James Young, Union Power: The United Electrical Workers in Erie

Reviewed by Chad E.

James Young, Union Power: The United Electrical Workers in Erie, Pennsylvania (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2017), 256 pp., $29.

This is a terrific book. It deserves to be read carefully by both scholars and activists. In seven well-written chapters, James Young explores the emergence, struggles, victories and setbacks of a radical, democratic union, one that confronted powerful adversaries in the business, labor, and faith-based communities throughout the mid- and late-twentieth century. Young has provided us with wonderful descriptions of the colorful figures in this union, both nationally and in Erie. Above all, his book offers useful lessons to today’s labor advocates interested in rebuilding unions at a time of virtually unchecked employer power.

Hatched in the nearby city of Buffalo in 1937, the member-driven United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) represented workers at numerous electrical manufacturing establishments, including modest-sized businesses as well as major corporations like General Electric (GE) and Westinghouse. Many of the facilities were based in small-to-medium-sized cities like Lynn and Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Schenectady, New York, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Erie, Pennsylvania, where UE locals 506 and 618 represented the workers at a massive GE plant. Here, a collection of committed activists, many whom were close to, or active members of, the Communist Party, fought for workplace improvements, secured union contracts, established an accountable shop steward system, and periodically staged strikes. They published and distributed newsletters, ran a regular UE radio program, and sponsored various social activities, including picnics and dances at the local union hall. They learned to stand up to management, won the respect of their co-workers, occasionally experienced the sting of firings and layoffs, and endured heavy dosages of red-baiting in the postwar period. In the process, they built a genuine culture of solidarity.

Expressions of solidarity were on full display during strike actions, and Young does a fantastic job outlining the causes, characteristics and outcomes of these confrontations. We learn about the post-World War II strike wave in 1946, when tens of thousands of workers throughout many of the nation’s industrial centers marched for improved wages and respect. Young reports that, both locally and nationally, “the UE stood in the forefront of that great action” (61). The result was an 18.5 cent an hour increase, less than the 25 cents an hour that the union had initially demanded. Young calls the outcome “a modest victory” (70).

But the post-strike feelings of relief and accomplishment were short-lived, and Young offers a rich account of the repressive atmosphere around the same time, when a wave of anti-labor radicalism threatened both this democratic union as well as organized labor generally. Importantly, he emphasizes the union’s multiple challenges in Erie without losing sight of broader anti-union and anti-radical developments, including the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, the CIO’s expulsion of radical unions, the hostile meddling of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the development of an explicitly anti-communist rival union--the International Union of Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (IUE)--and the influence of Catholics like the Pittsburgh-based Charles Rice. Locally, UE activists confronted an unfriendly press, one that red-baited the most committed labor activists. Readers will undoubtedly appreciate his on-the-ground descriptions of these layers of opposition.

The nation’s oppressive anti-communist atmosphere, generated principally by business organizations and their allies in politics, led to internal tensions on shop floors and in communities like Erie. We learn that some labor leaders sought to exploit these divisions. Directed by the arrogant anti-communist James Carey, the IUE helped weaken working class solidarity at a time when business groups and politicians launched new assaults on labor. Carey, with help from Charles Rice and the anti-communist Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, promoted this competing union because UE leaders had refused to sign affidavits stating that they were not communists, one of the rules imposed by the Taft-Hartley Act. The Careyites, Young reports, painted the UE as communist-controlled and irredeemably corrupt. GE managers took advantage of the internal bickering by dragging their feet during negotiations and by questioning which of the two unions was the official bargaining agent.

The UE in Erie withstood the challenges from the IUE, and continued to fight management. In management circles, few were as hardnosed as GE’s Lemuel Boulware, the company’s vice president for public relations. Boulware became nationally infamous for popularizing the “take it or leave it” approach to labor-management negotiations while touting GE’s positive contribution to the nation’s communities and to the overall prosperity of the country. Under Boulware’s leadership, the company aggressively disseminated corporate propaganda during negotiation sessions and strikes. The goal was to convince the public of GE’s underlying managerial fairness and patriotism. And of course, GE had deeper pockets than the union, and its messages were picked up in newspapers and shown on television.

Young illustrates that this model of unyielding negotiations—Boulwarism—was not shatterproof. Indeed, workers in Erie and other cities ultimately broke it following a bitter strike in 1969-70. The struggle was far from easy even though the union enjoyed some state support. The National Labor Relations Board, for example, had issued a decision proclaiming that the “take it or leave it” method of management was a form of unfair bargaining. But the company basically ignored this decision while disseminating pro-company propaganda and attempting to run workplaces with scab labor. Young captures the drama of the strike, explaining how men and women marched, blocked scabs from entering workplaces, engaged in much needed fundraising activities, and participated in an AFL-CIO-organized boycott of GE products. GE responded by organizing an unsuccessful “back to work” campaign and threatening protesters with layoffs. But the protesters stayed firm, and the company eventually buckled, deciding to negotiate. Young views the start of negotiations in January as a critical development: “Not since 1950 had the company’s negotiating position changed in the face of a strike or threat of a strike” (196). The union’s persistent pressure and savvy negotiating skills resulted in significant improvements. But more notably, Boulwarism had taken a major hit, “not,” Young writes, “by the belated court decision, but by the unity of the GE workers across the land” (198). The message was clear: working class solidarity, militancy, and persistence, not the involvement of a “friendly” state, mattered most of all.

It is commonplace for many of today’s mostly liberal historians to romanticize the two decades following World War II, a time when, unlike during the subsequent neoliberal onslaught, management supposedly valued the contributions of organized labor. One cannot reach that conclusion after reading Young’s remarkable book. During this supposed golden age, the company regularly behaved cruelly and deceptively, and the strikes it instigated were acrimonious and exhausting. Importantly, its managers expressed nostalgia for the pre-New Deal years, when highly exploitative open-shop workplaces constituted the norm. Young cites a very revealing GE document from 1954, which tells us rather candidly about how management perceived unions and collective bargaining: “The company most certainly wants to help the workers and believes the unity of GE workers would be a good thing for all, a unity that could best be achieved if there were no unions at all standing between the employees and their employers.” Young observes that “The mask came off” (161).

I have one criticism: I wish Young had said more about the nature of industrial relations in Erie during the pre-New Deal years, when employers had succeeded in building and defending mostly union-free workplaces. I raise this point because of what I found during my own research in Buffalo, where, during a dramatic 1906 molders strike, spokesmen for the Buffalo foundry owners cited labor relations in Erie as a model that they sought to emulate. How were managers in Erie able to prevent union advances in this early period? How did they present their managerial techniques to employers in other cities? The answers to these questions will tell us more about this city. Additionally, by focusing on a longer period, the anti-union backlash expressed most forcefully by the establishment of the Taft-Hartley Act would appear less like a new stage of business power and more like re-establishment of the status quo.

This is a very minor criticism. Readers of this journal should buy this book and encourage their libraries to order it. Teachers should assign it in their classes, and union members should consider reading and discussing it with one another. We should be grateful to Monthly Review Press for publishing this book and to James Young for writing it.

Chad E. Pearson
Collin College
Plano, Texas