On the eve of the New Deal’s inauguration in the winter of 1933 the auto industry in Detroit was stunned by an energetic and well-planned walkout at the Briggs Auto plant.footnote Following three and a half years of nearly catastrophic unemployment and paralyzed inaction by the American Federation of Labor, the Briggs strike signaled the revival of industrial militancy. This ‘Lexington and Concord of the auto rebellion,’ as it was later typed, was fought for two demands that would be central in most early New Deal strikes: company recognition of rank and file controlled shop committees and the limitation of the authority of foremen and line supervisors.footnote1

Seventeen years later, and in the wake of hundreds of local strikes as well as two nationwide walkouts (1937 and 1946), the United Auto Workers signed the so-called ‘Treaty of Detroit’ with General Motors. The 1950 contract with its five-year no-strike pledge symbolized the end of the long New Deal/Fair Deal cycle of class struggle and established the model of collective bargaining which has prevailed for the past quarter century. On one hand, the contract conceded the permanence of union representation and provided for the periodic increase of wages and benefits tied to productivity growth. On the other hand, the contract—by affirming the inviability of managerial prerogatives, by relinquishing worker protection against technological change, and by ensnaring grievance procedure in a bureaucratic maze—also liquidated precisely that concern for rank and file power in the immediate labour process that had been the central axis of the original 1933–37 upsurge in auto and other mass production industries. As Fortune slyly put it at the time: ‘gm may have paid a billion for peace. . . . It got a bargain.’footnote2

The long route from the informal shop-floor democracy of the first Briggs strike to the boardroom wheeling-dealing of the 1950 settlement, and the corresponding dilution and displacement of rank and file demands which was entailed, has usually been ascribed to the gradual bureaucratization of the new industrial unions. This transformation was accelerated, it has been argued, by wartime government intervention, and consolidated ‘with the final metamorphosis of formerly militant labor leaders into the postwar era’s ‘new men of power.’footnote3 Whether emphasis is placed on the repression of the labour left or simply the operation of a Michelsian ‘iron law of oligarchy,’ the triumph of bureaucratism has usually been seen as the determinant event in the dissipation of activism at the base.

Obscured has been the deeper, less unilateral dialectic between the ossification of industrial unionism into a bureaucratic mould and the changing content and trajectory of mass militancy. The cio was not, as it has often been popularly depicted, the product of a single, heroic upsurge of working class ardour. On the contrary, the new industrial unions were formed by highly uneven, discontinuous moments of mass organization which mobilized different strata of the proletariat. Furthermore, as I have tried to show in a preceding nlr article,footnote4 the cio was the heir to a contradictory legacy. On one hand it inherited the accumulated defeats of earlier eras: the deep divisions between sectors of the working class, the absence of a unifying nexus of common proletarian institutions, the obsurantisrn of Gompersian craft unionism, and the forced marriage between the Catholic working class and the Democratic Party. On the other hand, it received the unquenched fire lit by the Wobblies, and the Knights of Labor before them, which burned on in the small, but unbroken, cadres of revolutionary workers in unorganized mines and mills. It has been all too easy for the contemporary American left, still obsessed by the intractable enigma and charisma of the thirties, to believe that the course of it all was predetermined in the deep structures of American history. On the other hand, it has been easier still to believe that all was possible; that the working class of the thirties and forties, like the characters in a Clifford Odets play, were there waiting, in raw militancy and spontaneous class instinct, for the ‘correct’ revolutionary cue.

A more cautious arbitration of the cio’s conflicting possibilities and determinancies must focus on precisely this tension between the received conditions of its emergence and the new terrains opened up by the creative impudence of struggle. The inevitability of the bureaucratic incorporation of the new unions; the counter-potentials of mass radicalism and a labour party; these are questions which must be situated in relationship to the internal logic of the seventeen-year wave of class struggle from Briggs to the ‘Treaty of Detroit.’ The first step is to identify the key conjunctures in the history of the cio which crystallized certain balances of forces while simultaneously annulling others. In fact four periods stand out clearly as integral, constitutive phases in the formation of the industrial unions:

In the argument which follows, I employ this periodization as a framework for attempting to reconstruct the internal dynamics of cio militancy in relation both to the actual and potential development of political consciousness within the industrial working class.

The original period of the cio’s formation—1933–37—has been incomparably better studied than its wartime expansion; yet at the same time, the historiography of this heroic period has tended to become so encrusted with mythology and idées fixes that certain crucial features have become obscured. In particular there are three aspects of labour’s ‘great upheaval’ which need to be set far more sharply in relief: