The CIO's Integration & Imperialist Labor Policy

part 4 of Chapter VII of Settlers: Mythology of the White Proletariat (by J. Sakai, Morningstar Press 1989)

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The CIO played an important role for U.S. imperialism in disorganizing and placing under supervision the nationally oppressed. For the first time masses of Third World workers were allowed and even conscripted into the settler trade unions. This was the result of a historic arrangement between the U.S. Empire and nationally oppressed workers in the industrial North.

On one side, this limited "unity" ensured that Third World workers didn't oppose the new, settler industrial unions, and were safely absorbed as "minorities" under tight settler control. On the other side, hungry Third World proletarians gained significant income advances and hopes of job security and advancement. It was an arrangement struck out of need on both sides, but one in which the Euro-Amerikan labor aristocracy made only tactical concessions while strengthening their hegemony over the Empire's labor market.

So while the old A.F.L. craft unions had controlled Third World labor by driving us out of the labor market, by excluding us from the craft unions or by confining us to small, “seg” locals, the new CIO could only control us by absorbing us into their settler unions. The imperialists had decided that they needed colonial labor in certain industries. Euro-Amerikan labor could not, therefore, drive the nationally oppressed away in the old manner. The colonial proletarians could only be controlled by disorganizing them - separating their economic struggles from the national struggles of their peoples, separating them from other Third World proletarians around the world, absorbing them as "brothers" of settler unionism, and placing them under the leadership of the Euro- Amerikan labor aristocracy. The new integration was the old segregation on a higher level, the unity of opposites in everyday life.

We can see how this all worked by reviewing the CIO's relationship to Afrikan workers. Large Afrikan refugee communities had formed in the major Northern industrial centers. Well over one million refugees had fled Northwards in just the time between 1910-1924, and new thousands came every month. They were an irritating presence to the settler North; each refugee community was a foreign body in a white metropolis. Like a grain of sand in an oyster. And just as the oyster eases its irritation by encasing the foreign element in a hard, smooth coating of pearl, settler Amerika encapsulated Afrikan workers in the hard, white layer of the CIO.

Despite the "race riots" and the hostility of Euro-Amerikans the Afrikan refugees streamed to the North in the early years of the century. After all, even the troubles of the North seemed like lesser evils to those fleeing the terroristic conditions of the occupied National Territory. Many had little choice, escaping the revived Ku Klux Klan. Increasingly forced off the land, barred from the new factories in the South, Afrikans were held down by the terroristic control of their daily lives.

Each night found the Illinois Central railroad wending its way Northward through Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, following the Mississippi River up to the "Promised Land" of Gary or Chicago. Instead of sharecropping or seasonal farm labor for "Mr. John," Afrikan men during World War I might get hired for the "elite" Chicago jobs as laborers at Argo Corn Starch or International Harvester. Each week the Chicago Defender, in the ’20s the most widely-read "race" newspaper even in the South, urged its readers to forsake hellish Mississippi and come Northward to "freedom." One man remembers the long, Mississippi nights tossing and turning in bed, dreaming about the fabled North: "You could not rest in your bed at night for Chicago."

The refugee communities were really small New Afrikan cities, where the taut rope of settler domination had been partially loosened. Spear's Black Chicago says: "In the rural South, Negroes were dependent upon white landowners in an almost feudal sense. Personal supervision and personal responsibility permeated almost every aspect of life. In the factories and yards (of the North) on the other hand, the relationship with the boss' was formal and impersonal, and supervision limited to working hours." (31)

While there was less individual restriction, Afrikan refugees were under tight control as a national group. The free bourgeois labor market of Euro-Amerikans didn't really exist for Afrikans. Their employment was not individual, not private. They got work only when a company consciously decided to use Afrikan labor as a group. So that Afrikan labor in the industrial North still existed under colonial conditions, driven into specific workplaces and specific jobs.

