communists and socialists: the people who were driving the militant strikes.
When the massive power of unions started to stir in 1930, that power did not come out of nowhere. The labor movement was building itself in important part upon the experience and lessons of the last major strike wave of the era — the one that ran from around 1915-16 to 1920-21.
That uprising was also not driven by “good” Democrats. Unions had not yet been made legal, nor had strikes. The surge of worker struggle then was not only a reaction against the imperialist carnage of WWI, but also to the inspiring example of Russian workers, peasants, and soldiers in their 1917 revolutions.
The 1915-1921 strike wave was savagely stomped out — but socialists, communists, and other radicals spread like embers throughout the working class. Drawing lessons from that last major upheaval, those radicals organized for revolutionary, militant unionism throughout the 1920s (although the Communist Party would, by the 1930s, support the Democratic Party, undercutting the power of worker struggle from below). 1For example: the Auto Workers Union (AWU) “had been founded by Socialists in 1918 and had grown rapidly until 1920, when it was smashed by the Palmer Raids … Communists joined the AWU in Detroit in 1922, and soon were among its core organizers and leaders. It had nuclei in nearly 20 auto plants, including Ford’s …” Judith Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin, Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 25. In Left Out, Stepan-Norris and Zetlin show that we can’t understand the 1930s labor upheaval without the earlier phase of militant unionizing by “reds” in the 20s who organized independently of the capitalist parties and laid the groundwork for the 1930s.2Stepan-Morris and Zeitlin, p. 32. So it’s no coincidence that some of the biggest and most militant strikes, like the ones in Minneapolis in 1934, were led by Trotskyists like Farrell Dobbs; their struggle had long roots in the previous decades. Kim Moody tells a similar story in his 2000 pamphlet “The Rank-and-File Strategy.”
The new union movement that built the CIO in the 1930s was the child of that earlier struggle, and of those militants — not of Wagner or the Democratic Party. The Democrats had to convince workers to work inside the capitalist system, not to try to overthrow it.
But the New Deal was just as much a response to things happening outside the U.S. in the 1930s, too. Blanc devote little time to that context, saying the rise of communism in its battle with fascism in Europe gave some “impetus” to the New Deal. This is, if anything, an even more radical understatement than the one about the Great Depression.
By the 1930s, communists and socialists were a major revolutionary force inside Europe. Germany’s ruling classes had brutally headed off a communist revolution between 1918 and the early 1920s. France’s communists were growing into a major force of their own, on the heels of that country’s earlier revolutionary syndicalism. Revolution was brewing in Spain. And of course, Russia was ruled by Stalin’s (highly bureaucratic and repressive) communist party. The bourgeoisie was openly wondering whether capitalism could survive. What exactly was the “impetus” that this larger context gave the Democrats, then?
Wagner and FDR themselves tell us: kill the strikes, tame the workers, save the ruling class.
The Democratic Party: A Trojan Horse
Unprecedented economic breakdown; revolutionary worker struggle surging worldwide; a militant worker movement on the doorstep of the U.S. ruling class itself, driven by “reds”; a teetering economy — it’s in this context we should understand the 1933 NIRA and then the 1935 Wagner Act.
In the face of a “red” threat inside and outside the U.S. and economic collapse, the explicit intention of both Wagner and Roosevelt was to tame the radical U.S. labor movement.
Elected in 1932 — two years after the start of the labor uprising that would mark the decade in its ebb and flow — Roosevelt fought to hold power against his right and left flank. In a 1935 interview he was quite clear: “I am fighting Communism, Huey Longism, and Coughlinism.” He was working, as he often explained, to “save our system, the capitalist system” from “crackpot ideas.” FDR’s battle with home-grown and international communism, the “right flank” of fascism, and the biggest crisis in capitalism’s history, go a very long way to explaining the timing of the New Deal.
