1948: Year of Hope, Year of Tragedy

November 20, 1998

Fifty years ago, union members and their allies launched a new party. But big business aggressively silenced dissent and fractured labor unity.

Them and us, 50 years ago: The first issue of the UE NEWS for 1948 reported on two very different strategies for America’s future.

An Iowa progressive who had served his country as Vice President announced his independent candidacy for the Presidency, to secure peace and prosperity and equal rights for all.

Meanwhile, powerful industrialists formulated a cynical, multi-million-dollar propaganda campaign to convince the American public to accept the corporate agenda.

Over the next 12 months, big money succeeded — and UE found itself fighting the reactionary tide in an increasingly divided labor movement.

UE began the year as the third largest union in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), with some 600,000 workers under contracts covering more than 1,500 plants.

That year, 1948, saw the U.S. government working in concert with big business to promote a foreign policy that promised war abroad and restrictions on civil liberties at home. The cold war was underway.


The conclusion of World War II in 1945 uniquely positioned U.S. capital for global expansion and domination. To make markets and resources abroad safe for exploitation, big business required a U.S. government willing to aggressively contain communism abroad, through military intervention if necessary. The country would have to accept an unprecedented peace-time military build-up and propagation of a Soviet threat.

The U.S. and Soviet Union had been allies in the war against Nazi Germany. Many Americans shared President Roosevelt’s vision of a postwar world of peace and prosperity made possible by continued cooperation among the war-time allies. But the Wall Street executives in Truman’s Administration regarded cooperation with the Soviet Union as an obstacle to the big business plans to unite with British imperialist interests in the Middle East and Asia.

As Charles E. Wilson, president of General Electric remarked in October 1946, "The problems of the United States can be captiously summed up in two words: Russia abroad, labor at home."

Major strikes by UE and the other CIO unions in 1946 had enjoyed widespread community support, demonstrating to big business the urgent necessity of curbing labor’s growing power. In the immediate post-war period, red-baiting took on a new emphasis by big business and anti-labor politicians. The National Association of Manufacturers distributed millions of pamphlets like Communists in the Labor Movement in an unprecedented ideological advertising campaign.


The Taft-Hartley Act bill, written by lobbyists for GE and other major corporations, in 1947 repealed much of the original National Labor Relations Act and contained a political restriction on holding union office in tune with the anti-communist hysteria. Union officers were required to sign affidavits that they were not Communist Party members; if officers refused to sign, a union would lose all legal protection under the National Labor Relations Board.

UE’s officers vowed not to comply with the act in any way. CIO Pres. Philip Murray spoke out in opposition to the law’s "loyalty oath." At first, none of the CIO unions submitted to the law. Then, at the urging of its new president, Walter Reuther, the United Auto Workers’ executive board agreed to sign the affidavits. Other CIO unions followed.

Worse, some unions began raiding UE locals. The raiding union would petition the Labor Board for the right to represent workers already represented by UE — but UE’s name would not appear on the ballot. UAW raids on UE locals got underway in earnest in March 1948.

As the UE NEWS reported early in 1948, companies big and small were using the new law as an excuse to break off relations with UE or to counter organizing campaigns.

Harry Truman, who had become President upon the death of Roosevelt, had done little to swing his Democratic Party into action against the Taft-Hartley bill. He vetoed the bill, but a majority of Democrats gave big business the victory as they voted with Republicans to override the veto.

Truman, who had already broken strikes by miners and railroad workers, used Taft-Hartley nine times in preventing strikes for higher wages.

The President proclaimed his Truman Doctrine, using anti-communism to justify unconditional aid for a fascist Greek king at war with his own people. The real crisis, former Vice President Henry Wallace told the 1947 UE Convention, "is not on the Greek border but in American grocery stores." Truman called for loyalty investigations of federal employees — a development, Wallace said, that threatens "everything in America that is worth fighting for."

Momentum was building for a break with the Democratic Party.


In its first 1948 issue, the UE NEWS reported Henry Wallace’s independent candidacy for President. Wallace, who had been a member of Roosevelt’s administration as Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President, called for curbing "the ever-growing power and profits of monopoly" and preserving living standards.

