American Labor and the Cold War: Grassroots Politics and Postwar Political Culture

Robert W. Cherny, William Issel, and Kiernan Walsh Taylor, eds, American Labor and the Cold War: Grassroots Politics and Postwar Political Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2004).

Anticommunism played a pivotal role for the US labor movement in the Cold War. This collection of new essays focuses on the individual and social actions of labor union members as they shaped and were shaped by the politico-economic trends of the post-WWII era. Then as now, themes of national and racial identity loomed large in the class society that is America.

In her essay, Ellen Schrecker focuses on the “institutional fallout” of McCarthyism’s attack on left-led labor by the executive, judicial and legislative branches of the federal government. Labor unions, divided by the domestic crusade of anticommunism, were unable to prevent passage of the Taft-Hartley Act (1947), which strengthened US financial and industrial wealth.  Schrecker shows, convincingly, how and why after World War II mass labor organizations relinquished popular power to an illusory concept of patriotism that expanded state and private power. That process greatly weakened the social momentum of racial minorities and independent unions: “The destruction of these unions transformed the nascent drive for racial equality into a more middle-class movement, one whose leaders fought for legal and political rights but ignored the economic problems that plagued most Southern blacks.” The political triumph of the pro-business Democratic Party played no small part in this process that expanded the private property of the ownership class.

Workers at General Electric plants in Schenectady, New York, are the special focus in Gerald Zahavi’s essay. His interviews of former workers help readers to appreciate the city’s “uncivil” labor conflict during the 1940s and 1950s. Local 301 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), bolstered by the Communist Party, clashed with the International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (IUE). The IUE was created by the CIO after it expelled Local 301 and the UE. The autobiographical narratives of the men and women involved make clear the alliances forged and fractured at the “point of production.” These workers and their families wrestled with work, wages, the Catholic Church, strikes, gender, skin color, public hearings and child-rearing against the backdrop of a frenzied anticommunism. What emerges is a complex view of labor during a time of political turmoil. Marx’s view that people make their own history in circumstances not entirely of their own choosing puts this particular tumult into sharper focus.

An essay by Don Watson probes labor anticommunism, the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) and the California agricultural sector between 1954 and 1961. Although the postwar quickly became a Cold War against domestic dissidents, “the UPWA, led by non-Communist officers, continued to allow Communists, a minority group, to participate in union affairs,” Watson writes. Meanwhile, the mechanization of agriculture and super-exploitation of Mexican nationals set the stage for the UPWA’s plan to organize California farm workers for higher wages and better living standards. Yet cooperative mobilization with the National Agricultural Workers Union was not to be, due partly to red-baiting of the UPWA. Two officials with the NAWU led this charge. Church, government, and other union leaders also participated in the undermining of agricultural organizing efforts by the UPWA. To this day, California’s farmworkers work for long hours and low pay. Crucially, their increased productivity remains central to the US economy after the end of the Cold War.  By keeping these workers’ wages low, agribusiness lowers the price of food. This enables employers to also reduce the wages of non-agricultural workers.

Randi Storch analyzes the evolution of the UPWA and the Communist Party in Chicago away from multi-racial unionism after World War II. One of the factors he clarifies is the changing composition of the stockyard workforce in the city. During the Second World War era, the party had privileged the defeat of fascism over interracial coalitions for black justice in a racist US society. Between World Wars I and II, white Communists in the city’s trade union movement had militantly backed black-white labor coalitions to improve the living and working conditions of African Americans. In the postwar years, white suburban sprawl grew, as whites gained subsidies from the federal government through the Home Owners Loan Corporations and the Federal Housing Authority. Moreover, white workers, in Storch’s view, saw the CP/UPWA emphasis on black rights as partly causing the Cold War red-hunting.  Meanwhile, theoretical criticism in a party publication of whites’ substandard treatment of blacks had the unintended effect of widening racial divisions among UPWA members. It is perhaps charitable to note that the ending of such racial divisions remains a dream. Case in point is the radically different views of whites and blacks on the federal government’s response to the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe.

