Left Unions Were Repressed Because They Threatened Capital

Across the 20th century’s two red scares in the US and Canada, the Wobblies and Communist-aligned unions faced fierce repression from employers and government. They were targeted because they were seen as posing a real threat to the capitalist social order.

Radical labor leaders Harry Bridges (L), Henry Schmidt (C), and J. R. Robertson (R) during their trial for perjury, on November 16, 1948. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

A little over a hundred years ago, radical leftists like Socialist Party of America (SPA) leader Eugene V. Debs and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) members were prosecuted under the Espionage Act during and after World War I. On June 13, 2023, former president Donald Trump, undoubtedly a right-wing strongman and an authoritarian leader (if not an outright fascist as considered by several experts) was arraigned in a Miami Beach federal court several days after his indictment under the Espionage Act for retaining federal government documents dealing with highly sensitive military information from his 2017 to 2021 presidential term. In his speech to supporters only hours after his arraignment, Trump remarked that his indictment was “a political persecution like something straight out of a fascist or communist nation,” and then referred to President Joseph Biden, who he claimed “will forever be remembered as not only as the most corrupt president in the history of our country . . . but perhaps even more importantly, the president who together with the band of his closest thugs, misfits and Marxists tried to destroy American democracy.” My, how a century makes a difference! A hundred years ago, Marxists and anarcho-syndicalist radicals were persecuted for their political beliefs, while Trump now claims that he is targeted by alleged Marxists for illegally retaining classified and top-secret government documents.

Besides Debs and IWW militants, there has been a long history of repression of the North American trade union movement, dating back to the late nineteenth century. Much of this repression has occurred in response to union militancy during strikes, some of which were connected to political radicals of various stripes, including socialists and anarchists. Examples abound of this repression, which included employer and government violence directed against striking workers, such as the 1877 St. Louis Railroad Strike, the 1886 Haymarket Square Riot, and the 1892 Homestead Strike.

Repression against the US left and left-wing trade unions reached its first apex during the World War I era with a confluence of events confronting the United States at the time. With the Bolsheviks leading the working class, obtaining power, and attempting to build socialism after the 1917 Russian Revolution, communism became a real fear confronting capitalist nations and their governments. Prior to US involvement in World War I, the SPA, which was at its membership peak of approximately 150,000, opposed the country’s participation in the war. However, the craft-union oriented American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions came to support the war effort upon its declaration. The revolutionary syndicalist IWW did not back the war and refused to honor the no-strike pledges to which the AFL unions adhered during World War I. Moreover, the formation of two US communist parties, the immigrant-dominated Communist Party of America as well as the more native-born led Communist Labor Party, emerging from the SPA’s left wing (or Marxist wing) over the 1919 Labor Day weekend, fueled fears that Communism was not just a European threat but also could become an actual risk to the United States.

The next peak of repression against the North American trade union movement occurred a quarter of a century later, upon World War II’s conclusion in which the Allied powers (United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain) defeated the Axis powers (Nazi Germany, Italy, Japan). Although the United States and the Soviet Union were partners in defeating fascism, this alliance did not survive for long after the war. With the United States viewing the Soviet Union as its biggest threat to world domination, the Cold War developed in the immediate post–World War II period. While the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and the CPUSA-led unions in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) were enthusiastic supporters of the Allies’ war effort, which included the backing of the wartime no-strike pledge and incentive pay to maximize production during the war, by 1946, the CPUSA had become a domestic target of Cold War politics.

The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which outlined a myriad of restrictions on US trade unions, specifically targeted the CPUSA-led unions under Section 9(h), which required that union officials sign an affidavit that they were not Communist Party members. Refusal to comply resulted in the union forgoing access to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which meant that unions could neither participate in union certification elections nor file unfair labor practice charges against employers. If union leaders signed even though they were CPUSA members, they could be charged and convicted of perjury, culminating in a prison term. Moreover, the 1949 Smith Act trials charging twelve of the CPUSA’s national leaders with advocating the violent overthrow of the US government ended with convictions and prison sentences of three to five years, combined with a $10,000 fine per individual. Attacks on the CPUSA-led unions also came from within the US trade union movement, with the CIO expelling these nine unions due to their opposition to the Marshall Plan and their backing of Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party presidential candidate, in the 1948 election as opposed to Harry Truman, the Democratic Party candidate, who defeated Thomas Dewey by the slimmest of margins.

The IWW, Harry Bridges, and Mine Mill

The repression of left-wing trade unions is a major theme of three recent volumes: Ahmed White’s Under the Iron Heel: The Wobblies and the Capitalist War on Radical Workers, Robert W. Cherny’s Harry Bridges: Labor Radical, Labor Legend, and Ron Verzuh’s Smelter Wars: A Rebellious Red Trade Union Fights for Its Life in Wartime Western Canada.

