Is this Labor Surge a New CIO Moment?Historians in the News
tags: unions, labor history, CIO
Sarah Jaffe is a regular contributor to The Progressive and a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, covering labor, economic justice, social movements, politics, gender, and pop culture. Find her on Twitter at @sarahljaffe.
n August 4, hundreds of Amazon warehouse workers in Tilbury, Essex, England, organized their own wildcat strike. Angry at a paltry raise offer—thirty-five pence (forty-seven cents) an hour, when the U.K. inflation rate is currently more than 10 percent—the workers, most of whom are not union members, sat down in one of the canteens at the warehouse, demanding to speak to a supervisor.
“When we got there, all of our managers, area managers, HR, and loss prevention officers were looking at us all,” one of the workers wrote in Notes from Below. “None of them had a clue about what to do with a large group of angry workers.” The strike rolled over the night shift and into the next day, and spread to eleven different Amazon facilities.
While occurring at a warehouse, rather than a factory, the strike raised echoes of the famous Flint sit-down strike of 1936-1937, in Michigan, which led to a historic victory for the United Auto Workers (UAW) at General Motors. It was new tactics like the sit-down strike, tailored for the massive factories of that period, that made the new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and its member unions, like the UAW, successful, and contributed to the meteoric rise of union power in the 1930s.
Today, organized labor is weakened around the world, particularly in the United States, where less than 12 percent of workers have a union. Unions have struggled to keep up with the changes in production practices, fighting rearguard actions against deindustrialization, and often neglecting the service industry entirely. Public-sector unions have become the backbone of the labor movement, with teachers’ unions being the brightest spot in recent years.
Like GM was, Amazon is the iconic employer of our period of capitalism, one that has been notoriously hard for unions to penetrate. But the rapid rise this year of private-sector, service, and logistics-work unions, most notably the Amazon Labor Union and the Starbucks Workers United campaign, has created a sense of momentum that has many observers looking back to the early days of the CIO for inspiration. What would it take to have a new CIO moment—a wave of organizing that brings millions of new workers into the labor movement, changing the balance of power between employers and the working class and reversing the spiraling inequality of the past few decades?
Despite the English warehouse workers’ perhaps unknowing adaptation of the Flint auto workers’ tactic, Marilyn Sneiderman, longtime organizer and executive director of the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers University, notes that the real lesson of the CIO period was that of a different type of organizing for a different type of workforce. The CIO was formed after the existing American Federation of Labor (AFL) had chosen not to organize the new mass-production industries; labor leaders who disagreed with this decision, notably John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America, broke away to form a new federation that would focus on organizing the workers previously scorned as unorganizable.