When Labor Fought for Civil Rights

When Labor Fought for Civil Rights

Two new histories show how the CIO of the 1930s and ’40s led the charge for racial equality not just on the shop floor but at the national level, precipitating the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights.

Women workers participate in an interracial strike at the Phillips Packing plant, Cambridge, Maryland, June 1937. The strike was covertly organized by CIO members (Washington Area Spark)

Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932–1965
by Eric Schickler
Princeton University Press, 2016, 384 pp.

Forging Rivals: Race, Class, Law, and the Collapse of Postwar Liberalism
by Reuel Schiller
Cambridge University Press, 2015, 355 pp.

The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order—memorialized in the classic anthology of that title edited by Gary Gerstle and Steve Fraser in 1989—might be history, but it never gets old. Eighty-plus years after FDR was inaugurated, the New Deal still excites the liberal left imagination even as it, perhaps, stunts it, too. How we got from Roosevelt to Reagan continues to generate conflicting arguments from those who think the New Deal was the “great exception” to American individualism and federalism unlikely to be repeated (Jefferson Cowie); a reluctant capitulation to the white supremacist South which was the best it could do (Ira Katznelson); or, an honorable surrender following the desperate rearguard fight by workers and farmers against the consolidation of corporate capitalism in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries (Steve Fraser).

Two recent books about the New Deal order, one by political scientist Eric Schickler and the other by legal historian Reuel Schiller, complement each other in their attention to the relationship between unions and the movement for African-American civil rights. But while Schickler writes a story of liberal ascension, driven largely by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), stopping in 1965 after the monumental legislation of the civil rights era, Schiller chronicles a liberal declension, ending with deindustrialization in the 1970s and tension between labor and civil rights activists. Both books end at roughly the same historical moment. Schickler sees in it labor liberalism’s triumph—the CIO and then the civil rights movement pushing to bring racial justice into the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Schiller, on the other hand, sees the labor movement and those fighting racial injustice, despite their many efforts to work together, as chained to separate legal protocols, doomed to “[talk] past each other.” To paraphrase Bob Dylan, for Schickler, labor liberalism is busy being born at the same time, according to Schiller, it is busy dying.

Schickler’s primary goal is to undermine the dominant narrative about American party realignment that fused African Americans to the Democrats and Southern whites to the GOP: that it took place in the 1960s, following the Goldwater nomination of 1964 and the passage of the Civil Rights Act that year and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Taking a shot at Ira Katznelson’s influential recent book, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (2013), Schickler insists that “important actors within the Democratic Party were working to undermine the supposed ‘bargain’ between Northern liberals and Southern racists starting in the late 1930s.” In turn, Northern Republicans began to work with those same Southern racists to oppose the racially liberal labor federation, the CIO, and any relationships it might have with civil rights supporters.

Schickler makes two important points. First, at the time of FDR’s inauguration in 1933, Democratic Party liberalism had no anti-racist component (nor did the Republican party, which had been coasting, for many years, on its Reconstruction–era reputation as the “party of Lincoln” without actually supporting policies that would appeal to Northern blacks.) Liberalism was viewed as an economic program of federal assistance to states and localities, and as support for a then slumbering labor movement and impoverished farmers. White liberals attached themselves to business-friendly conservative Democrats like party chairman Jacob Raskob, and, alas, for the last decade or so of his life, former New York governor Al Smith, who worried about increasing the size and influence of the federal government. Second, and central to his theory of causation, is that, even as FDR and other Northern Democrats made compromises on opposing racism to keep the Southern bloc within the New Deal coalition, the CIO played the most important role in shifting the rhetorical meaning of American liberalism to include opposition to racial discrimination. In fact, Schickler argues, it created a movement within the Democratic Party for interracial labor liberalism that percolated upward from the state and local level to finally reach the more cautious leaders of the national party. This movement sustained itself through the civil rights movement and, ultimately, compelled President Johnson and other national party elites to unconditionally embrace the movement for African-American equality and use the power of the federal government to crush Southern apartheid.

The fact that the CIO was a mass organization with mostly white leaders and members provided black activists with an opportunity they had never had before, an institutional lever with which to pry open the doors of the country’s elite white establishment. Schickler argues that the CIO’s motivations were both pragmatically self-interested and ideologically ambitious: it recognized the need to appeal to black workers if it were to succeed in organizing the great industrial and mining sectors of the economy—steel, auto, rubber, dockworkers, coal miners. But the organization, influenced significantly by a cadre of staff and organizers who were members or sympathizers with the Communist Party, also had an expansive ideological vision of industrial democracy and social justice, based upon unifying the working class across racial, ethnic, regional, and skill lines.

