Should Labor Support Democrats?
Rethinking the Lessons of the 1930s
It is a truism for many U.S. leftists that the fatal flaw of unions in the 1930s is they allowed themselves to get co-opted by FDR and the Democratic Party. The labor movement shot itself in the foot by tying its fate to a capitalist party, instead of forming a labor party and asserting its independence from the state through more sustained strike activity.
Though there is a good amount of truth to this story, it fails to account for the deep external obstacles hindering labor from pursuing a different approach, including rank-and-file workers’ support for FDR, the structural limitations of the U.S. electoral regime, and a public hostile to labor militancy from 1937 onwards. Increased involvement in Democratic Party politics certainly constrained and hurt labor in a number of ways; it doesn’t follow from this, however, that a significantly better course of action was possible. Nor does the experience of the Depression confirm the idealistic assumption — shared widely on the Left, from authors like Charlie Post and Michael Goldfield to currents such as Cosmonaut and Socialist Alternative — that there are timeless recipes for how workers and socialists should relate to liberals, irrespective of prevailing political conditions and the relative strength of contending socio-political forces.
In this article I show that the traditional radical account of the 1930s minimizes those pivotal gains that labor did make in alliance with New Deal Democrats, especially from 1935 through 1937. Within the span of only a few years, workers victoriously stormed anti-union corporate fortresses in mass-production industries. The new, pro-labor National Labor Relations Board played a pivotal role in aiding workers’ militant unionization efforts. And a joint labor-FDR effort forced a reactionary Supreme Court to codify the transformational reforms of the era. It took a combination of shopfloor militancy and New Deal governmental initiatives to bring about these watershed victories — i.e. the most important pro-labor transformations in U.S. history.
To be sure, becoming a junior partner within the Democratic Party did carry very real costs, and this subordinate status helps explain why American unions have never achieved as much as their counterparts in other advanced capitalist countries. But when the contextual obstacles for working-class power are seriously acknowledged, the balance sheet of labor politics in the Depression is more positive than it’s portrayed in most radical accounts.
One of the key lessons from this history is that the United States is an exceptionally difficult country in which to promote independent working-class politics on a mass scale. This was true in the 1930s at the height of labor’s upsurge, and it’s even more true today. As such, while keeping our eyes on the prize of a workers’ party, radicals would do well to soberly assess conditions as they are (not as we might wish them to be), to base our tactics accordingly, and to acknowledge that there are no strategic silver bullets for how to most effectively relate to Democratic politicians.
Organized labor’s most dramatic victories were achieved in 1935 through 1937. This was the movement’s heroic period, when millions of workers, with union buttons proudly pinned on, put their livelihoods on the line to win dignity, security and power — at work and in society. And unlike with so many previous generations, these unionization drives ultimately succeeded.
Theda Skocpol’s influential liberal explanation of the New Deal gives the impression that workers had their rights to unionize cemented from the 1935 congressional passage of the Wagner Act onwards. Yet in reality it took another two years of intense bottom-up militancy and political struggle before the captains of industry were forced to recognize and bargain with their organized employees. In November 1935, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was founded to champion the cause of new organizing and industrial unionism. Led by mineworker leader John L. Lewis with the help of dedicated Communist cadre, the CIO sought to cohere a rank-and-file workers’ upsurge that had shaken the country but not yet effectively unionized the country’s key mass-production industries, such as auto and steel.
It should be stated from the outset that none of the gains of this period would have been possible without an explosive rank-and-file upswell. The story of these courageous unionization efforts and strikes has been vividly told many times and does not require elaboration here. What remains much less understood is the mutually reinforcing interaction between this bottom-up militancy and pro-labor initiatives in the governmental arena.
Like the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act before it (see Part Two of this series), the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935 boosted the morale and confidence of labor struggles, leading workers to believe that the federal government would back their efforts. The new CIO showed how to effectively fuse industrial militancy with a savvy mix of support for, and pressure on, elected officials through bottom-up organizing as well as electoral initiatives. In 1936, the CIO brought back agitation around the slogan “The President Wants You to Organize” and it launched Labor’s Non Partisan League to re-elect FDR, to put pro-labor candidates into power across the U.S., and to cohere workers’ autonomous political power within the New Deal coalition.
Faced with an insurgent labor movement, and having found himself on surprisingly bad terms with big business, FDR during his 1936 electoral campaign often sounded much more like a Bernie Sanders than a Hillary Clinton. Roosevelt’s landslide win in November confirmed a popular mandate for transformational change, which further fanned the flames of industrial revolt. In auto, like so many other industries, workers seized the opening. Historian Robert Zieger recounts that within a month after FDR’s 1936 re-election, union “membership had multiplied tenfold. In the Fisher Body plants, noted a UAW activist, ‘union buttons began to sprout like dandelions everywhere.’”
The New NLRB
Very much unlike the 1933 NIRA, Wagner’s 1935 Act founded a robust federal agency — the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — mandated to enforce labor rights. In part because many corporate leaders believed that the new legislation would soon be voided by the Supreme Court, they strongly resisted the early NLRB and the Wagner Act. Yet the new Board nevertheless played a crucial role in boosting the growth and success of early industrial unionism.
Under the 1935-38 chairmanship of J. Warren Madden, the NLRB was filled with young leftists and labor liberals, who, as sociologist Jeff Manza notes, “sought to make use of new state capacities to actively promote a broad-based industrial union movement.” As detailed in Part Three, the new NLRB issued legal ruling after legal ruling proactively supporting both strikes and new union organizing efforts, especially those of the CIO. In the increasingly intense “civil war” between the CIO and the AFL — which bitterly fought to defend craft union control — the Board almost always favored industrial unionism, setting the broadest possible bargaining units and, when necessary, even going so far as to void existing AFL contracts. Under early NLRB supervision, the CIO in this period won 75 percent of all elections contests between it and the AFL.
Much of the early Board’s activity was dedicated to compiling data on illegal anti-union activities such as the use of company spies, professional strikebreakers, private police, and violence against organizers; such documentation was essential for winning unions’ cases to the Board and for helping shift public opinion. A good sense of the Board’s animating spirit can be gleaned from the following anecdote from the summer of 1936, when NLRB staffers fanned out of D.C. to surreptitiously gather the garbage of a subpoenaed company they accurately predicted might begin to destroy evidence:
Trash was all brought into Washington, where it was the most amazing sight. People were coming in from out of town with suitcases full of trash. … I heard somebody say that he had to bribe the superintendent of an office building in some city to let him have the trash out of a certain room. Probably millions of pieces of torn-up paper. And everybody that could be found in the National Labor Relations Board went to work in this hot summer of 1936 trying to put together torn-up records and gluing them together with little pieces of gummed tape.
According to authors such as Michael Goldfield and Charlie Post, all major progressive state initiatives of the era were responses to insurgent pressure from below; government officials and politicians, seeking to restore order, were forced to grant workers’ demands. But this interpretation cannot make sense of the early NLRB, i.e. a New Deal state agency that went above and beyond to support industrial unionism, including by supporting militant strikes. There is far too much documentation on the NLRB agents’ political intentions and their practical actions to attribute their behavior to pressure from below or a desire to preserve the status quo. In fact, the early Board continued to actively support unionization as well as strike efforts, and to push through major legal victories for labor, up through 1938 — i.e. it kept on fighting even after industrial unions were forced back on the retreat. Because the NLRB kept up its efforts in the face of hostile public opinion and employer-politician attacks against industrial unionism, the Board itself increasingly became a central target of the right wing’s ire.
Of all the early NLRB’s contributions, perhaps the most important before 1937 was to initiate and drive forward the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee, a headline-grabbing congressional panel founded in 1936 to focus public attention upon employer and local politicians' illegal anti-union activities. While the La Follette Committee could not fully substitute itself for the public opinion-shaping functions of a robust workers’ party, historians agree that it played a major role in aiding unionization drives and moving broader layers of the public in a more pro-union direction. Manza notes that the Committee generated,
an enormous amount of newspaper coverage which focused an unprecedented amount of attention on employer anti-union tactics. Perhaps the most telling evidence of the effectiveness of the Committee were the number of cases of unions winning long-sought contracts shortly after Committee hearings were held. A notable example of this was in Harlan County, Kentucky, where long-suffering coal miners won a union contract for the first time following an extended set of Committee hearings which generated sensational headlines about the depths of anti-union practices in the area.
As Board staffer Heber Blakenhorn explained, the Committee’s efforts were “consciously adjunctive to unionization drives.” Through close coordination with CIO leaders, the hearings thus were effectively timed to gather national headlines in key struggles such as the push to unionize General Motors and U.S. Steel.
Unionizing Auto and Steel
The work of the La Follette Committee was one of the additional factors that came together to make possible the most important labor victory in U.S. history: unionizing General Motors in 1937. The win itself was achieved outside of existing legal channels, when the CIO’s organizing drive culminated in the famous, rank-and-file initiated sit-down strike of December 1936-February 1937. Melvyn Dubofsky notes that in the crucial struggles of this moment, CIO leaders “preferred to combine the raw power of militant workers with the political exigencies of New Deal officeholders, rather than resort to the NLRB and representation elections, to win new salients for unionism in mass-production industry.”
In Flint, as elsewhere, workers took the lead. But they also received significant help from state actors. Not only did the new CIO-backed Democratic governor Frank Murphy refuse to use repression to evict workers from the factories they were occupying, but the National Guard troops he deployed protected the sit-down strikers from local police and armed thugs. And despite heavy lobbying to send in federal troops to put an end to what detractors saw as workers’ “brutal and lawless display of power,” FDR too rejected intense pressure upon him to intervene.
None of this should detract from the agency, heroism, and strategic planning of insurgent workers. They made the strike happen. Nevertheless, the outcome of their actions did not exclusively hinge on their efforts alone, either in Flint or in the other major wins of the period.
