The Radical History of the United Electrical Workers

James Young

The United Electrical Workers emerged in the 1930s as a democratic union with an independent fighting spirit. It represented the promise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations — until it split from the CIO in an atmosphere of anti-communist red-baiting.

Placards spell out the demands of striking CIO United Electrical Workers as employees of the General Electric and Westinghouse plants in Bloomfield hold a mass meeting on the town green on January 15, 1946. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Interview by
Benjamin Y. Fong

James Young is professor emeritus of history at Edinboro University and the author of Union Power: The United Electrical Workers in Erie, Pennsylvania (Monthly Review Press, 2017). This interview focuses on the history of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, or UE for short, which was one of the three largest unions in the CIO at its peak, along with the auto and steel workers’ unions.

With its astounding growth in the late 1930s and early ’40s, its radical leadership and democratic structure, and its devastation during the later communist purge, the UE represents well the promise and limitations of the CIO project.

Benjamin Y. Fong

How did the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers come to be?

James Young

The UE began largely because of the activities of people at different independent work sites. A General Electric (GE) plant in Massachusetts, another one in upstate New York, a radio plant in the Philadelphia area and also in Buffalo, New York, and so on. These, and some machine shops along the way too, were organized basically independently of each other and scarcely knew anything about each other. But the American Federation of Labor (AFL) refused to work with any of them, and their common rejection from the AFL caused them to start working together more and more.

At the Erie, Pennsylvania, GE plant, individual departments came together early — like the roving Powerhouse Department workers and other autonomous workers such as maintenance and janitorial and outdoor employees — who then made use of their access to various areas to spread the pro-union message. Some were former union members, a few had experienced the fecklessness of the earlier company union, and a handful were or had been members of a local socialist or communist party. Immigrants and first-generation workers stood among them.

One or more of the plants tried to become “federal” locals, which was a particular designation of the AFL. The radio workers tried very hard for several years to get accepted, at least as a federal local. They wanted their own organization on a broader scale, but they started there. But they didn’t get anywhere from 1934 to ’36, when they finally gave it up and decided to move on.

They were then joined by not only other radio factories but also some of those GE plants and others. Meanwhile, there had been strikes and other actions through the GE system going back to at least 1911. So some militant culture was already built into these individual plants in Massachusetts, Syracuse, New York, Fort Wayne, Erie, and so on. That was the raw material from which the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers union grew.

The Committee for Industrial Organization was formed by John L. Lewis in 1935, and they allowed the UE to affiliate with them. Against AFL protest — in fact insistence — that they disband, the CIO began to permit affiliations of other independent unions, even nonofficial unions not recognized by the AFL. Eventually about twenty thousand machinists, with the leadership of James Matles, were also added into the organization. So machinists got added to the union title, and they’re off.

Benjamin Y. Fong

The UE grew very rapidly in its first decade. What accounts for that membership growth?

James Young

Hunger, basically. People were ready. The spirit and the eagerness to join a union, a real union, not a company union — there had been a concern and hunger for that for some time now. Major strikes hit in 1934 in Toledo, Ohio, where my step-grandfather, Jim Gallivan, was a founding member of one of the first UAW locals. Same in Minneapolis–Saint Paul, Minnesota, and the West Coast. All hit in 1934, and this activity spurred legislative changes, like Senator Robert Wagner’s bill recognizing the right of workers to form unions of their own and of their own choosing.

There’s a lot of similarity in terms of the eagerness of workers in the ’30s and workers today. It strikes me that every couple of generations something like this occurs because there’s a limit to which people will be driven. It takes a while for people to realize that and to decide they can act on it. But I think it was essentially like that old movie line, “We’re not going to take it anymore.”

Benjamin Y. Fong

Who were James Matles, Julius Emspak, and James Carey?

James Young

James Matles was an immigrant from Romania. He was a very effective organizer. In all likelihood he was, at some point, a member of the Communist Party. I base that partly on what people who were there, or around there at the time, have told me in interviews. He was a dynamic personality. Very active, very impressive. Tough guy — not in terms of violence, but in terms of sincerity and activity and insistence that things be moved along.

Julius Emspak was more of an intellectual radical. He was a tool-and-die maker. He was a machinist in Syracuse who took advantage of a GE program that encouraged people to take a little time off with some support from them, including returning to work after a college or university program. He did that relatively locally at a small college in upstate New York, and then he went to Brown University with the intention of getting a PhD in something important. Because of that, he was persuaded by a radical faculty member there that he should go back to work and start doing important organizing, rather than simply studying it, so he did.

