Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950

The Rise and Fall of a Radical Union

Rosemary Feurer, Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006).

When the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) unleashed a great strike wave right after World War II, the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers (UE) was its third largest affiliate. It had a half million members, contracts with corporate giants like General Electric and Westinghouse, and considerable political influence within the labor movement. Sixty years later, as battered as they are today, the two largest surviving CIO unions – the United Auto Workers (UAW) and United Steelworkers (USW) – still represent more than 500,000 workers each. In contrast, the UE is down to 17,000. Belonging to neither the AFL-CIO nor its new rival, Change to Win, UE prefers to soldier on as a feisty independent presence in a few states. Unfortunately, it has little national impact or visibility.

Like manufacturing unions generally, the UE has fared badly in the era of automation, globalization, and overseas out-sourcing of production. Yet its decimation began long before capital flight weakened every industrial union from the 1970s onward and free trade nearly finished them all off in the last decade. Along with ten other unions representing more than one million workers, the left-led UE was forced out of the CIO in 1949. That purge – which pre-dated the full-blown McCarthyism of the 1950s – became the opening shot in an internal war that left labor radicals on the run and the UE a shadow of its former self.

The story of the UE’s rise in the 1930s, fall in the Fifties, and struggle to survive ever since has long been a favorite of portside labor history buffs. Two UE-friendly volumes – Labor’s Untold Story by Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais and Them and Us: Struggles of a Rank-and-File Union, by UE national officer James Matles and journalist James Higgins – were required reading among student radicals who took a post-graduate plunge into blue-collar jobs and union politics three decades ago. Both books were also promoted within the UE to educate younger members about its distinctive heritage of struggle (and inoculate them against charges of “communist-domination” that dogged the union from its inception).

In Matles and Higgins’ account, the UE recognized – when few others in the CIO did – that the emergence of a “cold war” during the Truman Administration and the first calls for a domestic anti-communist crusade were linked to big business plans for expansion abroad and weakening of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) at home. Breaking ranks with the CIO, UE leaders refused to endorse Truman’s re-election in 1948 and backed Henry Wallace’s ill-fated third-party candidacy instead. They also tried to rally other union officials against signing affidavits denying membership in the Communist Party, as required by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, a crippling package of anti-union amendments to the NLRA.

The UE continued to resist the affidavit requirement and was punished by losing access to National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) representation elections and enforcement proceedings. Meanwhile, the CIO caved in to Taft-Hartley and then contributed to the growing anti-red hysteria. Both its own affiliates and conservative craft unions from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) exploited UE’s legal disability by raiding its membership. Like vultures, the UAW, USW, Teamsters, Machinists, and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers wrested many bargaining units away, with the help of firms like GE who were only too happy to see their longtime nemesis ousted. During these inter-union conflicts, UE officers, local leaders, and active members were hauled before a variety of witch-hunting committees. Many rank-and-file militants were fired and blacklisted, plus burdensome criminal charges were lodged against UE officials. Due to the combined efforts of hostile employers, media red-baiters, Congressional investigators, the FBI, and the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE) – a right-wing replacement union chartered by the CIO – UE membership plummeted to 90,000 by the mid-1950s.

Amazingly, the union survived – and even began to grow again, briefly, in the 1960s – while clinging stubbornly to its independence. (All the other CIO affiliates that were kicked out at that time ceased to exist, were absorbed into larger unions by mergers, or, in the case of the west coast Longshoremen’s Union (ILWU), eventually rejoined the “house of labor” via affiliation with the AFL-CIO.) The UE continued to exhibit an unusual degree of internal democracy, emphasizing membership control over union finances and bargaining strategy. Until recently (when the financial strain of annual conventions became too great), elections for UE national officers were held every year – a rarity in the labor movement. To this day, no union official or staff member is paid more than the highest-paid workers in UE shops (to insure, as Matles and Higgins explained, that full-time reps “feel like UE members” and not simply “feel for them.”)

Thus, for many in the old left and (now aging) “new left,” the much-admired UE has always been a case study in “what might have been” – if America’s management-backed Red Scare hadn’t been so successful in marginalizing militant, rank-and-file oriented, politically-progressive unionism. In a typical academic tribute, Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions, Judith Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin bemoan the lost influence of the UE (and other purged CIO unions) “that were most dynamic, egalitarian, democratic, class conscious and advanced on issues of women’s rights and interracial solidarity.”

Rosemary Feurer’s valuable new book, Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950, concentrates on an important slice of the UE’s tragic history. Her sweeping (and somewhat misleading) title notwithstanding, the focus of Feurer’s research and writing is the dramatic growth and then rapid demise of the UE District 8, a vibrant part of the union headed by William Sentner, an open member of the Communist Party. Openness about the CP’s role in building and leading the UE was not a feature of Them and Us – or the norm among its leading figures. The 1973 official history by Matles and Higgins barely acknowledges the role of past or present party members in the union or the UE’s complex and sometimes strained relationship with the party itself. Instead, in their account, the CP appears to be just one of many groups whose members participated freely in the UE because the latter’s constitution – unlike that of most other labor organizations – welcomed everyone regardless of “political belief.”

The book’s only significant reference to a party line shift that affected the UE is the authors’ unfavorable mention of CP enthusiasm about the AFL-CIO merger in 1955. Following this burying of the hatchet between craft and industrial unions, the CP wanted UE to rejoin the “mainstream of American labor.” Matles and his fellow officers rejected the party’s advice (because they viewed the merged federation to be a “polluted river,” rife with racism, corruption, and conservative politics). While they stood fast, however, the union suffered what Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin describe as “grievous new wounds inflicted by its own erstwhile comrades responding to party orders.” A large group of UE district presidents, staff members, and local business agents declared that the UE was “finished” and joined the exodus to other AFL-CIO unions, taking 50,000 members with them.

