The View from Within
Industrial unionism was a tactical goal grounded in ideology: the belief that workers in America could protect themselves from systematic exploitation only by organizing themselves into a strong national institution. The CIO was not, however, “one big union.” It was a coalition of a number of large industrial unions, such as the United Mine Workers, United Auto Workers, United Steelworkers, United Electrical Workers, and a number of smaller unions such as Fur and Leather, Longshoremen, National Maritime Union, and Food and Tobacco. In 1946, the CIO Executive Board included representatives of forty-one internationals.
Ideological conflict within this coalition eventually culminated in the purge of the federation’s left-wing unions in 1949–1950. Throughout the first year of Operation Dixie, there were neither obvious purges of the left nor overt witch-hunts staged by the CIO leadership. However, the absence of dramatic ideological explosions did not mean that tensions were not operating, even in 1946, and even in the CIO’s Southern sector. By the time Operation Dixie was officially launched in May 1946, hairline cracks and fissures in the CIO’s foundation had already become visible.
The ideological divisions that became deadly and ravaged the organization by the end of the decade can be seen by 1946—germinating on a national level and within the context of organized labor’s relationship to the Democratic Party, generally, and to the Truman administration, specifically. To understand what happened at the grass roots level in the South, it is necessary to review the rapidly changing climate of national politics, and the impact of these shifting conditions upon the CIO’s national leadership. Inevitably, the analysis comes to focus on the shifting stance of the CIO’s national president, Philip Murray, who served as the real and symbolic spokesman of the center-left coalition that had originally created the CIO out of the AFL. It was the breakup of this coalition, under the pressure of national and international events, that gave definition to the postwar ideological crisis that shattered the CIO and shackled the future course of industrial unionism in America. To trace Philip Murray’s passage from cooperation with the CIO’s left to hostility and thence to implacable opposition is to trace, first, these national and international pressures, second, their impact on the CIO, and, finally, the local ramifications in the South that brought Operation Dixie to a formal end in 1953.
These relationships are sufficiently complicated that it is prudent to see them as a sequence: the coming of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union; the resulting divisions in the CIO over foreign policy; the impact of these tensions on organizing in the face of an aggressive postwar business community out to domesticate the entire labor movement; and, finally, the disastrous spectacle of CIO unions raiding one another as rival factions fought for survival in a completely altered postwar environment. The proclamations of Philip Murray also serve as instructive signposts to the battle. The onset of 1946 found Murray firmly planted in the center, attempting to shape the mood of the federation as well as to be responsive to it. The world of industrial unionism was, of course, inherently “progressive” in traditional political terms; the CIO’s political spectrum arrayed liberals on the right, Socialists in the center, and “fellow travelers” and Communists on the left. It may be seen that Murray represented a political coalition that was far to the left of the AFL (and to the left of the American mainstream as well).1 However, in the early days of 1946, the CIO’s successes of the 1930s still fresh in the minds of many people. And, many of those who had benefited from the CIO’s successes were not terribly worried about the political coloration of others in the CIO’s rank-and-file.
In a climate in which the cold war had not yet taken firm root in the minds of most Americans, CIO regulars had grown accustomed to the presence of political radicals in the organization. Clearly, the left had played a major role in the CIO’s successes in the 1930s, and their contributions were well understood. Historian Nelson Lichtenstein has gone so far as to conclude that the ten years after 1935 made for a period in which the behavior of Communist unionists was often difficult to distinguish from that of other CIO members. “As vocal supporters of the New Deal and the war effort, the Communists moved easily within the social democratic current of the late 1930s and the social patriotic enthusiasm of the wartime mobilization.”2
The “ease” of this association can be exaggerated, however. Communists, Socialists, and liberals all sought to have the CIO reflect their own basic orientation. The seeds of conflict were always present, as were doubts about the reliability and integrity of ideological rivals. Nevertheless, the wartime experience, as Lichtenstein points out, helped create an environment where cooperation seemed conceivable. Accordingly, the CIO entered the postwar period with its left, center, and right in seemingly sturdy coalition. New Deal liberals, Socialists, and Communists—industrial unionists all—served on the same CIO committees, worked together on local CIO joint boards, industrial union councils, and political action committees, and in general displayed a noticeable degree of solidarity. It was a period when “there was some unrest and a little picking here and there, but a lot of joint effort.”3 Such cooperation was quite visible at the local level. An organizer for the left-wing, racially integrated Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers recalled a rally in Memphis in 1946 to save wartime Office of Price Administration. FTA organizers demonstrated alongside” young white veterans who were members of right-wing CIO unions, on the streets handing out leaflets, getting petitions, in front of the post office.” This local labor unity extended to politics.