According to Goldfield, the “broad public support that the sit-down strikes had forced Frank Murphy” to avoid repression. There are two major problems with this explanation. First, it vastly exaggerates the level of public support for the sit-down strikes, which were extremely controversial and generally unpopular. By February 1937, national polls reported that 42 percent of the public favored GM in the conflict, with only 32 percent siding with the strikers. Second, the political agency of state officials is suggested by the fact that Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor George Earle in this period did use National Guard troops as strikebreakers, unlike his counterparts Murphy in Michigan and Herbert H. Lehman in New York. Moreover, only a few months after Flint, the U.S. midwest was rocked by the bloody “Little Steel” strike, in which 18 workers were killed and scores more injured by state-level National Guards, local police, and employer-hired thugs. In no small part because of this repression, the strike went down to defeat, though the NLRB was later able to oblige owners to recognize the union.
In the face of such intense countervailing pressures, the choices made by the era’s elected officials were rarely easy. But they were consequential — and not just for the fate of the specific strike underway. For example, the second biggest labor win of this era came three weeks after Flint, but it did not require an analogous demonstration of worker militancy. To the surprise of many observers, U.S. Steel, a longstanding bulwark of corporate despotism, caved to the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) union drive, without workers having to resort to a strike. The reason for this surprising turn, writes Dubofsky, “must be found in the altered balance of political power exemplified by the New Deal. … In 1937, unlike 1919 and 1934 … the steel industry could not rely on the state to help it avert or smash a strike. Executives in steel watched events in Flint with trepidation. They noticed that neither Murphy nor Roosevelt had enforced the law against the sit-downers.”
The often perfidious role of Democratic Party leaders has been well-documented by radical historians and is more than evident today. But without acknowledging the positive contributions made by New Deal Democrats, it becomes impossible to make sense of why millions of rank-and-file workers pledged them their support from the 1930s onwards.
The Supreme Court Retreats
On March 2, 1937, the SWOC signed a collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Steel. More historic wins were soon to come. Little over a month after workers’ big win in steel, the Supreme Court brought about a major constitutional revolution.
On April 12, in a reversal of decades of jurisprudence, the Court upheld the Wagner Act, guaranteeing union rights to millions. For the first time in U.S. history, the recognition of unions across the private sector now had a strong legal basis. And the impact of the Court’s decision was immediate. The months after April 1937 registered about a 1000 percent increase in unfair labor practice charges against employers. Unlike today, corporations in the subsequent period were generally obliged to respect labor law.
Strike activity, epitomized by Flint and the subsequent sit-down wave, was very likely a central factor in the Supreme Court’s watershed decision. The NLRB’s Hebert Blankenhorn argued that the Court under pressure had been pushed to recognize the new “facts of industrial relations,” an explanation shared by numerous historians. But militancy was not the only major causal factor.
It is often overlooked today that FDR’s landslide in 1936, manifesting a strong popular mandate for the New Deal, pushed conservative Supreme Court judge Owen Roberts to begin rethinking his opposition to the New Deal, leading him to uphold New Deal minimum wage legislation in December 1936. And buoyed by this same electoral mandate, Roosevelt expended huge amounts of political capital on his controversial new proposal to expand the Supreme Court, which from May 1935 onwards had overturned much of the New Deal’s signature legislation and whose continued obstructionism threatened to sink his entire policy agenda.
It’s worth noting that FDR was not impelled by bottom-up pressure to challenge the Supreme Court; if anything bottom-up pressure was a major reason why he had delayed in taking on the venerated legal institution. FDR had first internally raised packing the court as early as May 1935, but he backed down after his public criticism of the body proved so unpopular. Court packing was no less popular when he called for it in early 1937 and the concurrent backlash against “lawless” sit-down strikes actually made it significantly harder for him to win support for his plan. Though FDR’s court packing initiative cost him considerable support and did not ultimately get adopted, it was nevertheless also an important factor in forcing the Court to retreat.
In this struggle for political democracy, one of Roosevelt’s very few allies was the CIO, which threw itself and the LNPL into the fight against the Court and minoritarian rule. The CIO’s John L. Lewis declared that it was “a sad commentary upon our form of government when every decision of the Supreme Court seems designed to fatten capital and starve and destroy labor.” The American people, he insisted, would no longer tolerate “the continuance of a condition under our Constitution whereby the will of the people expressed through their duly elected representatives in Congress may be thwarted by a Supreme Court of nine Justices appointed for life.”
It took a combination of intense workplace struggle and state-level initiatives to uphold some semblance of popular democracy in 1937. To quote Charles Wyzanski, the solicitor who argued the case for the Act’s constitutionality: “Right along I have said that the cases were won not by Mr. Wyzanski but either by Mr. Roosevelt or, if you prefer it, by Mr. Zeitgeist.”
One of the limitations of traditional radical analyses is that they don’t help today’s unions and leftists point to precisely the types of governmental initiatives that we urgently again need — combined with insurgent struggle — to overcome employers, the Supreme Court and Republican minoritarian rule. The early NLRB, the La Follette Committee, and FDR’s court packing campaign all constitute important precedents worth highlighting and replicating. Claiming that all progressive change is produced from below tends, in practice, to let Democratic party leaders like Joe Biden off the hook for their inaction. It also underestimates the importance of backing — and demanding full congressional funding for — those positive state initiatives that do exist, such as the recent NLRB rulings in support of unionization efforts at Starbucks and beyond.
