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Mike Davis - The Barren Marriage of American Labor and the Democratic Party

Mike Davis - The Barren Marriage of American Labor and the Democratic Party

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Published by: Paul Heideman on Oct 16, 2012
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01/23/2013

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Mike Davis
On the eve of the New Deal’s inauguration in the winter of 
1933
the autoindustry in Detroit was stunned by an energetic and well-planned walkout atthe Briggs Auto plant.* Following three and a half years of nearly catastrophicunemployment and paralyzed inaction by the American Federation of Labor,the Briggs strike signaled the revival of industrial militancy. This ‘Lexingtonand Concord of the auto rebellion,’ as it was later typed, was fought for twodemands that would be central in most early New Deal strikes: companyrecognition of rank and file controlled shop committees and the limitation of the authority of foremen and line supervisors.
1
Seventeen years later, and in the wake of hundreds of local strikes as well astwo nationwide walkouts (
1937
and
1946
), the United Auto Workers signed theso-called ‘Treaty of Detroit’ with General Motors. The
1950
contract with itsfive-year no-strike pledge symbolized the end of the long New Deal/Fair Dealcycle of class struggle and established the model of collective bargaining which
The Barren Marriage of AmericanLabour and the Democratic Party
43
 
has prevailed for the past quarter century. On one hand, the contractconceded the permanence of union representation and provided forthe periodic increase of wages and benefits tied to productivitygrowth. On the other hand, the contract—by affirming the invia-bility of managerial prerogatives, by relinquishing worker protectionagainst technological change, and by ensnaring grievance procedurein a bureaucratic maze—also liquidated precisely that concern forrank and file power in the immediate labour process that had been thecentral axis of the original
1933
37
upsurge in auto and other massproduction industries. As
Fortune
slylyput it at the time: ‘
GM
may havepaid a billion for peace.... It got a bargain.’
2
The long route from the informal shop-floor democracy of the firstBriggs strike to the boardroom wheeling-dealing of the
1950
settle-ment, and the corresponding dilution and displacement of rank andfile demands which was entailed, has usually been ascribed to thegradual bureaucratization of the new industrial unions. This trans-formation was accelerated, it has been argued, by wartime govern-ment intervention, and consolidated ‘with the final metamorphosis of formerly militant labor leaders into the postwar era’s ‘new men of power.’
3
Whether emphasis is placed on the repression of the labourleft or simply the operation of a Michelsian ‘iron law of oligarchy,’ thetriumph of bureaucratism has usually been seen as the determinantevent in the dissipation of activism at the base.Obscured has been the deeper, less unilateral dialectic between theossification of industrial unionism into a bureaucratic mould and thechanging content and trajectory of mass militancy. The
CIO
was not, asit has often been popularly depicted, the product of a single, heroicupsurge of working class ardour. On the contrary, the new industrialunions were formed by highly uneven, discontinuous moments of massorganization which mobilized different strata of the proletariat.Furthermore, as I have tried to show in a preceding
NLR
article,
4
the
CIO
was the heir to a contradictory legacy. On one hand it inherited theaccumulated defeats of earlier eras: the deep divisions between sectorsof the working class, the absence of a unifying nexus of commonproletarian institutions, the obsurantisrn of Gompersian craft unionism,and the forced marriage between the Catholic working class and theDemocratic Party. On the other hand, it received the unquenched firelit by the Wobblies, and the Knights of Labor before them, whichburned on in the small, but unbroken, cadres of revolutionary workersin unorganized mines and mills. It has been all too easy for the
*I wish to thank John Amsden, Perry Anderson, Bob Brenner, John Laslett, andBrigid Loughran for their helpful comments and suggestions.
1
For the Briggs Strike see Roger Keeran, ‘Communists and Auto Workers,’University of Wisconsin, PhD Thesis,
1974
, pp.
102
15
.
2
Fortune, July
1950
, p.
53
. For an analysis of the
1950
GMcontract see FrankEmspak, ‘The Break-Up of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (
CIO
),
1945
1950
,’ University of Wisconsin, PhD Thesis,
1972
, pp.
364
65
.
3
For the earliest statements of this position see Harold Mitchell, ‘Union Structureand Democracy,’
Enquiry
,January
1943
, and C. Wright Mills,
 New Men of Power 
,NewYork
1948
.
4
Mike Davis, ‘Why the U.S. Working Class is Different,’
NLR
123
, September-October
1980
.
44
 
contemporary American left, still obsessed by the intractable enigmaand charisma of the thirties, to believe that the course of it all was pre-determined in the deep structures of American history. On the otherhand, it has been easier still to believe that all was possible; that theworking class of the thirties and forties, like the characters in aClifford Odets play, were there waiting, in raw militancy and spon-taneous class instinct, for the ‘correct’ revolutionary cue.A more cautious arbitration of the
CIO
’s conflicting possibilities anddeterminancies must focus on precisely this tension between thereceived conditions of its emergence and the new terrains opened upby the creative impudence of struggle. The inevitability of the bureau-cratic incorporation of the new unions; the counter-potentials of massradicalism and a labour party; these are questions which must besituated in relationship to the internal logic of the seventeen-year waveof class struggle from Briggs to the ‘Treaty of Detroit.’ The first stepis to identify the key conjunctures in the history of the
CIO
whichcrystallized certain balances of forces while simultaneously annullingothers. In fact four periods stand out clearly as integral, constitutivephases in the formation of the industrial unions:
1
.
THEFIRSTUPSURGE
,
1933
37
: The original rebellion of the unor-ganized industrial proletariat, starting with the
1933
NRA
’ strikes andculminating in the sitdown ‘fever’ of winter/spring
1937
. This wasarguably the highwater mark of the class struggle in modern Americanhistory.
2.
LABOUR
SCIVILWAR
(
1
),
1937
41
: Beginning with the‘RooseveltRecession’ in the summer of 
1937
, the
CIO
’s great offensive suddenlyground to a halt in the face of growing unemployment, renewedemployer terrorism, and especially the increasingly effective competi-tion of the class-collaborationist
AFL
.
3
.
THESECONDUPSURGE
,
1941
46
: A second phase of 
CIO
expansionwith the defense-induced industrial recovery of late
1940
and early
1941
. After a series of new mass strikes in
1941
(Ford, Goodyear,Bethleham, and Allis-Chalmers), official trade union action wassuspended for the sake of a wartime ‘no-strike’ pledge ameliorated bygovernment-imposed unionization of war industries. This incipientstatification of the industrial unions provoked an explosive wave of wildcat militancy through
1943
45
until the restoration of bureau-cratic hegemony with the great ‘safety-valve’ strikes of 
1946
.
4
.
LABOUR
SCIVILWAR
(
11
),
1947
50
: The postwar organizing strategyof the
CIO
(public employment, retail, ‘Operation Dixie,’ and so on)collapsed in midst of a new employer-state offensive (Taft-Hartley in
1947
) coupled with Cold War bloodletting within the
CIO
itself—thepurge of left-led unions, mass blacklisting, and wholesale intra-
CIO
raiding. The result was a new stagnation of 
CIO
growth and furthergains by the
AFL
.In the argument which follows, I employ this periodization as a frame-work for attempting to reconstruct the internal dynamics of 
CIO
45

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