Afrikans were understood by the companies as dynamite - extremely useful and potentially very dangerous. Their use in Northern industry was the start, though little understood at the time, of gradually bringing the new European immigrants up from proletarians to real settlers. Imperialism was gradually releasing the "Hunky" and "Dago" from laboring at the very bottom of the factories. Now even more Euro-Amerikans were being pushed upward into the ranks of skilled workers and supervisors. And if the Afrikan workers were paid more than their usual colonial wages in the South, they still earned less than "white man's wages." Even the newest European immigrant on the all-white production lines could look at the Afrikan laborers and know his new-found privileges as a settler.

The capitalists also knew that too many Afrikans might turn a useful and super-profitable tool into a dangerous force. Afrikan labor was used only in a controlled way, with heavy restrictions placed upon it. One Indiana steel mill superintendent in the 1920s said: "When we got (up to 10% Black) employees, I said, ‘No more colored without discussion.’ I got the colored pastors to send colored men whom they could guarantee would not organize and were not bolsheviks," This was at a time when the Garvey Movement, the all-Afrikan labor union and the growth of Pan-Afrikanist and revolutionary forces were taking place within the Afrikan nation.

The Northern factories placed strict quotas on the number of Afrikan workers. Not because they weren't profitable enough. Not because the employers were “prejudiced” - as the liberals would have it - but because the imperialists believed that Afrikan labor could most safely be used when it was surrounded by a greater mass of settler labor. In 1937 an official of the U.S. Steel Gary Works admitted that for the previous 14 years corporate policy had set the percentage of Afrikan workers at the mill to 15%. (32)

The Ford Motor Co. had perhaps the most extensive system of using Afrikan labor under plantation-like control, with Henry Ford acting as the planter. A special department of Ford management was concerned with dominating not only the on-the-job life of Afrikan workers, but the refugee community as well. Ford hired only through the Afrikan churches, with each church being given money if its members stayed obedient to Ford. The company also subsidized Afrikan bourgeois organizations. His Afrikan employees and their families constituted about one-fourth of the entire Detroit Afrikan community. Both the NAACP and the Urban League were singing Ford's praises, and warning Afrikan auto workers not to have anything to do with unions. One report on the Ford system in the 1930s said:

"There is hardly a Negro church, fraternal body, or other organization in which Ford workers are not represented. Scarcely a Negro professional or business man is completely independent of income derived from Ford employees. When those seeking Ford jobs are added to this group, it is readily seen that the Ford entourage was able to exercise a dominating influence in the community. " (33)

The Afrikan refugee communities, extensions of an oppressed nation, became themselves miniature colonies, with an Afrikan bourgeois element acting as the local agents of the foreign imperialists. Ford's system was unusual only in that one capitalist very conspicuously took as his role that which is usually done more quietly by a committee of capitalists through business, foundations and their imperialist government.

This colonial existence in the midst of industrial Amerika gave rise to contradiction, to the segregation of the oppressed creating its opposite in the increasingly important role of Afrikan labor in industrial production. Having been forced to concentrate in certain cities and certain industries and even certain plants, Afrikan labor at the end of the 1920's was discovered to have a strategic role in Northern industry far out of proportion to its still small numbers. In Cleveland Afrikans comprised 50% of the metal working industry; in Chicago they were 40-50% of the meat packing plants; in Detroit the Afrikan auto workers made up 12% of the workforce at Ford, 10% at Briggs, 30% at Midland Steel Frame. (34)

Overall, Afrikan workers employed in the industrial economy were concentrated in just five industries: automotive, steel, meatpacking, coal, railroads. The first four were where settler labor and settler capitalists were about to fight out their differences in the 1930s and early 1940s. And Afrikan labor was right in the middle.

In a number of industrial centers, then, the CIO unions could not be secure without controlling Afrikan labor. And on their side, Afrikan workers urgently needed improvement in their economic condition. A 1929 study of the automobile industry comments:

“As one Ford employment official has stated, ‘Many of the Negroes are employed in the foundry and do work that nobody else would do.’ The writer noticed in one Chevrolet plant that Negroes were engaged on the dirtiest, roughest and most disagreeable work, for example, in the painting of axles. At the Chrysler plant they are used exclusively on paint jobs, and at the Chandler-Cleveland plant certain dangerous emery wheel grinding jobs were given only to Negroes.” (35)

In virtually all auto plants Afrikans were not allowed to work on the production lines, and were segregated in foundry work, painting, as janitors, drivers and other "service" jobs. They earned 35-38 cents per hour, which was one-half of the pay of the Euro-Amerikan production line workers. This was true at Packard, at GM, and many other companies. (36)

The ClO's policy, then, became to promote integration under settler leadership where Afrikan labor was numerous and strong (such as the foundries, the meat- packing plants, etc.), and to maintain segregation and Jim Crow in situations where Afrikan labor was numerically lesser and weak. Integration and segregation were but two aspects of the same settler hegemony.

Three other imperatives shaped CIO policy: 1. To maintain settler privilege in the form of reserving the skilled crafts, more desirable production jobs, and the operation of the unions themselves to Euro-Amerikans. 2. Any tactical concessions to Afrikan labor had to conform to the ClO's need to maintain the unity of Euro-Amerikans. 3. The ClO's policy on Afrikan labor had to be consistent with the overall colonial labor policy of the U.S. Empire. We should underline the fact that rather than challenge U.S. imperialism's rules on the status and role of colonial labor, the CIO as settler unions loyally followed those rules.

To use the automobile industry as a case, there was considerable integration within the liberal United Auto Workers (UAW-CIO). That is, there was considerable recruiting of Afrikan labor to help Euro-Amerikan workers advance their particular class interests. The first Detroit Sit-Down was at Midland Steel Frame in 1936. The UAW not only recruited Afrikan workers to play an active role in the strike, but organized their families into the CIO support campaign. Midland Frame, which made car frames for Chrysler and Ford, was 30% Afrikan. There the UAW had no reasonable chance of victory without commanding Afrikan forces as well as its own.

But at the many plants that were overwhelming settler, the CIO obviously treated Afrikan labor differently. In those majority of the situations the new union supported segregation. In Flint, Michigan the General Motors plants were Jim Crow. Afrikans were employed only in the foundry or as janitors, at sub-standard wages (many, of course, did other work although still officially segregated and underpaid as "janitors"). Not only skilled jobs, but even semi-skilled production line assembly work was reserved for settlers.

While the UAW fought GM on wages, hours, civil liberties for settler workers, and so forth, it followed the general relationship to colonial labor that GM had laid down. So that the contradiction between settler labor and settler capitalists was limited, so to say, to their oppressor nation, and didn't change their common front towards the oppressed nations and their proletariats.

At the time of the Flint Sit-Down victory in February, 1937, the NAACP issued a statement raising the question of more jobs: "Everywhere in Michigan colored people are asking whether the new CIO union is going to permit Negroes to work up into some of the good jobs or whether it is just going to protect them in the small jobs they already have in General Motors." (37)

That was an enlightening question. Many UAW radicals had already answered "yes." Wyndham Mortimer, the Communist Party USA trade union leader who was 1st Vice-President of the new UAW-CIO, left behind a series of autobiographical sketches of his union career when he died. Beacon Press, the publishing house of the liberal Unitarian-Universalist Church, has printed this autobiography under the stirring title Organize! In his own words Mortimer left us an inside view of his secret negotiations with Afrikan auto workers in Flint.

