Ronald Reagan Danced to GE's Tune

With anti-labor governors in several states across the country baring their union-busting fangs, it is well for us to recall the role played by one of the biggest union busters of all - former California governor and later President, Ronald Reagan.

GE is currently engaged in a two year celebration of the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth which passed recently on February 6. The Company has spent lavishly, about $15 million worth, on promotion of this centennial. GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt, an avowed admirer of Reagan, has also joined the board of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.

Reagan worked for GE from 1954 to 1962, and is remembered chiefly in those years as the host of General Electric Theater. But he also carried out an elaborate campaign designed by Lemuel Boulware, GE’s union relations chief, and creator of GE’s brand of “take it or leave it” bargaining, which came to be known as “Boulwarism”. It was Boulware and his GE cohorts who fashioned Reagan’s stump speeches extolling the “free market” and private enterprise, and against unions like the UE, “big” government, and Roosevelt’s New Deal.

When he ran for President in 1980, UE Local 506 took a look at the record, and ran an article in the April, 1980 issue of their Union News, which recalled the role Reagan had played at GE. Reagan of course, went on to win the presidential election later in November of that year. As President, he encouraged and abetted corporations in their wholesale assault against unions, including his firing of striking air traffic controllers, only months into his presidency.

The article below is particularly timely in reminding us that anti-union politicians don’t simply appear by themselves out of nowhere. As in Reagan’s case, they are often nurtured, financed, and trained by their corporate masters to do their dirty work. Here then, is how UE Local 506 reported it back in April of 1980:


The 1950’s was the Joe McCarthy era of political witchhunting. It was also the period of GE’s most intense campaign to eradicate the UE through McCarthyite tactics.

Ronald Reagan, once a Hollywood actor and now the front running Republican presidential candidate, worked for GE in the 1950’s, spreading the idea that democratic unionism was “subversive.”

In the early 50’s, Ronald Reagan was a has-been actor. At one point Reagan was $18,000 in debt and had resorted to hosting a Las Vegas night club act, in a desperate attempt to make money.

In 1954 GE revived Reagan’s dying career, hiring him to host “GE Theatre” TV show, and to make personal appearance tours for the company.

GE Theatre ran from 1954 to 1962, and Reagan visited all 135 GE plants during that time. After the first year, Reagan was accompanied by ex-FBI agent, George Dalen, who was put in charge of the tours.

Reagan’s speeches at first consisted mainly of Hollywood gossip. But after the first year the speeches became more political - and viciously anti-union.

GE paid Reagan for his services: $125,000 a year at first, later raised to $150,000.

Red-Baiting UE

In every GE town he visited, Reagan spoke of the “attempted take-over of the industry by the Communists.” He described the electrical workers’ rank-and-file-controlled Union, the UE, as “suffering from Communist infiltration amounting to outright domination.”

Reagan also red-baited the social reforms instituted during the New Deal administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was probably the most pro-labor president in American history.

Reagan denounced Social Security, federal aid to education, public housing, federal farm programs, and publically-owned utilities. He warned his audiences of “the swiftly rising tide of collectivism that threatens to inundate what remains of our free economy.”

Right-Wing Hero

As McCarthyism spread, Reagan began speaking to more groups than just GE employees. Soon he was spinning his yarns of “Communist conspiracy” to Chamber of Commerce banquets, high school assemblies, and business conventions.

Reagan made an anti-Medicare recording for the AMA, publically supported far-right groups like Young American for Freedom and the Christian Anti-Communist Campaign, and was campaign chairman for John Birch Society supporter Lloyd Wright in the 1962 California GOP primary. He also appeared jointly with Orval Faubus, the diehard segregationist governor of Arkansas. In all these activities, Reagan represented his employer, the General Electric Company. They never indicated, he said, that “I was singing the wrong song and should switch tunes.”

In 1962, Reagan left GE and in 1966 he ran for and won the governorship of California. Ronald Reagan had come a long way as GE’s anti-union propagandist . . . from a second-rate Las Vegas night club, to the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento..