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By Dick Meister

Anyone doubting whether the AFL-CIO will succeed in its drive to revitalize the labor movement should consider this:

It's been done before, with profound effects on the country's economic, political and social life -- and done in the face of obstacles at least as great as those confronted by today's would-be reformers.

It began 66 years ago, in November of 1935, when eight affiliates of the American Federation of Labor -- the AFL -- formed what soon became the independent Congress of Industrial Organizations or CIO. Their aim was to unionize the racially and ethnically mixed mass of generally unskilled workers in steel, rubber, auto, meat packing and other basic industries. The AFL had largely ignored the industrial workers in favor of skilled and semi-skilled white craftsmen who were organized into separate unions according to their trade -- plumbing, printing, carpentry and so forth -- rather than by industry.

Only a very few AFL unions included all workers in a given industry, whatever their trade or skill level. That denied most workers the essential organizing tool of solidarity, isolating them from each other and enabling the industrial corporations which dominated the economy to play different groups of workers off against one another and easily thwart union organizing efforts.

The corporations were able to treat millions of workers as virtual chattel. Their pay and working conditions, set unilaterally by employers, were miserable and they had virtually no right or opportunity to do anything about it.

The CIO leaders believed that workers could not make a decent living and the labor movement could not grow and possibly not even survive if workers were not brought together in tight solidarity through industrial as opposed to craft unionism. One of their chief models was the United Mine Workers union, which was making major gains by organizing everyone working in particular coal mines, whether they be skilled or unskilled, whether working above or below ground.

The issues today are different. The growth of the global economy that enables corporations to shift operations easily from the United States to countries with unorganized, easily exploited workers demands worldwide rather than merely nationwide solidarity within industries. But the basic need for solidarity and, above all, to organize workers wherever they are and whatever their occupations, remains paramount. We've been hearing that over and over from those who assumed AFL-CIO leadership in 1995.

The arguments of those leaders of today sound very much like those voiced by the CIO leaders of yesterday, who declared back in 1935 that the need for basic change had become painfully obvious. With that change would come "a virile labor movement" certain to improve the lives of everyone, promised John L. Lewis of the Mine Workers, the CIO's fiery, charismatic and extraordinarily eloquent founding president.

The CIO, Lewis added, was striving for "a future labor movement which will assure a proper future for America -- one which will crystallize the best aspirations of those who really wish to serve democracy and humanity."

It wouldn't be easy. It's difficult enough for today's organizers, with less than 15 percent of the workforce belonging to unions. But in those days less than 10 percent belonged.

The labor movement had grown considerably during World War I, but declined steadily afterward, hitting rock bottom during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Finally, however, unemployment became so widespread and pay and working conditions so bad that large numbers of workers rebelled -- most under the newly unfurled banners of the CIO.

President Franklin Roosevelt, fearful of revolution, responded by pushing through Congress bills that in effect put the government behind the workers' attempts to organize. They were granted the legal right to organize and strike, and to choose by majority vote a union to represent them in collective bargaining with their employers.

Thus for the first time working people were guaranteed a true voice in determining their conditions of work. Millions of workers flocked to unions, CIO and AFL alike. Millions engaged in strikes and other militant activities to press their bargaining demands. Pay rose substantially, workers won unheard of fringe benefits, working hours were reduced without a reduction in pay, grievance procedures were instituted, job security greatly enhanced. Most important, the living standards of ordinary Americans were raised, and the United States at last had a true middle class.

Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais, authors of "Labor's Untold Story," described it as "a revolutionary, apocalyptic time ... a time of blazing, unified action .... Labor could not lose."

"Men mad with anger and frustration leaped to the battle," said famed community organizer Saul Alinsky. "They would stop at nothing and nothing would stop them."

As the CIO grew, so did the AFL. By the time the competing organizations merged in 1955 to form the AFL-CIO, one of every three U.S. workers belonged to a union.

Union membership has declined steadily since then, and with the decline has come a steady shrinking of the middle class. The vital, demanding and essential task of today's labor leaders is nothing less than to do what was done by their predecessors seven decades ago.

Copyright Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco who has covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator.

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