Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 707

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 707


This is the grave of John Brophy.

Born in 1883 in Lancashire, England, Brophy grew up in the coal mining world. His family emigrated to the United States in 1892 to take up mining in Pennsylvania. The family moved to Phillipsburg, near Clearfield. Soon after, Brophy started working in the mines. Nothing uncommon about that; small boys started help helping their fathers or other miners from a very young age. By the time he was 14, Brophy realized the need for workers to band together to fight for a better future, so he joined the United Mine Workers of America. In 1916, he was elected of District 2 of the union, representing the mines of central Pennsylvania. He became an advocate for nationalizing the nation’s mines and was part of a group called the Nationalization Research Committee to investigate how this would happen in the early 1920s.

By 1926, Brophy, who had become a socialist, ran for UMWA president. His platform was basically getting rid of John L. Lewis, who had already become a complete dictator. Brophy’s theme was “Save the Union,” also included nationalizing the coal industry. Lewis won, quite possibly through fraud, which was absolutely part of Lewis’ playbook. He then, as he usually did to challengers, purged Brophy from the union. The stated reason was that Brophy was a communism who had committed the crime of “dual unionism” after taking money from the Trade Union Educational League. Brophy’s future seemed entirely outside the labor movement. He did visit the Soviet Union in 1927 and met Stalin. A deeply Catholic man, he spent his time in UMWA exile studying both philosophy and Marxist economics while pushing for a Catholic unionism. He worked for the Columbia Conserve Cooperative in Indiana, which was an early attempt to create workers’ cooperatives as an alternative economic model to capitalism. He also had to work as a salesman for awhile.

But when the CIO got under way, Lewis needed good organizers. If it was cynical that this lifelong Republican welcomed communist organizers, well, at least Lewis knew what was needed. But also, Brophy was already moving away from his flirtations with communism in the 1930s. Lewis brought Brophy back into the UMWA, not just as a useful organizer but as a close advisor. For example, Brophy was tasked in 1934 with investigating A. Philip Randolph’s charges of racism within the craft unions that prevented their integration. Brophy issues a stinging rebuke of that racism, angering those powerful internationals. In fact, Brophy and Lewis both believed strongly that only through interracial organizing could the working class be brought together in a powerful industrial union movement, not that they spent that much time fighting for Black workers. But still, it was progressive for the time. These beliefs would also pay off in Michigan when the United Auto Workers was created as explicitly not white locals, often to the anger of white rank-and-file workers. But Black workers signed up in large numbers, overcoming a traditional antipathy to white dominated unionism.

Brophy would become Lewis’ right-hand man when he started at the CIO. He became National Director of the CIO when it began in 1935 and remained there until 1938, when Lewis replaced him with one of his hackish loyalists. Brophy was constantly on the road, helping build local campaigns, solving problems within the raucous new organization, and creating state and local union councils. Brophy played an outsized role in hiring key staff of the CIO, bringing in such labor dissenters as Adolph Germer, Powers Hapgood, Katherine Pollack Ellickson, and Len De Caux, names not so well-known today, but which were all capable administrators and writers and organizers with experience in left-unionism. But all of these people would fall in line behind Lewis’ leadership, in part because they saw this structure as a way to build real workers’ power in America. Germer also pushed for the CIO to leave the AFL and start a completely different federation, which happened in 1937. He would play a critical role in the creation of the United Rubber Workers with the big strikes in Akron. But Brophy and Lewis eventually broke again, in 1940, mostly over Lewis’ refusal to endorse FDR in the 1940 election. Lewis was completely out of touch with workers over this and left the CIO after FDR won; Brophy would have left if Lewis did not.

During World War II, Brophy’s role in the CIO became even more important. Phil Murray had replaced Lewis in heading the federation. He named Brophy the head of its Industrial Union Councils. Brophy became a top CIO representative on key government commissions and agencies, including the National War Labor Board the Wage Stabilization Board. Brophy also became a political enforcer in the federation, attempting to create a top-down politics that reduced the independence of the individual internationals. He created CIO-PAC in 1943 to push a singular set of politics and used the full power of the federation to attack local leadership when they endorsed Henry Wallace in 1948 or criticized the Marshall Plan.

By this time, Brophy was a full-fledged liberal anti-communist and was not going to put up with unions within the federation bucking its politics. Brophy and Adolph Germer, the CIO’s troubleshooter, traveled around the nation to its locals to suppress political dissent. From Brophy’s perspective, Wallace’s third party run would do nothing more than “split the progressive vote…and make possible the election of an even more reactionary Congress than ever.” Hard to argue with this logic actually, but American leftists have always loved their third party runs that have little hard-nosed political analysis about them and so they came to hate Brophy. But to be clear, Brophy was also on the right-wing of CIO leadership by this time, hardly a Republican, but also moving away from the politics of his youth.

In his later life, Brophy attempted to write an autobiography. It was not published within in his lifetime, but A Miner’s Life did come out posthumously, in 1964. He had died the year earlier, at the age of 79.

John Brophy is buried in Saint James Cemetery, Falls Church, Virginia.

If you would like this series to visit other labor leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Cesar Chavez is in Keene, California and P.J. McGuire is in Pennsauken, New Jersey. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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