White’s volume is the first exhaustive account of the legal and vigilante attacks on the IWW beginning in 1917, at the same time as World War I and the Russian Revolution, when the organization was becoming stronger and increasing in membership. By 1927, the organization had been essentially destroyed by the federal government and employers, who were threatened by the group’s militancy.

Cherny’s book is undoubtedly the definitive biography of Harry Bridges, president of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), now the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, for forty years from 1937 to 1977. Bridges brought a militant trade unionism to the stevedores working on the West Coast docks during the 1930s while extending trade unionism to the warehouse, sugar, and pineapple workers in Hawaii. Known for his militancy and effectiveness as a leader, Bridges was attacked for his left-wing politics and success, while there were several attempts to deport and imprison him for his communist sympathies. Moreover, the CIO expelled the ILWU for its politics. Nevertheless, after the union’s expulsion, Bridges continued to effectively lead the independent union while dealing with controversial issues such as racial integration and the mechanization/containerization on the waterfront.

Verzuh’s treatise examines the CPUSA-led International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (Mine Mill) Local 480, which represented more than five thousand workers at a smelter that was owned and operated by the formidable Consolidated Mining and Smelting (CM&S) Company of Canada. The book discusses how Local 480 fought corporate, media, and religious attacks on the union during the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War era.

These works, I argue, demonstrate that the repression of North American left-wing unions was severe because of the strength of these unions and the threat they were perceived to pose to employers and the government. Given that these left-wing unions were much more militant than the AFL unions, this governmental repression (as well as that of other forces) can be viewed as a conscious set of tactics invoked to break, or at a minimum tame, these radical unions in the service of capital.

Born in the Melbourne, Australia, suburb of Kensington in 1901 as Alfred Renton Bridges, the young Bridges was strongly influenced by his Uncle Renton, a wool presser and member of the Australian Workers’ Union. Additionally, Bridges’s father and uncle were strong supporters of the Australian Labor Party, which in 1910 became the globe’s first social democratic party to achieve a substantial electoral majority in the nation’s bicameral parliament. Bridges first worked on a small sailing vessel in December 1917 on a month-long trip to Tasmania; he continued to work aboard ships for five more years, serving in various capacities including cook, ordinary seaman, and able seamen.

Bridges arrived in San Francisco in April 1920 aboard a sailing vessel, but initially did not have plans to make the United States his permanent home. Shortly after the ship docked, Bridges joined the Sailors Union of the Pacific. After working a ship to Boston in December 1920 and being exposed to IWW organizers in early 1921, Bridges joined the revolutionary syndicalist organization. In 1922, Bridges began laboring as a San Francisco longshoreman, experiencing the waterfront’s brutal working conditions including the shape-up and high injury rates. Bridges’s leg and shoulder were hurt in 1923, and in 1929, he experienced a devastating injury, a crushed foot. Although he flirted with union matters from 1922 to 1932, it was not until the Great Depression that Bridges immersed himself in union affairs.

By the middle of 1933, Bridges was actively involved in efforts to bring a new ILA local to the San Francisco waterfront, meeting weekly with a dozen or so ILA members who were all political militants, with some being members or sympathizers of the CPUSA who came to be known as the Albion Group. By this time, Bridges’s fellow workers were turning to him for leadership while his political views were shifting to the left, as he came to believe that capitalism could not resolve the Great Depression’s problems. In the local union elections that September, the Albion Group (including Bridges) obtained victories in a majority of executive board seats and business-agent positions.

In 1933, with the breakdown of the National Recovery Act’s code of fair competition hearings regarding wages and working conditions among longshoremen, employers, and the federal government, and with employers refusing to recognize the union, there was sentiment among West Coast port workers for conducting a walkout. Strike votes were taken in mid-March 1934 among the ILA locals, which voted decisively in favor of a work stoppage, setting the stage for the historic May 1934 strike.

Lasting eighty-three days from May 9 to July 31, 1934, the ILA strike encompassed between 10,000 and 15,000 Pacific Coast longshoremen who were fighting for a union-controlled hiring hall and a contract covering all West Coast stevedores. Undoubtedly the seminal moment in ILA history, the walkout was of decisive importance to Harry Bridges, who became the San Francisco local’s de facto head and emerged as a principal leader throughout the entire Pacific Coast. Since there were only six to eight CPUSA members on the Strike Committee, which had more than seventy members, the party influenced but neither directed nor controlled the strike. In July 1934, all maritime unions were involved in the general strike, engulfing San Francisco in open class warfare. The ILA emerged victorious, embedding the longshore union firmly within the West Coast waterfront, along with a union-controlled hiring hall that had an ILA-selected dispatcher, achieving a coastwide collective bargaining agreement, a six-hour workday, a thirty-hour workweek, and an arbitration system for resolving disputes, combined with small wage increases.