Labor’s forward momentum climaxed in its early 1937 wins at Flint, U.S. Steel, and the Supreme Court. But just when it seemed that the sky was the limit for unionism, the CIO was checked by severe political backlash, both from above and below. Understanding the reasons why labor’s forward march proved to be so short-lived is essential for accurately assessing the obstacles and openings of U.S. political life in the 1930s. Radical accounts suggesting that bad leaders bungled a golden opportunity to found a national labor party and deepen workplace insurgencies systematically ignore or downplay the difficult context in which organized labor operated, even at the height of its upsurge.
The post-1937 offensive from above against mass industrial unionism was spearheaded by large capitalists, Republicans, racist Southern Democrats, and AFL craft union leaders (who did not hesitate to wage all-out war to protect and expand their organizational fiefdoms). This reactionary campaign’s mouthpiece was the congressional Dies Special Committee on Un-American Activities, launched in May 1938 to red-bait and discredit the CIO and its political allies, from the NLRB to Governor Murphy in Michigan. Right-wing politicians and their capitalist backers racked up major wins in the coming years, including by dramatically increasing the number of elected Republicans in the 1938 midterms, driving out leftists from the NLRB (with FDR’s eventual approval), and deforming and defanging the Wagner Act.
By late 1937, labor was back on the defensive and FDR began steadily distancing himself from the CIO. This backsliding was deepened by the surprising electoral robustness of the reactionary wing of the Democratic Party that, like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema today, had blocked much of the president’s agenda. To his credit, Roosevelt, with CIO-backing, fought hard to purge out conservative, Southern-based Democrats in the 1938 midterms by backing primary challengers to these incumbents — yet these progressives almost uniformly went down to defeat. Reflecting the country’s new mood, which was exacerbated by an FDR-triggered economic recession, conservative Democratic incumbents in 1938 held onto their seats and many of the country’s most pro-labor elected officials were booted from office — including Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party governor Elmer Benson, Democratic Governor Murphy in Michigan, and Wisconsin Progressive Party governor Philip La Follette.
Though FDR and Democrats in the coming years blocked the worst anti-union legislative attacks, and cemented unions’ institutional longevity during the tripartite arrangements established World War Two, they proved to be relatively poor allies, interested in maintaining union members’ votes while failing to forthrightly champion their cause. Despite the Democrats’ rightward drift, unions became increasingly subordinate to their “friends in office,” substituting backroom lobbying for the hard-headed combination of workplace militancy and autonomous political organizing that had hitherto defined CIO praxis.
The absence of a mass labor party weighed heavy on the 1930s and subsequent decades — without a party of their own, it proved exceptionally difficult for unions to effectively fight for a robust welfare state, to unionize a majority of workers, to overcome deep racial and geographic divisions, and to overcome the public perception of organized labor as a narrow, selfish “interest group.”
The broad outlines of this story of U.S. labor’s institutionalization and co-optation are well known. Most radical accounts, however, generally ignore one key cause of this unhappy outcome, a factor that also significantly blocked possible alternative routes. That overlooked factor is public opinion, which turned against labor militancy from early 1937 onwards. Polls of the public, as well as electoral results, underscore why sustaining mass disruption — or founding a new party to the left of the Democrats — was so difficult for labor, especially after the controversial wave of sit-downs and the deadly “Little Steel” strike of 1937.
With the mainstream press, employers, and Republicans hostile to industrial militancy and most Democrats diffident at best, strikes and militant industrial unionism became associated in the broader public eye with violence, lawlessness, anti-American Communist subversion, economic disruption, and rising inflation on consumer goods. Industrial militancy was particularly key in driving away support from farmers, a decisive layer of the population, who often depended on urban products and markets for their economic survival. Though the CIO did its best to project its mission as broadly fighting for the multiracial working class, farmers, and the middle classes, strikes nevertheless came to be widely seen by many as selfish and subversive acts on behalf of a narrow group.
Politicians, union leaders, and rank-and-filers were well aware of polls like that conducted by Gallup in February 1937, which found that 60 percent of respondents wanted their state to pass legislation banning sit-down strikes. By the end of the year, 64 percent supported using force against sit-downers, with only 23 percent opposed. Widespread popular opposition was not limited to the sit-down tactic, nor was it limited to the South. Beyond its own fervent ranks and its closest allies, the CIO and especially its leader John L. Lewis were remarkably unpopular. Strong majorities in national polls favored craft unions over industrial unions. And though unions in general tended to receive roughly 60 percent support from the population, 41 percent favored “big business” over labor unions; only 32.5 percent favored the latter. By 1941, 59 percent of those polled nationally wanted unions to have less power than they currently did, while only 11 percent wanted them to have greater power; even among northern FDR voters, the numbers were about the same.
The strongest corroborating evidence for the accurateness of these polls is that they are in line with how people voted. As noted above, in a pivotal 1938 election polarized over whether or not to expand industrial unionism and New Deal progressivism, the midterms witnessed a surge in Republican wins, crushing defeats for the governors most associated with the CIO, and victories for incumbent moderate, anti-union Democrats.