Blanc says that Wagner was a heroic, pro-labor Democrat who — with his union allies — wanted to use the pro-business NIRA to help workers during the Depression. They were pro-worker rebels, we’re told. Blanc writes:
Companies in different economic sectors were directed to write and comply with new “codes of fair competition” meant to establish prices, wages, and production quotas. Under pressure from Senator Robert F. Wagner and union leaders, Section 7(a) was ultimately tacked on to the bill. This soon-to-be famous section declared, somewhat vaguely, that “employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.” … In short, the depression created a unique window for federal intervention into industry — a window seized by Wagner and union leaders to pass a labor law reform that would go on to play a far more important role than anticipated by employers.
Again, history does a headstand. In Wagner’s own words, the main purpose of the NIRA, including 7(a), was not to benefit labor — it was to avoid disruptions to the economy. That meant avoiding strikes, ending the militancy of labor. “Each must discard,” he declared, “the old-fashioned notions that gains are achieved by harrowing conflicts.”3J. Joseph Huthmacher, Senator Robert F. Wagner and the Rise of Urban Liberalism (New York: Athaneum, 1968), p. 160.
This is clear from the people Wagner picked to help draft the NIRA, including 7(a). Blanc says it was Wagner and his union allies who wrote it. Actually, the “members of ‘the Wagner group’” preparing the 1933 bill included “Fred I. Kent of the Bankers Trust Company in New York; Virgil D. Jordan of the National Industrial Conference Board; James H. Rand, Hr. of Remington-Rand; trade association attorney David L. Podell; industrial economist Malcolm C. Rorty; W. Jett Lauck, an economist with the United Mine Workers; and Representative Clude Kelly of Pennsylvania.”4Huthmacher, p. 146. In other words: of the people crafting the bill, chosen by Wagner himself, the majority were either capitalists or their lawyers. Representatives of unions were few and far between.
Why, then, would capitalists agree to draft a bill that contained 7(a), which would legally allow workers to unionize? Business leaders needed it — a point Blanc points out without drawing the necessary conclusions. The bosses needed unions because of the ferocity of competition among capitalists throughout the 1920s and precarious economy of the 1930s. Firms were finding ever new ways to reduce workers’ pay and standards of living. That was driving firms to reduce costs of production below maximum profitability. And that in turn was leading to disruptive strikes.
Enter 7(a). Unions would regulate business where the federal government could not. More than this, many capitalists saw unions as a way to raise wages to spur more consumption by workers, and hence, increase corporate profits. Blanc says Wagner “tacked on” 7(a) in a sneaky act of rebellion. Colin Gordon shows it was precisely the other way around. In New Deals Gordon writes: “Older manufacturing and mining industries … saw Section 7 as the economic core of the act and not just a political expedient to its passage.” And so, “suffice it to say here that Section 7 did little to undermine business support.”5Colin Gordon, New Deals: Business, Labor, and Politics in America, 1920-1935 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
The NIRA mostly failed at its task. The masses of workers struggling at work and many of their union leaders seized on the Act in the months after it was passed and began unionizing en masse, striking against bosses that refused to recognize them and negotiate. This was a continuation and intensification of the rapidly accelerating labor struggle begun in 1930, peaking in a massive, disruptive strike wave in 1934. Again: this was not the handiwork of “good Democrats.” For the Democrats, capitalists, and lawyers who mostly wrote the NIRA, the strikes were completely unintentional — actually, they were the opposite of what their legislation was supposed to do.
By 1934, the number of idled workers and lost workdays had skyrocketed. We should see the 1935 Wagner Act in this context. By offering more robust ways to settle strikes — empowering the NLRB to adjudicate labor struggle — the hope was, again, to tame labor struggles. Blanc argues something different. He points out a modest dip in strike activity between 1934 and 1936, arguing that worker struggle had little to do with the passage of the 1935 Wagner Act. Besides being far too mechanistic, this ignores the actual words of the Democratic “allies” involved.
