The myth of the quiet 1950s

August 19, 2011

For many people, the image of labor unions in the post-Second World War era is of gangsters and corrupt officials. But while corruption did exist in some unions, such as the Teamsters and the International Longshoreman's Association, it was not the main obstacle that workers had to overcome in the struggles of this period. Bill Roberts explains in this article, which originally appeared in the November 1990 issue of Socialist Worker.

THE COMBINATION of government restraints on unions and the passivity of union leaders entrenched in the guiding philosophy of business unionism weighed heavily on workers who were being squeezed by rising prices and buffeted by changing work conditions.

Even though decay of the labor movement was well underway going in the 1950s, there was by no means a rout of the movement. Rank-and-file pressure produced numerous surprises for the labor bosses as well as corporate heads during this period.

Alongside the red-baiting panels of the government were the panels used to taint the union movement with accusations that it was run by crooks.

During the 1950s, the Senate's McClellan Commission held numerous hearings into the corrupt practices of various labor unions. This pressure forced the AFL and CIO leaders to get serious about cleaning up their image in order to prevent more labor-curbing legislation.

Thus, in 1957, the AFL-CIO congress kicked out the Teamsters union and its nearly 2 million members after its president, Dave Beck, was sentenced to five years in jail for tax fraud.

An anti-union rally to promote the use of the Landrum-Griffin Act against organized labor
An anti-union rally to promote the use of the Landrum-Griffin Act against organized labor

When government motives became too obvious, rank-and-file unionists fought back. For example, a New York Commission of Inquiry, seeking to rid the Port of New York of racketeering in 1955, banned 600 longshoremen from working because of their criminal records.

The refusal to issue work permits directly threatened the union's right to control hiring and resulted in a strike that shut the port down tight. A compromise that allowed the union to run the hiring hall while promising to replace criminal leaders helped end the strike.

The so-called fight against corruption of certain labor leaders by the government was, like the fight against communism, a convenient moral cloak used to disguise the real target--the labor movement as a whole.

Leading the "crusade" was Sen. John F. Kennedy who, with his brother Bobby (former aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy), engaged in a demagogic two-year fight against union corruption. Sen. Kennedy was one of the main promoters of the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959. Landrum-Griffin was what the union leaders had tried to avoid through their own house-cleaning and by joining forces to lobby Congress.

IN 1955, the AFL and CIO merged and passed a resolution that committed the new federation to apply pressure on Congress to reform the hated Taft-Hartley, especially Section 14(b), which encouraged states to introduce their own anti-union legislation--the so-called "right to work" laws.

Not only was Taft-Hartley never amended, it was made worse by the passage of Landrum-Griffin in 1959. First, Landrum-Griffin prohibited anyone with a police record from holding leadership position, making militant arrested for picket line activity, for example, ineligible for union office.

Second, it allowed the federal government the right to supervise union elections. Under the pretext of protecting workers' democracy, those workers opposed to the union were now allowed to take legal action to prevent elections or remove officials.

The secretary of labor was given full powers to investigate union internal affairs, including inspection of membership lists and financial records.

A third section made internationals responsible for local compliance to ensure that the r members observed contracts signed with employers. While union leaders moaned about Landrum-Griffin, they turned this section to their own use. This part of the law became the club used by officials to discipline disobedient locals and to smash wildcat strikes.

While labor bureaucrats verbally waged a fight to head off what they characterized as "the most draconian legislative measure adopted since the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act," they again failed to organize an active rank-and-file fightback.

Still this failure to reverse the legislative attacks on the union did not prevent labor heads from pouring millions of dollars into the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, both of whom had been instrumental in seeing the anti-union legislation pass.

ONE MEASURE of how passive and toadying the labor leadership had become can be seen in a 1962 agreement President Kennedy was able to get between labor and management.

Raising the specter of inflation, Kennedy got labor to agree to no general increase in wages and a ceiling of 2.5 percent or 10 cents maximum per hour. This was well below the 17 cents the unions had targeted as a minimum raise to keep up with the cost of living at the time.

Another measure of passivity among union leaders can be seen in the low recruitment levels during the period. According to Labor Department statistics, there were 17.9 million unionists in 1966, or only 400,000 more than in 1956. At the same time, the number of industrial workers grew by 11.5 million.

The workplace environment was changing through automation and speedup. The composition of the workplace was also changing. In 1950, industrial workers made up 41 percent of wage earners, and white-collar workers made up 37 percent. By 1966, this was reversed.

It was also during this period that a key section of the workforce--Blacks--began to demand their share of the social pie.

Many who hailed the merger of the AFL and the CIO voiced the belief that the relative radicalism of the CIO would push the united union movement toward seeking greater equality. But George Meany, who headed the merged federations, went out of his way to keep labor free of special demands for sections of its membership.

He had sharp exchanges with A. Philip Randolph and the NAACP over involving labor with Black demands. Only after the antiracist explosion in the summer of 1963, and the prospect of a civil rights bill, did the AFL-CIO give tacit support to social equality.

Even then, Meany refused to give official backing to the March on Washington in August of that year, leaving "its members full liberty to participate in it as individuals." Only the United Auto Workers (UAW) joined as part of the official organizing committee for the march.

In 1955, UAW President Walter Reuther signed a contract with General Motors (GM) that did nothing to settle the question of speedups--the main issue for rank-and-file workers at the time. Nor did the contract settle the backlog of local grievances.

Over 70 percent of GM workers went on strike when they hear the terms of the agreement. Again in 1958, a larger percentage "wildcatted" after another contract was presented without solving the problem of speedups. The same thing happened in 1961, closing all GM plants and most of Ford.

THE REVOLTS in the ranks of autoworkers during this period were matched by similar revolts in numerous other labor unions. Working conditions usually topped the list of grievances that touched off strike after strike.

In 1964, a rank-and-file-initiated strike of longshoremen on the East and Gulf Coasts sent union leaders scurrying. While the contract they negotiated had significant wage increases, it also contained a reduction of crews from 20 to 17.

The International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) ranks balked at reducing the workforce, forcing then-President Johnson to invoke Taft-Hartley's 80-day "cooling-off" provision, which temporarily halted the walkout.

The strike commenced one day after the "cooling-off" period ended and closed ports for 18 days. This was the first time all sections of the ILA had struck together. Though the leadership was able to eventually take over the strike and force a settlement that did reduce gang size, the ranks had proven their ability to overcome longtime divisions in the union structure.

Perhaps the best illustration of the combative spirit of workers during this "dark age" of labor is the steelworkers union. Time after time, union leaders would concoct a settlement with the bosses, only to be rejected by the rank and file.

In 1946, steelworkers struck for 26 days; in 1949, for 45 day; in 1952, for 59 days; and in 1956, for 36 days. All of these strikes were forced on the leadership from below. 1959 brought the sixth national strike of steelworkers since the end of the Second World War. Behind the demand for better wages and health and pension plans stood the question of automation. Steelworkers wanted a say in modernization and job security.

The strike was eventually halted temporarily by President Dwight Eisenhower under Taft-Hartley, just as Democratic Party President Harry Truman had done in the 1952 strike. Still the steelworkers vowed to resume the strike if a favorable settlement was not forthcoming.

Believing that a settlement was necessary, the government agreed to arbitrate, with Vice President Richard Nixon and Labor Secretary James Mitchell standing in.

On January 5, 1960, an agreement was signed that gave workers a wage increase, a free health insurance plan and retirement benefits for the first time. Language that offered the union participation on committees concerned with workplace changes was also part of the agreement.

There is a wide record of rank-and-file combativity throughout the period when the labor movement was under constant attack from the bosses and their government. While union leadership was more and more becoming a partner of the postwar consensus, giving only passive resistance to the assault, rank-and-file unionists mounted heroic defensive fights that prevented the rout capital so much wanted.

The real tragedy is that, while there was no lack of fightback on the part of rank-and-file unions, the development of a cohesive political leadership capable of connecting these sectional struggles and making them part of a new labor offensive never developed. The old left had truly been rendered ineffective.

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