CIO Anticommunist Drive

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CIO Anticommunist Drive

United States 1949-1950


In November 1949, at its eleventh annual convention in Cleveland, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) expelled two member unions—the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America and the Farm Equipment Workers—for their alleged disloyalty to the CIO and support for the Communist Party. Within a year, an additional nine affiliates had been expelled. The eleven unions together represented approximately one million members. The expulsions were the culmination of long-simmering tensions that erupted in the context of the developing cold war. The strife within the CIO halted the federation's growth and paved the way for its merger with the American Federation of Labor in 1955.


  • 1928: At the first Academy Awards ceremony, the best picture is the silent Wings.
  • 1933: Newly inaugurated U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt launches the first phase of his New Deal to put depression-era America back to work.
  • 1938: The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act establishes a minimum wage.
  • 1943: At the Casablanca Conference in January, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt agree on the demand of unconditional surrender for the Axis powers.
  • 1948: Israel becomes a nation and is immediately attacked by a coalition of Arab countries. Despite being outnumbered, Israel will win the war in the following year.
  • 1948: Stalin places a blockade on areas of Berlin controlled by the United States, Great Britain, and France. The Allies respond with an airlift of supplies, which, like the blockade itself, lasts into late 1949.
  • 1949: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is established.
  • 1949: The People's Republic of China is established under the leadership of Mao Zedong.
  • 1950: North Korean troops pour into South Korea, starting the Korean War. Initially the communists make impressive gains, but in September the U.S. Marines land at Inchon and liberate Seoul. China responds by sending in its troops.
  • 1950: Senator Joseph McCarthy launches his campaign to root out communist infiltrators.
  • 1955: African and Asian nations meet at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, inaugurating the "non-aligned" movement of Third World countries.
  • 1960: An American U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers shot down over Soviet skies brings an end to a short period of warming relations between the two superpowers. By the end of the year, Khrushchev makes a scene at the United Nations, banging his shoe on a desk. As for Powers, he will be freed in a 1962 prisoner exchange.

Event and Its Context

Communism in the CIO

The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was an alliance of leftist and centrist elements of the U.S. labor movement. Communism was a source of both inspiration and conflict in the federation from its founding in 1936 until the final expulsion of eleven left-led unions in the 1949-1950 purge. Communist organizers, acknowledged for their skill and dedication, were widely employed and critically important in the early organizing of key CIO affiliates, including the United Electrical Workers (UE), United Automobile Workers (UAW), Transport Workers Union (TWU), United Steel Workers (USW), and International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU). Communists often rose to leadership positions within those and other unions, and some held important posts within the CIO. For example, two of the three national officers in the UE, Julius Emspak and James Matles, were communists, although they always denied party membership, and Lee Pressman served as the general counsel to the Steel Workers Organizing Committee and later as the CIO's general counsel.

Still, by the late 1930s the communist presence was creating political conflict within the CIO affiliates, particularly over the issue of communists' support for the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and what some observers considered their lockstep adherence to the serpentine political line of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). CIO communists also attracted congressional scrutiny from the Dies Committee (1938-1945) and the House Un-American Activities Committee (1938-1975). But the wartime U.S.-Soviet alliance eased overt tensions. Communist unionists' energetic home front efforts were generally applauded, although some in the CIO later charged that communist-led unions, determined to aid the Soviet Union, wrongfully sacrificed their memberships' best interests to the war drive. During World War II, left-wing unionists gained political influence and visibility through their control of CIO Industrial Union Councils (IUCs) in key cities like New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles and in the related CIO Political Action Committees (PACs) organized in 1943 to support President Franklin D. Roosevelt's reelection.

Cold War Pressures on the Left-Center Alliance

After the end of World War II, the CIO initially favored peacetime continuation of the Big Three alliance (the United States, Britain, and the U.S.S.R.), joining the Soviet-sponsored World Federation of Trades Unions. The CIO also sent a friendship delegation to the Soviet Union in 1945, including such staunch anticommunists as Sidney Hillman, James B. Carey, Alan Haywood, and Emil Rieve. But growing tension between the United States and the Soviet Union began to resonate within the CIO; as international accord deteriorated, so too did the truce in the CIO. By 1946 internal conflict had revived in the CIO and within important CIO affiliates. In that year, CIO anticommunists formed the Committee for Renovative Trade Unionism as a vehicle to counter communist influence. Walter Reuther rode the anticommunism issue to the UAW presidency. In the UE, District One president Harry Block joined Carey, the former UE president, to found the UE Members for Democratic Action (UEMDA). With the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, UEMDA launched a drive to oust the UE's left-wing leadership.

External pressures also revived, with fresh congressional initiatives culminating in the 1947 passage of the antilabor Taft-Hartley Act, whose Title I, Section 9(h) required all elected union officials to sign affidavits certifying that they were not members of the Communist Party. While the American Federation of Labor (AFL) endorsed Section 9(h), the CIO initially balked, urging noncompliance. Failure to comply, however, barred unions from access to National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) machinery, a provision whose utility in jurisdictional disputes and intraunion conflicts quickly eroded CIO solidarity. Reuther signed in 1947 and used the affidavit to purge his communist opponents in the UAW and to launch raids against locals in noncomplying unions. The affidavit issue sparked an orgy of raiding, since noncomplying unions were kept off NLRB election ballots and thus were unable to defend themselves. The UE alone endured more than 500 raids between 1947 and 1949, when its leaders finally capitulated and signed.

As the chasm widened between the United States and the Soviet Union, the intensifying cold war increasingly politicized the CIO. President Harry Truman vetoed the Taft-Hartley Act, although he understood that his veto would be overturned, and used the gesture to woo labor support. Truman's cold war initiatives—aid to Greece, support for the Marshall Plan—soon became flash points for conflict within the federation and its affiliates, and anticommunist CIO leaders increasingly pressured leftists to abandon their opposition.

The 1948 presidential election marked a turning point in the internal CIO struggle. In December 1947 Henry A. Wallace announced his candidacy for the presidency. Wallace had served as the vice president during Roosevelt's third term and was a quintessential New Deal progressive; moreover, Truman had fired him from his post as the secretary of commerce for advocating peace with the Soviets. CIO leftists supported Wallace; the UE president, Albert Fitzgerald, cochaired Wallace's campaign committee. Wallace initially seemed to tap a pro-peace vein of support, but his campaign was soon eviscerated by withering attacks. He and his leftist supporters were marginalized, and CIO communists were made vulnerable to their opponents within the federation. Although the CIO was officially nonpartisan, since the Roosevelt years it had effectively supported the Democratic Party, and the communist support for Wallace came to be seen as likely to produce a Republican victory. The Wallace campaign thus served to solidify the CIO's initially tepid support for Truman, and Wallace backers became prime targets of CIO ire.

The CIO IUCs and PACs became battlegrounds. CIO president Philip Murray abandoned the restraint that had precluded open attacks on the communists, and in March 1947 the national CIO IUC director, John Brophy, ordered all IUCs to endorse national CIO policy on specific issues or risk losing their CIO endorsement. Harry Bridges, the CIO Pacific Coast regional director, refused to comply and was removed from his post; Pressman, the general counsel, was fired for supporting Wallace. These moves—against CIO employees and specifically CIO-created structures like the IUCs—signaled the beginning of an all-out effort to drive communists entirely out of the CIO, including the communists active in affiliated unions.

