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New podcast hosted by ASU faculty member focuses on organized labor history

Benjamin Y. Fong's podcast 'Organize the Unorganized' tells the story of the Congress of Industrial Organizations

Black-and-white photo of workers, some sitting and some standing, at an industrial plant.

Sit-down strikers guarding window entrance to Fisher Body Plant at General Motors in Flint, Michigan, in 1937. Photo source: Sheldon Dick/Library of Congress

February 08, 2024

A new podcast created and hosted by Benjamin Y. Fong, associate director of the Center for Work and Democracy at Arizona State University, focuses on the history of America’s organized labor and its implications for the present day.

The podcast, titled "Organize the Unorganized" and produced by the Center for Work and Democracy and Jacobin, tells the story of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which organized millions of workers in the 1930s and '40s.

The podcast features interviews with prominent labor historians, including Nelson Lichtenstein, Dorothy Sue Cobble, Steve Fraser, Erik Loomis, Jeremy Brecher, Robert Cherny, Lizabeth Cohen, David Brody and Melvyn Dubofsky. Podcast episodes are available here.

“There's a lot to learn from the CIO moment in the 1930s about how to organize at a mass level. The CIO ably exploited a ripe political economic opportunity, and they also harnessed rank-and-file militancy and strategic disruption to win union recognition and force employers into collective bargaining,” said Fong, who is also an Honors Faculty Fellow and associate teaching professor in ASU’s Barrett, The Honors College.

“If we're looking to get millions of workers into the labor movement and keep them there, there's really one time in American history to look to, and that's the CIO moment,” he added.

Fong said there has been a recent upsurge in union activity, with organizing activities and strikes by the United Auto Workers and unions representing airline pilots, teachers, writers, actors, journalists and others.

According to Fong, the United Auto Workers (UAW), which was founded in the 1930s, became prominent in the CIO’s key victory: the successful sit-down strike at General Motors in 1937. Last year, the UAW won new contracts with significant wage increases after a strike of Ford Motor Company, General Motors and Stellantis.

Along with increased union activity has come heightened public opinion of labor unions. In a 2022 Gallup poll, 71% of Americans said they approved of labor unions, while one in six said they lived in a union household.

“Unions are at the highest point in their approval ratings amongst the public in decades, and workers are clamoring for rights and empowerment in the workplace. I think this explains the revitalization of many unions like the UAW and the Teamsters, which are newly aggressive as of late,” Fong said.

The podcast features interviews with top scholars in labor history and labor studies focusing on the story of the CIO, along with labor movement songs and archival material.

“The story of the CIO is a fascinating and inspiring one. At the most basic level, I'm hoping to familiarize a new generation of people interested in unions with one of the key moments of labor upsurge in American history. I'm also hoping to raise the voices of an elder generation of labor scholars,” Fong said.

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