Schickler understands that the CIO’s white rank and file was often racist when dealing with its black coworkers. But he asserts that, in contrast with the AFL’s long record of racial discrimination, the leadership of the new federation pushed the organization and the Democratic Party to support civil rights, despite the often antagonistic actions of its own membership toward black union members. In short, the CIO supported the civil and labor rights of black Americans with greater certainty outside of their own workplaces and locals. The CIO financially supported liberal candidates who raised civil rights issues, insisted that labor rights and black civil rights were linked, and supported fair employment and other policies that would benefit African Americans. Its institutional weight amplified the influence of anti-racist liberal and leftist intellectuals. As a result, the Northern Democratic Party, argues Schickler, dominated by the CIO, urban liberals, Jews, and blacks was to the left of the rest of both political parties and the rest of the country as early as the 1940s. These actions and events helped pave the way for the great civil rights victories of the 1960s.

Schickler does a monumental job reconstructing sometimes primitive survey data from Gallup and other polling organizations during the late 1930s that demonstrates that white Democrats in the North, while often still racist in their attitudes, were far less so than Northern Republicans, let alone white Southerners, in their support for anti-racist policies, such as anti-lynching legislation and opposition to the poll tax. Thus, prodded by the CIO and the nascent black civil rights movement in the North, local and state politicians and party officials pushed hard for equality (the 1948 civil rights plank of the Democratic Party is a salient, but not the only example), long before national party elites like LBJ and Adlai Stevenson, who feared the loss of the white Southern bloc.

The Republican Party also had a longer-running evolution that began well before the decisive conflict between Johnson and Goldwater in 1964. It too begins in the late 1930s and is linked to the rise of the industrial labor movement. Southern members of Congress, who had enthusiastically supported the New Deal in its early years, excited by the infusion of federal dollars to their impoverished states, turned sharply against it when the combination of an emboldened unionism and an emerging civil rights movement threatened the labor markets and cultural hegemony of the white supremacist South. Southern congressional reactionaries, enraged by the CIO, launched investigations of the NLRB (with, it must be said, help from leaders of the rival AFL) and opposed the pre-war efforts to extend the New Deal. At the same time, some Republican pols imagined a formal connection between the white conservative Democratic South and the white conservative Republican Midwest as a better electoral calculation than pretending to care about the Northern urban black vote. (Of course, the Southern black vote barely existed at this point.) Eisenhower, who makes his peace with large sections of the New Deal, takes a somewhat different tack, hoping to connect with middle-class white Southern voters without resorting to outright racism. There continued to be something of a debate within the party as to whether to seek to retain a good part of the black vote in the North (and the GOP did keep about one-third of the black vote through the election of 1960, after first losing 70 percent of it to the Democrats in 1936).

Here, Schickler makes a mistake in emphasis. He insists that because “most African Americans had clearly realigned to the Democrats by the late 1940s” that the conflict between the parties for the black vote was over long before the Goldwater opposition to the Civil Rights Act. But still contesting for “most” black votes, as Democrats did during the 1940s and 1950s when the Republicans were still getting as much as a third of the black vote, is much different than the near certainty, post–1964, of Democrats getting more than 85 percent of the black vote and not needing to worry that the GOP would mount even a minimal effort to win black support. So, in this sense, the sixties really were a decisive break—the Party of Lincoln simply conceded the black vote to Democrats thereafter.

Both party trends converge in the sixties and LBJ is indeed pushed by the civil rights movement to achieve its great legislative triumphs. And the white South does, over time, move to the Republicans. Schickler makes a real contribution by underscoring how blasé New Deal and postwar Republican politicians were about their linkage to the Great Emancipator. Basically, smart Republican politicians saw twenty-five years before Goldwater’s nomination that the votes for a reactionary program of limited federal intervention in the operation of businesses could be linked to the desire of white Southerners to have limited federal intervention in their segregated sub-nation. And thus the racial ideology of the modern GOP, like the modern Democratic Party, can be traced to the New Deal era.

Racial Realignment is a genuinely illuminating book. The support of the CIO’s leadership for racial equality is well known, but Schickler deliberately emphasizes its institutional and policy impact, rather than the racism that pervaded its white rank and file. CIO leaders, across a broad ideological spectrum, might not have been able to prevent shop floor “hate strikes,” but they were able, out of pragmatic necessity and genuine moral and ideological conviction, to forcefully advance a vision of liberalism that fought the Southern racists and prodded the cautious national leadership of the Democratic Party toward the cause of racial justice. Then, prodded yet more by the civil rights movement in the sixties, that vision ultimately and decisively transformed the party. By then, the leftist remnants of the original CIO continued to support black civil rights, while the more reactionary AFL-derived section of labor, too often opposed or feared it.