Throughout 1934, facing the rising tide of massive strikes, “Wagner insistently repeated that his bill was designed to promote labor-management cooperation, and thus to foster both economic recovery and industrial peace.”6Huthmacher, p. 164. The problem, he said, was that the NIRA was not being enforced; if it were, the strikes could be avoided. It was on this basis that Wagner called for a stronger bill. The strikes spurred the push for the 1935 Wagner Act —but precisely in order to stop them. By mid-April of 1934, “the President had become more amenable to” what would become the Wagner Act of 1935. Indeed, for Roosevelt, it was the pacifying aspects of Wagner’s ideas — their potential to stop workers from striking — that mattered first and foremost.7Huthmacher, 166, 167.
In 1934, as Wagner was pushing for the Wagner Act and defending his and the Democrats’ record in a midterm election year, he agitated for his bills in exactly these terms. He framed both the 1933 NIRA and the coming Wagner Act as weapons to protect capitalist private property by taming the workers’ ability to strike.
Summing up the New Deal, Wagner said its goal was “not to subvert the American system, but to save it … to put business on its own feet … Let no one throw dust in your eyes. The profit system is secure under the New Deal” against the threats of fascism and communism. Indeed, this was indeed the entire “philosophy” of the New Deal, Wagner argued. In a letter to Leo Sachs on November 9, 1934, Roosevelt wrote that this was “one of the best expositions of the New Deal he had ever read.”8 Huthmacher, 179, 180.. In the Labor Committee report to send the Wagner Act to the House, Wager himself states that this — avoiding strikes and the danger they posed to the fragile capitalist economy — was the explicit goal of the Wagner Act.9Huthmacher, 192.
Wagner put it the same way in 1935 when he was stumping for the act:
The break-down of section 7(a) brings results equally disastrous to industry and to labor. Last summer it led to a procession of bloody and costly strikes, which in some cases swelled almost to the magnitude of national emergencies. … The enactment of this measure will clarify the industrial atmosphere and reduce the likelihood of another conflagration of strife such as we witnessed last summer. It will stabilize and improve business by laying the foundations for the amity and fair dealing upon which permanent progress must rest.
In fact, the goal of taming the unruly workers is clear from the text of the Wagner Act itself. The very first words of the act run:
Section 1.[§151.] The denial by some employers of the right of employees to organize and the refusal by some employers to accept the procedure of collective bargaining lead to strikes and other forms of industrial strife or unrest, which have the intent or the necessary effect of burdening or obstructing commerce by (a) impairing the efficiency, safety, or operation of the instrumentalities of commerce; (b) occurring in the current of commerce; (c) materially affecting, restraining, or controlling the flow of raw materials or manufactured or processed goods from or into the channels of commerce, or the prices of such materials or goods in commerce; or (d) causing diminution of employment and wages in such volume as substantially to impair or disrupt the market for goods flowing from or into the channels of commerce.
When Wagner ran for reelection in 1938, his campaign ads played up exactly this push to defang the workers’ movement. One ad bragged: “Senator Wagner’s program has put a halt to growing social unrest threatening the destruction of our democratic institutions.”10Huthmacher, p. 254.
It’s important to note, though, that this taming of labor was only one way the New Deal was deeply contradictory, and even reactionary. The New Deal was built with the help of a Congress that was under Democratic control and at a time when Jim Crow ruled the American south. Southern Democrats were crucial in writing and voting labor legislation. No wonder Jim Crow remained unquestioned and domestic and agricultural workers in the south (mostly Black workers) were excluded from the new legislation.
How to Tame a Labor Movement
The Democrats got what they wanted: they tamed labor, at least until the next explosive outburst towards the end of World War II.
In the ‘30s, large-scale, militant worker struggle leapt forward in fits and starts. The first leap ran from about 1930 to mid-1934, culminating in the large-scale strikes of 1934 and leading to the Wagner Act. A mellowing of militant strikes (though work-days idle were still about triple what they were in 1930) set in from about mid-1934 through 1936. This is, perhaps, a period of the partial still very limited “success” of the NIRA in taming workers. But then the next major cycle of worker struggle in the 1930s began, culminating in the most disruptive phase of the period: the Flint sit-down strikes, chronicled in Sidney Fine’s Sit-Down.
Wagner’s response to those 1936-1937 strikes is telling (Blanc says nothing about it). Wagner did not champion the strikes; he blamed the conflict on the fact that the Wagner Act hadn’t yet fully gone into effect. And indeed, in 1938 — the first full year of the act’s implementation — the conflict had subsided. By 1938 “there were only half as many strikes, one third as many workers involved, and less than one third as much working time lost compared to 1937. Indeed, fewer workers went on strike in 1938 than in any year since 1932.”11Huthmacher, p. 233.
There was another, smaller (but still large) surge of strikes in 1939. But by 1940, large-scale strike disruption had collapsed, only somewhat above the level of 1930. The workdays idle of 1940 were 6,701,000, down from 28,425,000 in 1937. That is, by 1940, they were down more than 75 percent from their peak. It was exactly this collapse of militant struggle that was Roosevelt’s main aim in working with Wagner, and that Wagner used as a plank of his reelection campaign in 1938.
How did the New Deal, and especially the 1933 and 1935 bills, defang the roiling labor movement?
First, Mike Davis points out that worker struggles in the 1930s were driven, above all, by fights for power over their work — for “worker control” to one degree or another — on the shop floor. While Davis misses the fact that the labor uprising began as early as 1930, he points out that that uprising “was not primarily concerned with wages or even working hours. The underlying thrust was surprisingly non-economistic: in a majority of cases the fundamental grievance was the petty despotism of the workplace incarnated in the capricious power of the foremen and the inhuman pressures of mechanized production.” And those revolts were driven not by “official leaders” but by “the defiant autonomy of (usually clandestine) plant committees from any of the official apparatuses.”12Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream, Verso, 2018, p. 59, 60. See also Davis, p. 60.
The high point of that struggle was the 1937 sit-down strikes in which workers took physical control of their workplaces. Those sit-down strikes were the high-water mark of the self-organization that was the engine driving the roiling class battles of the 1930s. In other words, the 1930s were a period of surging self-organization of the working class. And its radical power formed itself independently of the ruling class and its two capitalist parties. That was a major challenge to their authority amid economic crisis and worldwide revolutionary struggle.
The 1935 Wagner Act took aim at that self-organization.
It set up a national system of labor law — later more fully consolidated within 1947’s Taft-Hartley Act — designed to avoid and settle disruptive strikes. That meant, in other words — and in the words of the act itself — that labor conflict should be solved not by the worker power over production, but by appealing to a national legal body, and to a set of laws enshrining that body’s power. The message to workers was: you are not to win concessions from bosses through your own power and organizing. Victories are to come from appealing to the Democratic Party and laws and bodies it has set up for you. If you don’t like those laws, ask Democrats for better ones.
A key ally in the Democrats’ struggle here was the union bureaucracy, the official leadership emerging in the CIO. Strangely enough, this bureaucracy — so key to what happened in the 1930s — is little discussed by Blanc. The bottom-up, roiling self-organizing of workers wasn’t just a threat to the bosses and to the economy — it was a threat to the power and prestige of that layer of professional union leaders, too. They could only establish their power in bargaining with the bosses if they could guarantee that the general rank-and-file would follow their lead. The Democrats and union bureaucrats, in other words, had a key aim in common: undermining the militant self-organizing of the rank and file.
Bureaucrats deployed a number of tools that helped accomplish this end: multi-year contracts with no-strike clauses; increasingly complex contracts that called for more roles — and more power — for bureaucrats to solve conflicts; and so on. Kim Moody points out that by 1950, the UAW central leadership was monitoring all local newspapers to weed out revolt from below.13Kim Moody, An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism (London: Verso, 1988), p. 47. By 1947, labor leaders were only too happy to comply when the Taft-Hartley Act called for rooting out communists and socialists from unions. Those radicals had been the driving force of bottom-up struggle in unions since the last wave during and after WWI.
In all this, we see an odd part of Blanc’s work. He acts as though the capitalist state, and its organs like the Democratic Party, are just inert, neutral tools — a bucket sitting around — that could be filled up with radical content for workers and unions. The history of the 1930s shows something else.
The Democratic Party is not a bucket waiting for us to fill it up however we’d like. It’s a sophisticated, powerful, and massive machine built by a segment of the ruling class over the course of a century to create what Antonio Gramsci calls ruling-class “hegemony.” Gramsci points out it’s never enough for the ruling class to simply attack revolts like strikes with force. It’s far more stable to pair that kind of violent coercion with actively and creatively cultivating the consent of the working class.14“Government with the consent of the governed — but with this consent organized, not generic and vague as it is expressed in the instant of elections. The state does have and request consent, but it also ‘educates’ this consent, by means of the political and syndical associations … ” Antonio Gramsci, Gramsci: Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International publishers, 1973), p. 259. See also pp. 221, 239, 242, and 247.
Creating that consent is a key task for the Democratic Party as a whole. The party is a “a well-established, highly financed network of practical and ‘ideological’ capture.” It is ruled by a massive, rigidly hierarchical bureaucracy funded by billions of capitalist dollars. It is fundamentally anti-democratic in its function. And all this ensures that its ruling-class funders’ and leaders’ goals are met, and dissenters have little to no influence. The Democratic Party excels in taking even people who call themselves socialist, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and pushing them mercilessly to the right.15Kim Moody, Breaking the Impasse: Electoral Politics, Mass Action, and the New Socialist Movement in the United States (Chicago: Haymarket, 2022), pp. 40-47 It is the political equivalent of an industrial-strength hydraulic press.
In the 1930s, when the Democrats set up a new national system of labor law and legal processes, they were laying the foundations for consensus: a “labor peace” benefitting the ruling class first and foremost. The new national legal system coaxed and cajoled the rebellious working class away from self-organizing, pressing it to work inside the state through a capitalist party. The union bureaucrats allied themselves to this project for their own gain as part of what Gramsci called the “integral state”: the wider mechanisms in civil society (like in unions) that work to build up the hegemony of the ruling class and its agents.
And this solves a mystery that Blanc can’t explain. He says that after 1937, FDR had begun to turn his back on unions and ignore the cause of the working class. He writes that by 1938, a
new anti-CIO coalition succeeded, with FDR’s backing, in purging the Left from the NLRB after 1938. The new Board soon proceeded to allow employers to hire strikebreakers as permanent workers, it ended the practice of “card check” for union recognition, and it limited the scope of permissible bargaining issues.
But if we accept Blanc’s history, this looks very strange. If FDR and Wagner were the heroes of labor, even during waves of militant strikes like in 1934, why did FDR suddenly turn against unions? Hadn’t the bucket of the Democratic Party been filled up with radical laws, ideas, and allies?
Blanc’s only answer is to appeal to an abstract, external force: “public opinion” turned against the workers — because of their militant struggle, it would seem. “Public opinion” floats over Blanc’s history like the Greek fates: inscrutable, invisible, all-deciding.
Yet again, this flips reality onto its head. FDR’s reaction is not at all strange when we remember two things. First, FDR and Wagner’s main goal was to declaw labor. And by 1938, mass strikes were on the wane; the bureaucracy was consolidating its power; the Wagner Act of 1935 was going into full effect; the working class had attached itself to the Democrats. That meant there was no reason for FDR to mollify the unions any more. The task seemed to be entering its final stages.