David Palmer’s essay concerns independent labor activism in the East Coast shipyards in anti-fascist and (later) anticommunist movements. His research highlights how a lively left within the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America (IUMSWA) influenced, and was influenced by, occupational and political coalitions driven by capitalist downturns and upturns before and during World War II. One force that mobilized radical workers was the fight for racial equality on the job: “Independent leftists, perhaps best characterized as anarcho-syndicalists, sought to bridge the gap between the majority of white workers who identified with New Deal politics… and a minority who identified with the Communist Party, including many black and Hispanic workers.” Then as now, fighting the color line is battling the class system. Appeals to patriotism can make this struggle a bit hard to see, a motivating factor for the war-making class.

Kenneth Burt analyzes union politics on the West Coast within what he terms “the liberal left.”  With a keen eye for the cultural or subjective dimension of organized labor, his essay sheds light on the role of local forces that determined a 1952 union election of electrical workers at a Standard Coil plant in East Los Angeles. This particular struggle at a defense plant involved an election to represent the mainly young Latina work force. On one side was the International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Employees (IUE). Trying to unseat it was the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), allied with the CPUSA. Ultimately, “the convergence of political alliance and personal experiences,” centrally those of local religious leaders, helps us to grasp what determined the outcome of this labor union struggle settled prior to the arrival of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy on the national political stage.

“Anticommunism proved most divisive” in Evansville, Indiana, writes Samuel W. White, focusing on that city’s tidal wave of red-hunting after the Second World War. Employees, employers, politicians and unions, spurred by Cold War ideology that conflated communism and fascism, purged the progressive UE from Evansville workplaces, where consumer durables such as refrigerators were made. An explanation for the reaction against radical organized labor there, White correctly notes, lies in unions’ retreat from social to individual goals. This retrograde change facilitated the postwar rise of nationalism and patriotism.

Without an alternative vision to capitalist accumulation and exploitation after World War II, workers’ increased material comforts weakened social cohesion built up in the 1930s. White’s Gramscian view of class struggle emphasizes the role of ideology as a means for union members to transcend US chauvinism, individualism and racism, which weaken ordinary people while empowering corporations and the government that serves these legal fictions.

In his essay, William Issel examines how labor in San Francisco was influenced by the Catholic Church. There, it backed a moral capitalism while opposing secular communism without resort to red-baiting. The Church supported cooperation between employees and employers, including the right of workers to go on strike, by invoking the labor encyclicals issued by Pope Leo (1891) and Pope Pius XI (1931) as bulwarks against radical politics. The Marxian view of expropriating the expropriators who own the means of production presented a concrete threat to S.F. Catholics of the employing class, Issel notes. On the educational front, Catholic labor philosophy taught by the Jesuits at the University of San Francisco competed with Marxian class analysis offered by the Communist Party-backed California Labor School. Catholic unionism thrived during the postwar era of liberal capitalism in S.F. by occupying a middle ground between anticommunism and radicalism. Issel succeeds in presenting the material and philosophical dynamics to enlarge the view of the Church as a conservative American institution willing to making the wages system appear as natural as gravity.

Vernon L. Pedersen’s essay considers two views of anticommunism from what he terms “the mix of responsible and extremist elements within the movement.” He focuses on the HUAC investigation of Communist Party activity in Maryland. There, “Anticommunism enjoyed widespread endorsement only in times of threats (real or perceived) to national security and… was not a form of ‘witch hunting’ but the manifestation of a genuine contest between ideologies.” Pedersen is limited, in my view, by his failure to analyze anticommunism as a form of false consciousness — arising, as Marx argued, from the social form of labor under capitalism, which makes people incapable of seeing how they actively create the system that disfigures them.