Sometimes, however, Schickler elides developments that would have buttressed his main argument. For example, he rightly discusses the growing strength of the civil rights movement during the Second World War, noting the executive order FDR signed in 1941, under pressure from A. Philip Randolph, to create the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) and prevent discrimination in the defense industry. But, despite his argument that the CIO was of critical importance to civil rights activism, he fails to mention the UAW’s critical role in getting the order signed. And while emphasizing the importance of the CIO PAC, the first committee to ever raise money to elect political candidates and founded during the war, Schickler ignores the fundamental reason the CIO had the political influence it did: its growing membership in the core manufacturing industries. There is not even a perfunctory stipulation in Racial Realignment about the unique conditions of the wartime political economy that allowed the federal government to leverage companies to recognize union rights in return for workers keeping production running around the clock. CIO membership more than doubled and overall union membership went up 50 percent during the war. African-American workers in the defense industry more than tripled in number, and, while the more conservative, craft-dominated AFL remained larger than the CIO, it was the CIO that advanced the rights of these black workers within the most critical industries of midcentury America.

And then there’s 1946, one of the most portentous years for American labor in the twentieth century—over 14 percent of workers struck in 4,985 work stoppages, which ultimately contributed to the defeat of the Democrats in the midterm elections (particularly left-leaning candidates supported by the CIO). Schickler somehow manages to index an “Operation Dixie” which is not the Operation Dixie, the great failed CIO effort that also began in 1946 to organize both blacks and whites in the South. Instead, he references a mostly failed plan of Eisenhower’s to seed the GOP with moderate middle-class white Southerners. (Ike’s program was effectively taken over by conservative Republicans who, instead, recruited white racists to the GOP.) The omission of the highly touted Operation Dixie is significant because Schickler’s argument is premised on the white Southern elites’ fear of labor and civil rights activists joining forces to break apart its control of the Southern labor market. The CIO pulled its punches and avoided organizing black workers or activating its militant communist-led affiliates. Yet Operation Dixie was, nevertheless, seen by white supremacists as a direct assault on their low-wage system and they ruthlessly red- and race-baited it to death. In 1947, Republicans and Southern Democrats further circumscribed postwar labor by passing the Taft-Hartley Act.

The CIO’s wartime growth—driven by a unique set of conditions never again to be repeated—gave it the necessary political, economic, and cultural authority to promote the cause of black civil rights. And by not grappling with the powerful backlash by the GOP and Southern Democrats to the CIO’s ascent, Schickler ignores some of the conditions that led to the decline of the labor movement, without which the Democratic Party would find it difficult to sustain a multiracial liberalism. Schickler knows how important the CIO was to the cause of racial justice—that’s his central point—but he doesn’t seem interested in why it became so influential and then why it, and the AFL, declined as much as they did. In his telling, labor is like a bee—it stings the Democratic Party on behalf of black Americans, and then it dies.


In Forging Rivals, Reuel Schiller covers some of the same ground as Schickler. They write almost identical sentences regarding the inclusion of racial justice into the meaning of liberalism by the beginning of the Truman administration. They both emphasize the crucial battle, during the 1940s, over the survival of the Committee on Fair Employment Practice (FEPC), a weak effort to fight job discrimination, yet one that Republicans and conservative Southern Dems saw as a threat to both business interests and segregated labor markets. Both authors understand that the CIO had a “bifurcated position on civil rights,” as Schiller puts it—supportive in the political arena, but ambivalent within unions themselves. And they often rely upon the same secondary sources.

But Schiller sets out to answer a different question than Schickler. Schickler wants to know when the split that connected African Americans to the Democratic Party and the white South to the Republican Party originated, and how it evolved. Schiller wants to know why the black civil rights movement and the labor movement—often allies—gradually split apart following the war, and thus were unable to sustain an interracial, liberal, labor movement.

To answer the question of why unions and black civil rights activists came into conflict, Schiller employs a case study of the San Francisco Bay Area’s labor and civil rights movements, from the Second World War through the sixties. This is a shrewd methodological move. Rather than depict a more fraught racial and class dynamic in a Southern city or in the smokestack urban areas of the Midwest or the East, Schiller picks an area of presumed leftist and labor strength, but also interracial cooperation and urban cosmopolitanism. He demonstrates that, over a roughly thirty-year period, the burgeoning movement for black civil rights and even the most supportive unions (meaning: not just the well known structural and episodic racism in the building trades) grew further apart.

Schiller first describes a fictional vignette from the novelist Chester Himes, in which, a black shipyard worker named Jones, fired after confronting a racist colleague, tries to get help from his union. But the union’s grievance process can do little to help Jones, and his shop steward labels his situation a “private gripe.” The union’s procedures were not designed to defend a particular black worker from racist treatment, but rather, to defend workers from general management abuse. From there he narrates several fascinating episodes, moving from racially tense workplaces and union halls to the San Francisco City Council and federal and state courtrooms. Black workers would raise challenges to companies and unions, not as workers primarily with a job grievance, but as black people with a claim of racial discrimination. Civil rights activists obviously did not see a union shop to their advantage in California if the black workers could be arbitrarily fired anyway, and were ambivalent about defeating a right-to-work referendum in 1958. And California’s white union workers in 1964 voted overwhelmingly to repeal a weak housing discrimination law.

Schiller views the relationship between African-American civil rights and the labor movement through the prism of the juridical system. The postwar system of “industrial pluralism” sought to create “mini-democracies,” as Schiller says, in each unionized workplace. This necessitated an unconditional emphasis on “majoritarianism”—that the union would act on behalf of all workers—and an expectation that unions and companies would work out their problems without the interference of the state.

Industrial pluralism was a plausible framework for a then-powerful labor movement to adopt. The logic was to limit government interference in the affairs of unions. For over a century, the state and the courts blocked strikes, fined unions, arrested workers, and, when necessary, killed them. Top union strategists, like the CIO general counsel and future Supreme Court justice, Arthur Goldberg, figured that unions were better off having a minimally refereed arm wrestle with even the largest companies. Thus, as Schiller observes, in the famous 1960 “Steelworker’s trilogy” Supreme Court cases, for example, Justice Douglas, writing for the majority in each case, held that unions had a right, grounded in the unique culture of each workplace, to have disagreements with the company resolved by arbitrators chosen by the parties. Federal courts needn’t intervene to further adjudicate the underlying merits of the dispute.

Ultimately in 1974, the last episode Schiller recounts is of a court challenge from black department-store workers to the exclusive right of a union to bargain with an employer on behalf of all of its members. Schiller points out that in the Emporium Capwell case, Thurgood Marshall upheld the principles of industrial pluralism against the black plaintiffs. Marshall, Schiller observes, believed in a “liberal integrationist vision of the struggle for African American equality, in which black workers would achieve equality by embracing industrial pluralism.”

But there were two problems with industrial pluralism. The first was that the world did not stop in 1960, the apex of union power in the United States. As union density declined, the economy globalized, and growth in productivity decreased employment in union-dominated manufacturing and mining sectors, labor grew too weak to win those arm wrestles with corporate America. It turned out that unions needed the state and the courts to tilt the class struggle its way if they were to have any hope of sustaining their power. The second problem is the crux of Schiller’s book: industrial unionism depended upon, “unalloyed majoritarianism.” The union must have functional and legal precedent over the demands of any given worker or even a significant cohort of workers. Exclusive representation by one union means that, even if a large minority of members wishes to negotiate with the company themselves, they (and the company) must defer to their certified collective bargaining agent, the union. Similarly with the principle of seniority—less experienced workers cannot carve out their own deal with the company—“last hired, first fired” applies to every member because a majority has already agreed to a contract with those stipulations.

Schiller argues that conflict within postwar liberalism between the labor movement and the movement for full, unconditional black citizenship was “built into the structure of the law as it developed in the postwar period.” Industrial pluralism was directed against management adversaries, but, in order for black workers to be equal to their white peers, these workers and their advocates would have to contest and, to some extent, undermine the inflexible majoritarianism of labor. And black workers needed the state and its courts to redraw the rules of collective bargaining—the very state that unions most wished to keep out of their affairs and their relationship with management.

This is a brilliant, airtight synthesis that expresses the entire rise and fall of postwar liberalism through legal fights between unions and civil rights activists in California over several decades. The complicated dance of support and antagonism he depicts between the then large, yet still fragile, labor movement and the nascent black emancipation movement grew increasingly hostile. The legal order, first, undercut anti-discrimination efforts on behalf of black workers, and then later, union majoritarianism.

Schiller’s argument, however, is a bit too airtight: it doesn’t allow for the historical contingency of subsequent developments. After his chronology ends with the Emporium Capwell case in 1974, Schiller wraps up the book by reiterating that the conflict between labor and civil rights brought down postwar liberalism. Reading this, you might think that unions and African Americans, both leadership and rank and file, have had an increasingly hostile relationship from that time up to the present day.

