Beyond red baiting: reading between the lines of the history of United Electrical Workers

Nick Driedger argues that red-baiting is overemphasized in the standard histories of the United Electrical Workers’ decline. The UE was raided into near oblivion by other unions, not because of their formal Communist politics like their position on Soviet Union, but because of their approach to labor relations, which insisted on control of the job in the plants, the right to strike on the job, and rank-and-file democratic unionism. Contrary to the red-baiting narrative, the Communist Party itself played a role in undermining UE’s radical unionism, because it did not see the UE’s approach to labor relations as politically significant. This has implications for those who believe that socialist leadership in itself will bring back labor militancy today. It raises the question of what socialist or communist politics in unions really means — is it a matter of formal political affiliation or a different kind of commitment to worker struggle?

Image: IUE CIO banner on side of East Pittsburgh Westinghouse plant while workers wait to vote, 1949. From University of Pittsburgh digital collection.

In some ways, the historical record on the rise and fall of the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) is clear: UE was formed in 1936 by the merger of various independent organizing efforts in the electrical manufacturing industry — one year after the Wagner Act was signed that formalized the process of legally recognizing unions. Between 1937 and 1946, the United Electrical Workers saw explosive growth, becoming the third-largest union in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) with 600,000 members. They were widely regarded as Communist Party-dominated, though many accounts describe the union at that time as a model of trade union democracy internally. In the late 1940s, the union’s fortunes turned decisively, and in the 1960s, UE shrank to about 30,000 members, where they have remained since. Why those fortunes turned is where people disagree. 

A lot of attention is paid to “red-baiting” when explaining UE’s decline — that is, publicly outing and ostracizing people and institutions with far-left politics. Indeed, the turning-point for UE happened at the start of the Cold War, when many people in the business class, in government, and in more conservative unions were beginning to move against communist involvement in the labor movement. The United Electrical Workers were a prime target.

Hand-in-hand with the red-baiting came raiding: the practice of one union trying to take over another union or their members and assimilate them. The story of UE is generally told as if it were the formal politics (Communist affiliation or not) that drove these moves. But more soberly, the real basis for the raids was the way that UE differed from other unions on labor relations questions, such as the right to strike over grievances, or resisting management’s control over the work process. An irrelevant union with no base, and no impact on a core industry would not have been marked out and targeted the way UE was. By the 1960s, UE still had radical politics, but as a union it was also fairly contained. 

The focus on red-baiting also lets the Communist Party off the hook for the role they themselves played in UE’s decline. The CP did not see UE’s approach to labor relations as politically significant, and actually took a number of moves against it: first downplaying UE’s unique political struggle over control of the job in the plants, then pushing no-strike pledges during WWII, and ultimately directly betraying the union they had helped build and foster.

The raids

In 1949, two years after the Taft-Hartley Act was passed which demanded union officers formally renounce communism, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) expelled the United Electrical Workers from their ranks. At the exact same time, the CIO issued a charter for the International Union of Electrical Workers, a union designed solely to raid the United Electrical Workers. As one writer put it, “the IUE had a president, a charter, a treasury filled with money donated from the CIO, but no members.” [1]

Again, the United Electrical Workers’ association with the Communist Party was real, and the political fallout from being associated with a foreign power during the height of the Cold War was also very real. There was constant harassment of the union from all levels of government and even within the CIO. As Rosemary Feurer puts it: “The CP’s ties to the Soviet Union continued to be a major impediment to District 8’s [a organizational unit of UE in the midwest] influence in the CIO. In District 8 in particular, the Left faced raids much earlier than is usually recognized — raids encouraged by national union leaders but also geared to ensuring that they would not be able to control the local CIO bodies where it was potentially a significant organizational and political force.” [2]

A common practice was to have the union’s leaders subpoenaed to appear in front of the House Unamerican Activities Commission (HUAC) while a large component of the union was targeted by a raid, in order to make sure the local leadership was not able to defend itself. This was combined with the fact that Taft-Hartley made sure that the United Electrical Workers could not appear on any ballots for recognition under the National Labor Relations Board. [3] While the HUAC hearings were an important part of the process, the goal of the raids was not to boost the HUAC hearings, as a union raid is of lesser consequence to the general public. Rather, these hearings amplified the union raids, given their timing and targeting. 

The standard story is that  Taft-Hartley’s anti-communism was the root of UE’s decline, and that Taft-Hartley is responsible for the decline of labor militancy more generally. But it must be noted that the Wagner Act model of formal recognition and exclusive representation is what made the raiding move very easy. UE would compete in plants with the IUE (and sometimes the UAW and IBEW). Wagner Act representation could only be maintained by UE after Taft Hartley by having the members vote “no union” in order to vote for UE. [4] If your union stands or falls on winning a representation election, this is a problem. Moreover, employers were willing to settle with non-UE unions on more favorable terms in order to either remove UE or to keep them out.

So, the evil brilliance of Taft-Hartley is not its use of brute force but the way it uses the recognition framework — the very one that had led a short time earlier to the UE’s explosive growth — against unions like UE. Making Board recognition an important part of the legitimacy of unions made them reliant on the National Labor Relations Board. Taft-Hartley uses the disciplinary mechanisms in the Wagner Act, partly introduced to protect against company unions that are too far to the right (if a number of unions compete in the workplace without any of them holding a majority, this opens the door to the company singling one out for a cozy relationship), to now prevent “communist” unions that are too far to the left.

Differences between UE and IUE

As mentioned in the introduction, aside from questions of international relations and their opinion of the Soviet Union, an important aspect where the IUE and UE differed was on their approach to labor relations. First and foremost that included the question of management’s rights. Management’s rights clauses, sometimes called “management’s prerogative,” consist of language in the contract that concedes that, aside from what is outlined specifically in the collective agreement, the union recognizes the right of management to run the workplace as they see fit. This is an uncontroversial part of any union contract in Canada or the US today, but in the 1930s, the idea was more controversial, especially in relation to UE’s radical politics. Focusing on this issue was a key part of the UE’s response to the mass raiding by the IUE and it earned them some early success: “UE’s policy of resistance won the support of shop floor workers. IUE had a much more conciliatory policy, writing management’s prerogative into the contract, which allowed the company to conduct time studies.” [5]  

However, by even the mid-1940s (before Taft-Hartley), the communist leadership of the United Electrical Workers had already moved towards downplaying these differences and focusing on “’bread and butter’ issues.” [6] By the time the raids were happening in the late 1940s, UE’s main tack was to defend their trade unionism on the grounds of wages gained, and to paint themselves as “essentially conventional trade unionists.” [7] A lot of leftists and academics latch onto this to argue that the main point of departure between UE and IUE were their positions on the CPUSA, leaving aside their drastically different approaches to management’s rights, rank-and-file democracy, and grievance arbitration. 

Indeed, UE was exceedingly democratic, with their leaders’ salaries being tied to the wages of the workers on the shop floor, and the wages of union staff (who were mostly recruited from the union’s ranks) being set out in the union’s constitution.

The grievance procedure was also unique. As a matter of policy, it existed to allow issues to be settled before they got to a strike, but strikes over grievances were still allowed and considered a part of the rank-and-file members’ right to determine when and how strikes were conducted. [8] As one historian points out, UE not only engaged in work stoppages during the life of the contract, they encouraged their stewards to do so and supported them: “UE in the United States was not limited by a statutory prohibition on strike action during the life of a contract and, contrary to the practice of many other unions in that country, resisted employer pressure to insert arbitration provisions in its contracts. Its educational materials … advised activists to retain the right to strike after the internal arbitration procedure was exhausted. It also suggested settling as many grievances as possible at the first stage and with collective resistance as necessary.” [9]

The United Electrical Workers went further than just asserting that right on the job; they called on the government and industry to recognize the right to strike during the life of the contract in Canada (a right that exists in the USA but not Canada). [10]

The Communist Party betrays UE

So what was the Communist Party’s role in the UE? 

The Communist Party USA (CPUSA) was involved in the United Electrical Workers from the very beginning. Some parts of UE had their origins in William Z. Foster’s Trade Union Unity League project from the early 1920s. [11] Foster went on to become a leader of the CPUSA for much of the second quarter of the 20th Century. 

With the threat of raids, UE was faced with either liquidating the ground-level politics that made them different and useful, or effectively being pushed off the map by a labor relations system designed to make sure unions that raised those kinds of issues (management’s rights, etc.) went away.

Under the advisement of the CP, the UE moved away from a political kind of trade unionism that challenged management on the job and fought for control over the work process, and this made them less able to differentiate themselves from the IUE over anything other than their relationship to the USSR and the CPUSA. During WWII this reached its logical conclusion when the UE’s CP-aligned leadership opposed strikes to settle shop floor disputes, as the union had previously endorsed, and supported a Communist Party and CIO-wide no-strike pledge. [12]

Finally in 1955, the CPUSA directed several of their strongest locals to jump ship and join other unions, including IUE — the very union that had been built to destroy the United Electrical Workers, supposedly because of Communist Party influence — because at that point IUE was bigger and thus a larger arena for recruitment and propaganda. [13] (The other important part of this story, though, is that the IUE took these locals [14] — locals that, so the story goes, were intolerably full of communists and needed to be destroyed and rebuilt. That’s more evidence of what the raids were really about.)

