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 ...
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
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 volumes 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 whats 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 Wars effects on "an almost
quintessentially American town."
CORPORATE HIT LIST
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
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 unions success, GEs
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 labors
apparent hold on the good will of various communities such as Erie in which GE
It was GEs 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 businesss 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
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 workers 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
Kearnss 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
managements 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.
SLATED FOR ELIMINATION
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
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."
RANK AND FILE SPEAKS
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 unions 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 doesnt 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,
its worth remembering what happened 50 years ago when the empire struck back.