Research has found that Republicans outside the South in 1938 won the most seats in states where strike activity had recently been the highest. These election dynamics, combined with national polling results, were one of the key factors undercutting the ambitions of FDR and Democrats after 1937. Even if we leave aside employer-generated pressure on state actors, popular backlash from below was a major factor, which any politician wishing to be re-elected had to take into account. Though Democrats tended to keep control of the White House, Republicans won the popular vote outside of the South in every House election from 1938 through 1952.
Even the most militant of trade unionists could not brush off these election results, since they almost immediately led to state-level legal restrictions on their right to strike. In the wake of the 1938 midterms, states with higher strike rates were significantly more likely to pass anti-strike laws, especially when Republicans took at least partial control of government. Such state-level legislation would go on to serve as the model for the nationwide Taft-Hartley bill.
Whereas many historians have entirely blamed Southern conservatism for checking the New Deal, this popular backlash was also strong and consequential in the North. The tenuousness of popular support for industrial unionism, and strike militancy in particular, created intractable dilemmas for labor. Even when it was still possible to strike and win locally, workplace militancy tended to then boomerang back upon labor via further legal restrictions on militancy, isolation from the broader populace, and electoral setbacks for industrial unions’ broader social-democratic policy agenda. Though anti-labor opposition came most strongly from the middle and upper classes, it’s also true that most American workers were never in a union and they could often be persuaded that union workers' gains came at their expense.
Public opinion, including from non-union workers, proved so inhospitable in part because, unlike in most advanced capitalist countries, U.S. unions could not lean on a political party to publicly advocate for their cause and to cohere a majoritarian bloc through broadly beneficial policy reforms. As a Fortune magazine article had noted in 1933, “in no other nation [beyond America] does the capitalist point of view so completely dominate press, politics, and even the law courts. With public opinion normally arrayed against labor, there has been tremendous pressure toward the right.” Hostile popular opinion also dramatically undercut the space for labor to spearhead a viable national third party; to win, union-endorsed candidates needed the votes of non-union workers and at least some broader middle strata such as farmers and some professionals. Political scientist Anthony Michael Daniel concludes that “disruption-backlash is the best single explanation for the emergent pattern of United States labor relations.”
This dynamic became particularly evident in the wake of the historic 1945-46 strike wave, during which over five million workers participated — the second highest percent of strike participation in U.S. history (second only to 1919). Rather than lead to an expansion of labor rights as occurred in the mid-1930s, the post-WWII strike surge fueled a backlash that restricted them. Influenced by a hostile media, employer hysteria, as well as personal experience, much of the broader public came to believe that strikes were inflation-causing acts, on behalf of corrupt, self-serving, and/or subversive Communist leaderships.
As the Los Angeles Times wrote in June 1946, “the Republican Party in recent months has gained ground steadily with the public on the issue which voters themselves consider to be the number 1 question — regarding strikes and labor battles.” Running against strike militancy and political radicalism, Republicans were swept into full control of Congress in 1946 and quickly proceeded to pass Taft-Hartley the year after.
In short, public opinion seriously limited the available options for organized labor. Strikes, though powerful, had very real costs. Daniel’s rigorous comparative study of unions in different U.S. states concludes that “the multiple paths taken at the state level suggest that alternate courses of action by the organized labor [movement] would not have achieved their aim. … the hard left proposition that labor might have secured a more favorable outcome through adherence to labor stoppages is difficult to sustain.” Perhaps unions had slightly greater room for maneuver than Daniel suggests, but a public hostile to militancy certainly helps explain (if not justify) the increasing moderation of so many labor leaders.
The Missing Party
It was precisely because of the limitations of even the best workplace organizing that socialists and union leaders in every other industrialized country had founded independent working-class parties around the turn of the century. With their focus on uniting the working class and strengthening its influence among potential social allies, radicals in the early Second International thus often downplayed apolitical strike militancy, which they felt tended to reflect or exacerbate labor fragmentation and narrowness.
Though there was some overlap in functions between unions and parties, the latter were uniquely adept at pushing progressive policies within the state and society, at cohering workers and their allies across their multifarious divisions, and at promoting a comprehensive political vision for the moment — and the future — among the broadest number of people, through the party press, local organizations, and the platform of high office.
Understanding this, various currents of leftists for decades had attempted to found a mass third party in the United States. Yet all these attempts floundered in the face of deep structural and contextual obstacles: entrenched racial, ethnic and religious divisions among workers; the U.S. regime’s minoritarian institutional blockages and its uniquely unfavorable terrain for third parties (first-past-the-post elections, presidentialism, ballot restrictions, and the primary system); state repression of workers’ organizations and the Left; exceptionally intense employer opposition to organized labor; and the hegemony of craft rather than industrial unionism. These contextual obstacles, in turn, facilitated tendencies for moderate union leaders like Samuel Gompers to downplay electoral politics and for U.S. radicals to become mired in sectarianism, ultra-leftism, and marginality. Though one can’t discount the possibility that more statewide formations like the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party could have been founded in the post-WWI upsurge, the fact remains that working people and their organizations never even came close to founding a national party of their own capable of seriously contesting for power.
