James Lerner, Course of Action: A Journalist’s Account from Inside the American League Against War and Fascism and the United Electrical Workers Union (UE), 1933-1978

Edited by Richard Neil Lerner and Anna Marie Taylor (Berkeley: RNL Publishing, 2012).

Burdened with an almost overwhelming subtitle, this is an often poignant, sometimes overly detailed saga of a rank and file left-winger, modest by nature, leader by the demands of the time. Actually, I knew the guy a little because he was, by the time of my editorial work on the Encyclopedia of the American Left in the later 1980s, one of the few from the antiwar youth movement of the 1930s who were still around and willing to write. To say that he bore the scars of the McCarthy Era, by that time a quarter of a century in the past, would be an understatement. Going about his work as diligently as possible, Lerner had been redbaited from pillar to post. Still, he was unbroken and unbitter: the salt of the earth in the Left’s accomplishments and even more, perhaps, in its moral resolve.

Like so many youth activists of the 1930s, Lerner was an authentic proletarian intellectual. His parents were poor, but he made it from Brooklyn to Madison, Wisconsin, where educational reformer Alexander Meiklejohn had launched the Experimental School at the University of Wisconsin, and offered a curriculum of classics to a couple of hundred undergrads, all men. Lerner does not mention a highlight of 1932: one of the lads hung his red underwear out the window to dry, and conservative legislators went wild. Behind or alongside the phony furor, the university president sagely bowed to a student antiwar movement and suspended classes so that all might protest war and militarization together. Those were the days.

Lerner could not afford to stay. He “proletarianized,” came home and helped his parents keep afloat, meanwhile meeting up again with friends from the Experimental College in the movement of the unemployed. In that movement, he met his future wife, Gertrude, and together they took part in what can be broadly described as the Communist Party’s section of the Left. Lerner had more talent for leadership than he can easily admit, and his comrades put him up for leadership in the American League Against War and Fascism, which for a few years was a massive organization with supporters ranging from liberals to pacifists. By some claims, ALAWF may have contained the largest number of young Americans rallied, to that date, to any political cause. Radio networks broadcast their conferences, while unions and civic organizations, even Senators and congressmen added moral support.

A shift from pacifism to anti-fascism might have foredoomed this body (renamed, in 1938, the American League for Peace and Democracy), but it remained alive and vigorous a little longer. For years, young socialists and Communists had crossed swords, so to speak, and went on jockeying for power on a range of issues. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, suspending hostilities between Germany and the Soviet Union, prompted Communist supporters to change their views overnight, a move that the renamed League could not survive. Lerner notes that it would take another thirty years for any American youth organization to achieve this size or influence.

Lerner the youth organizer became Lerner the union activist. Within a year, he was working for the weekly newspaper of the United Electrical Workers, for a few years the largest union in the United States. These were great days for industrial unionism, except that the factional fights of the 1930s returned with a vengeance. One faction of the UE, led by James Carey, sought to make membership in the Communist Party a disqualification for membership in the union. Such an extreme proviso had the stamp of labor’s conservatives including the Association of Christian Trade Unionists (ACTU), backed financially and morally by the Catholic Church, and in the end, with the help of the FBI among other agencies, prompted the formation of the competing International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE) favored by employers. But this gets us ahead of the story.

Lerner’s days at UE News come into focus with stories of fellow staffers including author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s grand-niece Katherine Beecher, and a writer named Betty Goldstein who would later become Betty Friedan. Perhaps the figure most beloved by the readers was not a writer at all, but cartoonist Fred Wright, who may be said to have reinvented the labor cartoon. Instead of tough Wobblies (and their counterpart, the moral weakling Mr. Dubb, always giving in to the boss), Wright invented an average Joe who took the punishment without being broken, going on day after day, as in real life.

UE had a formidable foe beyond conservative unionists: General Electric, which had worked with the German government before and during the Second World War but disguised its record with flag-waving. Promoters of Ronald Reagan when the B actor fell out of Hollywood’s spotlight, GE swiftly took advantage of anti-labor legislation passed at the end of the 1940s. Communists and their defenders were assaulted in print and in person, union locals defected to IUE out of fear as much as persuasion, and UE held on by its veritable fingernails.

Not that UE or Lerner became silent. With the civil rights movement’s courageous step forward, UE was there, openly or (if the leaders of the movement wished) in the background. When the antiwar movement began in the middle 1960s, the campus activists had few allies in labor…except for UE representatives, who volunteered to speak at rallies or aid in any way requested. Likewise other social movements of the time, from the grape boycott to feminism. Against labor’s conservatives led by AFL-CIO President George Meany, raving against the activities of young people, UE and Lerner convened a National Labor Assembly for Peace. Gradually and with much resistance, large sections of organized labor came over to the peace side, and Lerner records, with great satisfaction, having come full circle from his days in the 1930s.

The book closes at 1972, since Lerner did not go any further before he died. But the story has been told. Thanks to the help of a small handful of scholars and friends (notably Frank Emspak, whose father, Julius Emspak, was a UE leader and lifelong friend of Lerner), readers will be able to follow the details of a time slipping away, with memories worth preserving.

Reviewed by Paul Buhle
Author or editor of more than 40 books, including Taking Care of Business:… The Tragedy of American Labor
Madison, Wisconsin

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