Monday, December 29, 2008

"The 1930s CIO as a Youth Movement"

Two decades in the 20th century, the 1930s and the 1960s, witnessed the maturation of a large youth population. In both periods they became involved in social movements. Much more has been written about the 1960s generation than about the 1930s generation. In fact, historians only are beginning to recognize the large role that young workers played in shaping the history of the 1930s, especially in the new industrial unions. Several local studies highlight the role of young workers of eastern and southern European background. Their CIO leadership was extensive both locally and nationally, and the movement was aware of it.As the CIO News, reported in early 1939,

"All observers at the Pittsburgh CIO convention were agreed that the outstanding feature of the convention was the youthfulness of the delegates. True, there were delegates who carried in hair and beard the snow of many winters and they ably represented the unions who proudly selected the veterans of many battles. But in every delegation the majority were young men and women who made it evident to all that this is the day and age. They were willing to listen to counsel from their elders and to accept it if it stood the test of analysis; but at the convention youth knew what it wanted, and these youthful delegates, in the expression of their aims, proved themselves full worthy of the tasks entrusted them by their unions."

The youth of labor's new millions had been noticed earlier. When James B. Carey,25, was elected president of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE) in 1936, Len DeCaux observed, "A man-sized mantle has fallen on the youthful shoulders of James B. Carey.... Carey may be but 25 or so, but his union is no more than six months old. The industry in which he operates is also young. So too are the tens if not hundreds of thousands of workers it employs.”

Carey was not the only "boy leader." While young workers had limited access to national posts in the former unions of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), they made considerable advances in the newly organized unions. The trend was pronounced in metals. For example, the top UE leadership also included treasurer Julius Emspak, 33, and union director James Matles, 27. The International Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers was headed by 28 year old Reid Robinson and the leadership readily acknowledged that "most of the local unions are officered by those young in years."" While President Homer Martin of the United Automobile Workers was only 34 at the UAW's founding, other important leaders were even younger. (Emil Mazey, 24; George Addes, 27; Walter Reuther, 30; Richard Frankensteen, 30) There was ample reason for the UAW to note in 1936, "Two qualities stand out like beacons in the composition of the General Executive Board just elected in South Bend. One is youth and the other is trade union, consciousness and aggressiveness. The great majority of the Board are thirty-five or under."

Young workers also led the smaller CIO metal unions. Grant Oakes, the head of the Farm Equipment Workers, was 32. Nicholas Zonarich, president of the Aluminum Workers of America, was 29. Edward Cheyfitz, the executive-secretary of the Die Casting Workers, was only 24. Even in the large Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) young workers such as David McDonald and Harold Ruttenberg played important roles alongside veterans Philip Murray, Van Bittner and Clinton Golden.

The national CIO articulated a special awareness of the problems of young workers. They maintained that "youth's problemsare labor's problems," recognizing that "American youth is, afterall,in large part the sons and daughters of America's workers." In 1937, approximately four million workers between 17 and 25 were jobless, totaling almost one-third of all the unemployed. John L. Lewis advocated a major expansion of government jobs programs especially to reach unemployed young workers, and CIO officials urged that a billion dollars a year was not too much to spend. In general, the AFL showed less concern than the CIO about the problems facing young workers. They emphasized that youth joblessness was a threat to the social order because, "In the totalitarian states the regimentation of youth has been the basis by which dictators has sought to perpetuate themselves." C. Wright Mills emphasized the youth of early CIO leaders in The New Men of Power: America's. Labor Leaders (1948). Hal Seth Barron and Walter Licht's study of more than 3,500 labor leaders during the New Deal Years found younger ages for CIO leaders than for AFL leaders.

Several CIO unions even went as far as to present "youth" as the ideal which best described the identity and culture of the new labor movement. The UAW, while granting the value of experience and maturity, proclaimed, "Our union has the virtues of youth -- courage, enthusiasm, the idealism of labor unionism, the will to win." Mine-Mill hoped the CIO would bring "the young and old together, with the vigor of I youth and young ideas." Organizationally, the newness of the CIO was compared to an adolescent making the transition to adulthood. As DeCaux wrote in 1938, "When Junior has reached his full stature, he starts filling out. The new powers of manhood develop within him and soon he will be playing a man's part in the world of affairs."