Basically, the CPUSA gave UE disastrous, conservative advice, and when that advice tanked the union, they switched sides [15]. This isn’t inconsistent, though: even the most charitable reading, that these locals left UE to try and win the IUE over to their socialist unionism, basically put forward that it’s the political leadership that makes a union radical and not the policies and day-to-day shopfloor practices. If a union is primarily there to deliver a constituency to a political group, that union is going to be discarded when it fails to deliver what the party needs.

The working class’s experience on the job generates socialism — not the other way around

Reducing this story down to a matter of red-baiting is usually tied to the argument that socialist politics are what the trade union movement needs most. The thing is, the daily life of workers under capitalism generates socialist politics — it is an engine of socialist sentiment. The expression of this is struggle on the job, which leads to unions and sometimes other political groups. That doesn’t mean all unions are socialist in character, but it does mean all unions tend to lead workers to implicitly socialist conclusions when they struggle over things like control over profits and over the production process. Unions don’t need socialist parties to give them political content; political parties need unions to recruit from, to grow, and for legitimacy when claiming to speak for working people. 

Red-baiting was undeniably a part of UE’s decline, but it was also only the ideological expression of underlying fights in the workplace over the workers’ ability to control their own union and to attempt to assert control over the job. These things are not bread-and-butter concerns, nor are they what we now call conventional trade unionism. “Conventional trade unionism” was created by destroying other kinds of trade unionism.

If there is a conflict between two unions with different perspectives on management’s prerogatives, there is a strong strategic case to be made for making that issue the central one. It’s not that everyone cares more about it than wages (although certainly everyone cares about that issue a lot as soon as management does something unpopular on the floor). But putting that political difference front and center is the best path for the more radical union to fend off a raid, and it’s also the path towards breaking the political monopoly the Wagner Act model has imposed on unions. This kind of approach isn’t going to win a union a lot of certifications but neither is this kind of unionism premised on winning legal recognition. Looking back at the UE raids, not appearing on NLRB petitions is mostly a problem if your existence is premised on those kinds of elections. 

Again, many unions have implicitly socialist politics but socialism that doesn’t put workers in control of the work isn’t a kind of socialism worth talking about. If building the workers up isn’t a political commitment, that is going to lead you in some pretty cynical directions, as it did the CPUSA. The struggle by working people to control work is not primarily played out in legislation or contract language but in daily struggles on the job and in society. UE’s policies and approach to management’s rights and strikes was a function of that kind of socialist politics that has its roots early in the 20th Century before socialism mostly became about what side to take in the Cold War. Red-baiting is something those of us with socialist politics need to be wary of, but so is shooting ourselves in the foot by abandoning what makes a union effective. 

Footnotes

[1] Michael J. Bonislawski, Field Organizers and the United Electrical Workers: A Labor of Love, Struggle and Commitment 1935-1960, (Boston College dissertation, 2002), 205.  

[2] Rosemary Feurer, Radical Unionism in the Midwest 1900-1950 (University of Illinois Press, 2006), 236.

[3] “The Taft-Hartley Act meant that unless UE’s officer took a loyalty oath, the UE could not even appear on the ballot in any National Labour Relations Board elections. The Taft-Hartley Act also allowed a certification vote to be called by petition of the employers. This meant that the existing union could be challenged at any time and with no requirement that a new union have signed members in the shop.” James L Turk, “Surviving the Cold War: A Study of the United Electrical Workers in Canada,” Oral History Forum 4 (1980), 16-28.

[4] “Thus in this case workers could vote for the AFL or vote ‘No’ for no union which meant to keep UE as their union of choice.” Bonislawski, 209.

[5] Bonislawski, 216. 

[6] Feurer, xv.

[7] Ibid., xvi.

[8] Bonislawski, 145.

[9] Jeffery Taylor, “The Struggle for Rights at Work: The United Electrical Workers, Contract Enforcement, and the Limits of Grievance Arbitration at Canadian General Electric and Westinghouse Canada, 1940s to 1960s,” Labour: Journal of Canadian Labour Studies 83 (Spring 2019), 58.

[10] “By the 1950s the official UE position was that workers should have the right to strike during the life of an agreement. A district council resolution passed in 1954 called for an amendment to Ontario’s labor legislation guaranteeing ‘the right of the union to process grievances through all stages under the contract and then be free to choose arbitration or to exercise the right to strike.’ It was claimed that workers had surrendered the right to strike as a wartime measure, but had not regained it in the postwar period. Furthermore, the experience most workers had with arbitration was less than satisfying.” Ibid., 59.

[11] Bonislawski, 96.

[12] Feurer, 158; Bonislawski, 199.

[13] Doug Smith, Cold Warrior: C. S. Jackson and the United Electrical Workers (Canadian Committee on Labour History, 1997), 221.

[14] Smith, 234.

[15] “Party leaders believed it was important that the workers return to the mainstream of the labour movement.” Smith, 221.

Nick Driedger

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