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Saturday, October 30, 2010

UE's untold story

Resistance is Not Futile – Labor vs. the Cold War


Editor's note: Ben Sears is teacher, a labor movement activist and leader, a contributing editor of Political Affairs and a trained historian. In what follows he discusses his new book on the electrical workers unions during the Cold War, Generation of Resistance. Listen to this interview here.

PA: What inspired you to write about the history of the UE during the Cold War period?

BEN SEARS: As a young teacher in the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) I was starting to get active. We had a long winter strike in 1973 - in January and February – and one of the unions that came around and supported us was the United Electrical Workers. One guy in particular, a UE staffer who was assigned to help us, came around and I saw him at the picket lines and support activities. In fact, Jack Hart ended marrying one of my good teacher friends who was on the picket line as well. He was a UE staffer and I started to learn about things from him I knew nothing about before. During that strike one big question was why there was never any money for public education, while the big military budget was constantly being fed. It was a question of starving public services and feeding the military, and what the labor movement had to do with all this was on my mind a lot, on everybody’s mind. That I happened to meet Jack Hart of the UE at that point in my life was, I think, fortuitous. That is how I became fascinated by this issue.

PA: Could you give some background information about the UE?

BEN SEARS: The UE was one of the original CIO unions. It was, in fact, one of the Big Three at the core of the CIO, along with the Autoworkers and the Steelworkers, and was recognized as such. And I think it is fair to say that it was organized from the ground up, because it was really various local or regional groupings that came together, including workers in the radio industry (they organized, for example, RCA in Camden, New Jersey and Philco in Philadelphia). One of their goals, which they ended up doing, was organizing the big electrical manufacturing plants, GE and Westinghouse, and also industrial machinists.

So in a way the union was built from the ground up, and among the activists who helped to build it were Communists and others on the left. Therefore it was sort of natural that they would become influential in the leadership. The UE had the reputation of being a militant up-front union, and while some people characterize it as a “left-led” organization, I would argue that it is more accurate to say that it was led by a left-center coalition. Of course, they were also among the leaders in supporting the war effort during World War II, and were looking forward to an opportunity to really make progress when the war was over in the newly strengthened and hopefully unified Congress of Industrial Organizations, the CIO. That was what they were looking forward to in 1945 to 1946. But things didn’t work out that way.

PA: The successful organizing drives, I think, were the result of something that a lot of people today don’t really understand. Back then, one of the big aids to labor organizing was the Wagner Act and the role of the federal government in helping unions to organize. What effect did the Wagner Act have on the labor movement?

BEN SEARS: The Wagner Act was the result of struggle and it opened the door for future struggles. Both the Trade Union Unity League and the Trade Union Educational League had been active in the early 1930s trying to build consciousness and unity in the basic industries. So when the Wagner Act was passed in 1935 it created the conditions for really successful struggle, and that’s when CIO organizing really took off – from 1936-1939.

PA: Wasn’t the Wagner Act similar to the Employee Free Choice Act?

BEN SEARS: You’re right. Passage of the Employee Free Choice Act may indeed have a similar impact on the lives of workers in this country today. It will, of course, take a struggle to get the Employee Free Choice Act through, but once it is passed it will create new conditions. Part of what EFCA would do would be to restore some of the things that Wagner Act originally put in place. For example, the big issue now is majority sign-up or card check, and that was something that could happen under the Wagner Act. That provision was whittled away by later court decisions and legislation, Taft-Hartley and so on. So getting back to what is now called majority sign-up would be a big deal. On the other hand it would also be restoring a right that workers have had in the past.

PA: You mentioned that the leadership of the UE was a left-center coalition. Could you describe what that was and how it worked?

BEN SEARS: For example, the long-time president of the UE was Albert Fitzgerald, who was never identified with the left. The other two top officers originally – James Matles, director of organization and Julius Emspak, the secretary-treasurer – were identified as having come from left backgrounds, although exactly what their politics were was not considered anybody’s business really. But they were identified with the left. Matles, for instance, had been active in the Trade Union Unity League. The three top leaders of the UE sort of represent the idea of a left-center coalition. In later years, during the late 40s and 50s, both in public and if you look at the FBI files now available, there were a lot of opponents of the labor movement who couldn’t understand why Fitzgerald and some other folks in the leadership were standing so tough and refusing to be intimidated into attacking the left. That shows what a strong left-center coalition can do.

PA: In addition to the successful labor organizing drives, what were some of the other accomplishments of left-led or left-center led unions?

BEN SEARS: Essentially the CIO and the three core industrial unions, along with others like the West Coast longshore workers and the Southwestern miners, all had their struggles and all had enormous obstacles to overcome, but they all succeeded in winning industry-wide contracts, and the left played a big part in that. So the accomplishments of the industrial unions were very important, and the left played a significant part in helping them achieve that success and providing leadership.

PA: How does your book counter traditional Cold-War-era labor histories of the CIO industrial unions?

BEN SEARS: The mainstream narrative of US labor history after World War II goes something like this: After the war the United States faced the Soviet threat. The dominant leaders of American labor, in the first place the AFL, fell in line behind US imperial foreign policy to prove their patriotism. The CIO was a little bit harder to bring in line, but in the end Walter Reuther (president of the UAW) came in, and by the mid-50s the AFL and CIO joined together in an alliance that they made sure was seen as patriotic – and that was the character of the American labor movement. Mainstream historians go on to say that whoever didn’t go along – the small sliver of left-wingers who opposed this policy – were pushed aside, shoved out, and were no longer relevant. I argue in the book that, in fact, that was not the case.

My book focuses on workers in one industry, but I think that it has broader relevance for the labor movement as a whole. It’s like studying the ecology of a little piece of a lake, thinking that we can learn something about the whole lake by studying this little area. The fact is that when the Cold War hit and the argument intensified about how to confront the attack on labor, the left and their allies in the center commanded considerable support. So the attempt by the right-wingers in the AFL and the CIO to bring their organizations into line required them to kick out some of their best organizers. It also required them to support US foreign policy abroad, that is, US Cold War imperial foreign policy.

The left-center coalition represented by the electrical union leaders argued from the beginning that this was a devil’s bargain – that maybe it would bring short-term gains and purchase a certain degree of acceptance for the labor movement, with the US government saying, “Look, we’re not going to bust up your meetings anymore. All you have to do is agree to support our drive for world domination.” There was an intense debate about this that went on for years in the labor movement, and some people would argue that it was settled in a way by the mid-50s when the AFL and CIO came together. But in fact it became an issue again when the Vietnam War heated up. So this a story that we should know, and it is worth telling and talking about as labor debates its future today.

I would further suggest that the question of labor’s international stance has been one of the most difficult nuts to crack for the labor movement, because the dominant AFL-CIO leaders always saw it as crucial to prove their patriotism. But the left-center coalition that led the Electrical Workers, and others, argued that this was not true patriotism, that you’d end up weakening the movement at home, and that American workers did not want to endlessly see their sons and daughters sent off to die in imperial wars. So it’s a very interesting debate.

Another other part of the book, which was the most interesting for me to research, was how the internal debates went on inside the Electrical Workers, because they debated vigorously how you confront a situation like this, where labor is under attack and the left is under attack. How do we put forward our viewpoint without being disruptive? We have always been for building unity. How do you do that, when, to get into the AFL-CIO, the price is to kick out the communists and anybody who might be a communist? These were hard questions and I think they are relevant for us today.

PA: You cite the Autoworkers as an example of how a left-led union was brought into the corral by kicking out its Communist and leftists members. The UE story is a bit different, isn’t it?

BEN SEARS: The UE story is different, but it requires some digging beneath the surface. If you look at the surface numbers, the UE, which had half-a-million members between 1947 and 1949, lost a lot of members and by the late 50s was a much smaller organization. It is easy for people to argue that they tried to take this rigid position which resulted, depending on how you look at it, in their leaders being attacked either as unpatriotic and traitors to the country, or, on the other hand, as being pie-in-the-sky dreamers who were trying to do something that was out of their reach. But, in fact, the evidence is that people left the UE under the most difficult circumstances, frequently not because they disagreed with its program. The UE program continued to have considerable support in the Electrical Union and in other industries, and this became clear in the late 60s when the Cold War leadership of the AFL-CIO suffered intense stresses and strains, and the rigid support that the Meany leadership gave to the Vietnam War, for instance, caused a lot of trouble. In fact the Autoworkers, left the AFL-CIO at that point and started the Alliance for Labor Action with the Teamsters. But the story in the Autoworkers in the early 50s was also one of intense debate and conflict over political questions. The Reuther leadership had to, in fact, forcibly remove members of its own Executive Board to bring the Executive Board into line behind the Cold War.

PA: The UE was essentially replaced by a competing union supportive of Cold War policies?

BEN SEARS: That’s correct. The IUE, the International Union of Electrical Workers, was chartered by the CIO in 1950 to replace the UE, and they must have known that it was going to be a big project and that it was going to be difficult, but they persisted and the IUE became a member union of the CIO. It organized in part by raiding UE shops and also did some organizing on its own. James Carey, who became president of the IUE – he wasn’t elected president right away because there really wasn’t a union right away; they had a charter but they had no members – led the union through the 1950s and brought it into the AFL-CIO. Carey was very active in anti-communist endeavors around the world in the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, but he was much less successful in his own union domestically. He led, for example a disastrous strike against General Electric in 1960, which started the process which led to his defeat and removal from the union presidency by 1965. That is what opened the door for cooperation in collective bargaining between the UE and the IUE.

PA: The UE still exists today, and we have heard about some of its recent successes, such as the sit-in at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago. Could you give us a sketch of what the UE looks like today?

BEN SEARS: The UE is not the big union it once was, but it retains some its characteristics. As you note, we all remember the wide support and the national media coverage accorded the members of UE Local 1110 in Chicago when they staged a sit-in in their factory, Republic Windows and Doors, in December, 2008, demanding that they their employer make good on their agreed upon severance pay, when the factory was abruptly closed. The UE is also involved in contacts with workers in other countries, for instance in Mexico, and now the idea that labor has to join hands with workers in other countries is catching on in the labor movement generally, which I think is encouraging.

PA: Is it overstating the case to claim that the move to expel the left-center coalition leadership of some of these unions led, in turn, to some of the problems labor now faces, such as the recent decline in union membership?

BEN SEARS: There are a couple of aspects to this. First of all, kicking out seasoned, proven, talented organizers was not a good thing to do. But in the larger picture the argument goes something like this. By actively supporting US foreign policy, the labor movement (and Meany and Kirkland are associated with this especially – which is part of the reason why Reuther didn’t want to stay around) helped open up areas of the globe to US capital penetration and thereby created places where low-wage workers are put in competition with American workers. And I wonder how all of this is going to play out. For example, there are two recent books that both have a good deal to recommend them (one is A Country that Works by Andy Stern, the former President of the SEIU; the other is State of the Unions by Philip Dine, which is a very good book in many ways). But both books mention that US labor should get credit for bringing down socialism, for helping to bring down socialism in Eastern Europe, and that this was in some way a victory for American workers. I think we are finding out that in fact this is not the case, because opening up the globe to US capital penetration and domination is, in fact, intensifying the problems of US workers, and the response to that is part of what we need to work on – that is, building unity with workers in other countries.

PA: In addition to that, would you say that right-leaning political support by labor actually led to more direct attacks on the labor movement. For example, the support of some in labor for Ronald Reagan quickly turned into fierce attacks on union,s such as the destruction of the air traffic controllers union?

BEN SEARS: That is certainly true. What we are talking about here is developing a class outlook. As long as you put nationalism, jingoism and national chauvinism first, as long as that trumps a class outlook, then workers’ organizations are going to put themselves in a position where they are always swimming upstream or running in place. Workers’ organizations have enough problems and challenges as it is without buying into this false patriotism. It’s like trying to promote your interests in a way that can’t be done in the long term.

The idea that working people, the men and women who do the work of the country, are not interested in, or are not capable of being interested in and understanding international matters and foreign policy, is what was hammered home during the Cold War. Leave foreign policy to the so-called experts, they said. Leave it to the properly educated, frequently Ivy League-educated, State Department officials who have connections with US capital and so on, and they will take care of the country’s interests around the world. I would suggest that the experience of workers, especially the Electrical Workers during the Cold War, puts the lie to that. In fact, the most articulate and principled critics of US Cold War policy were people in the labor movement at that time, and that is a part of this story that needs to be told.

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