Harry Bridges on June 7, 1937. (Wikimedia Commons)

While there was joint action among the maritime unions during the 1934 strike, after the walkout there was an attempt to formalize this unity through the establishment of the Maritime Federation of the Pacific (MFP) in April 1935, in which Bridges and Harry Lundeberg (of the International Seamen’s Union) played key roles. This umbrella organization encountered difficulties from the start due to job actions and boycotts that not only frayed union-employer relations but also led to clashes between Bridges and Lundeberg. During the MFP’s strike from early November 1936 through late January 1937, the organization’s unity was severely tested. Besides confronting the matter of whether the badly damaged relations within the MFP could be repaired, the walkout’s conclusion raised issues (first occurring within the strike) over the AFL dispute regarding industrial unionism as well as dealing with the CIO as an independent trade union federation.

After the ILA–Pacific Coast Division (PCD) executive board voted on July 26, 1937, (by a nearly four-to-one margin) to affiliate with the CIO, the industrial union federation chartered the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) on August 11, 1937, with Bridges assuming the union presidency as well as the CIO western regional directorship. Within nine months of receiving the charter, all but four ILA-PCD locals (Tacoma and three tiny Puget Sound locals) in Washington State had joined the ILWU. From its affiliation with the CIO in mid-1937 and for the next two years, Bridges and the nascent ILWU were strong supporters of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal, believing that it was important to remain politically active to consolidate the union’s gains obtained through both militant action and collective bargaining. Additionally, the union backed the NLRB certification election process as the methodology for determining unit representation in its jurisdictional battles with the Teamsters.

Although opposed to US intervention in World War II prior to Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Bridges modified his position three months later (despite the CPUSA immediately having called for US entry in the war). Although opposing racial and gender discrimination during wartime and still attempting to protect the longshoremen’s hard-fought gains despite making a few concessions, Bridges and the ILWU backed the war effort. Remaining politically active in supporting FDR and the New Deal Democrats, the ILWU expanded its base by organizing in new geographical regions including the Midwest, the South, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Although the ILWU began organizing longshoremen in Hawaii in 1937, the union extended its organizing in this archipelago to include twenty thousand railroad, sugar, pineapple, and other industrial workers by 1945.

In the immediate postwar period, with the Cold War heating up, the ILWU sought to extend its gains through a work stoppage beginning on October 1, 1946, which was resolved on November 17. Another 1946 strike among ILWU sugar workers in Hawaii resulted in a large wage increase.

Besides the passage of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, Bridges’s opposition to the Marshall Plan and his modest support for presidential candidate Henry Wallace in 1948 resulted in attacks on the ILWU by CIO president Philip Murray that the union was following the CPUSA line rather than that of the CIO, which led to Murray removing Bridges as CIO regional director. In August 1950, the CIO expelled the ILWU for being a CPUSA-led union, along with eight other such unions in 1949–1950. The ILWU’s expulsion did not seem to harm the union’s effectiveness in the early 1950s, with the ILWU steadily expanding the number of benefits provided to its members, such as lengthier vacations, dental insurance, medical insurance for pension recipients, and dismemberment insurance, among other things, through collective bargaining.

The next major issue to confront the ILWU throughout the 1950s was the technological change of containerization occurring on the waterfront, culminating in the 1960 Modernization and Mechanization (M&M) agreement. Provisions included the PMA contributing $5 million annually to a fund that would be used to assure against layoffs and cover minimum weekly earnings, an early retirement program, a lump sum payment for longshoremen achieving normal retirement age, expanded death and disability benefits, guarantees that speedups would not occur and the maintenance of the current safety rules. In exchange, the ILWU agreed to permit the introduction of more efficient work methods combined with labor-saving machinery. Criticism of the M&M agreement included that the ILWU had accepted the PMA’s fund which was, in essence, a bribe to concede hard-won working conditions to the employers.

The 1960s and the ’70s continued to bring challenges to Bridges and the ILWU. In 1964, Bridges was sued by forty-five B men (probationary employees), a majority of them black, who, according to Bridges, had been deregistered because of work rule violations. Remedies sought by these individuals included being returned to A status and monetary damages of $600,000. Lawsuit supporters alleged the B-men deregistration had occurred due to racial discrimination or opposition to Bridges’s regime. Upon losing their lawsuit in 1965, the B men filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB that went nowhere. Additional lawsuits were unsuccessful; the final appeal of a federal lawsuit of the B-men case was lost in 1980.

The ILWU’s longest strike commenced on July 1, 1971. After more than three months on strike, then president Richard Nixon invoked the Taft-Hartley Act, resulting in the strikers returning to work for an eighty-day cooling-off period. A vote on the employer’s final offer was taken toward the conclusion of the cooling-off period, which was scheduled to end on December 26, with the union strike committee urging that the offer be rejected — which it was, with 93 percent voting “no.” The previous contract was extended to January 17, 1972, and when a new agreement was not reached the ILWU resumed its strike.

