ELECTRICAL WORKERS. The United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) began as an outgrowth of an organizational drive among Philadelphia Philco plant workers in July 1933. That year, Philco agreed to a contract with the American Federation of Radio Workers that provided for an eight-hour day, a minimum wage, premium pay for overtime, and a forty-hour workweek. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) shortly thereafter chartered the union as a federal local, and it subsequently expanded its organization to workers in other companies. For the next three years, the federal locals sought to organize workers along industrial lines, an idea that conflicted with AFL craft unionism. In March 1936, union leaders of locals at General Electric (GE), Westing house, Philco, RCA, and Delco (the electrical division of the General Motors Corporation) manufacturing plants merged and formed the UE, which the newly founded Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) soon chartered.
UE leadership represented three distinct tendencies within the labor movement. Heading the branch of electrical workers principally organized at GE and Westing house were Alfred Coulthard and Julius Emspak, both of whom espoused socialism and communism. The radical organizer and New Deal supporter James Matles led machinist locals from the Delco plants into the UE, while James Carey, a Catholic anticommunist, represented the old federal locals of the radio plants of Philco and RCA. And, although Carey became the UE's first president, the union's approach to organizing was inclusive and militant as it sought equal wages for men and women.
By the end of 1941, UE membership had increased to 300,000, despite the persistence of ideological factionalism among its leaders and jurisdictional conflict with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). Employers and the AFL-affiliated IBEW collaborated to stop the UE from organizing plants until the UE filed suit against the IBEW under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).
While the UE locals held the line on wages during World War II and supported boosts in productivity, the postwar years witnessed a concerted effort by the union to improve wages in the larger plants. By 1946, UE membership had reached 650,000, and the union waged its first national strike against GE, Westing house, and Delco. The union's success in obtaining significant wage increases led to corporation and media charges that UE leadership was communist dominated.
The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act escalated the controversy when the CIO and the UE refused to comply with the legislation's section requiring union officers to sign noncommunist affidavits. The charged political atmosphere facilitated constant raiding of the UE by the United Steel-workers of America and the United Auto Workers (UAW). Simultaneously, the CIO refused to grant the UE a no-raiding agreement and acquiesced to signing noncommunist affidavits. When the UE quit paying CIO dues and refused to send delegates to its 1949 convention, the CIO officially expelled the UE for communist domination. In the process, the CIO formed the competing International Union of Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (IUE), headed by James Carey. For the remainder of the decade, the IUE, operating within the context of Cold War politics, registered success in raiding dozens of UE locals, especially at the General Motors Delco manufacturing plants.
While UE membership dwindled to near 100,000 as a result of raiding, the McCarthy era heightened the attacks on the UE for alleged communist domination. In 1955 the U.S. Justice Department charged the UE with communist infiltration. After UE elected officials finally agreed to sign noncommunist affidavits, the Justice Department dropped the charges and the courts granted the union's request to prevent charges of communist domination from being brought against the UE in the future.
By the mid-1960s, raiding of the UE by other unions had ceased, largely due to plant shutdowns and the beginnings of what became known as the "rust belt" phenomenon. Within this context, the UE and IUE had no choice but to bury the hatchet and cooperate. Cooperation began in 1966, when the two unions coordinated a strike against GE. In 1969–1970, during another strike against GE, the UE and IUE joined up with the Teamsters to coordinate bargaining, and GE finally agreed to a negotiated settlement, its first in more than twenty years. But multiple plant closings in the 1970s had reduced UE membership in the 1980s to around 80,000.
Since the advent of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, the UE, in cooperation with the Teamsters, has been a pioneer in cross-border solidarity and organizing with Mexican unions, especially the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (Authentic Labor Front, or FAT). The cooperation focused on advocacy of labor rights for workers employed in U.S. runaway shops located on the Mexican side of the border. Unlike most American unions, which belonged to the AFL-CIO, the UE remained independent and elected its national union officers by a vote of the full membership. In 2000, the UE's endorsement of Ralph Nader for president reflected its ongoing independent and radical political tradition.
Hathaway, Dale A. Allies Across the Border: Mexico's "Authentic Labor Front" and Global Solidarity. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2000.
Matles, James J., and James Higgins. Them and Us: Struggle of a Rank and File Union. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1974.
Schatz, Ronald W. The Electrical Workers: A History of Labor at General Electric and Westing house, 1923–1960. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
Zieger, Robert. The CIO, 1935–1955. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.