We had a big campaign and for the first time, every poll was watched in Memphis. And they were all watched by young white veterans. Now, by ten o’clock that morning, they’d locked them all up on the grounds that they were disrupting. Each one of the poll judges called the police and said, “This guy’s disrupting.” So, they were all in jail. They kept them there until the polls were closed and then released them without any charges. There was a joint effort in ’46; there was a tremendous feeling there, still, of rank-and-file unity, because we were all commonly being attacked.4
This cooperation was due in part to a legacy of unity forged in the fight with the AFL that led to the CIO’s formation, and from the sense of common purpose that had been rewarded during World War II.
However, this unity concealed tensions that had generated intense arguments inside the CIO as the war had neared its end. Aggressive industrial unionists found themselves stymied by a coalition of CIO conservatives, Communists, and much of the national leadership. The division had appeared as early as 1944 when several left-wing leaders, including Harry Bridges, Joseph Curran, and Julius Emspak, publicly endorsed national service legislation to draft strikers “at the same time that CIO policy called for its denunciation in the strongest terms.” Moreover, the intransigence of Southern textile mill owners in flaunting National War Labor Board orders had driven Emil Rieve to resign from the board and had led TWUA to call a series of strike ballots throughout textile country. Only when news of overwhelming strike votes by the rank-and-file reached Washington did the NWLB (heretofore responsive to Southern congressional influence on labor issues affecting textiles) grant a long overdue pay raise.5 Similar pressures in other mass production industries caused Reuther and Rieve to lead a fight in March 1945 to withdraw formally all CIO representatives from the NWLB. Backed by the votes of union leaders from conservative and Communist-influenced internationals, Murray blocked the effort and reaffirmed labor’s no-strike pledge.6
The coming of the cold war, coupled with the postwar business offensive against organized labor, sharply intensified the external pressure on the CIO coalition. As foreign policy issues came to dominate national life, the opposition of left-led unions to the Marshall Plan “threatened to turn a section of the CIO into the core of an opposition political movement that would be strong enough to spread disquiet in Washington but weak enough to invite massive retaliation by a government armed with extensive formal and informal power over the labor movement.”7
Wartime labor unity under Roosevelt broke under Truman’s cold war policies. Some labor radicals, such as Len DeCaux, editor of the CIO News in Washington, saw Murray’s actions as predictably reactionary:
When it gradually became clear that Truman was embarking on the opposite course, Murray at first tried to soft-pedal things in CIO, to avoid dissension in the midst of brewing strike struggles, and possibly because of some lingering uncertainly. In the spring of 1946, after the Churchill-Truman declaration of Cold War at Fulton, Missouri, Murray began trying more openly to swing CIO into line. What Hillman might have done, who knows? He died July 10, 1946, still on record for Big Three and world-labor unity, and against the growing American-Century imperialism. But the lines were not yet sharply drawn [in July 1946]. About Murray there was little doubt. At first cautious about antagonizing the CIO’s still influential left wing, he was soon privately—even in my unsympathetic presence—referring to “those people” in disparaging, sometimes caustic terms. Long before the 1946 CIO convention, which officially registered CIO’s switch, Murray could hardly hide his feelings. They were evident at Steel’s May convention in Atlantic City. They burst out emotionally at the September Conference of Progressives in Chicago.8
Other leftists saw Murray’s politics as reflecting an inner agony. Frank Emspak, the historian and son of the UE’s influential Julius Emspak, emphasized the political dilemma facing the CIO president: “If a union allows non-member communists to influence its policies it ceases to that extent to be a union, and becomes a revolutionary agency. If it forbids communists to join or hold office it sets up control over private opinion.” To Emspak,
The Steel Workers feared isolation from the American public because of attacks on their patriotism. Although Murray said he had only contempt for those who would impugn the patriotism of the USW, he in effect did their bidding when he attacked the left. The Steel Workers and Murray were afraid of losing what they thought they had won during the war—the good will and trust of the American people and perhaps some of the politicians. During the war, Murray was respected as a trade union leader and statesman; he did not want to lose that respect because of the Communists.”9
Labor’s internal debate took place in a national climate that underscored the high stakes involved. In June, the Republican National Committee chairman, B. Carroll Reece, had characterized the upcoming election as “a stark choice between ‘Communism and Republicanism’” and had presented the CIO-PAC’s support for the Democratic Party as damaging evidence to that effect.10 A California congressional candidate announced that “a vote for Richard Nixon is a vote against the Communist-dominated PAC with its gigantic slush-fund,” and expanded the list of reprehensible associations by accusing his opponent, Helen Gahagan Douglas, a prominent New Deal liberal, of “consistently voting the ‘Moscow-Pac-Henry Wallace line.’”11