By the end of January, Congress threatened to pass legislation requiring that the dispute be ended by binding arbitration. A tentative agreement was reached between the ILWU and the PMA on February 8, which was approved by 71 percent of the union membership. Although Bridges proclaimed the contract a victory, there were few gains made that had not already been achieved upon the strike’s mid-January resumption. Probably the biggest improvement was the guarantee of work for longshoremen, which averaged over twenty-six weeks. Upon stepping down from the ILWU presidency in 1977, Bridges had held this position for four decades.

White’s book is the first volume to deal solely with the repression that the IWW faced during its tumultuous existence. White contends that most books covering the organization focus on the suppression of the IWW’s free-speech rights and civil liberties during the World War I years as if it were an anomaly due to the politically charged times. But White argues that repression of the IWW did not only occur during World War I, but both before and after the war as well. Moreover, he claims that it was not only businessmen and reactionary conservatives who were in favor of subjugation of the IWW, but also leading progressives, including President Woodrow Wilson and US Supreme Court justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis. And White’s treatment is distinctive in making clear that repression of the IWW was the most brutal when the labor organization was at its peak of strength and was perceived by capital and political elites to pose severe threats to US society.

White also argues that the lessons of the IWW’s harsh treatment have been misconstrued by liberal historians who interpret the union’s experience as aberrant during World War I and the 1919–1920 Red Scare. Such scholars contend that even though law and reason were briefly abandoned during these years, both freedom of speech and the principles of collective association survived despite the failure of the IWW and its philosophy. The IWW foundered for a number of reasons, including changes in technology, the social structure, and the type of work being performed, which depleted the pool of migratory, primarily unskilled workers from which the labor organization recruited its membership, as well as a long-simmering factional conflict that divided the IWW. But repression was a primary factor for its collapse. White emphasizes the crucial point that is often overlooked: the repression against the IWW was ultimately intended to destroy the organization and US radical industrial unionism because of the dangers both posed to capital.

During World War I, the organization was at the apex of its strength, at perhaps 150,000 members (although not all paid dues), with many more workers supporting the IWW. The IWW opposed the war and the draft and would not agree to a wartime no-strike pledge, as did the AFL unions. While the organization advocated sabotage in the past, the group’s leadership was moving away from encouraging this tactic. Much of the repression against the IWW invoked by the business class and the federal government occurred because of work stoppages such as the 1917 Bisbee (Arizona) strike and the 1917 Lumber Workers Industrial Union strike.

However, in 1917, even when not participating in strikes, as in Oregon, Wobblies were arrested and convicted of vagrancy, sentenced to thirty days to six months in jail, and fined up to $100. And on September 5, 1917, the US Justice Department officers raided the homes of leading Wobblies and seized control of the IWW national headquarters in Chicago, removing five tons of office equipment, records, literature, and so on. Three weeks later, 166 IWW members were indicted by a Chicago federal grand jury. On the same day as the Chicago foray and the day after, the federal government raided IWW offices in approximately fifty cities, including all the Wobblies’ West Coast bastions.

At the beginning of the First Red Scare — from the time of the 1919 May Day riots to the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, on November 7 1919 — raids conducted by federal agents, police, and vigilantes led to the arrests of some one thousand radicals (or purported radicals) including socialists, communists, anarchists, and IWW members, with the latter group numbering a few hundred. The federal government’s primary method for dealing with these arrested Wobblies was deportation; this occurred more often among IWW members because they were more likely to be immigrants.

When the Red Scare receded late in the spring of 1920, the repression had severely harmed the IWW’s viability in Montana, the Kansas and Oklahoma oil fields, the lumber and iron-mining industries in northern Minnesota, and mining in Arizona. Nevertheless, the IWW still remained a force on the West Coast waterfronts, in the construction, agriculture, and lumber industries where the union enrolled new members.

Thus, in the post–Red Scare years, although repression still occurred in other US geographic regions, beginning in fall 1921 it was increasingly directed against the labor organization in the West. Repression appeared to intensify during strikes in California like the work stoppage of several thousand men led by the IWW’s Construction Workers Industrial Union on two major construction projects during October and November 1922, a lumber mill work stoppage of ten thousand workers called in late April 1923, and the IWW’s Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union (MTWIU) walkout of three thousand workers on the San Pedro waterfront, which also began in late April 1923.

