Is the working class experiencing a new CIO moment?
On 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?
“This is a time for some massive experimentation, some radical risk-taking, pushing every boundary.”
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.
It is often hard to explain in 2022 that coal miners and auto workers were once considered unskilled, bottom of the barrel, and not worth unions’ time. They are, after all, the iconic union workers of a thousand nostalgic paeans to the midcentury golden years of the U.S. labor movement. Even as deindustrialization has winnowed their ranks, these workers are courted on the campaign trail by the right—notoriously, by Donald Trump—as well as by progressive politicians and, recently, mainstream Democrats.
Yet, today, it is the previously unorganizable workers on the march. Petitions for union elections were up 57 percent in the first half of 2022, and a big chunk of that figure has been Starbucks unions—more than 220 of which have already been certified as victories for the workers at the time of this writing, a number that will almost certainly be higher by the time you read it—but victories are also happening at Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, and other food service and retail companies.
Fast-food workers have, of course, organized before, notably in the Fight for $15 campaign backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), beginning in 2012. But this wave is different in two major ways: It is worker-led, and it is winning union elections.
“It feels like there are so many possibilities in the world right now,” Sneiderman says. “Workers are angry, parents are angry, students are angry, BIPOC folks are angry, women are angry. The level of anger is there. The question is, what’s the strategy to capture that and move people?”
She warns against trying to simplistically recreate the CIO, though. “The world and the economy are so different now. History doesn’t repeat itself exactly, but there are ingredients that we should pay attention to.”
The CIO, she notes, benefited from the momentum generated by overlapping protest movements: tenant, immigrant, and anti-racist organizing, all in response to the massive crisis of the Great Depression. Against this background of desperation—something that, after years of economic crisis and pandemic, today’s workers certainly feel—the organizers of the 1930s were willing to put resources behind a new path for organizing.
And that, Sneiderman says, is what unions and organizers should emulate. “This is a time for some massive experimentation, some radical risk-taking, pushing every boundary.”
The Depression, notes labor historian Erik Loomis, professor at the University of Rhode Island and the author of A History of America in Ten Strikes, “changed the political perspective of Americans.” It opened them up to a different way of looking at the world, and that helped spread the practice of building workplace and community solidarity beyond existing unions and radicals. Today, in contrast, solidarity is often gestured to, in memes and hashtags on the Internet, but it is not always connected to a real, deep practice in one’s offline life. “Twitter is not organizing culture,” he says.
In other words, there’s a way, both Loomis and Sneiderman note, that the rose-hued memories of the past can constrain today’s organizing.
The stunning victory of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) in Staten Island, New York, earlier this year was aided by CIO tactics. Workers, Luis Feliz Leon wrote in Labor Notes, studied CIO-era Communist Party USA organizer William Z. Foster’s Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry. The union grew out of a wildcat walkout led by Chris Smalls, now president of the new ALU, and when Smalls was fired, he led efforts on the outside, drawing fire from Amazon leadership. Inside the warehouse, longtime workers and “salts” quietly held conversations and built the strength to challenge management.
“Salts,” Mie Inouye explains for Boston Review, “are workers who take jobs at a workplace with the goal of unionizing it.” In the campaigns at both Amazon and Starbucks, salts have played roles. Modern-day salts, Inouye notes, might have come from a middle-class background, be expected to get a college degree, and be more likely to wind up on management’s side of the bargaining table. But today’s economy means that upward mobility is often a lie, and white-collar work, if it’s available, often pays the same as a halfway decent service job.
Salts or no, it matters that the Amazon campaign was worker-led; that Black and brown workers like Smalls, Derrick Palmer, and Angelika Maldonado, who knew the warehouse inside and out, could adapt the advice from nearly a century ago to a modern workplace with robots buzzing around and electronic devices monitoring workers’ every hand movement. Inouye warns against the elitism in some of Foster’s writings, assuming that the “masses of sluggish workers” needed “a minute minority of clear-sighted, enthusiastic militants” to organize them. Real solidarity—the kind needed to fuel rapid growth in unions—requires faith in the capacity of ordinary working-class people, not a search for a handful of heroes.