As Baron and Licht note, there is little question that "the CIO challenge to the AFL represented not only an ideological challenge but a generational one as well." Would the CIO have succeeded during the 1930s without the leadership of the younger generation, especially the children of immigrants of Eastern and Southern European background? In many of America’s industrial cities, this rising generation toiled for low wages and looked to union organizing to advance their interests and to remake the workplace. Scholars often emphasize that the working class is remade from without by immigration and by changes in the structure of the labor market. We should consider that recomposition of the working class also may occur from within along generational family lines.

During the 1930s, this generational consciousness among the young was rooted in a common experience of hard times. In 1938, factory worker Ladislaus Michalowski of New Britain, Ct., voiced the particular problems of "The Young Industrial Worker" at a conference sponsored by a local Youth Council. Not only did he find factory labor monotonous and tiresome. Young workers were unable secure a stable position in the labor force." The young factory worker starts out and ends with the cards stacked against him. Speed-ups systems sap his energy. Labor saving devices make his job insecure ... Ideas which a young man may have of reaching the top are soon knocked out of him because of the dull routine of his work and the competition from hundreds who want his job."

Unlike their parents, young workers did not know first-hand that industrial life could be better than these hard times. Deprivation appeared to be a chronic state of affairs. Their position was more insecure than it was for their fathers, and many believed that factory life could not support them or their families. Michalowski saw his father debilitated by his work. The elder Michalowski worked for many years as a factory brass molder. When he reached his forties he developed silicosis, a deadly occupational disease common in metal and mining work. Ladislaus, who graduated from the local public high school, thought about attending college, but his labor was needed to help support the family. He took a factory job after graduation and quickly saw the need for collective worker unity. He told the Federal Writers' Project in 1939, "1 came to realize that I was destined to be a worker all my life as millions of others, always struggling to maintain and extend what little security I had ... Although workers were effectively organized, they would gain tremendously in their power to deal with the company."

Factory worker Edward Smolenski, head of New Britain's Industrial Union Council, was only 25. This Polish-American UAW president gained a citywide reputation after leading a five-week strike in early 1937. Other young leaders also hailed from New Britain, such as Nicholas Tomassetti, the head of Labor's Non-Partisan League (LNPL), who was only twenty-two. Tomassetti began his union efforts in a SWOC drive and then served as an UE business agent. This Italian-American wage-earner quickly became one of Connecticut's top union leaders, serving as president of the state LNPL organization by 1940. The roster of other young leaders is impressive. Michael Stein, at nineteen, held the post of recording-secretary of LNPL. Robert Barrows, 24, served as the vice-president of the Industrial Union Council. Mike Petannovitch, the UE's chief organizer, was only 22t. Petannovitch, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, coordinated the UE drives and wrote a regular column ("The Organizer Speaks") in the People's Press.

Among this young leadership,old-stock Americans comprised a small minority. There were a few immigrants, such UE 207 president Dan Dragone and UE 232 business agent Joseph Salwocki. These young pioneers championed high energy and militant leadership style. The union press described Salwocki as a "determined young man," and a veritable "spark plug." Dragone's remarks at union-management meetings were "punctuated by prodigious table pounding, especially if it concerns grievances."

The life stories of workers during the 1930s tell us about the hard times experienced by those at the bottom of the economy. Dragone entered the workforce when he was eleven because his father's income as a sand blaster could not support the family.Dragone found work delivering milk. "Every morning I got up at two o'clock, walked over to the other side of town to the dairy, got out the horse and wagon and covered my milk route. I always came late to school." When Dragone was thirteen his father died from tuberculosis. The family believed the disease was work-related. As the oldest of six children, Dragone then left school to become the primary support of the family. "More than once I took milk home from my delivery wagon and took bread and cookies from a bakery while the driver wasn't around. I did the same thing for coal. I am not ashamed of having done these things because it was either I got them or the family would freeze and starve.”