IWW leader Bill Haywood, flanked by fellow Wobblies, during the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike. (Wikimedia Commons)

It appears that the IWW was irretrievably damaged in California by the end of spring 1924, after police arrested approximately six union members a day. At the same time, on March 1, 1924, some three thousand legionnaires, college men, and Klansmen cordoned the San Pedro MTWIU hall, and later, in the middle of the month, a smaller group, with the aid of policemen, destroyed the facility while several IWW leaders were arrested. Another raid on the San Pedro Hall took place on June 14, 1924, where a pack of 150 police, Klansmen, and AFL union members ransacked the place, lit documents and furniture on fire, and attacked IWW members.

Once the IWW was essentially destroyed, incidents of repression significantly decreased. In the summer and fall of 1924, a handful of Wobblies were put on trial for vagrancy while mass arrests occasionally occurred, such as when the San Francisco police arrested twenty-one IWW members for the distribution of literature to high-school students on December 3, 1924. Moreover, criminal syndicalism cases dwindled to only four in California in 1924. In 1925, there were no vigilante attacks on the IWW, and only a handful of Wobblies were tried for vagrancy or other minor infractions of the law. The declining trajectory of assaults against the IWW demonstrates, as White suggests, that as the union was perceived to be less of a threat to employers and the government, the intensity of the repression against it declined.

White also makes clear that repression not only crushed the IWW as an organization, but also destroyed individual Wobblies’ minds, bodies, and spirits. IWW members who lost their mental faculties due to the ordeals they faced in prison included Abe Shocker, John “Jack” Beavert, Olin Anderson, and Fred Esmond, for example. Wobblies were chained, beaten, and placed in solitary confinement, the dungeon, or the “hole” in prison, in response to their protests over their living and working conditions. Some IWW members died from diseases contracted in prison. R. V. Lewis was luckier than other Wobblies: upon his 1922 release from San Quentin, Lewis left prison with only one leg — the other leg had to be amputated because prison officials failed to treat an abscess on a timely basis.

Verzuh’s book deals with a Canadian local of a scrappy CPUSA-led union, the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (Mine Mill), from 1938 through 1955. Led by the Communist Party of Canada (CPC), Local 480, established in 1938, represented the five-thousand-strong labor force of largely immigrant workers who were employed at the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company (CM&S) smelter in Trail, British Columbia. However, it was not until 1944 that Local 480 obtained legal standing with CM&S for collective bargaining purposes.

Because of Local 480’s radicalism, it experienced repression and had to battle anti-communism from the government, the company, and the community, and within the Canadian labor movement as well. Additionally, Local 480 had to combat the Workmen’s Co-operative Committee (WCC), a company union, organized after the 1917 strike along with the company’s implementation of welfare capitalism. The WCC engaged in red-baiting Local 480 as soon as it appeared on the scene in 1938, contending that the local’s union leaders and the CIO were “agitating campaigners” and “foreign labor parasites” who used “communistic inspired tactics.”

Such propaganda may have been effective because in 1939, the CM&S employees voted decisively for the WCC, meaning that the company union would represent the workers for at least one more year. However, Local 480’s leaders and CPC members were “boring from within” the WCC to acquire influence. The radical local was making progress in obtaining employee support, as indicated by the April 1943 certification election vote; the company union still retained legal collective bargaining rights, although the margin of victory was much smaller (1,977 to 1,888). In spring 1944, Local 480 obtained legal bargaining rights after it won a majority in the certification election vote. The path to victory appeared to be based on winning over hesitant immigrant workers, many of whom could barely speak English, convincing them that the union was the best vehicle for representing their interests.

As in other industries, women smelter workers were hired and worked at CM&S during World War II, with men engaged in fighting the war. According to the Mine Mill constitution, the union was committed to fighting for gender equality in the workplace, including advocacy for pay equity between men and women. However, this struggle was jettisoned by the local in an all-out effort to win the war. Even after World War II’s conclusion, the Local 480 leadership abandoned women workers, and sided with male rank-and-file workers in opting for the male breadwinner model — with women returning to their traditional roles after demobilized soldiers filled the jobs held by women workers during wartime.

Although Local 480 obtained collective bargaining rights through mobilizing immigrant worker support in 1944, after the war’s conclusion, the local had to deal with the anti-communist, anti-union attitudes of Trail’s Catholic and Protestant churches that resonated most strongly among immigrants, who comprised 30 percent of the community. According to a 1941 Canada Census, some twenty European and Asian nationalities labored at the mill. Because the local union depended on immigrant employee support, it portrayed itself as being tolerant of immigrant worker religious beliefs, even though some communist leaders of Mine Mill were atheists. But the local union had to be extremely careful in defending immigrant interests, with politicians and the government invoking nativist and racist arguments in blaming immigrant workers for bringing a communist-led union to Trail. This constrained the union in what it could fight for, to prevent most Trailites’ disaffection. Moreover, Local 480 went out of its way to address issues that were of particular concern to immigrant workers, such as health and safety in the workplace, sickness, and funeral benefits, as well as workers’ compensation.

In 1949, with McCarthyism sweeping across the United States and Canada, Local 480 was confronted with a raid by the United Steel Workers (USW), the same year that the Canadian CIO expelled six unions, including Mine Mill, for being led by the CPC. The USW differed substantially from Mine Mill, with its bureaucracy and centralized decision-making power, union leaders earning considerably more than rank-and-file members, and its vehement anti-communism. The USW’s assault against Local 480 began in full force on February 9, 1950, with the distribution of anti-communist literature and a full-page ad taken out in the local newspaper.

While Local 480 responded to the USW’s vicious attacks, the local union negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement at the end of May 1950. This bitter struggle continued for several years, with the provincial Labour Relations Board (LRB) dismissing the USW’s reapplication for certification in May 1951. This decision meant that Local 480 remained the legal collective bargaining representative for Trail’s smelter workers. In mid-May 1952, Local 480 won the LRB certification election vote, thus retaining its right to represent Trail’s 5,000 smelter workers.

Even with McCarthyism on the wane, the Canadian Mine Mill locals separated from the US-based International in 1955, with Local 480 being the largest Mine Mill local in Western Canada. The local hoped that by becoming autonomous, the red-baiting and anti-communist attacks on it would cease. The USW continued with its attempts to raid Local 480; such assaults finally ended in 1967, when the Mine Mill international merged into the USW.

Verzuh poses the question, “Why Did Trail Support Local 480?” given that the radical union was attacked by both the political right and segments of the political left such as the social democratic Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). He argues that despite the Communist union’s leadership, Local 480 effectively defended the workers’ class interests. Verzuh also speculates that the local union’s underdog status in challenging a corporate behemoth might have played a role in garnering worker support. Moreover, the local effectively attacked the company union that, for two decades, had beaten the workers into submission. Verzuh finally contends that previous strikes in 1901 and 1917 among the smelter workers had developed the class consciousness and led to a maturing of the Trail working class, which resulted in large portions of workers willing to be represented by a Left-led union.

The Trials of Harry Bridges

Much of the government repression directed against the ILWU was expressed by its virulent and numerous attacks on Harry Bridges. Undoubtedly, the reasons for these assaults were the ILWU’s strategic position in the US economy and the threat that the union posed because of its strength and its radicalism. The method for taming the union was to go after Bridges, who was the union’s indisputable leader but was vulnerable because of his political views.

As Cherny states, “Bridges’ union activism produced enemies in high places. Since he was not a U.S. citizen, they repeatedly accused him of being a member of the Communist Party to deport him. He found himself repeatedly investigated, charged, and tried from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s.” Cherny’s biography devotes an entire chapter to examining the issue of whether Bridges was a CPUSA member. He concludes that while Bridges worked closely with the party on various issues and his political sympathies remained with the organization, he was never an actual party member per se.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which, at the time, was part of the Department of Labor, first investigated Bridges in May 1934 but found no solid evidence of CPUSA membership. Nevertheless, there were calls for his deportation from leading businessmen, politicians, and citizens, which resulted in a 1939 INS hearing. In her oral history, Frances Perkins, secretary of labor during the late 1930s, admitted that she was aware that “the Immigration Service had been used improperly to get rid of certain militant and effective labor people,” which would explain the INS’s targeting of Bridges.

The 1939 INS hearing, which lasted from July 10 to September 14, included thirty-two witnesses called by the INS and twenty-seven by the defense over forty-five days of testimony, with Bridges appearing toward the end of the trial, acknowledging his Marxist politics. Judge James Landis issued his 150-page report late in December 1939, contending that he did not believe the government witnesses. He concluded that Bridges was a radical but found that the government did not present evidence that Bridges had been or currently was a CPUSA member. Perkins accepted Landis’s conclusions and dropped the filed charges against Bridges.

A second attempt to deport Bridges occurred during the World War II period (1940 to 1945), which involved an FBI investigation that also included the attorney general and his underlings. Another INS hearing for Bridges was conducted under the 1940 Smith Act, under which the labor leader could be charged with having been affiliated in the past with the IWW, the Marine Workers Industrial Union, and the CPUSA; these three organizational memberships constituted alleged Smith Act violations. The second hearing commenced on March 31, 1941, with Charles Sears, the hearing officer, issuing his 187-page decision ruling against Bridges at the end of September 1941.

Bridges and his lawyers first appealed this decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), which rejected the decision. The INS and the FBI requested that Francis Biddle, the attorney general, uphold Sears’s decision at the end of May 1942, calling for Bridges’s deportation. The second appeal to the Circuit Court of Appeals decided against Bridges 3–2 at the end of June 1942 and paved the way for a US Supreme Court appeal. Bridges v. California was heard on April 2–3, 1945, with the judges ruling 5–3 (with one recusal) that alien residents possessed First Amendment rights of speech and press. In his analysis of this case, Cherny contends that Bridges was targeted because he was a highly effective leader of the ILWU, arguing that if he had remained a rank-and-file longshore worker such charges would not have been brought against him.