Still, it is impossible to deny that the new interest in socialist politics has helped to seed interest in unionizing. Emma Kinema, an organizer with the CODE-CWA tech worker campaign, points to the socialists and communists behind the CIO and its predecessor organizations, who understood that it would take more than good organizing tactics to succeed: It also requires “a political and historical analysis of the state of things, and being able to apply our tactics based off of that analysis.”
It’s this type of analysis that led her to organizing tech workers. “To me, there’s a deep, strategic importance to organizing in technology because our modern tech industry is at the heart of every other industry. You can’t have a global logistics infrastructure without the software that enables it. You can’t have automated manufacturing on a global scale without the technology that does it. Understanding that structural position of tech, that leverage that comes from the structural position we have, [and] where we exist in the context of the global economy is essential.”
Similarly, the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC) was spearheaded by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), alongside the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), one of the old CIO unions that clung to its radicalism in the face of midcentury purges. Eleni Schirmer, who volunteered with the organization, wrote in The New Yorker that EWOC organizers “roped together hundreds of volunteers, trained them to lead organizing conversations, and deployed them to connect with thousands of workers who had requested help organizing their workplaces for COVID-19 protections.”
While many of the workers who reached out to EWOC did not proceed with organizing, many others did. EWOC organizer Eric Dirnbach wrote on DSA’s Socialist Forum that “after almost two years of operation, over 3,000 workers have reached out to EWOC, and we attempted to connect with all of them.” Nearly 400 campaigns launched from those calls, and around sixty of those won improvements or stopped concessions, impacting thousands of fast-food, grocery and retail workers, graduate workers, health care workers, and service workers; in other words, a cross section of today’s workforce and precisely the people that any new labor upsurge will need to serve.
The original CIO upsurge was focused on industrial workers because mass production was growing and that was where large numbers of unorganized workers were. Yet that focus left out many others, and we live today in a world shaped by those results. New Deal-era labor laws carved out farmworkers and domestic workers, denying rights to two groups of mostly Black workers in order to win votes from racist Southern Democrats. Black industrial workers and sharecroppers in the South joined CIO unions, and the young women of F.W. Woolworth’s five-and-dime stores had their own sit-down strikes in 1937, but they were still considered a sideline rather than the main target, and Operation Dixie, the CIO’s attempt to unionize the South, was largely a failure.
And yet the demands of today’s unions, whether they be in the media or in a warehouse, are often very conscious of racialized and gendered oppression. Their demands include calls for equitable hiring, protection from deportation and around whistleblowing, and parental and compassionate leave. Organizers don’t win by downplaying these differences, Kinema notes: “You dive fully into those struggles that most center [workers of color, LGBTQ+ workers, and immigrants] and build up the organizers who are coming out of those natural fights.”
Organized labor, Sneiderman notes, was for many years deeply anti-immigrant, committed to the argument that migrant workers undercut pay and conditions for U.S.-born workers. The stereotype is by no means gone, nor are other forms of racism—the recent battles over whether police belong in the labor movement is a good example of the ongoing tensions—but hard work has eroded it.
“You dive fully into those struggles that most center [workers of color, LGBTQ+ workers, and immigrants] and build up the organizers who are coming out of those natural fights.”
Many of the places where union organizing is taking place, Loomis points out, are those that have professed commitment to some sort of progressive values, and yet are falling short. Starbucks is one such “performatively liberal space,” as is Trader Joe’s, but so is The New Yorker and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, both of which are, or were, engaged in protracted battles with their staff unions.
But the real change, Sneiderman says, is in taking the needs and demands of those groups of workers seriously and turning them into strategies for winning power. “Employers want us to be in a narrower fight. They’re succeeding the more unions talk about wages and benefits,” she notes, because then they can pit union workers against those who are less well off and divide the working class. But strategies like bargaining for the common good, most famously practiced by the Chicago Teachers Union but spreading through the public and private sector, bring demands from the entire community to the bargaining table, using the power that they have to strike to win victories for those who have less leverage.