As this near fatal blow and Feurer’s book on Sentner’s career both show, there was a lot more to the story of CP-UE relations than meets the eye in Them and Us. Sentner, for example, was never one to kowtow to party headquarters in New York – like the union’s mid-1950s defectors – yet he paid a high price for his CP membership, during and after his ten years as president of UE District 8. In the middle of difficult 1952 contract negotiations with an Illinois manufacturer, he was arrested and charged under the Smith Act for “conspiracy to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government by force and violence.” (“The charge is ridiculous,” Sentner responded. “The only thing I have conspired in is to keep the Eagle Signal Corporation from installing an incentive system” at its plant in Moline.) At his St. Louis trial two years later, the UE leader “passionately defended his belief in democratic socialism, the U.S. Constitution, and non-violence,” Feurer notes. Nevertheless, he and his co-defendants were quickly found guilty and sentenced to five years in jail. Sentner remained free on appeal, but two months after the Supreme Court invalidated these and other Smith Act convictions in 1958, he died of heart failure at age 51, leaving his family penniless.

According to Feurer, Sentner had, by then, officially resigned from the party, while remaining “deeply committed to the need for a working class party dedicated to socialist principles, the very impetus that had caused him to cast his lot with the CP more than twenty years before.” The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Sentner was born in New York but grew up in St. Louis. After dropping out of college, he spent four years at sea where he discovered Marx and “the radical syndicalist milieu of the merchant seaman.” Back in Missouri at the start of the Depression, he joined a CP-backed John Reed Club in St. Louis and, by 1935, was co-chair of the local party. Sentner’s energetic organizing among the city’s unemployed and low-wage factory workers led to a job with the CIO’s Steel Workers Organizing Committee.

In 1936-37, the real action in St. Louis shifted to Emerson Electric and other local electrical equipment manufacturers. CP “colonizers” at Emerson combined with indigenous militants to stage a 53-day sit-down strike (the second longest in U.S. labor history), coordinated by Sentner. This victory for the UE’s fledgling mid-west organization led to other successful union recognition battles in the state and region and Sentner’s election as president of District 8, which covered Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana. The “militant minority” which built the CIO during this period was not afraid to tackle either anti-union employers or worker attitudes that weakened the union. Sentner was a critic of segregated practices in St. Louis and a key labor ally of the March on Washington Movement, which protested discrimination against blacks in the armed forces and industry during World War II. By the war’s end, Sentner’s district had more than 50,000 members (25 percent of them African-American). It was in the forefront of progressive initiatives for labor-oriented regional economic planning and he had been profiled in Fortune magazine “as a ‘Communist proud of his political beliefs’ whose trade unionism was not controlled by party interference and who ‘doesn’t talk party jargon.’”

Feurer concludes, however, that Sentner could “never fully confront or resolve the paradox that the CP was an organization based on authoritarian and hierarchical principles antithetical to democratic ideals.” In her view, CP ties ultimately “tarnished the strongly democratic radical vision the Left promoted” in District 8 – and gave its myriad enemies a powerful weapon to use in dismantling the UE. Before Sentner’s death, she notes, he “spoke somewhat wistfully of workers having urged him to leave the party, noting their promise that, if he did, they would support his right to discuss socialism – ‘but as long as you are a Communist, we are afraid to take a chance.’” Sentner did relinquish his elected union position in 1948 – and became an appointed UE national representative – in a self-sacrificing effort to make District 8 less of a political target. But the mounting “focus on the Communist issue,” locally and nationally in the 1950s, still “overwhelmed the Left’s efforts to continue an ideological struggle that included commitment to militancy on the shop floor, a challenge to corporate power in the community and the larger political economy, the breaking down of racial divisions, and the right of political radicals to have membership and leadership in unions.”

This unhappy ending notwithstanding, Radical Unionism contains several important lessons for today’s labor left – which faces far less red-baiting (since the fall of the Soviet Union) but also suffers from the absence of any broad, non-sectarian socialist political organization with working class and trade union adherents. Feurer’s book makes a strong case for the enduring relevance of bottom-up organizing. It recounts, for example, the critical role played by community-based worker organizations in the early 1930s. Like the network of local Jobs with Justice coalitions and immigrant “workers centers” that operate around the country today, the CP-backed Trade Union Unity League and Unemployed Councils provided critical support, in places like St. Louis, for workplace struggles that paved the way for larger-scale union building later in the decade. Some of these early fights – such as a 1931 strike by hundreds of black and white women at an East St. Louis pecan packing plant – involved workers in “submarginal industries” who were ignored by AFL unions or excluded from them on the basis of race. Then, as now, new forms of “community unionism” – utilizing innovative tactics and grassroots mobilization – emerged to fill the void left by the contraction and decline of “organized labor,” as traditionally defined.

Feurer’s book also demonstrates the great power and potential of worker solidarity, developed at the grassroots, through one-on-one recruitment of activists and their subsequent experience of collective action on the job and in the community. In contrast, the “union revitalization” efforts promoted today by some supposedly “visionary leaders” have relied primarily on bureaucratic consolidation, top-down control, and greater reliance on full-time union officials and staff. The mid-20th century UE contract campaign and strike case studies in Radical Unionism illustrate how shop-floor initiatives, rank-and-file leadership development, and “horizontal networking” among union stewards can strengthen and politicize the labor movement at its base. As Feurer suggests, “this history may be useful to keep in mind” because the “current emphasis on the need for organizing at the national and global level may cause us to lose sight of how important community-level organizing is to the development and sustenance of new ideas and bonds of solidarity.”

Reviewed by Steve Early
Boston area labor activist since 1972

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