Labor and the Cold War

July 29, 2011

The postwar period was paradoxical for the U.S. labor movement. It had grown through a series of dramatic struggles and organizing drives into a mass movement embracing millions of workers. But it also suffered major setbacks at the hands of the government and the employers by the end of the 1940s. Paul D’Amato describes the effects of the anti-communist purges on U.S. labor in an article that first appeared in the October 1990 issue of Socialist Worker.

THE MASS strike wave of 1946 dwarfed all previous strike movements. U.S. labor seemed powerful and confident at the end of the Second World War.

Yet the government and employers were able to launch a successful offensive against labor--starting with the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, and continuing with the anti-communist witch-hunts through the 1950s--which purged militants from the unions and severely clipped the unions' wings.

After the war, the U.S. emerged as the most powerful nation in the world, producing 60 percent of the world's output. The Truman Doctrine proclaimed the U.S. as the defender of "democracy" and the "free world" against the "Red menace" of Stalin's Russia. The U.S. set out after the war to impose a Pax Americana--using a combination of financial aid and military intervention to establish U.S. predominance in world affairs.

The Marshall Plan, named after then-Secretary of State George Marshall, sought to use millions of dollars in U.S. taxpayers' money to rebuild war-torn Europe on conditions favorable to U.S. military, political and economic interests.

Philip Murray (right) preparing to address the 1948 CIO convention
Philip Murray (right) preparing to address the 1948 CIO convention

Even liberals swung behind the new Cold War fervor. The founding statement of the newly formed Americans for Democratic Action reflected the arrogant confidence of U.S. imperialism at the time: "The interests of the U.S. are the interests of free men everywhere."

The Cold War efforts abroad were matched at home by a growing domestic Cold War. In the name of containing communism at home, popular opposition was suppressed, civil liberties curtailed and workers' rights strangled--all in the name of freedom and democracy.

The witch-hunts of the 1950s are known to most for what they did to popular entertainers and leading government figures. Most people are aware of the Hollywood blacklist that destroyed the lives and careers of hundreds of actors and screenwriters.

But what has passed into history as the McCarthyite witch-hunts--named after the Wisconsin senator who became the leading figure in the campaign to stamp out communism in the early 1950s--actually began in the 1940s with the Taft-Hartley Act and Truman's government employee loyalty purge.

In other words, the ax fell first on the working-class movement.

THE 1946 strike wave, while the largest in U.S. history, revealed important shifts in the trade union movement.

The stormy years of rank-and-file mass action, mass pickets, factory sit-downs and initiative from below was replaced by a greater degree of control from the more conservative union leadership at the top.

Thus, while the trade union movement was in many ways stronger than in the pre-war period, its leaders were timid and halfhearted in their willingness to use the power in workers' interests.

This was revealed in the way the strikes were conducted: sections of the same industry struck separately and without coordination, settlements were made without regard to other sections still on strike, and mass pickets were discouraged.

Leaders bent over backward to forestall strikes and, once they broke out, strove to bring the strikes to an end as quickly as possible.

These events reflected a growing convergence of the top American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) brass with the state and employers.

Not only did union leaders fail to resist Taft-Hartley, but the notorious anti-communist affidavit that unions were required to sign in order to get NLRB recognition became the cue for union leaders to instigate a massive purge of communists and other leftists from the unions.

Union heads used the extreme climate of intolerance to consolidate their power and to eliminate the influence of the Communist Party (CP) and other "troublemakers."

Bureaucrats strained to prove their loyalty to American ideals, American expansionism--and, in the process, gutted the union movement.

Initially, resistance from rank-and-file workers was too strong to create a union red scare.

At the May 1946 national steel convention, for example, steel union head Philip Murray's efforts to present resolutions barring socialists and communists from office or membership of the union was met with resistance from the rank and file, still fresh from the recent steel strike. Sensing the mood, Murray called off the campaign. The union's "Statement of Policy" even ensured that the union would "engage in no purges, no witch-hunts. We do not dictate a man's thoughts or beliefs."

Six months later, the mood had changed sufficiently for Murray (also president of the CIO) to pass, almost unanimously, an anti-communist "Declaration of Policy" at the CIO's national convention in Atlanta. The declaration stated, "we resent and reject efforts of the Communist Party or other political parties and their adherents to interfere in the affairs of the CIO."

Another six months later, Murray's tone was more virulent. "If communism is an issue in any of your unions, throw it the hell out."

The resolution marked the beginning of a massive--and successful--drive to completely eliminate the CP and other left organizations from the trade union movement. Within weeks, various local CIO unions and statewide bodies adopted clauses barring CP members and members of any "communist" organization from holding union office.

Unions with strong CP influence or with a tradition of CP leadership, such as the United Electrical Workers (UE), were expelled from the CIO, and rival anti-communist unions set up in their place.

The Stalinist-led Farm Equipment Workers (FE) union, for example, was destroyed in 1948. After FE called a strike at the large Caterpillar Tractor plant in Peoria, Ill., four other unions moved in to claim jurisdiction over the plant, knowing that the FE would be ruled ineligible in an NLRB poll because of its refusal to sign the Taft-Hartley anti-communist oath. Several months later, the United Auto Workers won a new NLRB election at the plant.

While CIO leaders railed against "outside influence" in the unions, they brought in the rabidly anti-communist Association of Catholic Trade Unionists to aid in the witch-hunts.

Increasingly, open discussion was quashed, as Murray moved to centralize bureaucratic control and wipe out all dissent in the various locals. Minority reports were disallowed at conventions in 1948, and the national executive granted itself the power to take organizational measures against recalcitrant state and local CIO councils.

In cities such as Detroit and New York, CP-led trade union councils were simply short-circuited either by direct appointment of new, loyal heads, or by the creation of new councils that superceded the old ones.

The purges created a climate that made it impossible for trade union militants to operate for fear of expulsion and outright physical violence. At the 1948 steelworkers convention, delegate Nick Migas of Local 1010, East Chicago, was denounced as a "communist" for signing a leaflet that opposed Murray's "no-strike" policy.

When Migas rose to speak, Murray whipped up other delegates into a frenzy. When Migas tried to slip out of the hall, he was followed outside and savagely beaten. On the following day, Murray easily passed a constitutional amendment barring communists and "other subversives" from holding union office.

THE COMMUNIST Party and other socialists also faced a massive assault from the government that decimated its ranks.

Eighteen Trotskyists had already been tried and imprisoned in 1941 for opposition to the war under the Smith Act, which made it a federal crime to advocate the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. By the end of 1956, there had been 145 indictments under the Smith Act leading to 108 convictions. The combined sentences totaled 418 years.

Dozens of CP leaders spent months of jail, either awaiting trial or serving out 3- to 10-year sentences. Many defendants--and many of their lawyers--served months in jail for "contempt" charges hurled against them by judges caught up in the anti-communist mania.

In 1954, Congress passed the Communist Control Act, which outlawed membership in the CP. Using the Walter-McCarran Act of 1952, which authorized the government to deport aliens who advocated violent overthrow or who were members of organizations that did so, the government instituted deportation proceedings against hundreds of militants born outside the U.S.

Many states passed their own anti-subversion laws under which hundreds of communists were jailed and harassed. Connecticut law, for example, made it a crime to print "scurrilous or abusive matter, concerning the form of government in the United States," and Tennessee made death the maximum penalty for "unlawful advocacy" of the overthrow of the U.S. government.

Under special congressional investigative committees such as House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and aided in surveillance and police work the arch-reactionary J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), thousands of workers were hounded out of work, fired or imprisoned for the slightest hint of association with any left-wing organization or idea.

Fellow workers were asked to spy on each other in order to turn in anyone who might be considered "subversive." In many cases, workers were turned in for being for racial equality, or for defending the Soviet Union.

The climate was so frenzied that merely the accusation of communism or a subpoena by a congressional committee was enough to prompt an employer to dismiss the accused employee.

Government repression along with the USSR's invasion of Hungary in 1956 took a toll on the CP; its membership declined from a post-war high of about 75,000 to about 10,000 in 1957.

Militants in and outside the CP were central to building the trade union movement up to what it had become. Socialists and communists spearheaded the union organizing drives and initiated hundreds of rank-and-file struggles that made the CIO's growth possible.

The red scare drove militants out of the unions and strengthened the hand of the trade union leaders against their own members. The quashing of union democracy forced workers into the straightjacket of Cold War ideology, severely weakening the labor movement. It has yet to recover to this day.

DESPITE BEING the chief target of the purges, the CP played a less than impressive role in its own demise, contributing to a substantial degree in the disillusion of trade union militants.

Where the CP had gained control of some key unions, its leaders behaved no differently from other union bureaucrats toward the rank and file and toward opposition.

During the war, for example, CP-led unions had dealt mercilessly with rank-and-file workers who want to resist the no-strike pledge. The national leadership of the Maritime Union collaborated with the Coast Guard and the National Maritime Commission in victimizing militants.

In the post-war battles between the CP union leaders and their right-wing counterparts, many militants felt caught between, unable to distinguish between the policies and practices of either side.

The CP's wholehearted involvement in the war effort, its support for Roosevelt's strikebreaking during the war and its trade union practices, combined with its support for every twist and turn of Stalin's regime, made it an easier target for the witch-hunts.

Moreover, many CP activists and leaders were hardly open or willing to defend themselves politically. This was exemplified by the CP's reaction to the first round of red-baiting.

Murray's 1946 "resent and reject" resolution, which criticized CP "interference" in the unions, was drafted by a committee that included three well-known CP leaders. Moreover, all CP delegates were instructed at the convention to vote for the resolution, that is, against themselves.

Rather than conducting a principled defense of their right to be part of the labor movement, and a principled criticism of the deleterious effects of red-baiting on the labor movement, CP leaders acquiesced to the attacks, hoping to curry favor.

In reality, they merely offered themselves up to the chopping block.

The CIO leadership, preoccupied with smashing communism and boosting their power over the ranks, made no efforts to take advantage of the potential strength of the labor movement.

Instead of taking the offensive in organizing the South and pushing the shorter work week, the CIO leaders lined up to a large degree with the right-wing offensive, purging the movement of the militants that had been crucial to its success. They then blamed the CP for labor's failures.

They did not relate their failing to their own policies--their dependence on the Democratic Party, their inability to organize against Taft-Hartley and their participation in the Cold War witch-hunts.

The result of these policies was disastrous. Today's union activists must overcome their legacy.

This article originally appeared in the October 1990 issue of Socialist Worker.

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