Wallace took a strong stand for civil and trade union rights, jobs and decent homes. The candidate declared himself in favor of understanding between the U.S. and Soviet Union and getting rid of the threat of atomic bombs and "all other methods of mass destruction."

The same issue of the UE NEWS reported a very different program. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), which had spent millions of dollars to achieve passage of Taft-Hartley and destruction of price controls, was preparing a new propaganda barrage that would take the blame for high prices away from big business, downplay the size of corporate profits, give Taft-Hartley a better spin and convince people that lower taxes on high incomes and less government spending are their major economic needs.

UE’s national officers went on tour in January, speaking to big rallies where they called on members "to join the union’s fight to protect the people’s living standards and democratic rights from the combined assault of government agencies and industry."

Meanwhile, the Wallace candidacy was opening up new fault lines within the CIO. At its January 22-23 meeting, the CIO Executive Board condemned Wallace’s candidacy.


UE rejected this attempt to dictate to its membership. "In the past each International Union has been free to take such action on fundamental issues as it sees fit," the UE General Executive Board said. Given the differing opinions within the movement, "the CIO should not widen divisions in our ranks."

In March, the GEB unanimously voted to grant the national officers permission to serve in the Wallace campaign. UE Genl. Pres. Albert J. Fitzgerald accepted co-chairmanship of the National Wallace for President Committee and chairmanship of the campaign’s labor committee.

The three top UE officers reaffirmed the 1947 convention’s commitment to "an independent political force by working people and their allies." The Democrats and Republicans had by and large demonstrated hostility to the needs of the people. The position taken by Wallace coincided with UE policy and represented "a fight for a continuation and extension of the New Deal and a vigorous fight for world peace."

Fitzgerald blasted the Truman Administration’s "eager use" of Taft-Hartley "to help corporations fight the demands of their employees." He pointed out that Wallace was the only presidential candidate who stood for repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, endorsed labor’s fight for a substantial wage increase "and protecting the democratic rights of the American people."

That those democratic rights were under threat was becoming increasingly evident.


"Meeting in secret session in Washington, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee is working out the final details of a plot to make it impossible for the American people to organize for better conditions, to speak out against reaction, to strike for higher wages or to criticize any policy of the government," the UE NEWS reported on May 1.

When two members were declared to be "security risks" by Westinghouse and the U.S. Navy and placed on indefinite leave without pay, UE Local 107 shut down the huge South Philadelphia Westinghouse works for two days in July. Local 107 got its point across.

The more than 3,200 delegates who attended the founding convention of the Progressive Party in Philadelphia on July 26 also took a strong stand in defense of civil liberties, union rights and workers’ living standards. Delegates nominated Henry Wallace for president and Sen. Glen Taylor (D., Idaho), a leader in the fight against Taft-Hartley, for vice president.

"Why haven’t we done this before?" asked UE’s Albert Fitzgerald, the convention’s permanent chairman. "How is that we working people — nine-tenths of us — have so long allowed our votes be bought, sold and delivered by the political parties of the other tenth?"

Days later, 1,500 National Guardsmen, using tanks, machine guns, bayonets and tear gas brought an end to the 90-day strike of UE Local 768 at the Univis Lens Co. in Dayton, Ohio. The day before the National Guard moved in, the House Labor Committee called five strike leaders to Washington for grilling. (Rep. Fred Hartley of Taft-Hartley ill-fame chaired the committee.) Red-baiting and anti-Semitism, police attacks on the picket lines and injunctions were also part of the company’s elaborate arsenal.

Just before the UE National convention, the House Labor Committee issued a subpoena to the union’s officers. Rep. Charles Kersten, a notoriously anti-labor Wisconsin Republican, headed a three-man subcommittee set up to investigate "newspaper reports" that UE "has failed to set its house in order concerning its ideological aspects."

Blasting the committee, UE Pres. Fitzgerald said there was no legitimacy to an investigation based on newspaper reports floated by the committee in the first place. Like all American citizens, UE members do not have to account to anyone for their political ideas, he said.