Mortimer had made an initial organizing trip to Flint in June, 1936, to start setting up the new union. Anxious to get support from Afrikan workers for the coming big strike, Mortimer arranged for a secret meeting:

“A short time later, I found a note under my hotel room door. It was hard to read because so many grimy hands had handled it. It said, "Tonight at midnight," followed by a number on Industrial Avenue. It was signed, "Henry." Promptly at midnight, I was at the number he had given. It was a small church and was totally dark. I rapped on the door and waited. Soon the door was opened and I went inside. The place was lighted by a small candle, carefully shaded to prevent light showing. Inside there were eighteen men, all of them Negroes and all of them from the Buick foundry. I told them why I was in Flint, what I hoped to do in the way of improving conditions and raising their living standards. A question period followed. The questions were interesting in that they dealt with the union's attitude toward discrimination and with what the union's policy was toward bettering the very bad conditions of the Negro people. One of them said, “You see, we have all the problems and worries of the white folks, and then we have one more: we are Negroes.”

"I pointed out that the old AFL leadership was gone. The CIO had a new program with a new leadership that realized that none of us was free unless we were all free. Part of our program was to fight Jim Crow. Our program would have a much better chance of success if the Negro worker joined with us and added his voice and presence on the union floor. Another man arose and asked, "Will we have a local union of our own?" I replied, "We are not a Jim Crow union, nor do we have any second-class citizens in our membership!"

"The meeting ended with eighteen application cards signed and eighteen dollars in initiation fees collected. I cautioned them not to stick their necks out, but quietly to get their fellow workers to sign application cards and arrange other meetings..." (38)

 Mortimer's recollections are referred to over and over in Euro-Amerikan "Left" articles on the CIO as supposed fact. In actual fact there was little Afrikan support for the Flint Sit-Down. Only five Afrikans took part in the Flint Sit-Down Strike. Nor was that an exception. In the 1937 Sit-Down at Chrysler's Dodge Main in Detroit only three Afrikan auto workers stayed with the strike. During the critical, organizing years of the UAW, Afrikan auto workers were primarily sitting out the fight between settler labor and settler corporations. (39) It was not their nation, not their union, and not their fight. And the results of the UAW-CIO victory proved their point of view.

The Flint Sit-Down was viewed by Euro-Amerikan workers there as their victory, and they absolutely intended to eat the dinner themselves. So at Flint's Chevrolet No. 4 factory the first UAW & GM contract after the Sit-Down contained a clause on "noninterchangibility" reaffirming settler privilege. The new union now told the Afrikan workers that the contract made it illegal for them to move up beyond being janitors or foundry workers. That was the fruit of the great Flint Sit-Down - a Jim Crow labor contract. (40) The same story was true at Buick, exposing how empty were the earlier promises to Afrikan workers.

This was not limited to one plant or one city. A history of the UAW notes: "As the UAW official later conceded... in most cases the earliest contracts froze the existing pattern of segregation and even discrimination'," (41) At the Atlanta GM plant, whose 1936 Sit-Down strike is still pointed to by the settler “Left” as an example of militant "Southern labor history,” only total white supremacy was good enough for the CIO workers. The victorious settler auto workers not only used their new-found union power to restrict Afrikan workers to being janitors, but did away altogether with even the pretense of having them as union members. For the next ten years the Atlanta UAW was all-white. (42)

So in answer to the question raised in 1937 by the NAACP, the true answer was “no” - the new CIO auto workers union was not going to get Afrikans more jobs, better jobs, an equal share of jobs, or any jobs. This was not a “sell-out” by some bureaucrat, but the nature of the CIO. Was there a big struggle by union militants on this issue? No. Did at least the Euro-Amerikan “Left” - there being many members in Flint, for example, of the Communist Party USA, the Socialist Party, and the various Trotskyists - back up their Afrikan “union brothers” in a principled way? No.

It is interesting that in his 1937 UAW Convention report on the Flint Victory, Communist Party USA militant Bob Travis covered up the white-supremacist nature of the Flint CIO. In his report (which covers even such topics as union baseball leagues) there was not one word about the Afrikan GM workers and the heavy situation they faced. And if that was the practice of the most advanced settler radicals, we can well estimate the political level of the ordinary Euro-Amerikan worker.

