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IUE Moves On
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Officers and members of Local 506 get the good news - a decisive victory over an IUE raid in 1950.

Officers and members of Local 506 get the good news — a decisive victory over an IUE raid in 1950. On the phone is Bus. Agent James Kennedy; to his left, Pres. John Nelson and Chief Plant Steward David Kester.

The union created for the sole purpose of eliminating UE is no more. As of Oct. 1, the International Union of Electronics Workers became a division of the Communication Workers of America.

The IUE (originally the International Union of Electrical Workers) was a product of a factional struggle within UE. More than that, however, it was a tool used by leading sections of the labor movement, big business and the government in a unionbusting effort aimed at UE.

Following World War II, U.S. big business was uniquely positioned for global expansion and domination. The principal restraints to the corporations were a growing and invigorated labor movement at home and the Soviet Union abroad. Big business promoted an anti-communist hysteria that served both to justify a massive military buildup and attacks on the trade union movement.

The successful strikes in 1946 led by unions affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) — strikes with widespread community support — demonstrated to big business the urgent necessity of curbing the power of labor.

The National Association of Manufacturers distributed millions of pamphlets like Communists in the Labor Movement in an ideological advertising campaign of unprecedented proportions. More than 200 anti-labor bills flooded Congress in 1947. From these emerged the Taft-Hartley bill, written by lobbyists for General Electric and other major corporations, and containing a political restriction on holding union office.

The unity of the CIO cracked and eventually gave way under this barrage. The CIO leadership opted for "respectability" and a limited social partnership with the corporations in exchange for collaboration with the government and big business in eliminating the labor movement’s left wing.

The principal target: UE, the third-largest CIO union with more than a half-million members. UE represented more than 90 percent of all GE and Westinghouse workers.

An already existing factional movement within the union, led by former Pres. James Carey, received assistance from the CIO leadership and other outside forces. The faction waged an unrelenting campaign against UE’s leadership and policies.


UE had other complaints against the CIO leadership.

A major CIO organizing drive in the South proved a major fiasco. Not only did CIO organizers sidestep employers’ red-baiting, they accommodated themselves to "Southern traditions and customs" — meaning they did not challenge racism either. Open support for inequality played into the employers’ hands.

The CIO was changing, and not for the better. James Matles, UE director of organization, complained that CIO leaders were talking and acting like "labor statesmen" instead of "organizers and picket line leaders." Union leaders needed "to get out of [their] swivel chairs [and] down to the factory gates," he said.

While UE was vigorously organizing the unorganized, some unions were gaining new members by raiding UE locals.

The anti-union Taft-Hartley Act required all union officers to sign affidavits that they were not members of the Communist Party. Refusal would strip their union of all legal protection under the NLRB. A number of major unions, including the Steelworkers, the Mine Workers and UE, refused to comply, arguing that the affidavits represented an outrageous interference in union democracy. Some unions that complied with Taft-Hartley petitioned for elections at UE-represented plants; because of its non-compliance, UE was not allowed on the ballot.

The Cold War pressure intensified, meanwhile.


Many unions had complaints against the Truman Administration — the President’s use of Taft-Hartley injunctions against strikes, a cabinet filled with corporate officials, a war-like foreign policy that marked a major shift from that of Franklin Roosevelt. The CIO leadership insisted on endorsement of Truman in 1948, however, and condemnation of third parties. UE rejected these dictates. Although the union’s top officers personally supported the third-party candidacy of Henry Wallace, the 1948 convention made no endorsement while supporting the concept of independent political action.

UE convention delegates also called on the CIO to stop the raids on UE locals and repudiated the organized movement within the union attacking its leaders and policies.

Big business saw its opportunity. "Our fight to get out from under the domination of the left-wing UE, we expect to consummate this year," a GE official told the Pittsburgh Personnel Association in 1949.

At the 1949 UE convention delegates decisively re-elected the incumbent officers over the factionalists’ slate and voted to withhold per capita to the CIO unless the federation acted against the raiders and ceased its interference in UE’s internal affairs. The day after the convention, the factionalists issued a call for a new union.

UE withdrew from the CIO. At its November 1949 convention, the CIO "expelled" UE and 10 other unions as "communist-dominated." The 11 unions had a combined membership of one million members.

Carey was presented with the charter for a new union, the IUE. Its reason for existence was to replace UE, a successful, vibrant, democratic union.

This was how the GE official expected to be rid of UE "domination."


Not long after his convention, CIO Pres. Philip Murray met with the heads of GE and Westinghouse to discuss the details of how to eliminate UE.

The IUE had one fundamental problem: no members. Under law, a union needed 30 percent of a plant’s workers to petition the Labor Board for an election. But under Taft-Hartley, employers could petition. That’s where the corporations came in. The corporations told the Labor Board that UE no longer represented its employees.