Inside labor, Murray may have had qualms about launching an all-out anti-Communist campaign, but his subordinates in the Steelworkers did not. Nor, as Emspak has pointed out, did Murray do anything to stop them. In August, David McDonald blasted the Communist Party at a district meeting of the Steelworkers in Cleveland. In October, New England steel locals condemned Communist activity in their organizations and James Carey, the CIO’s national secretary and close associate of Murray, attacked the leadership of the Electrical Workers. AFL president William Green meanwhile seized the opportunity to assault his considerable body of enemies in the CIO by warning American workers against the danger of an “‘insurrection inspired by Communist leaders’ within and ‘the forces of fascism in America’ without.”12
What followed within three months of Labor Day in 1946 was instrumental in deepening the antagonisms between left and right, both in organized labor and in the country as a whole. Six months after Operation Dixie had officially begun, its embattled short-term prospects suddenly were further burdened by the intrusion of the emerging cold war.
One month before the national election of November 1946, the Electrical Workers held its national convention. One of the most militant CIO unions, it served as a lightning rod for conservative reaction within and outside the CIO. At that convention, a militant slate was reelected by a five-to-one margin over a slate calling itself “UE Members for Democratic Action.”13 The sinners characterized the dissidents as “wreckers who urge us to substitute for the principle of unity and democracy within our ranks, divisions, witch-hunts and purges.”14
The congressional elections in November 1946 constituted a landslide for the Republicans and delivered a strong message to organized labor about its future. The results implied that the “national mood” would likely be quite different from the New Deal years. The Republicans won 246 seats in the House to the Democrats’ 188, and 51 seats in the Senate to the Democrats’ 45. Only three-eights of the eligible voters had cast ballots, and the Democratic vote dropped from 25,000,000 to 15,000,000. In addition, only 75 of the 318 candidates supported by the CIO-PAC won their races.15
In effect the election results, as one historian has put it, “reinforced the efficacy of red-baiting” and led Truman to take more drastic steps: The loyalty program “became a shuttlecock in party politics.” As an attempt to slow the Republicans’ momentum, Truman signed Executive Order 9835, “which launched a purge of the federal civil service and inspired imitative purges at every level of American working life.”16 As the fast-disintegrating wartime popular front disappeared from politics, the Americans for Democratic Action came to represent “the vital center of mainline liberalism,” having as members Eleanor Roosevelt, “a galaxy of the big names of the New Deal era,” “major anti-Communist labor leaders and the spokesmen of the NAACP.”17
The eighth annual CIO convention in November 1946 brought into full view the dilemma in which the CIO leadership found itself. Everyone was aware of the stakes involved, and of how much rode on labor’s ability to remain unified. Prior to the convention, Murray had insisted on assembling an ideologically balanced committee of six people from the executive board to draft a compromise resolution. He intended to then present it to the convention as part of his opening speech, without asking for debate. The compromise resolution denounced meddling by political parties in the internal affairs of the CIO. This bow to the right was accompanied by a bow to the left with the inclusion of “other political parties” along with reference to the Communists. This phrase at once reduced the extent to which the resolution might have calmed the right. Thus the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists thought the resolution, “with its implication that Democratic Party interference was as culpable as that of the communists, was much too weak.” The New York Times interpreted the right’s response as a decision to yield only to Murray’s call for the appearance of unity.18 This they were willing to do purportedly because “the price of their refusal to yield might have been Mr. Murray’s refusal to accept the presidency again. They did not want to risk the consequences at this time.” In his speech Murray added that “This organization is not and must not be Communist-controlled and inspired.” He then made a gesture to reassure the moderates and persuade the pro-Communists to support the resolution. The statement, he said, was “designed to chart a course for the overall conduct of our International unions. It should not be misconstrued to be a repressive measure. I am definitely opposed to any form of repression in this movement of ours.”19 Only two delegates refused to endorse the resolution, both Communists and officers in the National Maritime Union. They were immediately “harangued openly by their comrades,” whereupon they rushed to the platform to inform Murray that they would change their votes.20 One unamused observer described the incident as yet one more “unedifying spectacle of Communists voting to denounce themselves.” “Like overpowered captains who hoped to trade servility for time, they turned the other cheek.”21