The Purge

CIO strategy in the affiliates was to exert heavy pressure on communist leaders and their allies while encouraging anticommunists to oust them, hoping thereby to keep the federation structurally and financially intact. In some instances, the strategy worked. "Red Mike" Quill, the fiery TWU president, denounced his erstwhile allies and purged the TWU. But the largest and most influential of the left-led unions, the UE, remained impervious to assault, successfully repelling a strong, CIO-sanctioned UEMDA challenge at its September 1949 convention. The UE voted to withhold CIO dues until affiliates stopped raiding UE locals; that action opened the UE to direct CIO attack at the November CIO convention. Calling UE "the Communist Party masquerading as a labor union," delegates voted to expel the UE and the small Farm Equipment Workers, which had merged with the UE for protection. Following the UE's expulsion, the CIO chartered a replacement, the International Union of Electrical Workers, and appointed Carey as the president.

The convention amended the CIO constitution, empowering the executive board to hold hearings and expel communist-dominated unions. Ten unions were charged under the new provisions, and hearings were arranged. The unions charged were the American Communications Association; Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers (FTA); International Fishermen and Allied Workers; International Fur and Leather Workers Union (IFLWU); ILWU; International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers; National Union of Maritime Cooks and Stewards; United Furniture Workers (UFW); United Office and Professional Workers of America; and United Public Workers of America. Again the CIO strategy was to encourage internal "housecleaning," but of the 10 unions, only the UFW complied, earning a reprieve.

The remaining nine unions were subjected to remarkably undemocratic hearings. Anticommunists accused, prosecuted, judged, and sentenced the hapless leftists, denying defense counsel or the right to call witnesses until the IFLWU took the issue to civil court. Evidence was derived from analyzing union publications and comparing political positions to those of the CPUSA. More damaging testimony came from disaffected former communists and allies, who testified to direct links between union leaders and the CPUSA. All nine unions were expelled.

Aftermath and Consequences of Disunion

Expulsion did not end the issue; it merely intensified internecine strife as AFL and CIO affiliates went after the banished unions. The strongest unions—the UE, ILWU, and IFLWU—survived, but as pariahs; others were absorbed by competitors. The USW, for example, absorbed the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers after several bitter, racially divisive fights. Some, like the FTA and the Maritime Cooks, were destroyed. All of the expelled unions were additionally subjected to external pressures from governmental agencies and a hostile press. The CIO's momentum fizzled; growth was sluggish, at best. Operation Dixie, the southern organizing drive intended to demonstrate the CIO's post-purge vitality, was a disastrous defeat that paved the way for the CIO's merger with the AFL in 1955.

Scholars differ in their assessment of the CIO's expulsion of its left-wing unions. Early accounts were heavily ideological and starkly partisan. Since the 1980s historians have begun to acknowledge that left-led unions generally were quite well led and notably democratic, often pioneering in organizing previously neglected groups: women, minorities, and white-collar and professional workers. Most now agree that the internecine strife was profoundly detrimental to the CIO and to the U.S. labor movement as a whole. Steve Rosswurm argues that the expulsions hastened bureaucratization; stifled political debate; silenced shop-floor militants; undermined organizing among key groups; chilled the advance of the nascent civil rights movement; and inhibited labor's ability to counter postwar capital mobility. Ronald Filippelli and Mark McColloch call the expulsions "a self-dismemberment… one of the excesses committed in the name of national security during the Cold War." Others acknowledge harmful aspects but nevertheless conclude, as Robert Zieger does, that the expulsions were necessary. Zieger notes, the CIO "opposed Stalinism at home and abroad at a time when many of the left were beguiled by the Soviet mystique," and he concludes that, despite the cost, the CIO still "established new standards of material well-being, personal dignity, and workplace dignity" for working people.

Key Players

Bridges, Harry A. (1901-1990): An Australian, Bridges joined the Industrial Workers of the World in 1921 and became a longshoreman in San Francisco in 1922. He helped to organize a militant local of the International Longshoreman's Association (ILA) in 1933, and rose to prominence as a strike leader. In 1937 he led most of the West Coast ILA locals into the CIO's newly organized International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU), and became the CIO West Coast regional director in 1939. A prominent target for anticommunists, Bridges successfully fought off deportation attempts and perjury convictions, but he was unable to avoid expulsion from the CIO during the 1950 purge. In 1960 he negotiated the ILWU's pathbreaking Mechanization and Modernization Agreement, which accepted increased use of machinery in exchange for high pensions and guaranteed pay.