Why didn’t the labor movement’s giant step forward in the 1930s also result in the creation of a labor party? According to authors like Charlie Post, the blame for this unhappy outcome lies primarily with moderate union leaders and a Communist Party that subordinated itself to FDR from 1936 onwards.
This story, however, is hard to square with the available evidence. For starters, workers’ overwhelming turn to New Deal Democrats was first manifest in the 1932 presidential elections, a contest in which the American Federation of Labor (still true to its Gomperist downplaying of electoral politics) did not endorse FDR. For their part, both Socialists and Communists ran against FDR that year. As Table 1 illustrates, despite the explosion of radical-led protests of the unemployed in the early Depression years, workers did not generally choose to vote third party even when they had the option, even when union leaders maintained an independent stance towards the Democrats, and even before the New Deal had been legislated.
Table 1: 1932 Presidential Election Results
Democratic (FDR) 57.41%
Republican (Hoover) 39.65%
Socialist (Thomas) 2.23%
Communist (Foster) 0.26%
Prohibition (Upshaw) 0.21%
Liberty (Harvey) 0.13%
Socialist Labor (Reynolds) 0.09%
Farmer-Labor (Coxey) 0.02%
In the wake of the historic 1933-34 strike wave, which often pitted strikers against local Democratic officials as well as union leaders, workers’ inclination to vote for Left third parties still remained remarkably low, averaging little over four percent of total votes in federal and state elections (Figure 1). Given how frequently rank-and-file workers disobeyed union officials in the 1930s it is not plausible that the main reason they voted Democrat was deference to labor leaders. Moreover, large numbers of workers were more than willing to follow radicals’ lead in industrial conflicts, but they clearly chose to part ways when the Communists and Trotskyists implored them not to vote for a capitalist party. The irony, and logical inconsistency, of radical accounts like that of Post is that they glorify the wildcat rebelliousness of rank-and-file workers on the shopfloor while simultaneously telling a story about 1930s politics suggesting that these very same workers were essentially dupes or powerless victims of union bureaucrats.
Figure 1: Average Left Third Party Voting, Statewide and National
It is far more consistent with the historical evidence, and with analytical coherence, to acknowledge that working people from 1932 onwards continued voting Democratic because they felt that the new administration was looking out for them. “It was a rare worker's home where a portrait of Roosevelt, whether a torn-out newspaper image or a framed color photograph, did not hold an honored place,” notes Lizabeth Cohen in her meticulous study of Chicago workers during the Depression. Of course, there were also significant pockets of working-class anger with the Democrats, especially on a local level where local Democratic administrations had overseen the repression of strikers. But even in such areas, this country’s first-past-the-post electoral system helped ensure that when push came to shove, working people were generally unwilling to vote for third parties when this risked throwing the vote to reactionaries.
Given the “spoiler” dilemma and the other structural constraints on third parties in the U.S., it’s a mistake to assume that because some unions in the mid-1930s passed pro-labor party resolutions this meant that their leaders only had to pull the trigger to turn these resolutions into a reality. To back up his assertion that the CIO leadership “short-circuited the promising labor party agitation of the mid-1930s,” Charlie Post cites a study by historian Eric Leif Davin which focuses on documenting the number of unions that called for a labor party in this period. Yet Davin himself in the cited article notes that his piece doesn’t try to show “whether such a national party could actually have been created.” In Davin’s view, “there were and are almost insurmountable cultural, psychological, and structural obstacles built into the U.S. political system that argue against the success of any third party — labor or otherwise.”
It was far easier to pass a labor party resolution (which often functioned as a pressure tactic upon Democrats) than to organize for, or even vote for, a whole new party. Since at least 1870, class-conscious political sentiment among the U.S. working class had often been quite strong, but Left third parties nevertheless found that the obstacles to translating this sentiment into a viable electoral project proved to be insurmountable. Similarly, while some polls today indicate that support for a third party is at a historical high, actual third party voting nevertheless is at a historic low.
Most radical accounts are remarkably silent about what happened when local unions and leftists did run independent labor party slates for office. For example, in a bastion of worker radicalism in Eastern Pennsylvania, the Left-led mineworkers’ union ran a Luzerne County Labor Party ticket for the 1934 elections. The result? It received five percent of votes in the region, as most workers opted to vote Democrat.
The 1936 presidential election registered a similar dynamic. Unlike the AFL in 1932, CIO leaders through the LNPL enthusiastically campaigned for FDR in 1936, in part because they wanted to take credit for his victory in order to further press him on their demands. As historian Kenneth Waltzer argues, “workers were not in independent motion toward a labor party in 1936 … [CIO leaders] assumed most would support Roosevelt or stay away and they created LNPL to mobilize the workers and to reap the credit for the CIO.” LNPL efforts to undermine those pockets of residual labor party sentiment that did exist in 1936 — as expressed primarily in union resolution debates — are hardly a sufficient explanation for why so few rank-and-filers voted for a Left third party when they had the chance (Figure 2). Well-known Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas’s dismal showing convinced many radicals of the era that a clean break from the Democrats was not on the immediate agenda. Unless one assumes that most workers were dupes or powerless victims, it makes sense to acknowledge that they generally supported FDR, even if they often hoped for the New Deal to go further than it did.
