Historic Union Busting
Rosswurm, Steve (editor), “The CIO’s Left-Led Unions.” Rutgers, New Brunswick, NJ, 1992. Available from Amazon
A friend recently told me that the current union-busting effort against the Auto Workers is “the worst union busting in history.” If it is, then the destruction of the most progressive unions in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) during 1947-1957 is surely second. I would only concede to my friend’s opinion about the UAW because the post-war attacks took place in a period of union upsurge, and today’s union busting occurs when we are being forced to our knees.
Today’s attacks have brought us to a time when barely over 1 in 10 American workers has union protection. The post-war attacks came when union density was three times higher and American workers were aggressively seeking unionization.
I almost began by not recommending anyone read this book. It’s too depressing. However, the sadness is not the fault of the book nor its contributing authors. This is really what happened. After Republicans succeeded in passing the Taft-Hartley anti-labor act in 1947, the CIO adapted itself to anti-communism. That meant expelling its most progressive and energetic union members, leaders, and entire unions. It meant adapting to “business unionism” and cooperating with management. It meant, in a few short years, joining the lifelong anticommunists and business unionists in the American Federation of Labor. It meant turning toward the management-rigged government oversight system and away from union memberships. It meant curtailed democracy in our unions. It also meant a long downward spiral toward helplessness for American workers.
My friend, talking about today’s attack on the UAW, also said, “I don’t think this started recently. I think it’s been coming for some time.” I agreed. The chickens are coming home to roost.
Hardly anyone I know in today’s labor movement knows anything about labor history 1947-1957. It just isn’t in their history books. They celebrate the Flint Sitdown (1937), or maybe the Occupational Safety and Health Act (1974); but they don’t know the first thing about the great negative turnaround sometimes called the “Treaty of Detroit.”
They don’t know when unions gave up on civil rights, when they gave up on organizing the South, when they disassociated from international solidarity, when they spurned women’s rights, when they gave up on national health care, on improving Social Security, on shorter working hours as a remedy for automation, or when they stopped listening to their members.
To be fair, the darkness that began in 1947 began to be illuminated in 1995 when the AFL leadership failed to pre-select its own replacements for the first time in a century. The Sweeney/Trumka/Chavez-Thompson leadership started reversing the many aspects of “business unionism.” They have made great improvements without ever admitting what was wrong and why. That fight goes on.
The book that Steve Rosswurm brought together does us a service. It tells, in some detail, a few parts of the story. These are stories that almost no one knows, or almost no one will admit knowing. It’s the police, the press, and the reactionary unions destroying the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen Union’s effort to organize in the South. It’s the end of the great civil rights efforts of the Food and Tobacco workers. It’s the nasty anti-worker efforts of the Catholic Church. It’s the role of the main labor-bashers—the U.S. Government. It’s the betrayal of the Tannery Workers. It’s the mercenary creation of the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE) to deliberately undermine what was probably the best union in America, United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE) and lower workers’ standard of living at Westinghouse.
But the book falls short. It only gives parts of a much bigger, much uglier picture. To be fair, it tries. It lays the blame on those who deserve it. A small part of that blame falls on some of the victims. The Communist Party members in unions, according to the book, were too secretive and too ardent in their devotion to existing socialist countries. They may have been superior union leaders, and the book says they were, but they had holes in their armor. I tend to agree with apportioning that small part of the blame to the Communists. I think they misread the period, and that is fatal in politics. I think they expected a continuation of the pre-war hard times and failed to appreciate the great prosperity that Americans enjoyed after the war.
That’s another fault of the book in my opinion. It names the perpetrators of the witch-hunt that distorted and crippled American labor, but not the main one. It was Prosperity that misled the American workers and is misleading us now. Working people today vote for Donald Trump because they think that post-war prosperity was permanent, when it always was and had to be temporary.
The book names these perpetrators: The news agencies, the Catholic Church which deliberately sent agents to cooperate with anti-union entities, the AFL who teamed up with the CIA against unions worldwide, opportunistic CIO union leaders who saw a chance to advance themselves over the interests of union members, government agencies such as the FBI, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the National Labor Relations Board and, especially, crafty businessmen who knew how to take advantage of everybody.