Yet the CIO’s constitution and administrative structure gave Murray little more than the power to remove certain individuals from his own CIO staff. Intervention on a large scale was constitutionally impossible because the CIO, recalling its own expulsion from the AFL, originally created for itself an organization with limited powers in the national headquarters. Nevertheless, the events of the year showed Murray’s evolution in 1946. Early on, he sounded a call for calm and a continuation of the CIO’s democratic heritage at the Steelworkers’ convention in May 1946.22 While his inner circle of advisers urged him to take a strong stand against the Communists, Murray was torn. He warned against “the intrusion of ideological ideas or beliefs into trade union matters,” and was careful to add: “We ask no man his national origin, his color, his religion, or his beliefs.”23 However, in his speech to the Conference of progressives in the fall of that year, Murray burst out, to the consternation of the popular frontists, that organized labor “wants no damn Communists meddling in our affairs.”24
It was at this time that the CIO leadership made an effort to influence public opinion by preparing a pamphlet entitled “Americans! 7,000,000 of them,” aimed at answering the charge of communism, largely in the context of the Southern drive. If there were Communists in the CIO, labor’s leaders said, it was only because employers had hired them first—“generally when their industries were operating nonunion.”25
This was a pretty thin reed, given the whipping winds of anticommunism coursing through the CIO and the society as a whole. But the defensiveness of the left at the end of 1946 cast in bold relief the changes that had occurred within labor during the year. The CIO’s radical wing had decided that a conciliatory course in 1946 would give them a chance to reorganize their forces within the CIO so that a center-left coalition could retake the offensive in 1947. Participation in Operation Dixie was consistent with this aim, as the Highlander conclave of left-led unions concluded early in 1946. A participant recalled the options:
What shall be our role in Operation Dixie? We know the rules of the game. We know that if we go in and organize, that we’re organizing in the name of the CIO and that they can give jurisdiction to whoever they want. A number of positions developed. One was distrust. A group of people said, “We’re being fooled into this thing. If we do it, we’ll do a lot of organizing and they’ll just take over the locals and we won’t get them.” Well, [FTA President] Henderson’s answer to that was, “Look, if we go in and do the organizing, we have ten of our people in there and they have ten of their people, and we’re working in tobacco and our people are going to be tobacco workers—we’re the ones who are going to win the support of these people. We’re going to organize them and we’ll win their support.”26
Henderson prevailed, primarily because his position made sense in light of the FTA’s impression of organizers employed directly by the CIO; the FTA people were confident they could develop deeper and more lasting ties with the rank-and-file workers in the Southern tobacco industry.
Our people would be there day and night. They wouldn’t sleep. They wouldn’t be drinking coffee. They were workers out of the factories. “Not only are we going to work, we’re going to outwork them. In our field, Food and Tobacco, we’re going to make arrangements for rank-and-file workers to get out of our factories, go in with their people, and really organize.”27
The FTA’s fears of the CIO’s use of jurisdictional assignment as a weapon for defeating left-wing unions were well founded, however. By 1947, the CIO was assigning tobacco workers to the United Transport Service Employees’ Association.28
Such events constituted a form of “raiding” by administrative action. Actual raiding followed soon afterward—and in a manner that put to rest any possibility that Operation Dixie could somehow rescue itself from the setbacks of 1946. The Republican congress, elected on a platform that promised to restrain labor, had passed the Taft-Hartley Act. Its provisions for non-Communist affidavits for officials of unions wishing to appear on NLRB election ballots brought politics to the very center of the organizing process. In March 1947, the U.S. secretary of labor demanded publicly that the Communist Party be outlawed, and the U.S. commissioner of education went on an anti-Communist speaking tour.29 The Truman Doctrine was unveiled in the same month and precipitated a great deal of pressure on labor’s left wing, tightening the requirements for proof of loyalty and patriotism as well. Alongside the Marshall Plan and the Taft-Hartley Act, it represented three levels of pressure that collectively split the CIO’s center-left coalition irreparably. The primary reverberations of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan were felt by the CIO as support for both came to be used as the litmus test for patriotism.