Table 2: 1936 Presidential Election Results
Democratic (FDR) 60.80%
Republican (Landon) 36.54%
Union (Lemke) 1.95%
Socialist (Thomas) 0.41%
Communist (Browder) 0.17%
Prohibition (Colvin) 0.08%
Socialist Labor (Aiken) 0.03%
Elections after 1936 illustrate how hard it was for organized labor to effectively assert itself independently in the political arena, even at the peak of its influence and at a local level where its power was strongest. It is worth underlining that endorsing FDR in 1936 did not mean that John L. Lewis and CIO unions across the country in this period were willing to subordinate themselves to Democratic leaders on either a national or local level; a routinized, subordinate relationship to party leaders only became the norm in the 1940s, after Lewis had been sidelined by (now-moderate) leaders such as Sidney Hillman.
In its early years, the new industrial union movement did try to sustain a more independent electoral approach towards the Democrats. And the results of these efforts made clear the limited political influence of industrial unions even at their strongest and most assertive. Daniel Nelson’s research illustrates how electoral dynamics in Akron, Ohio — a CIO bastion “considered by contemporaries the most unionized city in the United States” — revealed how hard it was for the CIO to translate shopfloor power into independent political power. Despite the famed militancy of the city’s rubber workers, the strength of their unions, and their ongoing efforts to take over city government, all such initiatives failed, both when they were attempted independently and, later, autonomously through insurgent Democratic primaries.
Fresh off the heels of their victorious unionization campaigns and strikes, a buoyant Akron labor movement’s attempts to sweep local power in the 1937 city elections, for example, went down to a surprising defeat, manifest in the rout of their mayoral candidate, G.L. Patterson, by 44,212 to 36,100 votes. Not only did union candidates fail to garner the support of middle-class voters, but even a surprising number of union members refused to vote as their leaders suggested. Nelson observes the demoralizing impact this had locally and nationwide:
Considering the city's large union membership and Patterson's appeal, it was a humiliating setback. If the CIO could not mount a successful campaign in Akron, where could it win? … Republicans took heart and politicians generally took heed. Contemporary analysts from both camps attributed the debacle to the breakdown of the labor-Democratic coalition. … Directly or indirectly, the 1937 results encouraged unionists to remain within the New Deal coalition and to ally themselves with Democratic candidates.
To be sure, functioning as a junior partner in the Democratic coalition was hardly an ideal situation for advancing working-class power — and this subordinate dynamic goes a long way towards explaining why U.S. labor has long remained weaker, and won fewer policy wins, than its counterparts abroad. As Lizabeth Cohen notes, “the paradox of workers' politicization through the Democratic Party during the 1930s was that they became invested in a party that they felt served their interests much more than it did.”
Working people’s deepening entanglement with New Deal Democrats had very real downsides. Yet some form of electoral alliance with them was an unavoidable, if unfortunate, dynamic given the views of most workers, who had seen through their experience that it did make a difference who was in power. These pressures from below were further buttressed by the constraints of the U.S. electoral regime, combined with the obstacles and openings of a uniquely porous, disorganized, undisciplined party system. In conditions as they were, not as some radicals wished they might have been, labor’s only viable political path by the mid-1930s was acting as an autonomous tendency on the left flank of the New Deal.
Significant progress was made in this direction in various states, as FDR-supporting unions and leftists built up proto-party organizations meant to replicate, as much as possible, the ideological, electoral, organizational, and policy functions of a mass farmer-labor party. The most successful of these efforts were Upton Sinclair’s insurgent EPIC campaign on the California Democratic ballot line, the Oregon and Washington Commonwealth Federations (which largely took over their state’s Democratic Party), the American Labor Party in New York, and the various successful efforts to build mass membership organizations through local, often newly forged, Democratic Party structures in working-class towns like Duquesne, PA. Even radical critics such as Mike Davis acknowledge that the most plausible path in the direction of a Labor Party by the late 1930s came from the further development of the LNPL and other similar efforts within FDR’s coalition, including those efforts mentioned above as well as statewide third parties such as the FDR-endorsing, New-Deal supporting Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party and Wisconsin Progressive Party.
Many of these currents combined their support for FDR and other New Deal Democrats with consistent calls for the eventual formation of a national Farmer-Labor Party and there’s no way of knowing in hindsight how far such proto-parties could have developed had the political context turned out more favorably. While it is true that the Communist Party after 1936 swung to uncritical support of (and subordination to) FDR, a more critical and autonomous approach within the New Deal coalition was possible. Had these farmer-labor organizations had more time to grow and had the electorate been more progressive after 1937, they may have been able to deepen their efforts to build democratic membership structures, elect union members to office, cement ties with farmers, carve out a distinct national profile, educate workers in the basics of class politics, organize sustained pressure on the FDR administration, primary out reactionary Democrats and agitate for a working-class party.
The traumas of 1938, however, cut off the space for this political trajectory towards greater organized strength and autonomy within the New Deal coalition. Because of the fratricidal AFL vs CIO civil war, public anti-strike backlash, and devastating midterm elections, organized labor found itself politically weak, internally divided, and socially isolated in 1938. It failed to primary out conservative Democrats, re-elect the most pro-CIO governors, or sustain the mass political organizations mentioned above. Forming a new party was clearly off the cards, despite an increased disenchantment with FDR among both some radicalized workers and CIO leader John L. Lewis.
Through 1940, Lewis and the CIO attempted to maintain their political autonomy from a rightward drifting Roosevelt, but even labor’s ranks failed to follow Lewis down that path when he broke from FDR, a breach that obliged him to resign as CIO president. Similarly, rank-and-file workers did not heed the call of the Communist Party when, after numerous zig-zags in the preceding years, it did break from the Democrats. The CP reached its peak membership in late 1947 — surpassing 75,000 members for the first time — and in a moment marked by an unprecedented strike upsurge, U.S.-Soviet conflict, as well as rising working-class dissatisfaction with Democratic President Truman, Communists decided to wager everything on forming a new national Progressive Party in 1948. Hopes were high, but the results were disastrous. Not only did the Progressive Party’s presidential candidate — former U.S. Vice President Henry Wallace — receive less than three percent of the vote (Table 3), but the Communists’ all-in campaign severely isolated them in organized labor and this self-marginalization made them easier targets for Cold War repression by state officials and union bureaucrats.
Table 3: 1948 Election Results
Democratic (Truman) 49.55
Republican (Dewey) 45.07
States' Rights Democratic (Thurmond) 2.41
Progressive (Wallace) 2.37
Socialist (Thomas) 0.29
Prohibition (Watson) 0.21
Socialist Labor (Teichert) 0.06
Socialist Workers (Dobbs) 0.03
Accounts pinning the blame for these developments on co-opted misleaders have yet to seriously explain the failure of Left third party efforts when leaders did pull the trigger. Nor have they provided a rigorous explanation for the continued marginality of those forces that remained implacably hostile to FDR and the whole Democratic Party: remarkably few workers joined or voted for those radical currents such as the Socialists or the Trotskyists, who consistently refused to ever support candidates running on major party ballot lines.
Rank-and-file workers were not dupes, nor were they powerless. In this very period, they repeatedly demonstrated their willingness on the shopfloor to challenge corporate, political, and union leaders. Yet since 1933 they had seen through first-hand experience not only the power of strikes and the flaws of Democratic politicians, but also the consequential impact of progressive federal policy changes as well as the impact of elections between Democrats and Republicans — and between progressive and conservative Democrats.
To sum up: founding a national labor party would certainly have been preferable during the Depression or the post-WWII upsurge, but this was made unviable by the actual sentiments of rank-and-filers, the hostility of the broader public to militant industrial unionism, and the longstanding structural obstacles to U.S. third parties.
Unlike almost every other period in U.S. history, organized workers in the 1930s did find a transmission belt — however imperfect — between their bottom-up struggle and the governmental arena. The gains they won in alliance with New Deal Democrats were historic and major, even if they ultimately fell short of what workers deserved and often demanded.
Yet battling the boss at work was workers’ forte in the United States during the Great Depression, as it had been for decades. This history underscores that there was only so far such battles could go without a mass working-class party to shape public opinion and to intervene in the state. The 1930s, unfortunately, offers no strategic silver bullets on how to get to this goal.
Being a junior partner in the Democratic coalition was a real problem. The Democratic Party, even at its best, remained a worse ally to unions and working people than mass workers’ parties abroad. And it is certainly true that the United States would be a far better place today had a viable labor party been founded during this period — affirming this, however, doesn’t prove that founding such a party was actually possible. As historian Howell Harris notes, organized labor’s “dilemma was real … In politics, it had nowhere to go but the Democratic Party, however unreliable a friend that proved to be.”
The fact that motion towards a mass labor party was so weak even in the turbulent 1930s should caution radicals today to stop assuming that an end to the two-party system is always just around the corner. Building a mass working-class party in the face of an exceptionally constraining U.S. context was, and remains, a very difficult task.
This does not mean a labor party is impossible or that leftists should drop this objective as a long-term goal. When a serious opening to form one arises — e.g. through the democratization of the U.S. political regime — leftists and unions should be prepared to seize it. In the meantime, particularly given the increasingly authoritarian turn of the Republicans, it makes sense for unions and democratic socialists to build “proto-parties” that increase workers’ organized power and assert their independence from the Democratic establishment, through insurgent primaries, fights for progressive policies, as well as struggle in workplaces, streets, and communities.
Unfortunately, the 1930s provides little support to assumptions that the main thing needed to make such a mass workers’ party viable is sufficient willpower from labor and radical leaders — or that timeless formulas exist for how socialists should relate to liberals, regardless of the political context and relationship of forces. Working people make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.
[This is Part Four in a series of working papers on the lessons of labor and politics from the 1930s. All citations can be found here.
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