Remembering Julius Emspak, “Worker-Intellectual” Who Built UE

April 26, 2012

Julius Emspak – one of the founders of UE and the union's first general secretary-treasurer – died of a heart attack 50 years ago, on April 26, 1962, at age 57. Emspak played a major role in shaping UE in its earliest years and in helping the union survive the fierce attacks on its existence in the 1950s. Perhaps his most visible legacy is the words of the Preamble to the UE Constitution, proclaiming a union that "…unites all workers on an industrial basis, and rank and file control, regardless of craft, age, sex, nationality, race, creed or political beliefs…" The UE Preamble was written by Julius Emspak and unanimously adopted by delegates to the founding UE convention in March 1936.

Julius Emspak was born August 6, 1904 in Schenectady, New York to Hungarian immigrant parents. Julius was the first in the family born in the U.S. – his older brothers were born in Hungary, and Hungarian was the language spoken in the family home. His father, who worked at GE, died in a railroad accident before Julius turned 9 years old, and was laid to rest with a secular funeral that included a performance by a socialist singing society. Emspak's older brothers Frank and Victor then went to work at GE to support the family and participated in the 1918 GE strike, which began in Erie and spread to Schenectady and other plants. Following the father's death, Emspak's mother also went to work at GE, as a cleaning woman, and Julius was hired at the plant at age 14 and entered the apprentice program for tool and die makers.

In 1927 – at age 23 – Emspak left GE to return to school. He finished four years of high school in two years and then entered Union College in Schenectady, where he studied philosophy and graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honors. Then, borrowing from a GE educational loan fund, he entered graduate school at Brown University in Rhode Island. In Emspak's obituary Tom Wright, the UE NEWS' first managing editor, wrote of his education: "He had hoped in the study of the great minds of the past to find clues toward improving the life of working people, with whom he passionately identified himself as a worker, the son of a worker, the brother of workers. Not finding in his studies the clues that he sought, and despite opportunities for a professional scholarly life which his accomplishments as a student had opened up to him, he returned very simply to his job at GE."

But before returning to GE Emspak worked for several months at the RCA plant in Camden, NJ – another plant whose workers would play a major role in starting UE. There he took part in a major strike. Back in Schenectady he turned down GE's offer of a white-collar job, choosing to return to factory work and to participate in the movement to establish an industrial union in GE. He became a protégée of William Turnbull, the middle-aged, British-born turbine inspector who was a central leader in the effort to organize what became UE Local 301.

At the UE founding convention in 1936, Empak was the logical choice as the new union's secretary-treasurer, in the opinions of two of the most influential leaders – William Turnbull and his counterpart from the Lynn, Massachusetts GE plant, Albert Coulthard. Like Turbull, Coulthard was an older, English-born skilled worker, old-school socialist, and a guiding force in the initial organization of UE. Years after Empak's death his fellow officer James Matles described him as "a true worker-intellectual. He was well-equipped in every respect, and as a young guy, to start participating in the leadership of the union. He was not picked by accident and designated secretary-treasurer."


During most of the 26 years Emspak served UE as secretary-treasurer, he worked alongside Albert Fitzgerald, UE general president from 1941 to 1978, and James Matles, UE director of organization from 1937 to '62. (Following Emspak's death, Matles succeeded him as secretary-treasurer until his own death in 1975, a month short of his retirement.) Longtime UE organizer and International Representative Ed Bloch, born in 1924 and hired by the union in 1951, worked in the national office in New York in the early 1950s, and later in upstate New York. He recalls, "Everybody in any kind of forward-looking union knew Fitzgerald, Emspak and Jim Matles – they called them the heavenly trio. I knew Jim and Fitzie better than I knew Julius, but I knew him well. He was just a brilliant guy."

Of the working relationship of UE's legendary leaders Bloch says, "The three of them, in sort of a miraculous way, with all the difference in their ethnicity, their point of view, their experiences and all that, they really respected each other! So they would sit down and reach consensus. The finished product was what we got, and then we'd do it, and nine times out of ten it would work. And if it didn't work – like in 201 and 301 – we came close. "

"When Julius died, I was close to Jim," Bloch adds, "and Jim was beside himself. It was also around the time his (Matles') wife died. So he was really despondent. It didn't prevent him from doing what needed to be done, but he was really hit hard."


Emspak helped lead the union through its years of rapid growth in the late 1930s and during World War II. During the war he served on President Roosevelt's War Labor Victory Committee, consisting of three leaders from the CIO and three from the AFL.

David Montgomery, the recently-deceased labor historian, has written that the massive postwar strikes of 1946 – especially the simultaneous coordinated strikes of the United Steelworkers against the steel industry, the UAW at GM, and UE at GE, Westinghouse and the GM electrical plants – was the high-water mark of the U.S. labor movement. The strikes of the CIO "big three" resulted in labor's biggest bargaining gains ever. And as UE President Albert Fitzgerald said in his eulogy at Emspak's funeral, "It was Julius' idea that the three unions get together in 1946."

But the success of 1946 prompted a counter-attack by the corporations. In 1947 a Republican-led Congress passed the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act. Big business and politicians used Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to stir up domestic political hysteria, much of it directed against alleged "reds" and radicals in the labor movement, in an effort to split and weaken the unions. UE, which took the most principled stand against political purges of unions, became the chief target of these attacks, and in 1949 left the CIO over issues of political independence and raiding by other unions.

In July 1950 the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) – one of the worst of the congressional witch-hunt tribunals – issued contempt of Congress citations against six local and national UE leaders, including Emspak and Matles, for refusing to cooperate with HUAC. Seven months later, four of the six were found not guility, but Emspak and Pittsburgh UE leader Tom Quinn were found guilty on technicalities, and each was sentenced to a year in jail and fines. The union's appeals took years, but eventually the Supreme Court threw out the convictions of both Emspak and Quinn as violations of rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. But there were other government attacks on UE. In 1955 the Republican U.S. Attorney General tried to outlaw UE as a "communist-infiltrated organization" under the Brownell-Butler Act. Emspak predicted that the government would fail to make its case and eventually have to drop the charges. In 1959 the government did just that.

The courage and tenacity of Emspak and other principled UE fighters paid off, and at the funeral, Pres. Fitzgerald was able to say, "It is good to know that Julius lived to see the enemies of the union beaten back, and that he lived to see that UE is on the way back up again."


Bob Lewis, longtime UE general counsel, was hired into UE's legal department in 1954 fresh out of law school, and at the time was the youngest member of the national office staff. He recalls that Julius Emspak "was very interested in my education. He gave me books to read of various kinds – political books. He was a very good friend." He recalls Emspak as "a very kind man. I liked him very much."

Another UE young activist of the 1950s, Frank Rosen, remembers Emspak as "a revered figure – a very key figure in our history." Rosen came into the union in 1951 and worked in a shop for 15 years before joining the UE staff. Rosen learned UE unionism under the tutelage of another UE legend, Ernie DeMaio, UE District 11's president for over 30 years. When DeMaio retired in 1974 Rosen replaced him as district president. "I know that Ernie had a very high regard for Julius, and he knew him a lot better than I did." (Rosen's son Carl is now president of UE's Western Region.)


Julius Emspak's son Frank has been active in the labor movement over four decades, including membership in UE Local 271, working at GE and serving as an elected leader in IUE Local 201 in Lynn, teaching at the Wisconsin School for Workers in Madison, and now as managing editor/executive producer at Workers Independent News (WIN), a labor radio news service. "I don't think I'd be doing what I've been doing without his influence." He says the influence was not direct – his father did not urge him to follow in his footsteps – but rather what Frank called "a replication of working class consciousness." His parents were supportive when, in high school, he started going to civil rights rallies and was briefly expelled for antiwar activity. "So it wasn't a huge cultural leap. I discovered that when I went to work at GE (in Lynn) and I found out that a third of the people knew who I was the minute I stepped into the facility. It was the most amazing thing. And my steward walked up to me and said, 'Everybody knows you're here. How the hell did you get past the blacklist?'"

Frank Emspak was in second grade when his father was convicted of contempt of Congress and jailed for a while, until the union won his release through a writ of habeas corpus. "I remember, I drew a picture and sent it off to him and then was crushed to find out that it had been confiscated and never given to him."

"I think one of the extraordinary things," Frank added, "is that a Hungarian-speaking person winds up going through higher education, and then back making a commitment to his fellow workers and his family, and then applying Marxist philosophy, and organizing, to the problem of what do you do in 1931 and '32 and '35 to bring together working people. So I think those thoughts then translated into his thinking, which I was deeply influenced by, about how you deal with automation and the production of wealth, and who should control it."

On his father's impact on UE and the labor movement, Frank Emspak says, "His influence in the union is much stronger than people think, in the basic democratic structure of the union, and the things he helped to put in place – basic benefit programs, basic steward programs, things like that. Those are really deep, deep contributions to the union."


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