The strategy was effective. During 1947, major upheavals hit three CIO unions with the largest Communist membership—the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), the National Maritime Union (NMU), and the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW). An official anti-Communist caucus was set up within UE. The Communist slate was defeated in the Maritime Union and a secessionist movement was begun in Mine, Mill after left-wing Reid Robinson was reelected to the presidency in January 1947. By midyear, Murray was instructing the CIO executive board:
If Communism is an issue in any of your unions, throw it to hell out . . . and throw its advocates out along with it. When a man accepts . . . paid office in a union . . . to render service to workers, and then delivers service to outside interests, that man is nothing but a damned traitor.30
The center-left coalition was dead and the isolation of the left was complete.
The impact of these dynamics upon what was left of Operation Dixie soon became clear. The CIO had many goals in the South: to organize textiles, to overcome racial segregation both in the workplace and in Southern society as a whole, and to end the political hegemony of race-baiting “Dixiecrat” conservatives. All were components that were necessary to complete the structural requirements for a truly national movement of industrial unionism, one that could be strong enough to lead postwar American society toward the egalitarian “new day” that progressives had long envisioned.
Perhaps no other local union in the South symbolized—in its black and white membership—these ambitious goals more fully then the 10,000-member Local 22 of the Food and Tobacco Workers Union at the R.J. Reynolds Plant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The foundation of the union was made up of black women workers in the “stemmeries,” who had played a militant and decisive role in the union’s original struggle for recognition. In the increasingly conservative climate of cold war politics, Reynolds moved in 1947 to break the union when the contract then in force expired, by refusing to go along with demands for a wage increase. The resulting strike earned the sympathy of the progressive Southern religious group, the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen. But the Communist leanings of the FTA also generated anxiety among those Southerners. In a revealing exchange of letters, Nelle Morton of the fellowship wrote for advice from a close friend, South Carolina’s state director for Operation Dixie, Franz Daniel:
We are in a dilemma as we face the FTA-CIO Local 22 strike at Reynolds Tobacco in Winston-Salem. When we see a clear-cut issue of injustice the Fellowship has not been timid to act. . . . The issues of the strike are entirely justified in every way. While we have no proof, we believe that the union is pretty well communist controlled. The company has a paternalistic attitude toward the workers and is determined to break the union. So they are seeking every weapon to use in the breaking. . . . Suppose the strike is won and the Party becomes more powerful than ever through the union locals. What will that do to labor and ultimately to the strikers in the plant?31
The CIO state director’s response provided an indication of the fence CIO leaders were trying to straddle:
In my opinion, the Fellowship should issue an appeal on behalf of the strikers . . . prefaced by a brief statement calling attention to the current charge of Communist domination. Nothing would be gained by ignoring or denying the charge—but so what? You are not asking for relief for the leaders of the union. You are asking for relief of strikers whose cause is a just one. If the strike is won, there is a chance to clean up the union. If it is lost, there will be no chance to eliminate the C.P. . . . I personally believe the charges of C.P. domination are well grounded. I want that changed. And I believe it can be changed if the strike is won.32
Nelle Morton found this response to be “clear-cut and fine” and “just the assurance we needed.”33
Local 22’s representatives, though supported by the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen, were ostracized by New York unionists when they attempted to raise strike funds. “Now we were isolated,” said Local 22’s Karl Korstad. “The right-wing unions, on the whole, would not attend joint meetings. The Electrical Workers helped us, but it was pretty much our group.” National politics, as distinct from internal CIO politics, also intruded. In the middle of the strike, the House Un-American Activities Committee called in three leaders of FTA to testify on Communist affiliations.34 Not only had the spirit of cooperation vanished, it had been accompanied by a change in attitude among the CIO leadership as to the purpose and function of labor organization. The left-wing unions had clearly become a liability to labor’s cause as as whole.
John Russell, the Fur and Leather Workers’ Southern district director assessed the situation as one of the CIO becoming preoccupied with “respectability.”