Second: the sit-down strikes were the fullest expression of exactly the thing that the NIRA and Wagner Act were designed to attack: militant workers organizing themselves to fight the bosses. With the sit-downs, FDR naturally moved from appealing to labor to fighting it more openly. The Democratic Party was asserting its hegemony: carrot and stick. It was building consent among the ruled (roping them into the legal system and support of the Democrats), and turning against them when necessary.
Blanc also blames that avenging abstract spirit — “public opinion” — as the reason why a new party for the working class was impossible. But again, the opposite was true.
The goal of the Democratic Party was to crush working-class self-organization at work and outside it. That meant stopping the budding struggle for an independent working-class party. In the CIO, such a party seemed to be in the offing in the mid-1930s — and would have given workers’ self-organizing a whole new means to express itself, organize itself, and defend itself from the ruling class.
Kim Moody writes that “labor party sentiment had been a real trend in the unions throughout the 1930s and 1940s.” The obstacles were many to its founding, notes Davin, and yet “the loyalty of organized labor and the new urban, working class voter to FDR and the Democrats” was in fact “not a foregone conclusion and had to be won after intense, continuing and delicate internal struggle.”16Eric Leif Davin, “The Very Last Hurrah? The Defeat of the Labor Party Idea, 1934-1936” in We Are All Leaders: The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s, ed. Staughton Lynd (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996), p. 123; see also 125. Indeed, the struggle over the labor party idea was hardly foregone even inside the far more conservative AFL. It surfaced perhaps most seriously after the repression of the strikes of 1934. At the 1936 UAW convention, “a resolution was passed calling for formation of a labor party. John L. Lewis, then head of the CIO, had to intervene directly to get the convention to endorse Roosevelt.”17 Moody, An Injury to All, p. 36 The budding effort in 1936 died, but the result — as Davin points out — was hardly inevitable.18Blanc, in other words, continues the long tradition of amnesia, positing the labor party idea as forgone, doomed by the fates from the start. “The oblivion has been so total that it is as if” the real, open, and contingent political struggle between social forces “had never been. Not only did labor’s future belong to the Democrats, but the Democratic Tide even claimed labor’s past.” Davin, 158.
By 1937-38, the Democratic Party was consolidating its control over the working class. Once the sit-down strikes were resolved, with the push for a worker party crushed and the Wagner Act taking real effect, that control was stronger than it had been in years. Without an independent party — with its own presses, its own positions, its own means of defending the class from attacks and fight for hegemony — the new worker movement found itself stuck inside the Democratic Party, unable to shape public opinion and develop its own policies. No wonder FDR dropped the workers just as suddenly as he had first acted like their “champion.”
So What Are the Lessons of the 1930s?
In the 1930s, the Democratic Party was not an ally of workers and their families — it was a machine to open the sluice of profits again. Even if Robert Wagner had had the “right” intentions of helping labor, he worked inside, and for, an imperialist, capitalist party that ensured the good of the ruling class first and foremost.
The results were devastating for the working class. The labor bureaucrats helped lash the CIO to the ruling class’s victorious chariot. When imperialist war broke out just a few years later, labor had become its ally and supporter. Labor’s leaders in the CIO agreed to enforce a national no-strike clause that would free the hands of the rulers to divide the world among themselves — and keep the working class from active solidarity with workers across the globe. That history of “labor imperialism” is hardly over. The ties forged in the 1930s between labor and the Democrats live on today, with the heads of the AFL-CIO supporting bipartisan, murderous imperialist policies in Palestine, to name just one example.
No wonder Blanc has to make history do handstands. The DSA’s leaders have long told us to put our faith in the Democratic Party, which will help workers organize for radical change. But it’s dangerous to think the Democratic Party can be seized for workers or socialism. The 1930s show that the Democratic Party is a sophisticated machine. It is designed to stop us from organizing ourselves, and to make us put our hopes in our enemy’s legal system and institutions. It’s a machine to tame us. The history of the last 20 years, too — the Democratic Party’s constant failures and betrayals of working and oppressed people — tells the same story.
What the ruling class fears first and foremost is the self-organization of working-class and oppressed people, since only militant self-organizing can make real, lasting, radical social change. That means workers and oppressed people need our own party to organize and coordinate ourselves, to break the chains that drag us behind the chariot of the ruling class.
Building a truly independent movement of the working class and oppressed is going to mean bottom-up worker organizing, the kind ready to do battle with the Democrats’ own “police” inside our unions — the union bureaucracy. Blanc doesn’t discuss the massive, vested, well-paid union leadership, but that won’t make the problem disappear. That bureaucracy is a major — and growing— force to make workers play by the rules of the carnival game of U.S. labor law.
Today, the objective situation is making it more and more urgent that we organize ourselves and fight in our own name, under our own banners. The world economy is teetering on the brink of yet another economic crisis. If the UK is any indication, the rulers are already preparing for austerity; the same will likely be true in the United States. That means the ruling class will once again try to make sure workers are the ones paying for the crisis, even as inflation cuts savagely into our pay. And all the while, the global climate catastrophe is accelerating. But labor is on the move, on the heels of the biggest social protest movement in U.S. history in 2020. Real and radical change is possible.
The 1930s teach one lesson above all. It’s the unleashed self-organizing of the working class and oppressed that moves the wheel of history forward with real, radical, and lasting gains. Putting our trust in any capitalist party means waiting for that wheel to crush us.
|↑1||For example: the Auto Workers Union (AWU) “had been founded by Socialists in 1918 and had grown rapidly until 1920, when it was smashed by the Palmer Raids … Communists joined the AWU in Detroit in 1922, and soon were among its core organizers and leaders. It had nuclei in nearly 20 auto plants, including Ford’s …” Judith Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin, Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 25.|
|↑2||Stepan-Morris and Zeitlin, p. 32.|
|↑3||J. Joseph Huthmacher, Senator Robert F. Wagner and the Rise of Urban Liberalism (New York: Athaneum, 1968), p. 160.|
|↑4||Huthmacher, p. 146.|
|↑5||Colin Gordon, New Deals: Business, Labor, and Politics in America, 1920-1935 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.|
|↑6||Huthmacher, p. 164.|
|↑7||Huthmacher, 166, 167.|
|↑8||Huthmacher, 179, 180.|
|↑10||Huthmacher, p. 254.|
|↑11||Huthmacher, p. 233.|
|↑12||Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream, Verso, 2018, p. 59, 60. See also Davis, p. 60.|
|↑13||Kim Moody, An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism (London: Verso, 1988), p. 47.|
|↑14||“Government with the consent of the governed — but with this consent organized, not generic and vague as it is expressed in the instant of elections. The state does have and request consent, but it also ‘educates’ this consent, by means of the political and syndical associations … ” Antonio Gramsci, Gramsci: Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International publishers, 1973), p. 259. See also pp. 221, 239, 242, and 247.|
|↑15||Kim Moody, Breaking the Impasse: Electoral Politics, Mass Action, and the New Socialist Movement in the United States (Chicago: Haymarket, 2022), pp. 40-47|
|↑16||Eric Leif Davin, “The Very Last Hurrah? The Defeat of the Labor Party Idea, 1934-1936” in We Are All Leaders: The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s, ed. Staughton Lynd (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996), p. 123; see also 125.|
|↑17||Moody, An Injury to All, p. 36|
|↑18||Blanc, in other words, continues the long tradition of amnesia, positing the labor party idea as forgone, doomed by the fates from the start. “The oblivion has been so total that it is as if” the real, open, and contingent political struggle between social forces “had never been. Not only did labor’s future belong to the Democrats, but the Democratic Tide even claimed labor’s past.” Davin, 158.|