“They didn’t like anyone telling them what to do”

May 11, 2024

A new radio documentary produced by New England Public Media tells the story of how a UE local in a “deeply conservative rural county” in Massachusetts not only survived but grew during the red-baiting attacks on UE in the early 1950s. The 50-minute documentary “At Sword’s Point” first aired on May 4 and 5, but can be streamed at nepm.org/swordspoint. Produced and narrated by public historian Tom Goldscheider, the documentary includes interviews with retired UE District Two President Judy Atkins and International Representative David Cohen.

Workers at the Greenfield Tap and Die plant organized UE Local 274 in the lead-up to World War II, winning a labor board election just months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. GTD’s highly-skilled machinists, in Goldschieder’s words, “had learned the value of including everyone in the union during World War I, when they walked out, and the rest of the plant kept running without them.” Instead of joining the AFL’s craft union, those machinists chose to organize with the new industrial union, UE, which united them with all the rest of the workers in the plant.

Organization with UE brought not only regular pay increases, but a shop steward system, which Goldscheider calls “a complete game changer for workers.” Greenfield was the center and first home of the tap-and-die industry (machine tools which are used to create standardized nuts and bolts), but in the early twentieth century outside investors had taken control of the industry in Greenfield. Goldscheider describes company efforts to “rationalize production”: “men in lab coats stood behind machinists with stop-watches and timed each individual task that went into the work they performed. The data they collected was used to set pay rates throughout the plant.” The UE shop steward system gave them a way to fight back.

In 1949, after the CIO chartered the IUE to try to destroy UE, the new union — which had no members and no contracts — sent out telegrams to all of the hundreds of companies which had contracts with UE, encouraging them to withdraw recognition from UE. GTD’s president Donald Millar was one of the first to respond.

In January 1950, GTD workers voted in what Goldscheider called the “first testing ground” in the national effort to destroy UE. Cohen described the pressure brought to bear on the workers: “Priests picketing the factory every day threatening to excommunicate people” if they voted for UE, Protestant churches taking out ads in local papers encouraging votes for the IUE, and local newspapers urging members to desert the UE.

However, the Local 274 leadership unanimously stuck by UE, declaring that it would be “insane” to jeopardize the gains workers had won by switching to a different union whose only program seemed to be fighting “international communism.” On January 24, GTD workers made it clear that they agreed, voting to stay with UE by a vote of 396 to 332.

As Goldscheider relates, “the propaganda that worked so well in other places backfired spectacularly in Franklin County.” One of the key reasons it backfired was UE’s democratic structure — Local 274 members knew that they were the ones who made decisions in their union, not the UE staff or national officers whose loyalty was being questioned.

Atkins, who worked in another Local 274 shop before being elected president of District Two, describes being a UE member as “my first and only experience of democracy.” She notes how UE members are expected not only to vote but to run their own union by “going to meetings, taking a role, you know, being responsible.”

Greenfield workers, many of whom had fought in World War II, also resented having their patriotism questioned by company executives and politicians. James Wooster, a worker at a Greenfield company called Threadwell — where workers voted to join Local 274 in 1951, in the midst of the red-baiting — said in a 1975 oral history interview quoted in the documentary:

We’d all been through the Second World War so we knew all about Hitler and Tokyo Rose trying to knock down your morale with their propaganda. This was just the same. You just had to look at who was saying it to know it was a bunch of baloney.

Ultimately, Cohen says, Local 274 members at GTD were “Yankee Republicans” and “they didn’t like anyone telling them what to do.” “At Sword’s Point” is a fascinating and moving account of how one UE local successfully fought off the attacks that nearly destroyed UE, and a testament to the power of UE’s style of member-run unionism.


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