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This Day in Labor History: April 20, 1949


On April 20, 1949, United Steelworkers of America members severely beat Maurice Travis, the president of the leftist union Mine, Mill, costing him an eye. This is perhaps the most grotesque incident in the sordid history of the CIO kicking communists out of the labor union.

The history of communists in the labor movement is complicated. Despite the fact that United Mine Workers of America president and CIO founder John L. Lewis was politically pretty conservative, he also clearly saw the effective organizing communists had done in the early years of the Great Depression and realized they were critical for his dream of industrial organizing. So he hired them by the droves and allowed them to do their thing in many different unions. It was a complex situation on the ground. When unions such as the International Woodworkers of America were internally divided over the issue of communists in the unions, Lewis would intervene and sent his top lieutenants there to work out a solution, usually siding with the anti-communist elements. But there were lots of communist led unions in the early years of the CIO.

At the same time, the communists really angered a lot of rank-and-file unionists by taking orders from Moscow. Now, for decades, labor historians said that charge was redbaiting hooey, but then the Soviet archives opened after 1991 and lo and behold, that’s exactly what was happening. What this meant on the ground was that overnight, after telling workers one thing, communist organizers, getting orders from on high, would instantly shift positions. That was especially true on foreign policy issues and on American preparedness for World War II, but happened in other ways as well. By the late 1930s, there was significant rank and file dissent in some unions about the communists that was somewhat ideological and somewhat about observing their behavior.

In the aftermath of World War II, the nation moved significantly to the right. The 1946 strike wave was not politically radical in any real way, but it motivated those who hated unions to pass the Taft-Hartley Act, which, among other things, required union leaders to sign an affidavit that they were not communists. Moreover, the CIO realized the communists were not only no longer useful, they were an anchor around the neck of the union movement. So they evicted them from the federation and set up new unions or used preexisting ones to raid their locals.

Mine, Mill was among the communist led unions. Formerly the Western Federation of Miners, which had come out of the violent strikes of the West and been instrumental in founding the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, Mine, Mill was active primarily in western hard rock mining, often working with Mexican-American miners that other unions did not organize. Deeply committed to anti-racist organizing, as were many of the communist unions, they challenged white supremacy and capitalism simultaneously. A lot of workers and union leaders did not like that. And while they were based in the West, they also organized some in the South too, taking it to the belly of the beast. One of those locations was the mines and smelters of Alabama. Mine, Mill successfully organized several locals in Bessemer and Red Mountain, Alabama. While we hardly think of the South as CIO country, Mine, Mill was hardly the only industrial union there. The United Steelworkers of America had also organized mills in Alabama. So when the CIO kicked out Mine, Mill, the USWA saw the chance to attack. There was a public battle between the two unions in the spring of 1949. Both held parades and rallies. Mine, Mill played up its integrated locals, which were remarkable given the place and time. But quite a few of their members were not only susceptible to white supremacist appeals and were highly concerned that in 1948, Mine, Mill leadership seemed a whole lot more interested in the Henry Wallace presidential campaign than in the needs of themselves as rank and file workers. Mine, Mill workers accused the USWA of accepting help from the Ku Klux Klan. This is entirely possible and I’d say probable, though I don’t know any definite answers. I can say that the KKK did have a history of using industrial unionism to keep workplaces as segregated as possible.

As these tensions grew, a bunch of thugs with the USWA attacked Mine, Mill president Maurice Travis as he was preparing for a radio speech shortly before the election over which union would represent these workers in the future. When they were arrested, they claimed the reason for the beating was that Travis had referred to them as “popsicle unionists,” by which he meant that they were company men ultimately loyal to Tennessee Iron & Coal, the employer at Red Mountain. Travis lost an eye in this brutal and horrifying attack.

Nevertheless, in the Red Mountain election, the USWA defeated Mine, Mill
by 463 votes out of the around 5,000 cast. Nearly all of the 2,000 black workers gave Mine, Mill their support, but that meant very few whites chose the radical union. Racial divides again plagued American unionism.

In the aftermath, the beating did nothing to dissuade often violent attacks from CIO unions against the evicted communists. The CIO created the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE) to attack the largest of the communist unions, the United Electrical Workers (UE), which was the CIO’s third-largest union when it was evicted. The IUE openly used anti-communists in Congress to destroy the UE and hunt out communists, telling employers who communist rank-and-file workers were so they could be fired, and other really awful tactics.

In the end, even if the CIO wanted to actively defend the communists in the unions, it would have been a tough sell nationally. The federation was on political thin ice and a lot of defenders of the communist unions conveniently ignore that, or just don’t really understand it. It’s entirely possible that a robust defense of Mine, Mill, UE, and the other communist unions would have destroyed the entire industrial union movement. On the other hand, the aggressive and thuggish tactics of the moderate CIO unions were really disgusting and a true nadir of the American labor movement. Moreover, the eviction of the communists also coincided with the end of the active period of CIO organizing and without the communists, there was hardly any reason for the CIO to even exist as an independent federation, which laid the groundwork for the merger with the AFL in 1955. The fat and happy union movement that forgot how to organize and thus had no ability to respond to the structural changes in the economy and the rising conservative movement during the 1970s and 1980s. Thus, one can make the argument that the eviction of the communists helped create the terrible situation in which American organized labor finds itself today.

Mine, Mill however proved pretty tough and continued organizing through the 1950s, including the Salt of the Earth strike that led to the famous movie.

I borrowed a bit from Robert Zieger, American Workers: American Unions in the writing of this post.

This is the 309th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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