Meanwhile, the cold war against labor had become a cold war within the movement itself. Tremendous pressure was brought to bear on CIO Pres. Murray to yield to the cold war program. At stake was the unity and political independence of the CIO. Murray "tried to do two things at once, to stand firm against dividing the CIO and to move nearer to the right and those supporting such division," observed the authors of Labor’s Untold Story. As the pressures of the cold war grew ever greater — and the penalties for dissent worsened — Murray made his choice.

The CIO leadership had formally endorsed President Truman for election. A majority of CIO vice presidents first adopted a statement by Murray that criticized the 80th Congress, praised some aspects of the Democratic platform, criticized the Republican platform in one sentence and devoted three paragraphs to denouncing the Progressive Party. The Executive Board then endorsed Truman, 35-12. UE opposed the endorsement.

The 13th UE Convention, meeting in New York Sept. 6-10, chose to make no endorsements. But delegates blasted both Democrats and Republicans and condemned efforts to silence Wallace and disrupt his candidacy. The UE convention urged that the unity of the CIO be preserved on the basis of organizing the unorganized and fighting for the membership.


The convention took place during a recess in the Kersten hearing. Following the convention, Sec.-Treas. Julius Emspak and Dir. of Org. James Matles appeared before the Congressmen. The UE leaders acused the committee of working directly with employers to instigate and provoke force and violence against UE strikers. The union’s officers vigorously condemned the committee’s attempt to control the thoughts of the UE membership.

In further examples of collusion between the government and bosses, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission "directed" GE not to recognize UE at the Knolls II Atomic Power Laboratory in Schenectady, N.Y. The Hartley committee also turned its attention to UE Local 301 in Schenectady. One GE worker told the Congressmen: "I don’t have to discuss my thoughts with people who are trying to bust the union, and I think voting for the Taft-Hartley law was trying to bust the union."

The UE-GE Conference Board meeting on Oct. 13 revealed the real reason behind GE’s smear campaign: "Delegate after delegate reported tremendous efforts to speedup GE workers, discrimination in women’s rates, favoritism in job transfers, discrimination against Negroes, violation of seniority by schemes to oust older workers, and chiseling on job rates by moving work from plant to plant," the UE NEWS reported.


In the fall elections, many UE locals worked to oust "Hartleyite," anti-labor members of Congress; Local 506 Bus. Agent Jim Kennedy was among several UE leaders who ran for public office in that election either as Democrats or Progressives.

Voters repudiated the 80th Congress for its attacks on the New Deal; the Republican majorities in both the House and Senate were overturned. Kersten and other union-busters were ousted. Harry Truman, who repudiated the Democratic record in Congress to pose as a defender of the New Deal, narrowly gained a victory over the Republican nominee.

Henry Wallace and Glen Taylor polled 1,157,326 votes, an unexpectedly low 2.3 percent of the total. Their campaign was plagued by ballot restrictions, inadequate funds and organization, and the unwillingness of union leaders and sympathetic elected officials to ally themselves with the new party. And the cold war atmosphere, thick with smears of subversion and treason, rife with investigations, loyalty oaths and blacklisting, doomed the party’s chances from the beginning.

Taking the offensive, UE launched a drive to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act. Before year’s end, UE members visited Washington to push for Taft-Hartley repeal and an anti-recession program that called for closing tax loopholes for the rich, higher corporate income taxes, price controls and extensive social legislation.


At the CIO Convention in late November, the UE delegation backed most of the 50-odd resolutions but voted "no" on a 60 percent per capita increase, a foreign policy resolution that ignored the impact of military buildup on the economy and a political action resolution that committed the CIO to the Democratic Party. UE also objected to a resolution giving the CIO executive board new power to intervene in affiliates’ internal affairs.

The Resolutions committee failed to report out a UE resolution condemning raiding and outlining steps to halt it. The raids by CIO and AFL unions on UE locals continued. The CIO continued a rightward drift towards collusion with government and business. The anti-communist hysteria intensified, handing big business a convenient weapon in their war against UE’s rank-and-file unionism. In 1949 UE ceased paying per capita dues to the CIO and decided not to send a delegation to the CIO convention.

Big money proved the victor in 1948 by fracturing the labor movement.

Fifty years later, it’s still "them and us." Today working people have a fresh chance to build solidarity and democracy — and a new party that represents their interests.


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