Kinema agrees: “You cannot decouple good labor movement organizing from that political context. People don’t organize for money. Every campaign is always built off of dignity and agency and respect in the workplace.”
The process of shifting unions from a shortsighted focus on immediate jobs for U.S. workers to a broader notion of global working-class solidarity has been ongoing for decades, but is more necessary now than ever.
One of the biggest challenges is that most modern workplaces are not as big as the massive factories of a century ago. The Flint factory where the sit-down strike originated held 7,000 workers, and the strike spread to seventeen plants, idling more than 100,000 workers. JFK8, in Staten Island, where the ALU won, is of a similar size, with about 8,325 workers eligible to vote in the union election, and Amazon employs hundreds of thousands across its warehouses. But the Starbucks shops that are organizing store by store across the country at an astronomical rate are still adding only a couple of dozen workers at a time: A little more than 200 unionized stores means only about 5,200 workers, fewer than at JFK8.
“To increase union density by just 1 percent per year, we would need to organize over one million workers annually,” Dirnbach notes. “But current campaigns are organizing only tens of thousands of workers every year.”
And so the challenge remains: How does labor get from exciting campaigns organizing a couple thousand workers to the kind of exponential growth that, for example, saw the UAW in 1937 go from 30,000 members to 500,000 members in a year?
A TikTok influencer boycott was certainly not in the organizing toolkit of CIO organizers in 1937.
In a recent article for In These Times, organizer Chris Brooks pointed out that many of the new campaigns of the 2020s ride a wave of momentum built by “movement moments—the whirlwind—where, very suddenly, the number of people who actively agree with us skyrockets” (emphasis his).
Such movement moments are not simply wished into existence. But good organizers can learn to recognize them. The Occupy movement, for example, changed the ways we talk about class, work, and power, says Loomis. In the 1930s, it was the Communist Party that provided a lot of the experienced organizers, who then moved into CIO unions and turned outrage into union power.
Without that movement energy, Sneiderman—who was in high-level positions at the Teamsters and then at the AFL-CIO, as a part of reform leadership in both organizations—points out that the best-laid plans of the most radical organizers can come to nothing. The challenge is to harness the rapidly rising energy (often derided by longtime organizers as mere “mobilizing”) while at the same time making space for “workers in their full lives.”
In August, news broke that a coalition of influencers on the video-based social media platform TikTok had pledged to end all work with Amazon until the company met the demands of the Amazon Labor Union. Calling their campaign the “People Over Prime Pledge,” the TikTokers, who have been heavily courted by Amazon, denounced the company’s anti-union behavior. “Their method of offering influencers life-changing payouts to make them feel as if they need to work with them while also refusing to pay their workers behind the scenes is extremely wrong,” Emily Rayna Shaw, one of those TikTokers, told The Washington Post.
A TikTok influencer boycott was certainly not in the organizing toolkit of CIO organizers in 1937. Yet it is headline news in 2022, part of the ecosystem that includes social media as well as old-fashioned face-to-face conversations. It is an example of the creative possibilities that are out there, and of the class solidarity that even Internet celebrities are building.
No one has the one answer for what it will take to rebuild the labor movement. Key to any organizing upsurge will be listening to a new generation of workers about what they want and need; about what excites them and what will get them to take bigger risks.
“When I teach labor history now,” Loomis says, “it isn’t just the story of Pullman and Homestead, and the big events. It’s how did workers actually think? Because if we don’t get to that, then we’re never going to fix this problem in the future.”
And Sneiderman urges humility on the part of longtime organizers, even as she wants to share what she’s learned through forty years in the movement. “The words that I never, ever, ever want to have come out of my mouth are, ‘We tried that before and it didn’t work.’ ” Indeed, today’s failures, as much as the successes, are helping to train a new generation of organizers, Kinema concurs.
The question, Sneiderman says, is, “How can you fail and learn from it? That’s a healthy thing because it means you took risks.”