Carey, James B. (1911-1973): Carey attended night school while working in a Philco radio plant. Working for the AFL, he organized the plant and became the president of the National Radio and Allied Trades Council in 1935. When the AFL refused to charter his industrial union, Carey brought his group into the new United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) and was elected as the president, holding the office until 1941. He continued to serve as the CIO national secretary, a position he won in 1938. Working with anticommunists in the UE and the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, Carey sponsored ongoing but ineffective challenges to the leftist UE leadership. In 1949 he quit the UE and became the president of the International Union of Electrical Workers, serving until 1965.

Matles, James J. (1909-1975): Matles emigrated from Romania in 1926 and worked as a machinist in New York City. He held several offices in the International Association of Machinists and the communist-organized Metal Workers Industrial Union in the 1930s. In 1937 he became the director of organization in the newly chartered United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE), a post he held until 1962, when he was elected as the UE general secretary. As a national UE leader who never admitted to Communist Party membership, Matles came under fire during the anticommunist purge; he endured pressures ranging from congressional inquiries to deportation attempts. Matles was a superb organizer noted for his honesty, intense oratory, and negotiating skills.

Murray, Philip (1886-1952): Murray emigrated from Scotland in 1902 and worked in the mines of western Pennsylvania. He was elected as the president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) District 5 in 1916 and to the executive board in 1919. He was appointed as the chairman of John L. Lewis's Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) in 1936; when the SWOC became the United Steel Workers in 1942, Murray became the first president. He became the CIO president in 1940; differences with Lewis over support for Franklin D. Roosevelt led to a rift and to Murray's expulsion from the UMWA in 1942. His break with the CIO leftists signaled the beginning of their purge.

Pressman, Lee (1906-1969): Born in New York City of Russian immigrant parents, Pressman earned a law degree from Harvard University in 1929. He served as the general counsel for several New Deal agencies before joining the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in 1936. He later became the general counsel of the United Steel Workers of America and the CIO. Pressman was a prominent CIO communist, and his dismissal in 1948 for supporting Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party was an early act in the developing CIO purge.

Quill, Michael Joseph (1905-1966): Quill emigrated from Ireland in 1926 and worked as a gateman in New York City's subways. He joined Clan na Gael, the U.S. affiliate of the Irish Republican Army, and was part of the group's attempt to organize subway workers. Quill founded the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU) with help from the Communist Party USA in 1937, serving as the TWU president from 1936 to 1966. "Red Mike" was elected to the New York City council as a representative from the Bronx in 1937, 1943, and 1945. In 1948 he broke with the Communist Party (his own membership is unconfirmed) over Henry Wallace's presidential campaign; he later testified against CIO communists in the 1950 expulsion hearings and became a CIO vice president in 1950.

Reuther, Walter Philip (1907-1970): A tool and die maker, Reuther organized and became the president of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) Local 174 in 1935. He was elected to the UAW executive board in 1936; became the director of UAW's General Motors department in 1939; and was elected as the first vice president in 1942. In 1946 the anticommunist "Reuther Caucus" gained control of the UAW; Reuther became the president and initiated a purge of UAW leftists. That same year, Reuther was elected to the CIO executive board, where he actively fostered the CIO purge in 1949-1950. He became the CIO president in 1952 and brokered the merger with the American Federation of Labor in 1955, serving as the president of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Department until 1968, when he led the UAW out of the AFL-CIO.

See also: AFL, CIO Merge; Congress of Industrial Organizations; Taft-Hartley Act; World Federation of Trade Unions.



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—Lisa Kannenberg