They wanted to buy respectability, of course. No question about this. They just ached for it. I remember Baldanzi making a speech at the 1947 convention in Boston. And he flayed the living hell out of those people who talked, as he said, “with a forked tongue, lied about things, didn’t say who they were,” and these things. And I forget exactly how he phrased it, but anyway, it was to the effect that these people “who wouldn’t sign the [Taft-Hartley] non-Communist oath didn’t deserve any protection, because obviously they are Communists,” and words along these lines.35
A deep bitterness lingers in the memories of Southern radicals caught in the clutches of labor’s internal cold war of 1946–1950. Russell, for example, remembered George Baldanzi as “a fancy speaker,” but “empty as hell, of course.” Russell also saw him as one of the leaders in the move to “buy respectability,” people whose motivations he described in the following way: “They probably wanted any members they could get, because they were the kind of guys who thought in terms of: If you could pick up a group of workers, even if it means making a deal that puts chains around those workers, that’s fine.”36
Such rancor was rooted in the raiding—as early as 1947—to which left-led unions in the South were subjected. The attempts to reduce the membership of FTA, for example, were challenges to which they could not fully respond at first, because of the leadership’s initial refusal to sign the non-Communist affidavits demanded by the Taft-Hartley Act. The CIO’s big opportunity came with an election at R.J. Reynolds in Winston-Salem in 1950. The 1947 strike ended without Reynolds’ full recognition of workers’ demands, and agitation and calls for a new contract and a union election had flared intermittently ever since. So determined was the CIO to break FTA that it sent in organizers from unions that could not even remotely claim jurisdiction over tobacco workers. They were under instructions to recruit workers for the United Transport Service Employees-CIO (UTSE), and away from the Tobacco Workers International Union-AFL, and, of course, Local 22. Such “draftees” in union-busting look back on the events with a regret that, at times, exudes its own kind of bitterness.
Now this is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the black marks in our history of the CIO. Even though they [the FTA] were expelled, they were a trade union. They were a good local union in that plant. True enough they were communist-dominated, but hell, John L. Lewis used the communists to organize workers. And they were a good union. And in order not to let the [AFL] Tobacco Workers have it, the CIO goes in there. And I went in there on it. I was sent in there. And we had a fairly good-sized staff. And we were organizing them for the United Transport Service Employees Union. A very vicious strike it was. And it was a race strike, really. Blacks were striking and the whites were scabbing. And of course, then, this was when the [AFL] Tobacco Workers Union moved in and then we [in the CIO] moved in.37
An election was finally held on March 8, 1950. Although it was possibly the largest union election ever held in the South, the results were “inconclusive.” “No Union” received 3,426 votes; Local 22 won 3,323 votes; the TWIU-AFL received 1,514, and UTSE-CIO 541. A runoff election was then scheduled for March 23, between Local 22 and “No Union.” Local 22 received 4,428 votes, “No Union,” 4,383, with 133 votes challenged. After the NLRB rules on the challenged votes, Local 22 lost the election by 66 votes.
The outcome hinged on the challenged ballots, and of course, again, the Labor Board ruled on the challenged ballots in favor of management. And, as a result, there is not a union in R. J. Reynolds to this day. Now, if we’d all stayed out of there, and helped Local 22 to win that thing, they’d be in the labor movement today. And they’d be in the AFL-CIO today.38
By this process, black workers in the South became inadvertent casualties of the cold war in labor. But the CIO itself was also a casualty, for struggles such as the one over Local 22 ate away the morale of the CIO’s organizers.
You know, we were supposed to be bitter anticommunists. This is the time prior to when UE, Mine, Mill and Smelter—there was ten unions that were expelled. And Murray was really bitterly opposed to them. So, when it came to the second round between the FTA and “no union” at that Reynolds plant, we did nothing. Nor did the [AFL] Tobacco Workers; in fact, they even told their people to vote “no union.” That’s a black page in our history. I really think, to me, that’s one of the worst things that we’ve done in all the years we were in the South. The amount of energy, over months, all these organizers, both from UTW, from the CIO, and MONEY!! All kinds of money! Workin’ people’s money! Poured in here, trying to take people who are already in a union, to another union! There’s no God-given sense to it, you know. Maybe it isn’t the ideal union. I don’t think it is to this day, but it also could be! But, my God, all this energy and all this money is being used that should have been out here being used to organize something else. It did about as much to prevent us from succeeding in the South as anything management did.39
Unfortunately for the CIO, the Winston-Salem story was not an isolated one. A struggle inside the Packinghouse Workers affected the entire local labor movement in Fort Worth, Texas, so that organizers for other unions wanted to “cringe.” One CWA organizer recalled,
I really got involved, where I could see it, when we put our little one-room organizing office in Fort Worth, me and another representative, in the Packinghouse Workers’ hall. And the internal fight in the United Packinghouse Workers Union was just bloody! I mean bloody! Some people at CIO were trying to expel them. They didn’t want to be expelled. Two huge locals, Armour’s and Swift’s, two of the largest locals in the union, were out there in that one hall, and two or three smaller ones.
