Uncovering the truth about Reds and unions

Book Review

Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions By Judith Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin Cambridge University Press, 2002, Softcover, 392 pp., $27



Now that conventional wisdom says the Communist Party and communism are “dead,” serious research is being published that gives the lie to anti-communist propaganda.

For example, recent research by Western military historians using Soviet-era documents are telling us that the Soviet army used brilliant, innovative tactics to defeat the Nazi armies. They expose the lies we have been told about the alleged ruthless, needless, and calculated sacrifice of thousands if not millions of the Soviet forces that won the Second World War.

Now comes a book by two serious scholars that examines the history of the Communist Party USA’s role in the explosion of union activity and organizing in the 1930s and beyond, up to and including the effectiveness of McCarthyism in derailing the trade union movement in the 1950s.

The authors, both professors in the University of California system, tell the story of what Communists actually did in the unions where they were in leadership.

With only a few exceptions, previous examinations of the Party’s role in unions centered on ideological questions and tried to build the “conspiracy charge” against the Communists, painting them as Stalinists who were mindlessly carrying out the orders of the Comintern.

These authors, on the other hand, state, “Our own ‘main problem,’ in contrast, is precisely, by carefully and systematically studying the ‘historical materials,’ to try to discover what Communists did in fact do to win power [sic] in American industrial unions.”

The authors picked the unions in three industries – auto, electrical and steel. The historical materials they used include a study of the leadership of these unions from the locals on up to the international bodies. Looking at race and gender particularly, they examined constitutions and bylaws, the minutes of meetings, elections, contracts and contract negotiations among other records. They did statistical analyses of the membership and leadership.

Among other areas they looked at the percentage of Blacks and women in the unions and in the leadership and their representation on the Communist-led slates. They examined the minutes to determine whether minority voices were heard and considered.

Let’s cut to the chase. What the authors found bears out the statements of leading anti-communists such as Irving Howe: “The devotion, heroism and selflessness of many Communists unionists during these years can hardly be overestimated.” Or this quote from Robert Ozane, also a devout anti-communist: “Communists were more willing than the average worker to face gross employer discrimination and even violence.”

“Left Out” is not easy reading. But there are more than enough rewards to make it worthwhile.

The story of the Communists’ struggle to get minorities into top leadership is revealing. In the United Auto Workers, it was not that the “membership was racist,” as non-communists and right-wingers claimed. The records show that the obstacle was Walter Reuther and his faction. They claimed that creating a special seat on the board for an African American, which the Party members fought for, would be “a ‘hypocritical’ demand for racism in reverse.” Sound familiar?

As for the Communist Party union members and equal rights for women, the authors cite United Electrical union conventions, official publications and contract demands. UE “actively pressed demands for women’s job training centers, equal pay for equal work, no sex differentials and free child care” from the late ’30s on. UE also raised demands calling for what is today called “equal pay for equal worth.”

All those who want to get the inside skinny on how to organize will get the basics here. In a nutshell, militant rank-and-file unionism is the basis of good unionism. Rank-and-file democracy, struggle for minorities and women at all levels of leadership, open discussion on all issues – both inner union and general political questions – is the only way to go.

The authors conclude that the militancy of the Communist led unions came from rank-and-file participation at all levels, and that led in turn to militancy at the bargaining table. The records show that these unions were the most democratic, and because of that, Communists were elected and re-elected to the leadership.

There is a lot of discussion in the trade union movement about the direction we must take. This book should become must reading for all participants, especially for those who look back to the ’30s, ’40s and early ’50s for inspiration.

The reader will find not only the positive lessons of Communist activity. The book also takes the reader through the McCarthy period to show that the path to docile unions and greater profits was to drive out the Communists.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.