He had one son, Frank Emspak, who fell into the family business as it were. He was a machinist and is fairly recently retired now. He studied the way his father had looked at things. I think Frank also picked up some of that, and he published a very good book called Troublemaker. Julius Emspak died early, at about age sixty, of a heart attack, and was replaced as secretary-treasurer of the UE by Matles, who had been organizing director.

The first president of the union was James Carey. It’s hard to pinpoint him very accurately, but he makes me think of a guy who fell victim to the short-man syndrome, which I’ve understood about myself and through my family — we’re all short folks too. He was very dynamic. He could give one hell of a rousing speech, but he wasn’t terribly interested in doing much more than that. He hadn’t been in that office very long when there was an uprising against him. He had also become the secretary-treasurer of the CIO by that time. He got the nod from John L. Lewis over Lewis’s own daughter and John Brophy, who was also in line for that position.

Carey came out of the radio side of the union. And in the early ’40s, a bunch of people, not particularly radical, beginning in Massachusetts, began to argue that he needed to be replaced. They put forth a guy by the name of Albert Fitzgerald, who beat Carey in an election in 1941. For the rest of his life, Carey claimed, except in private, that this was the doing of the communists. In fact, the communists, as far as I can tell, were about evenly split on the issue. Some communists were afraid of their apparent power becoming too dangerous to the organization and stuck with Carey. It was the rank-and-file who defeated him.

Benjamin Y. Fong

How did the UE foster a culture of democratic unionism?

James Young

The president is elected in the UE by delegates to a convention, who are themselves elected. There’s a lot of voting going on in the UE, every couple years. It depends on what’s going on with the constitution, but I think now it’s every three years that there’s an election at the local level for president and other offices. It’s very specific. The chief plant steward and the business agent are also elected by members, and it’s those people then who relate things to the international.

When the CIO moment takes off, there’s an enormous animosity among many working-class people toward the bureaucracy, which they related to the AFL. So there was a reaction against that. Workers also thought that the president of a union ought not to be making any more money than any other member of the union. Now, if he has to travel, of course, they do cover expenses and so forth. But the salary of the UE international president is at the level of a skilled worker with some seniority. It’s not a big salary.

That thinking has influenced some other unions too — the idea that if the officers of the union make so much money that their main concern is their stock profile rather than their members, you’ve got big trouble. The Pennsylvania Social Services Union, which is Local 668 of SEIU [the Service Employees International Union], has a salary for the president and the secretary-treasurer which is not even as much as the highest dues-paying member of their union makes. They’re public employees. So I think that was one good thing that came out of the notion that democracy ought to be integral to the union.

Benjamin Y. Fong

Could you describe the events leading up to the UE’s leaving the CIO?

James Young

According to a reporter from the 1930s and ’40s whom I tend to trust, Philip Murray was allegedly reluctant to accept the presidency of the CIO, a position he held from 1940 until his death in 1952, unless he could work on removing communists from the organization. The reporter claimed that Murray’s willingness to take on the CIO presidency was contingent on his ability to purge communist influences from within the labor federation. Whoever was in power to say yes or no to that demand often said, “Yes, sure.” It could be that it goes back to his view of the communists, starting who knows when. He was a faithful Catholic, born in Scotland, and an immigrant himself who allegedly favored the Francoist military in the Spanish Civil War. He was a man, given the field he had to play in, of significant integrity. But he was working on that for some time.

For instance, in 1942 or ’43, the UAW began to raid the Farm Manufacturing Workers Union, which was clearly led by lefties of various sorts, including communists, but was a member of the CIO. Murray never took a significant step against that activity. The UE was number three in terms of size, behind the autoworkers and the steelworkers. So they thought they might get some protection there, just in terms of the numbers. But that didn’t work out too well, and pretty soon the UE began to come under heavy attack. This was after the ’46 strike — virtually a general strike in this country — of the major industrial unions, which had been promoted significantly by Julius Emspak and the leadership of the UE.

The steelworkers, of which Murray was now also the president, the UAWm and others soon after began raiding UE. That was grounds for those unions to be fined, expelled, or disciplined, and that never happened. So it was clearly on by that time — 1947, early ’48. UE then finally put the question in terms of their own challenge to the CIO, and that was to state that, if they did not take steps against this activity, the UE would stop paying dues to the CIO. That was a pretty powerful message because they sent a lot of money to the CIO.