Tomassetti's early life developed along similar lines. His father died when Nicholas was only four years, leaving six children. The boys found jobs at early ages and Tomassetti's mother took in washing and worked as a domestic servant. Tomassetti was the only male child in the family to attend high school and he felt fortunate to get an education. After graduation he took a factory job and continued to be acutely aware of the bitter struggle he and his family waged for existence. He was one of the first in his shop to sign a union card.

Michalowski graduated near the top of his high school class. "I was known to the teachers as a 'model student' and to my fellow students as a 'bookworm'." Salwocki not only excelled academically, but also was very popular among his peers. The high school yearbook described him in the following terms: "Behold the enlightening mien of this young philosopher. He will soon shatter the theories of Freud! Those who will read his works will feel the influence of the personalty of this young genius. It is impelling that a certain charm lingers around everything or everybody with whom the young sage comes in contact .... this young wit will reach the zenith of success." Salwocki wanted to be a teacher, but ethnic discrimination undermined his efforts. He bitterly recalled an English instructor who advised him "to leave writing and teaching to the Americans." He said, "As a result of this stupid remark, I became determined to get down to the bottom of the whole question in order to give myself some answers as whether I'd have a place in the world later on in life." His life experience taught him that "when you mention that you are of Polish descent ... you are given the menial jobs."

What type of culture sustained the activism of these young workers? In considering the second generation, it is important to recognize a cultural context outside of both ethnic and American values. Rather, one based in multiethnic experiences. To a great extent young workers constructed a cosmopolitan culture. This occurred even in the tight-knit Polish enclave. As the Federal Writers' Project observed, "An important item in the gatherings of the [Polish] second generation is their apparent trend toward a cosmopolitan association with their friends. They entertain many friends who are not Polish, among them being Italian, Irish, Armenian, French, etc., something the first generation didn't do at all."

This multicultural awareness had several sources. For the UE's Salwocki, public schooling was critical. He resided in the Polish enclave and his parents stressed the preservation of Polish culture. Yet, in public school Salwocki made friends with Italian, German, Russian and English students. The public school, rather than serving as a top-down Americanizing agent, provided intercultural training among students. Other CIO leaders experienced cultural heterogeneity in their neighborhoods. Important Italian-American CIO leaders resided in mixed ethnic areas. For example, Tomassetti lived on a block in which only twenty-five percent (14 of 59) of the residents shared his Italian background. This type of residential community helped to broaden the cultural awareness of young workers.

Inside the CIO, multiethnic cooperation characterized the leadership. The young leaders were sensitive to include different groups in the union and they shared power across ethnic lines with little overt conflict. In UE 232, an Italian-American was elected the first union president. A Polish-American was then chosen in 1938. At that time, the union Executive Board consisted of three Polish-Americans, two Italian-Americans and one worker each of American, Swedish and German background. In UE 207, the Executive Board included four workers of Italian-American background, two of Polish, and one each of American, Austrian, and Cuban background.

The class spirit of these young leaders did not wane near the end of the decade. Although the New Deal movement for reform was on the decline, the second generation was coming into its own. Perhaps Michalowski represented an exceptional view, but in 1939 he was certain that "eventually the workers will set up some form of a nationwide 'labor party' to carry forward their fight." There was ample evidence for such optimism. In 1938, the CIO entered local politics. Tomassetti, running as a Democrat, won a seat in the state legislature. Union members were encouraged to vote for him because,"He is a worker. He is a member of the CIO. He is a real part of labor. He knows and understands what workers want and need."

As importantly, the Tomassetti campaign spearheaded a CIO effort to bring about a local New Deal. In the same election the CIO lobbied vigorously to elect the city's first New Deal mayor. The new Democratic mayor, George Coyle, recognized the CIO effort by appointing two of the young UE leaders to serve in the municipal administration. "What the workers in New Britain did, you can do, no matter how big or small the town you live in," the national UE reported.

No comments: