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In a book about fear, there's a story about about the terror inspired by big-busines in Erie, PA ... and how UE members confronted and defeated it ...


    Local 506 Officers in 1950 ...
Local 506 officers and members learn that UE resoundingly defeated a 1950 raid. In foreground are Chief Plant Steward David Kester, Pres. John Nelson and Bus. Agent Jim Kennedy (with phone).

The Cold War
Comes to Erie

Fear Itself: Enemies Real and Imagined in American Culture, published last year by Purdue University Press, is a collection of essays dealing with, well, fear — what one author refers to as "plagues of paranoia." Studies of conspiracy theories, witch trials and space-alien fascination share the volume’s many hundreds of pages with accounts of religious and racial bigotry rooted in fear of others.

All in all, Fear Itself will be an intoxicating read for a handful of cultural historians and few others. But wait — what’s this chapter about Erie, Pa. and UE?

"The Cold War Comes to Erie: Repression and Resistance, 1946-54" is a must-read for anyone who would like to learn more about the tremendous odds the union faced during that shameful period. Indeed, this instructive essay by James A. Young is an excellent case study of the Cold War’s effects on "an almost quintessentially American town."


Young makes it clear that the domestic Cold War was created by the animosity of big business and right-wing circles to the New Deal of the 1930s and 1940s. The New Deal had empowered working people, at the expense of the corporate elite, so it had to be halted and reversed.

The strongest support for the New Deal and progressive causes in Erie came from the unions affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO),Young says. The half-dozen UE locals in 1947 accounted for more than half of the CIO members in Erie County.

Like General Electric workers in other communities, the members of UE Locals 506 and 618 enjoyed "broad support in the Erie area" in the national strike against GE following World War II. Shocked by the union’s success, GE’s president Charles E. Wilson "sent a team into the field to learn why the company had lost the 1946 struggle with UE and to devise antidotes to labor’s apparent hold on the good will of various communities such as Erie in which GE operated."

It was GE’s Wilson who neatly summed up the targets of the emerging Cold War: "Russia abroad, labor at home" — a statement which, as Young points out, was "a mild echo of the declaration of Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association president G. Mason Owlett in 1945 that the New Deal was a ‘disaster-bound communist trend.’"

"In Erie as elsewhere, the Manufacturers’ Association (NAM) and the Chamber of Commerce led business’s counterattack against labor and the New Deal," writes Young. "Raising the specter of subversion, the chamber published and circulated nationally a million copies of the booklet Communist Infiltration in the United States in 1946, demanded a loyalty program for government employees, and insisted upon an investigation of the film industry." Big business got its loyalty oaths and investigations; its propaganda contributed to enactment of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act.


GE got into the act directly, taking out full-page ads in the Erie newspaper that argued against wage increases and questioned the patriotism of those critical of corporate policies. As the Cold War intensified, GE ads and in-house General Electric Commentator readily condemned both UE and what Young terms "New Deal values and the nascent worker’s culture that had grown since the 1930s."

The Erie Daily Times, which had moved steadily to the right since the end of World War II, in September 1948 "made banner headlines on unsubstantiated charges that UE was a communist union."

"The Daily Times also supported incumbent congressman Carroll Kearns’s redbaiting campaign against Democratic challenger Jim Kennedy, the UE 506 business agent. Both the candidate — originally the candidate of Sharon Steel Co. executives — and the newspaper hammered relentlessly with unsubstantiated charges and innuendo against the challenger and his union."

The newspaper heaped insinuation on top of smears of alleged communist domination of Local 506; "the paper went on to support General Electric management’s attack upon the UE for its ‘big government’ orientation."

Some churches added their moral weight to the attacks on UE as the crusade took shape and marshaled wider social forces, Young observes.


UE withdrew from the CIO in 1949. Later that year, the CIO chartered the IUE for the express purpose of replacing UE. In Erie, as elsewhere, 1950 marked the beginning of attempts by Cold-War warriors to eliminate UE locals.

Young makes it clear that GE had a pivotal role in this unionbusting: "General Electric facilitated the IUE challenge by requesting that the National Labor Relations Board conduct an election on the basis that GE could no longer be certain that UE enjoyed majority support among union employees. Consequently, the IUE was spared the requirement of attracting 30 percent of the workers to sign a petition demanding an election."

Newspapers and pulpits denounced the UE leadership as front men for Stalin and demanded a vote for the IUE. "At parties, at church, on the streets, and in the clubs, the question remained the same: How can you support that commie union? For Tom Rafter, a member of the Knights of Columbus, the answer was simple: The members vote on all important policies, so if the union were being used for communist purposes, ‘the members would be the first to know.’"


This incredible pressure could not weaken Erie GE workers’ support for their union: On May 25, 1950, UE captured 60.1 percent of the vote. Salaried workers voted to join the IUE, but that was short-lived — Local 618 members voted five-to-one to return to UE just two years later.

The union’s continuing presence provided an alternative way of looking at the world. UE programs aired on Erie radio and television stations; the UE 506 Union News reached thousands with its pro-labor, progressive message. But as Young demonstrates, the survival of UE did not immediately bring about an end to the climate of repression that had gripped Erie. The union and its leaders continued to be targets.

Go to the library, find Fear Itself and read "The Cold War Comes to Erie." If your library doesn’t have a copy, request this book through inter-library loan. As we build this union, as we build the Labor Party, as we challenge the assumption that the corporations have the right to rule our world and run our lives, it’s worth remembering what happened 50 years ago when the empire struck back.

—Peter Gilmore

UE News - 01/99

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