Early in the Cold War period, in 1948, the INS undertook a third investigation of Bridges that culminated in a May 1949 grand jury hearing to determine whether Bridges and his associates had committed perjury regarding his alleged CPUSA membership during his naturalization hearings. After indictments were filed against these individuals, the trial was conducted in mid-November 1949, with prison remaining a distinct possibility. After four days of deliberation, in early April 1950, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Bridges and his associates’ lawyers filed an appeal in July 1951 which was heard in March 1952, with the three circuit court judges rejecting the appeal, leading to another US Supreme Court case. The case was heard on May 4, 1953, with the court ruling on June 15 for Bridges and his associates. In a 4–3 decision (with two recusals), a 1942 law that was utilized to bypass the statute of limitations was determined to be irrelevant to this case because it could only be applied to cases “where the fraud is of a pecuniary nature or at least of a nature concerning property.”

The planning for a final deportation trial against Bridges was initiated by the INS and the Department of Justice to deprive Bridges of his citizenship only two weeks after the Supreme Court decision, with this last trial beginning on June 21, 1955. On July 29, Judge Louis Goodman ruled in favor of Bridges retaining his citizenship, arguing that former Communists testifying for both the prosecution and defense, as well as other witness testimony, were highly problematic. Moreover, he found that Bridges’s testimony denying his CPUSA membership and indicating his loyalty to the United States was “articulate and emphatic.”

The Many Forms of Repression Against Mine Mill Local 480

While the primary form of repression directed against Left-led unions has been federal government action, in the case of Mine Mill Local 480, repression against the local union took various forms, including those of the company union, the churches, newspapers, the company, certain sections of the social democratic Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, and rival trade unions. As Local 480 gained strength in the early 1940s and throughout the next decade, the union experienced escalating attacks from a variety of sources.

With Local 480 continuing to gain supporters after the close 1943 LRB election vote, the company union, now named the WCC-Independent Smelter Workers’ Union, constantly issued anti-communist propaganda until the 1944 LRB certification election. Upon Local 480’s certification, the company referred to communism as “a destructive subversive force” with which it was impossible to compromise. Furthermore, Bill Kirkpatrick, the CM&S assistant general manager, in a radio address based on a company-issued pamphlet entitled “Your Union and You,” stated that the Communist-led Local 480 was working assiduously to destroy the employees’ freedom while having no intentions to engage in collective bargaining.

Although the community’s religious leaders possessed these political views prior to the 1944 LRB election, after Local 480’s victory, Trail’s Catholic and Protestant church leaders explicitly opposed communism. As the local union continued to gain strength after World War II, the community’s churches “continued to condemn Local 480 and support anti-Communist efforts to lure immigrant workers from the Mine-Mill fold.” Local clerics, such as the Right Reverend F. P. Clark, Anglican bishop of Kootenay, enthusiastically participated “in the anti-Red crusade,” citing local church doctrine that referred to communism as “the greatest threat in the world today.”

Canadian Mine Mill locals gather to found Mine Mill Canada in 1955. (USW Local 480)

The Trail Daily Times was another institution that opposed Local 480 because of its communist leadership. While the local was fighting to obtain a foothold in the company, in 1942, the Times contended that the presence of “a Communist union . . . would disturb the relative tranquility of their quiet company town.” This was nothing new for the Times, in that it had engaged in redbaiting since becoming a daily newspaper in the 1930s. Throughout the 1940s, it continually assailed the “parlor-pinks and the rabble rousers” of the trade union movement. During the Second Red Scare and Canadian McCarthyism’s onset, a 1949 Times editorial posed the question in its title, “Do Reds Run Local 480?” while continual anti-red propaganda published in newspapers such as the Times fueled “anti-Communist sentiment across society.” Moreover, in 1951, the Times ran an article insinuating that communist-led Local 480 imposed a threat to Canadian national security.

The late 1940s USW raid on Mine Mill Local 480 also was an exercise in vigorous anti-communism, in that the USW represented an “enduring and powerful bastion of anti-Communism within the CIO.” Some labor historians contend that among the CIO–Canadian Congress of Labour unions, the USW’s leadership was the most rigidly anti-communist and was committed to crushing the red unions. Verzuh considers the USW’s assault on Local 480 and its communist leadership as being “among the most notorious examples of Red baiting in Canadian labour history.” As with the Times, the USW placed newspaper advertisements in March 1949, implying that because of the “atomic-bomb related heavy water plant” at the smelter, the communist-led Local 480 was a national security threat to Canada.

The Effects of the Destruction of US Radical Unionism

The persecution of US radical unionism dramatically tamed US trade unionism, resulting in tremendous benefits to US capital. The continuing attacks on the IWW after the 1919–1920 Red Scare severely damaged the organization by 1925. When US radical unionism revived in the Great Depression’s early years, the IWW was in no position to be a leading force in reviving industrial unionism. This task fell primarily to the Communists, but to a lesser degree to other left-wing forces such as the Trotskyists, the Socialists, the Musteites, and even the Proletarian Party, who helped to build the CIO into a viable industrial union federation.

In the late 1940s, the Second Red Scare negatively impacted the CPUSA-led unions to the same degree as the First Red Scare harmed the IWW, with the CIO expelling these Left-led unions from the industrial federation from 1949 to 1950. As the most militant organizers of the CIO’s industrial unions in the mid-to-late 1930s, the party-led unions emerged as the most vigorous fighters for civil rights and engaged in community unionism before it became a recognized concept a half-century later. Moreover, the CPUSA-led unions favored social unionism, as opposed to a bread-and-butter business unionism, as the guiding ideology of the US trade union movement.

With the CPUSA-led unions’ expulsion from the CIO, the industrial union federation’s radical wing was decimated, resulting in the CIO’s ideological orientation becoming increasingly similar to that of the craft-union oriented AFL. Thus, when the 1955 AFL-CIO merger occurred, it did so based on an acquiescent business unionism, with George Meany as the new organization’s first president — the quintessential business unionist, who expressed little interest in expanding unionism to new jurisdictions or in seeking broader societal goals for the US trade union movement.

With this defeat of radical unionism, for the first time since the late nineteenth century, the Left’s base was no longer situated within the US trade union movement. This absence had real consequences for labor when worker militancy and strikes were reignited in the mid-1960s. The Left’s new home in the 1960s became college campuses, where students comprised a burgeoning New Left, who became enthusiastic participants in the anti–Vietnam War, civil rights, and women’s movements. With increasing factionalism and the beginning of the disintegration of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at its 1969 national convention, the SDS’s organizational remnants flocked to socialist groups such as the International Socialists (IS), who were industrializing and entering the unions beginning in the early 1970s.

While these activists contributed to the establishment of dissident and reform movements within the unions, such as the Teamsters for a Democratic Union and the Steel Workers Fight Back movement, if the destruction of a radical unionism had not occurred in the early 1950s, perhaps business unionism would not have become so entrenched in the US trade unions by the mid–twentieth century. Combining this influx of a new generation of political radicals with a surviving Old Left still extant in the US trade union movement during the 1970s, a viable US radical unionism might still exist in the twenty-first century’s third decade.

Radical Unionism’s Defeat and Twenty-First-Century Trade Unionism

The repression of the left-wing unions — that is, the IWW, the CPUSA-led CIO unions, and the CPC-led CIO unions — was due to their effectiveness as labor organizations that threatened the prerogatives of capital. Although the IWW did not like to sign collective bargaining agreements because it felt that such documents would tie the organization’s hands in carrying out its militant shop-floor struggle against employers, the CPUSA-led CIO unions negotiated better and more democratic collective bargaining agreements than the non-CPUSA-led unions in the industrial union federation. By attacking these left-wing unions, the employers and the government were sending an explicit message to nonradical unions: if these latter unions engage in the same type of militant behavior as the Left-led unions, the government implied, it would go after the nonradical unions as well.

Thus, the attack on these left-wing unions was an attack on all unions — consistent with the IWW slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” The dynamics are well illustrated in a cartoon by United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) artist Fred Wright, with strikers carrying signs that stated “Anti-Communist Union on Strike” and policemen bashing the strikers’ heads with batons. When a stunned striker informs a policeman that his union is an anti-communist union, the policeman responds, “I don’t care what type of Communist you are. All you Communists are the same to me!”

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc countries from 1989 to 1991, along with the folding (or the weakening) of the ruling communist parties of these states and other leading Western European communist parties (e.g., the Italian Communist Party), one might think that the previous red-baiting and the repression of Left-led unions in the United States and Canada could never occur again in the twenty-first century. However, as Austin Sarat and Richard Seymour have pointed out, there can exist an “anti-communism without communism.” With the revival of US socialism through the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which now claims around 55,000 members and is the third-largest socialist group (behind the SPA and the CPUSA) in US history, the organization and its members have become increasingly active in the US trade union movement in the last few years. Because of this development, it is not impossible to imagine that there might be more viable Left-led unions in the future (along with the ILWU and the UE in the twenty-first century’s third decade). If such unions are perceived to become too powerful and threaten capital’s prerogatives because of their strategic importance in the US and Canadian economies, we might see similar types of repression directed against these unions, as occurred from World War I through the mid-1950s.