Letter to the Editor–and Reply

Against the Current, No. 59, November/December 1995

Michael Funke; Archie Lieberman

[Editors’ note: The following exchange between Michael Funke and Archie Lieberman touches on issues of U.S. labor history, and the role played by contending political forces, which are not only highly controversial but indeed are likely new to many of our readers. It illustrates very sharp differences within today’s left on how important parts of union history should be viewed. In future issues of Against the Current we intend to publish several essays exploring the role of Communist, left-socialist and revolutionary activists in the rise of the CIO and the Flint autoworkers’ sitdown strike, which we hope will encourage readers to develop and extend the dialogue begun here.]

ARCHIE LIEBERMAN’S DIALOGUE piece in the July-August issue (“Lessons of Working-Class History,” ATC 57) should more appropriately be headlined “The Lessons of Labor Sectarianism.” While I can appreciate the need to analyze past sectarian adventures by Trotskyists, Stalinists, Shachtmanites and all the rest, this article substitutes Classic Comics-type labor history for legitimate analysis.

Lieberman apparently feels comfortable with his role in left working class history. He sort of hovers above it all, Monday morning quarterbacking his way through the sectarian intrigues with a self-righteous and infallible sense of what’s right for the working class.

But his wildly revisionist history of the origins of the IUE undermines his case. To say that the Socialist Workers Party and Independent Socialist League “played a leading role in organizing the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE), a union of 450,000 workers” is ludicrous.

Regardless of what you think about the Communist Party’s role in the United Electrical Workers (UE), the IUE was hardly a better idea. Nor was it created by workers. The IUE was the creation of the CIO leadership of the late 1940s, aided and abetted by General Electric, Westinghouse, and other major employers in the electrical industry, along with the government.

IUE came into being at a CIO convention, moments after the 600,000-member UE had been officially expelled for essentially being too left. James Carey, the CIO secretary-treasurer who had lost the UE presidency back in 1941, was appointed president of the new union–which left the convention with new letterhead but no rank-and-file.

What followed, of course, was an employer-government-mainstream labor gang-up on the UE, which was raided by the new IUE, the UAW, the IAM, the IBEW, the USWA, and anyone else willing to use red-baiting to increase per capita payments.

UE members in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere were smeared by President Truman, HUAC, cold war liberals like John F. Kennedy, Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter Mondale, Father Charles Rice and his right-wing Catholic trade unionists group (ACTU), GE and Westinghouse, and the leadership of the CIO.

The IUE, on its best day, never had 450,000 members. That’s simply a trumped-up number used in the 1950s to justify that organization’s existence. Moreover, any real analysis of GE and Westinghouse contracts throughout the 1950s and 1960s shows that the rank-and-file electrical workers suffered mightily. The companies bargained separate contracts with several unions, and the IUE rejected bargaining unity all the way up to the 1969 strike.

If Lieberman is proud of the sweetheart-type contracts IUE “negotiated” over the period, he should be ashamed of himself. If he was happy with the corruption of the Jim Carey years, then shame on him again. “Better unionists?” Get real. –Michael Funke, Detroit, MI

A response to Michael Funke

WITHOUT GETTING INVOLVED in any personal attacks, I would like to take up the basic issues involved in the IUE-UE struggle. First, a factual note: The Socialist Workers Party was not involved in this struggle. The ISL was, mainly in what was District 4 in the UE, and what became District 3 in the IUE, the largest district in UE and IUE, of approximately 100,000 workers.

Michael Funke is championing the basic position of the Communist Party (CP) at that time. He has the right to do so, but he should try at least to get the whole story. It will help him and all those who believe that the CP played a progressive role in the UE, CIO.

I will not waste people’s time and play a numbers game. Suffice it to say that IUE-CIO was the representative of the overwhelming majority of electrical workers. Long before the UE was expelled from the CIO, because it supported Stalin politically all the way (and I will touch on this later), an opposition to Stalinism as practiced by the UE leadership of Fitzgerald, Emspak and Matles had arisen in UE-CIO.

On economic issues, that opposition fought against the CP’s support of a no-strike pledge and speed-up incentive systems. Politically it was virtually impossible to function democratically when any criticism of the CP leadership was denounced as being boss-instigated, etc. (Vyshinsky, prosecutor of the Moscow trials, would have been proud, not ashamed.)

The basic issues in UE, then, were democracy and trade union militancy. I was at the UE-CIO convention in 1949 and I wish Funke had been there too, where he would have seen this democratic and militant opposition attacked viciously.

The UE was to the right of the UAW (under Reuther), which opposed the no-strike pledge that UE favored after the war–up until Stalin broke with American imperialism. When Stalin, because of the Cold War, changed his line again, he essentially pulled his forces out of the CIO. Many honest CPers, who saw their trade union base go down the tube, cursed Stalin for it and left the CP.

The direct issue (in the UE’s expulsion from the CIO–ed.) was swearing a patriotic oath of allegiance, something the CP had done for years. One thing about the CP, they were not sectarians–they could swear forever if necessary.

In any event, the fight between IUE-CIO and UE was fought out in a nationwide democratic election. Murray and James Carey could not order the workers into the CIO. The workers voted against the CP-controlled UE on basic bread and butter issues.

Hundreds of thousands of workers removed their Stalinist leaders not because they were “too left,” but because these leaders followed the CP line. When Stalin was allied with American imperialism, they gave the bosses what they wanted–a permanent no-strike pledge and speedup.

These issues resulted in CP losses and rejection, in IUE, UAW and in general all over the labor movement, indeed in the most progressive unions. When workers had wanted to fight, the CP demanded a permanent no-strike pledge. When workers wanted to destroy the Little Steel (wage freeze) formula, the CPers opposed the workers.

It wasn’t Kennedy, and it wasn’t Truman who voted out the CP leaders. The CP leaders were not seen as a left force, certainly not by those striking workers who were fingered by CPers, pushing their pro-war and anti-strike line. I speak not as a Monday morning quarterback, but as a veteran varsity Saturday participant.

My experiences with tens of thousands of militants, has me absolutely convinced that the American working class rejected Stalinism (CP) because they did not want to see their unions controlled by an anti-working class dictatorship.

The CP’s defenders can talk all they want about redbaiting, which in the past had not prevented UE’s members from beating James Carey for the leadership of UE in 1941! In short, redbaiting didn’t work.

Inside the IUE we had to battle the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (ACTU), who wanted to redbait, on this issue. Our (IUE) literature never redbaited. I should know. I wrote our literature. More, we defended CP supporters’ right to hold their political opinions. We won the heart of the CP support in the crucial Singer elections (1950), which set the tone in District 3, New Jersey and New York.

Throughout the struggle of IUE and UE, Father Rice and the ACTU did support the IUE. What Funke doesn’t know is that we, the progressive section of IUE-CIO, opposed Father Rice, who was demanding the expulsion of all CP militants from IUE-CIO, and we defeated Rice’s line in District 3.

I personally fought to give all UEers full democratic rights in IUE, and as a result began to bloc with them against the ACTU. Leading ex-CPers won leading positions in the IUE-CIO District.

In the mid-fifties James Carey was defeated by the progressives of District 3, and caught red-handed trying to swindle the presidential election. Paul Jennings, a long-time oppositionist to the no-strike pledge, who was from District 3, became the new president. I was part of that, too. I would think that should make me proud, not ashamed.

The deindustrialization that started right after the war left many areas an industrial wasteland. I was not active after the middle `50s, but IUE and all unions were severely weakened by the shipping of jobs out of the country and I am sure workers suffered then as workers suffer now.

This fight for jobs has been one of the key problems facing labor. When I worked at Singer, Local 461, IUE-CIO, we were faced with a wholesale loss of jobs. In 1982 the whole plant of 10,000 was finally closed down.

If you really want to live today as a trade unionist, you must come to grips with this problem, which severely weakened IUE-CIO, as well as the whole labor movement. Witness the present merger process of IAM, UAW, and the Steelworkers, three of the largest unions, forced to merge out of weakness. In future I hope to deal in detail with this issue. –Archie Lieberman, Lake Ariel, PA

November/December 1995