UE Lives On
UE Lives On
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
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.
THE SAME CIO
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
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,
This was how the GE official expected to be rid of UE
Not long after his convention, CIO Pres. Philip Murray
met with the heads of GE and Westinghouse to discuss the details of how to
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
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
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."
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."