Neither integration nor segregation was basic - oppressor nation domination was basic. If the UAW-CIO practiced segregation on a broad scale, it was equally prepared to use integration. When it turned after cracking GM and Chrysler to confront Ford, the most strongly anti-union of the Big Three auto companies, the UAW had to make a convincing appeal to the 12,000 Afrikan workers there. So special literature was issued, Afrikan church and civil rights leaders negotiated with, and - most importantly - Afrikan organizers were hired by the CIO to directly win over their brothers at Ford.

The colonial labor policy for the U.S. Empire was, as we previously discussed, fundamentally reformed in the 1830s. The growing danger of slave revolts and the swelling Afrikan majority in many key cities led to special restrictions on the use of Afrikan labor. Once the mainstay of manufacture and mining, Afrikans were increasingly moved out of the urban economy. When the new factories spread in the 1860s, Afrikans were kept out in most cases. The general colonial labor policy of the U.S. Empire has been to strike a balance between the need to exploit colonial labor and the safeguard of keeping the keys to modern industry and technology out of colonial hands.

On an immediate level Afrikan labor - as colonial subjects - were moved into or out of specific industries as the U.S. Empire's needs evolved. The contradiction between the decision to stabilize the Empire by giving more privilege to settler workers (ultimately by deproletarianizing them) and the need to limit the role of Afrikan labor was just emerging in the early 20th century.

So the CIO did not move to oppose open, rigid segregation in the Northern factories until the U.S. Government told them to during World War II. Until that time the CIO supported existing segregation, while accepting those Afrikans as union members who were already in the plants. This was only to strengthen settler unionism's power on the shop floor. During its initial 1935-1941 organizing period the CIO maintained the existing oppressor nation/oppressed nations job distribution: settler workers monopolized the skilled crafts and the mass of semi-skilled production line jobs, while colonial workers had the fewer unskilled labor and broom-pushing positions.

For its first seven years the CIO not only refused to help Afrikan workers fight Jim Crow, but even refused to intervene when they were being driven out of the factories. Even as the U.S. edged into World War II many corporations were intensifying the already tight restrictions on Afrikan labor. Now that employment was picking up with the war boom, it was felt not only that Euro-Amerikans should have the new jobs but that Afrikans were not yet to be trusted at the heart of the imperialist war industry.

Robert C. Weaver of the Roosevelt Administration admitted: "When the defense program got under way, the Negro was only on the sidelines of American industry, he seemed to be losing ground daily." Chrysler had decreed that only Euro-Amerikans could work at the new Chrysler Tank Arsenal in Detroit. Ford Motor Co. was starting many new, all-settler departments - while rejecting 99 out of 100 Afrikan men referred to Ford by the U.S. Employment Service. And up in Flint, the 240 Afrikan janitors at Chevrolet No. 4 plant learned that GM was going to lay them off indefinitely. During 1940 and early 1941, while settler workers were being rehired for war production in great numbers, Afrikan labor found itself under attack. (43)

Those Afrikan workers employed in industry could not defend their immediate class interests through the CIO, but had to step out of the framework of settler unionism just to defend their existing jobs. In the Summer of 1941 there were three Afrikan strikes at Dodge Main and Dodge Truck in Detroit. The Afrikan workers at Flint Chevrolet No.4 staged protest rallies and eventually won their jobs. As late as April 1943 some 3,000 Afrikan workers at Ford went out on strike for three days to protest Ford's hiring policies. The point is that the CIO opposed Afrikan interests because it followed imperialist colonial labor policy - and when Afrikan workers needed to defend their class interests they had to do so on their own, organizing themselves on the basis of nationality.