He remembered officers coming in often from Packinghouse headquarters in order to help the regional director try to restore order, since he was unable to do so on his own.
The communists didn’t like him and the anticommunists didn’t like him, so he was very ineffective. Things were in a constant turmoil, and you’d sit there and you’d cringe! You’d lock your door when things were going on, because you didn’t even want to talk to anybody about it. Or you’d go out on a leaflet run. You’d go home! You’d do anything to keep away from it, but you were constantly drawn into it because these people were fighting for the minds of nearly 10,000 people—right there in Fort Worth, right where we had our office! Bad. Disruptive. People who were terrific people were calling other terrific people all kinds of names. And going out and putting out leaflets, leaflets at the plant, tearing the plant up.40
Here was the major impact the purge had on the later stages of Operation Dixie—the loss of committed organizers and the dissipation of energy, money, and morale. But it was an impact that occurred after, not before, the basic defeat in textiles in 1946. From the standpoint of the left-led unions, the CIO “raided and counter-raided till those workers didn’t know where the hell they were. If they’d spent all the money organizing that those bastards used to destroy unions, they would have organized the textile industry in the South.”41 This sweeping conclusion, spoken in bitterness and exasperation, is clearly excessive. Defeat in textiles had already occurred. But one of the complaints of Fur and Leather’s John Russell has a more enduring resonance:
Cannibalism is what it is. You eat yourselves up. You eat your people up. If you’ve got a company union, or a union that’s completely bought and sold to the employers, that’s a different thing. But that wasn’t the [situation] in these cases. These were honest trade unions, basically. You may disagree with them, but they’re honest in that sense: that they did get some raises, get some money, and did benefit the workers and things like this. It wasn’t necessary.42
The agonies imposed on the CIO by the cold war—and the agonies that CIO imposed on itself—had their counterpart in that segment of the nation’s progressive political community that stood outside the labor movement. The red-baiting political climate of 1946, engendered by the business community, aggressively exploited by the Republican Party, and defensively manipulated by the Truman administration and its loyalty program, had culminated in a smashing GOP victory in the 1946 congressional elections. These events convinced many liberals that the progressive cause—so dependent at critical moments on the rhetoric and personal prestige of Franklin Roosevelt—had never really achieved the ability to stand by itself. Some liberals felt that this defeat flowed from the failure to create an organized progressive constituency; others saw it as a failure of image, traceable to the ease with which liberalism could be tarred with the brush of communism. Accordingly, some progressives aligned with the American Civil Liberties Union focused on “an atmosphere increasingly hostile to the liberties of organized labor, the political left and many minorities,” and called attention to an “excitement bordering on hysteria” that characterized “the public approach to any issue related to Communism.”43
While a number of such progressives fought as best they could against the Truman loyalty oath—a campaign waged in a steadily deteriorating climate of free discussion—other liberals saw the problem as “moral and ideological.” For them, it centered upon “the refusal of so many progressives to disassociate themselves strongly from Communists and pro-Communists.” From this perspective, the paramount urgency was the reestablishment of American liberalism as a movement in the native progressive tradition. This they hoped to accomplish by creating a new institution, called the Americans for Democratic Action. “By mid-1946, these two lines of thought and action were already struggling for dominance; by 1947, they formed two poles, with most progressives being drawn toward one or the other.”44
The politics of the postwar years produced no such dilemmas for one other organized group-the American Federation of Labor. The AFL had made substantial gains in the 1937–1941 period by offering itself as a cooperative alternative to employers threatened by the CIO. Such tactics constituted an old AFL tradition that reached all the way back to the time of the Knights of Labor in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, in 1936 the president of the International Association of Machinists-AFL, A. O. Wharton, had written that the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Wagner Act had led many employers to accept the unavoidable and come to some kind of agreement with organized labor. However, he noted that “These employers have expressed preference to deal with A.F. of L. organizations rather than Lewis, Hillman, Dubinsky, Howard and their gang of sluggers, communists, radicals and soapbox artists, professional bums, expelled members of labor unions, outright scabs and the Jewish organizations with all their red affiliates.”45
This machinists’ union made substantial gains by approaching employers with the “backdoor pact.” Union officials would negotiate a “soft agreement” with the employer and prepare to collect dues, without having consulted any of the workers. Once the deal had been closed, the employer would then present the workers with their new union, or merely post a notice on the bulletin board to that effect. “Organizing the employer rather than the employee became a widespread practice,” a tactic that many AFL officials considered “a major strategy in their fight with the CIO.”46
Ultimately, events over the next two generations were to reveal the hollowness of a political stance based not on what the AFL advocated, but rather on the negative principle of what it did not avocate. For its part, the Americans for Democratic Action did not materialize as “a vital center,” but rather as an ineffective forum for the opinions of a small group of politically interested intellectuals. The CIO, shackled with Taft-Hartley and after another round of defeats in the 1950s with article 14B of the Landrum-Griffin Bill, gradually subsided into a quiescent business unionism. Not only workers in the South but large sectors of the Northern working population were left unorganized and isolated from any kind of “labor education.”