But this isn’t true. Unions and black workers are closer than they have ever been. And unions are, if anything, less ambivalent bulwarks against racism than they were in the immediate postwar period. The AFL-CIO and African-American organizations and politicians work together and, for better or for worse, agree on pretty much every policy issue. Even the building trades, pushed for years by the courts and civil rights activists, have responded by opening up their apprenticeship and training programs to women and minorities. Today, there is a higher percentage of black workers who are union members than there are white workers. Ask any organizer of any color and they will tell you that they stand a better chance of organizing non-white workers, blacks especially, than white workers. And the most successful labor campaign in recent years, the SEIU-led Fight for $15, seeks to organize fast-food workers who are disproportionately non-white. Like the CIO when seeking to organize the industrial sector during the thirties and forties, SEIU today has both pragmatic and ideological reasons to organize workers of color in the growing low-wage service sector. Similarly, service-sector unions have built powerful alliances in California and Nevada with Latinos. As for white unionized workers, despite all of the stories about how pissed off they are at neoliberal Democrats and how they were attracted to Donald Trump’s trade message, the fact remains that white men in unions have still voted for Democrats at a rate of about 20 percent higher than their non-union counterparts. (This pattern likely did not hold this year. Exit polls from the 2016 election indicate that Clinton carried the union vote by 51–43, the lowest margin for a Democrat since 1984.)

So, while Schiller’s expertly depicted legal conflict seems ineluctable, in fact there is more solidarity between unions and African Americans today than there was a half century ago. He insists that the “weak and unstable foundation” of postwar liberalism provided little to “fleeing working-class whites in a time of economic crisis.” But how could a labor movement, grounded in industrial pluralism, win against management as its numbers declined? Conversely, how could this same declining movement succeed in petitioning the state for compensatory protections precisely at the moment when its political impact, along with its membership, grew smaller?

The dueling visions of the law—majoritarian, anti-statist industrial pluralism versus state-assisted redress of individual claims of racial discrimination—as Schiller demonstrates, generated a lot of conflict between unions and civil rights activists. But this conflict didn’t end the labor liberalism driven by the CIO and a few of the AFL unions. The collapse of employment in the key postwar industries and the subsequent decline in union membership is what badly wounded this iteration of labor liberalism. This undermined the Democratic Party’s desire to promulgate full employment and a redistributive economic policy, which meant that the party had an ascendant and growing African-American voting bloc, which simultaneously alarmed white workers at precisely the moment when their economic clout and the unions that provided it were waning.

So the new labor liberalism, built with the support of proportionally more non-white workers (and women), is more progressive than the old pre–civil rights era labor liberalism. If it achieves its powerful new vision, it will be a more humane, cosmopolitan, and egalitarian movement than its predecessor. But as of now, it is a significantly smaller movement and lacks economic and political leverage in key sectors of the political economy. The Fight for $15, however innovative and promising, doesn’t remotely compare to the great CIO victories of the late 1930s and ’40s in terms of its impact on workers, both white and non-white. The unique conditions that engendered labor’s massive growth during this period, barely commented upon by either author, does not necessarily provide a template for contemporary organizing.

As these two sharply argued books demonstrate, postwar liberalism hinged upon how and whether unions maximized and used their power. The books together form an odd complementarity: even as a powerful union movement promoted the cause of equality for African Americans (Schickler), union and civil rights activists began splitting apart from each other (Schiller). Meanwhile, modern conservatism merged its opposition to both worker empowerment and cosmopolitan racial equality, embodied in the figure of Barry Goldwater, the opponent of the 1964 Civil Rights Act who (as neither book notes) also despised and sought to curtail the embodiment of CIO power, Walter Reuther, and the flagship institution of American liberalism that he led, the UAW.

Today, multiracial political activism has returned to the left, but without the support of anything like the economically and politically weighty labor movement of the postwar era. The New Deal order cannot be resurrected. The working class is split along racial, regional, and cultural lines and, by most measures, a significant part of it (even slightly more non-white workers than expected) voted for an authoritarian, racist, misogynist grifter in the last election. Schickler, on the last page of his book, with more hope than evidence, asserts that demographic changes to a “majority-minority” population may in themselves put pressure on Democratic Party elites in the way that the labor and civil rights movements once did. More valuable is his concluding remark regarding the necessity for progressive groups to see themselves not as “isolated claimants on the party system but instead as part of a broader ideological coalition with common aims and shared enemies.” The only good news that resulted from this election is that the need for “shared enemies” has been filled.

Rich Yeselson is a writer living in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor to Dissent.