Margaret Miller analyzes and explains the social conditions under which progressive activists forced the Washington state government to increase welfare benefits to retirees. Organizers privileged gender and racial inclusion.  To that end, they mobilized people in social events that featured music, broadening the appeal of the Washington Pension Union. Music in general and singing in particular are communal, older than class society, and speak to something profound in people. In a society ridden with class divisions, “working-class women and African-Americans pointed the WPU in new directions,” Miller writes, detailing how both groups’ activities in the labor force changed the WPU. Meanwhile, Cold War repression contributed to setting in motion for the WPU an “isolation that was often self-imposed.” Its 1948 shift to the Progressive Party from the Democratic Party showed the limitations of US electoral politics.

Elections are a tough nut to crack for American progressives.  This implication of Miller’s essay is relevant to the current US political straightjacket.

As postwar political reaction gathered steam, labor education schools run by the Communist Party on the East and West Coasts came under increasing attack by the federal government. New York City’s Jefferson School of Social Science and the San Francisco Bay Area’s California Labor School attracted a broad range of the populace. (A late friend of mine, Wayne Hultgren, attended the CLS on the G.I. Bill.) The courses, students and teachers at these radical institutions are the focus of Marvin Gettleman’s essay, “The Lost World of United States Labor Education.” Notably, the Marxian view of changing and interpreting the world shaped the culture of these party schools, including a recognition of social changes wrought by the Second World War that featured the increased labor market participation of women. In Communist education, “The main point was to sever teaching from all connection with the idea of student failure,” Gettleman writes. US public education has diverged dramatically from that egalitarian view. American society is the worse for this present-day trend that is privatizing schooling to the benefit of investors.

With “Operation Dixie, the Red Scare, and the Defeat of Southern Labor Organizing,” Michael K. Honey explains the actors and factors central to the post-World War II unionization campaign in the former slave-holding states.  Operation Dixie was the flawed CIO organizing structure that aimed to unionize the Southern textile industry. Labor organizing that began so promisingly in the US South was ultimately defeated by multiple forces, but mainly by anticommunism and white racism. Organizers, needing to confront white wage-earners’ hostility to blacks, attempted to copy the successful unionization campaigns of the Northern auto and steel industries in the 1930s. “They might have instead focused more resources on organizing in woodworking, furniture factories, food processing, and other industries where blacks made up a significant portion of the work force,” Honey writes. With blacks more open than whites in the South to joining cross-racial unions, the CIO’s strategy was a tragic limitation, given the forces arrayed against it. The absence of a strategy to confront white identity neutered Operation Dixie, and will continue to limit the US labor movement if it is not addressed openly and honestly.

In her essay, Gigi Peterson looks at relations between US and Mexican labor activists and Washington policy makers from the mid-1930s to the Cold War era. The global capitalist economic depression that fueled the Allied battle against the Axis powers opened up a political space for cross-border alliances. In particular, the US Good Neighbor Policy created favorable conditions for Vicente Lombardo Toledano to emerge as a major leader in Mexico. Lombardo Toledano’s warm relations with some US unions combined with his support for import-substitution policies that privileged working Mexicans earned him the wrath of US officials, as representatives of the class that benefits the most from international investment. The dominance of this class can be challenged currently, as it was by Lombardo Toledano and his allies. Peterson clarifies the challenges that he and others faced in trying to liberate governments on both sides of the US-Mexican border from the corporate agenda that has created commercial pacts such as NAFTA.

The contributors to this collection peel away layers of social complexity around US workers’ struggles under the shadow of World War II and the ensuing homegrown political reaction. The geopolitical and national conflict became a way for certain members of the US working class to coalesce by purging radicals — mainly communists and socialists — from labor unions in ways that resonate to the current era of labor demobilization against the backdrop of a supposed war against global terror. The writers reach various conclusions in their research on labor unions and on the workers whose energy defined their role amid American hysteria concerning global communism. This very useful collection of essays that link US workplaces and communities, bringing out the triumphs and tragedies of the Cold War, should be read by working people of all backgrounds as US bankruptcy courts help corporations cut the jobs and retirements of labor union members.

Reviewed by Seth Sandronsky
Co-editor, Because People Matter, Sacramento

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