"We took Carey off the hook by filing our own petitions for an NLRB election," a GE lawyer later admitted. "This, under the rules, made it unnecessary for the IUE-CIO to show any membership at all." The president of Westinghouse boasted, "Westinghouse was one of the first employers who actively supported Mr. Carey."

The Labor Board cooperated in the attacks against UE by setting aside its basic rule that union representation could be challenged by elections only at the end of a contract. The NLRB decided that where a "schism" existed, certification could be ignored and new elections scheduled mid-contract. GE and other corporations gladly declared "schisms" throughout the chains, relieving the IUE of having to show any support. (The NLRB changed its rules again once the dirty work had been done, to prevent a genuine rank-and-file rebellion against corruption.)

UE was suddenly faced with a deluge of elections. The corporations and the IUE, and other unions moving in for a piece of the action, had help from politicians. Elections coincided with hearings by Congressional committees "investigating communism in industry" — and UE shop leaders were ordered to testify. GE and other employers automatically fired workers who refused to "cooperate" with the investigators. With the Korean War underway, newspapers, clergymen and politicians implied UE members were security risks if not traitors. Matles and other UE leaders were threatened with deportation; some were actually deported. The Eisenhower Justice Dept. attempted to have UE declared "a communist front."


Secessionists in UE Local 301 (Schenectady GE) attempt to physically prevent Dir. of Org. James Matles (right) from addressing a meeting in the union hall.
Secessionists in UE Local 301 (Schenectady GE) attempt to physically prevent Dir. of Org. James Matles (right) from addressing a meeting in the union hall. The local defected to the IUE in 1955, further weakening unity of workers in the GE chain.

In early months of 1950, UE held its own, losing some elections, winning others. Some members who defected to the IUE quickly became disenchanted with the "Imitation UE" as rates were slashed and grievances went unprocessed. In January, the UE NEWS editorialized, "The IUE Will Evaporate."

As historians Mark D. McColloch and Ronald L. Filippelli describe the situation, "by late 1950, the UE had suffered serous damage. About 152,000 members had been taken away by the IUE and other rival unions. The old union had been wiped out in GM and was now the minority group in GE, Westinghouse and RCA. On the other hand, the UE had held onto over 100,000 workers in representation elections, had 300,000 members who had not yet even faced a raid, had been boosted by the affiliation of 50,000 members from the Farm Equipment Workers and had organized over 15,000 workers since the split. Against all odds, the UE remained a large, significant union."

But the anti-communist hysteria that culminated in "McCarthyism" gave the IUE and other unions an edge. UE faced further reverses as the 1950s continued.

In 1955, the UE General Executive Board authorized the national officers to discuss possible terms for affiliation with the newly formed AFL-CIO, with certain conditions: an end to raids, guarantee of local autonomy and democracy, and cooperation in collective bargaining as merger talks proceeded. The IUE rejected these conditions.

UE continually took the initiative in calling for cooperation with the IUE (and other unions) in negotiations with GE and Westinghouse. In 1969, those efforts bore fruit. The IUE and UAW agreed to undertake joint bargaining with GE that year, setting the stage for the first display of solidarity in the electrical industry in 20 years. At midnight, Oct. 26, 1969, 150,000 workers struck more than 150 GE plants. GE was shutdown nationally for the first time in 23 years. The 101-day strike broke GE’s "take-it-or-leave-it" bargaining strategy.

In the years since UE and the IUE have continued to cooperate within the Coordinated Bargaining Committee of GE Unions.


UE Genl. Pres. John Hovis commented on the impending self-liquidation of the IUE in his remarks to the 65th UE Convention in August. "I don’t know if Hugh Harley (retired director of organization, who was in the hall), Charlie Newell (an early UE leader), or the many other stalwarts who fought the bitter battles of the 1950s and 1960s to preserve UE, ever thought they would live long enough to see this day," Hovis said. "It’s a shame that (Pres.) Albert Fitzgerald, (Genl. Sec.-Treas.) Julius Emspak, (Dir. of Org. and Genl. Sec.-Treas.) Jim Matles, (Intl. Rep.) Don Tormey, (Local 506 Pres.) John Nelson, (Local 506 Bus. Agent) James Kennedy and so many others did not."

"Why do we celebrate our 65th Convention with high spirits, looking forward to the future, while the IUE with more than 100,000 members and total assets of over $36 million, decides they can no longer make a go at it after 50?" Hovis asked. The IUE leadership determined it couldn’t function effectively.

While money’s an important factor, the UE president said, "There’s something more to the union than collecting dues." There are also deeply rooted beliefs, dedication, a broader view, he said. UE’s commitment to democratic practices is crucial to its survival, Hovis said. "Having a reason to exist, something that sets you apart, that gives you the will to survive."

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