The practical results were quite real. But the ideological implications are less easily sorted out. One radical veteran of the postwar organizing campaign offered this general assessment of the long-term meaning of the labor politics that swirled around Operation Dixie:
I think that by ’48—that was the [CIO] convention that finally told the story. You accept the Marshall Plan, you tie American labor to American foreign policy. Now it’s a different thing when you strike. You’re striking against your country. And now it’s a different thing when you ask for wage increases. I think the compromise was that you would tie wage increases to two things: cost of living and productivity. You got a wage increase to make up for the cost of living. This, in a way, takes the struggle out of the trade unions, because when labor agrees to this—that your wages are going to be tied to productivity—you make the assumption that productivity is a function of labor only, and not a function of management.47
He added, by way of a general summation, “Historically, it seems to me that whenever a trade union gets tied to a nation’s foreign policy, they tie their hands. They no longer have freedom.”48
As a comment on the crippling limitations that cold war politics imposed on the CIO, the judgment stands the test of time. However, the identical comment, ironically enough, can be made about the effect of the foreign policy pronouncements of the CIO’s left wing. Indeed, it is important to remember that the vulnerability of the CIO’s left wing to a purge was not solely a product of external cold war politics. The frequent shifts in Soviet foreign policy—and the slavish parroting of these shifts by American Communists, including those in the CIO—provided abundant evidence that the CIO’s left was not an autonomous institutional vehicle for expressing the aspirations of the American working class. Indeed, to many liberals and Socialists in the CIO’s right and center, the left’s defense against the purge, focusing as it did on repeated calls for “rank-and-file democracy,” was totally unconvincing. How could CIO leftists picture themselves as the defenders of trade union democracy when the same people had, since the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, followed every twist and turn of Soviet foreign policy? It was a question that the CIO’s national leadership increasingly put to the movement’s militants as the cold war deepened and as the American labor movement as a whole found itself on the defensive.
The Communist Party’s official response was to explore loftiness in the name of avoiding the issue:
Just as the advocates of Christianity could not be thrown out by the Roman Emperors, and just as the roar of the Inquisition commanding that Galileo stop proclaiming the earth round could not stop the advance of science, so today the trade union movement cannot turn back the clock of history.49
Unfortunately, the CIO’s left did not believe the evidence that Stalin’s regime represented the gulag more than it did “the clock of history.”
As 1947 drew to a close, the anti-Communist forces within the CIO and in the nation as a whole were evolving into a powerful and solid opposition, against which the left was becoming ever less capable of fighting. The Wallace campaign also added fuel to the red-baiting issue. Once several CIO unions had demonstrated official support for his campaign, the CIO executive council met in January 1948 and came out, 33 to 13, in support of the Marshall Plan and in opposition to Wallace. The CIO-PAC then spent some $513,000 that year on Truman’s race.50 There is no doubt but that Wallace’s resounding defeat “strengthened the resolve and the nerve of the anti-Communists within the CIO.”51 It also strengthened the resolve of Catholic trade unionists in the anti-red movement, to the extent that “the convention hall and the hotel lobbies were swarming with priests.”52
By the time of the CIO’s national convention in 1948, Murray was referring to Communists as “ideological dive-bombers, pouting people, small cliques, degraded thinkers, dry rot leaders,[and] afflictions on mankind.”53 One year later, Murray addressed the 1949 delegates with references to the “sulking cowards, apostles of hate, lying out of the pits of their dirty bellies.”54
In such a manner, the CIO fought its way back into the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Unfortunately for labor, that mainstream represented an accommodation to corporate America that severely circumscribed labor’s influence on national policy. The price of respectability was high.