Those who know any labor history at all know that the CIO expelled its best unions in 1949 and 1950, but they may not know that expulsion didn’t end that battle. The CIO and the rest of the anticommunist cabal then had to cooperate to destroy those unions. They raided them mercilessly. The government withdrew all protection so that the raids could proceed. Leaders were maligned and sometimes arrested.
Newspersons whipped up a steady stream of misleading vituperation for progressive union leaders. Hey, that’s what they’re doing to the UAW today!
I’m on KNON’s “Workers Beat” radio talk show at 9AM Central Time every Saturday. If you are curious about what I really think, check out my personal web site
Pg ix: “The federation’s leadership then had to commit sizable resources to destroy the expelled uions…”
Pg6: “It is difficult to provide precise figures for the number of CP members in the expelled unions, but we know it was small.” (he extimates 1.8%)
Pg7 “The CP, then, despite a small membership in the expelled unions, played a central role in them because of its leading political position…” And because they earned the respect of non-communist but sincere union members.
Pg9: I had always thought that 14 unions were expelled, but this book says there were 11. It also mentions that two, the UE and the Farm Equipment (FE) unions left voluntarily “despite the CP’s wishes”
Pg9 “The expelled unions were at least as democratic, if not more so, than other CIO unions.”
Pg 13: The UE fought automation. As far as I can see, there has been no fight against automation since then.
Pg 13: “The destruction capital has wreaked upon working people in the past 20 years [written in 1992] ought to suggest to both scholars and today’s trade unionists that the expelled unions were on to something.”
Pg14: “Militants’ ‘discovery’ in the early 1980s of ‘in-plant’ organizing suggests the strength of the ‘workplace rule of law’ paradigm, politically induced historical amnesia, and the impact of the missing activists.” This was very personal for me, because it was my local union that “discovered” in-plant organizing in 1984-85. We called it something else, but it was the age-old union tactic of slowdown. It had been long-forgotten due to historical amnesia.
Pg 15: “An article about the IUE and [James B.] Carey might well be titled, ‘In Bed with the Feds: The Conception and Birth of a Bastard Union.’ There was scarcely a federal agency – the FBI, the presidency, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the Atomic Energy Commission – that was not at Carey’s service in the battle against the UE.”
Pg 15: “…the CIO leadership’s acceptance of capitalism – or lack of understanding of it – stands in stark contrast to the expelled unions’ comprehension of its dynamics.”
Pg 15: “Capital mobility was an important part of the corporate postwar counteroffensive against the CIO…”
Pg16: “What predominated, however, were the solutions of Walter Reuther and the IUE. Inevitably, those chickens came home to roost in the 1970s and 1980s.” The steady erosion of American labor was apparent by 1972, for those who wanted to see.
Pg 78: …the failures of the 1930s, when FTA [Food and Tobacco Workers], then the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packinghouse & Allied Workers Union of America, had tried to organize and maintain viable local unions among the seasonal agricultural workers.” So, UCAPAWUA tried to relieve the miseries depicted in Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath!” They also tried to organize cannery workers in Crystal City and Pecan Shellers in San Antonio. I knew one of their organizers from back in those days. She was a Communist, or course.
Pg 85: …in April , Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, among the most restrictive pieces of labor legislation in our country’s history.”
Pg 169: Management leader quoted, “I hated the Communists! I hated the Communists! Hell, I would have shot them on sight.” But even he acknowledged superior leadership of the open Communist leading the International Fur and Leather Workers Union (tanners).
Pg183: …a good deal of outstanding labor history has been written about workers in the United States, from the American Revolution through World War II. Yet, most post 1945 labor history is an afterthought, consisting of sweeping generalizations, spiced with a bit of anecdotal evidence.”
Pg185: ‘Beyond ardent anticommunism, it is difficult to pin down the ideology of the IUE in the 1950s.”
Pg198: The IUE accepted contracts that ripped away all the seniority rights that the UE had won for married women. “”Once again, a married woman had no seniority rights and could be fired if she failed to notify her foreman of her marriage.”
The last page repeats the lyrics of Tom Juravich’s “An Old Soldier.” It’s on YouTube at https://youtu.be/jgxAcdqLVTM