It was not until mid-1942 that the CIO and the corporations, maneuvering together under imperialist coordination, started tapping Afrikan labor for the production lines. As much as settlers disliked letting masses of Afrikans into industry, there was little choice. The winning of the entire world was at stake, in a “rule or ruin” war. As the U.S. Empire strained to put forth great armies, navies and air fleets to war on other continents, the supply of Euro-Amerikan labor had reached the bottom of the barrel. To U.S. Imperialism, if the one-and-half million Afrikan workers in war industry helped the Empire conquer Asia and Europe it would well be worth the price.

The U.S. War Production Board said: “We cannot afford the luxury of thinking in terms of white men’s work.” So the numbers of Afrikan workers on the production lines tripled to 8.3% of all manufacturing production workers. Now the CIO unions, however unhappily, joined the corporations in promoting Afrikans into new jobs - even as hundreds of thousands of settler workers were protesting in "hate strikes." The reality was that settler workers had government-led, imperialist unions, while colonial workers had no unions of their own at all. (44)

During World War II the CIO completed integrating itself by picking up many hundreds of thousands of colonial workers. Many of these new members, we should point out, were involuntary members. Historically, the overwhelming majority of Afrikans who have belonged to the CIO industrial unions in the past 40 years never joined voluntarily. Starting with the first Ford contract in 1941, the CIO rapidly shifted to "union shop" contracts. In these contracts all new employees were required to join the union as a condition of employment. The modern imperialist factory in most industries quickly became highly unionized - whether any of us liked it or not.

The U.S. Government, depending on the CIO as a key element in labor discipline, encouraged the "union shop." The U.S. War Labor Board urged corporations to thus force their employees to join the CIO: "Too often members of unions do not maintain their membership because they resent discipline of responsible leadership." (45) While this applied to all industrial workers, it applied most heavily to colonial labor.

The government and the labor aristocracy were impatient to get colonial workers safely tied up. If they were to be let into industry in large numbers they had to be split up and neutralized by the settler unions - voluntarily or involuntarily. In the Flint Buick plant, where 588 of the 600 Afrikan workers had been segregated in the foundry despite earlier CIO promises, the union and GM expected to win them over by finally letting them work on the production lines. To their surprise, as late as mid-1942 the majority of the Afrikan workers still refused to join the CIO. (46) The Afrikan Civil Rights organizations, the labor aristocracy, and the liberal New Deal all had to "educate" resisting workers like those to get in line with the settler unions.

The integration of the CIO, therefore, had nothing to do with increasing job opportunities for Afrikans or building "working class unity." It was a new instrument of oppressor nation control over the oppressed nation proletarians.


31. Allan H. Spear, Black Chicago. Chicago, 1967. p. 157.
32. Edward Greer. "Racism and U.S. Steel, 1906-1974." Radical America. Sept.-October 1976.
33. August Meier & Elliot Rudwick. Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW. N.Y., 1979, pp. 16-20.
34. Sterling D. Spero & Abram Harris. The Black Worker. N.Y. 1931, pp. 152-166; Meier & Rudwick, op. cit., pp. 6-8.
35. Robert W. Dunn, Labor and Automobiles. N.Y., 1929, pp. 68-69.
36. ibid.
37. Meier and Rudwick, op cit., p. 38.
38. Wyndham Mortimer. Organzie! Boston, 1971, p. 111.
39. Meier and Rudwick, op. cit., pp. 36-37; Interviews with two radical participants in the Flint Sit-Down.
40. Flint interviews.
41. Meier and Rudwick, op. cit., p. 50.
42. Ray Marshall, "The Negro in Southern Illinois." In Julius Jacobsen, Ed. The Negro and the American Labor Movement. N.Y., 1968. p. 149.
43. Robert C. Weaver. Negro Laborer: A National Problem. N.Y., 1946. p. 15; Meier and Rudwick. op. cit., pp. 124-125.
44. Weaver, op. cit., p. 27.
45. Jeremy Brecher. Strike! S.F., 1972. p. 223.
46. Weaver, op. cit., p. 75.

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