That didn’t help. So just before the 1948 CIO convention, the UE held its own convention and determined that if things had not radically changed by that CIO convention time, they would not pay dues any longer. Later on, the CIO claimed they threw the UE out because of communist influence. But in fact it was partly the old cliché of “You can’t fire me, I quit.” That was the case, and it was bitter. It was just awful.

I interviewed Dave Fitzmaurice when he was just about to take over as the president of International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE), which the CIO created out of nothing to give Jim Carey something to do and to destroy the United Electrical Workers. When I interviewed Fitzmaurice, in maybe 1978 or ’79, I asked him, “Who won in this whole thing?” And he said, “I don’t think anybody won. But there was one group of losers, the workers.”

The members were the losers — that’s for sure. They had been, in many areas, first at getting this benefit or that benefit. They weren’t impoverished, of course, but they fell rapidly from that top status, because of this division and the piss-poor leadership of James Carey as a president. Carey said to some people at one time or another that he was a leader like Walter Reuther. A lot of it, I think, was because he had this macho thing going, which gets me back to the short-man syndrome. If you had a serious problem with James Carey, and you ran against him for president in the 1960s, what you faced was criminal behavior aimed against you. It was so blatant that he finally got caught at it and was thrown out by the federal government and his union. Since then, there’s been greater cooperation between the UE and what’s left of the IUE. It’s simply a department in the Communications Workers of America now.

Benjamin Y. Fong

What prompted the big postwar strikes?

James Young

The ’46 strikes were motivated by the pathetically small offerings made by major corporations that had profited enormously during the war. They had 400 percent increases, in some cases, over their profits in 1940.

So what do you do? The UE leadership, the West Coast longshore leadership, the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers union — mostly lefties — said, “We ain’t going to take this anymore,” and essentially pulled off the closest thing to a nationwide general strike that this country’s ever known. It’s really impressive to read through what was agreed to and how it was carried out. One after another, all the major industries go out: steel, electrical, rubber. The UAW was already partially out. Then coal and rail.

They had been offered, I think, a dime-an-hour increase by the corporations; coincidentally all offered the same figure. The unions put some people to work on researching the claim that “we can’t offer more. We’ve got retooling to do, and so on, and we can’t give you more than a dime.” They concluded, as did the official government agency that took that on, that they could give workers 30 percent more and still make more than they made in 1940.

The electrical workers and steelworkers settled at $0.18 an hour. In 1946, $0.18 cents an hour was money. In 1940, for instance, the UE got an extra dime an hour. The old-timers that I interviewed said, “That was money then, because we were making a$1.09 or something, so it was a 10 percent increase in our income.” Well, $0.18 cents may not have been a 10 percent increase by then, but it was still a substantial increase.

It was at this time that the anti-communist forces began coalescing. They got together, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, to put out a free booklet on communism in the government and communism in the labor movement, and distributed them for nothing to at least a couple million people, and then followed up with full-page ads in newspapers, which they readily got. It was a horrific anti-communist propaganda campaign. It worked, to a large measure, and a lot of people suffered. Not just unions, and not just union members for that matter. A lot of people suffered from that fraud.

Benjamin Y. Fong

On the whole, how would you make sense of the communist influence within the UE and the CIO?

James Young

The communists were not always the best friends of democracy, especially in Eastern Europe. In the CIO unions, they did pretty well in that connection. But organizations evolve, and not all of them stayed democratic by any means. So there was that. I think they erred in subverting their membership identity. When they were exposed as members or as simply having been members, it just reinforced the propaganda from the Right and from employers. I think if they’d been a little more upfront about their politics, they might have fared better. I don’t know how much difference it would’ve made in the long run.

Benjamin Y. Fong

What lessons does the ascendance of the UE, and the CIO more generally, have for the present moment?

James Young

The UE was a variegated organization. There were these people making radios in Philadelphia and Buffalo. There were people who were working for GE, Westinghouse, and other manufacturers. There were machinists, and tool-and-die makers as well. But they all got together.

That’s something that people now need to keep in mind because it’s very easy still to work with and for people like you, vocationally, ethnically, or what have you. It’s important to work to overcome divides and recognize that others have an interest in common with you. And the best approach to that lies in democratic activism. That’s what the successful labor movement is all about. We are one.