Friday, June 11, 2010

FOREIGN POLICY AND CLASS STRUGGLE: THE EXAMPLE OF THE PACKINGHOUSE WORKERS AFTER WORLD WAR II

Harry Targ

The Connection Between Class Struggle and Peace

Foreign policy has long been used to divide workers. During the Cold War “anti-Communism” linked an external enemy with so-called domestic enemies in the labor and civil rights movements. The external enemy and its domestic collaborators justified the construction of a permanent war economy, worker sacrifices through taxes, loss of shop floor rights, and the “need” to limit labor organizing. Paradoxically, the weaknesses of the labor movement today have their roots in the mobilization of the American people to respond to the “threat of international communism.” In the post-Cold War international system cheap labor overseas and the threat of international terrorism have been used to manipulate workers and limit their ability to organize. But even during the height of the Cold War, sectors of the labor movement resisted the simplistic claims such as that declared by one CEO that the threat to America came from “the Soviet Union abroad and the labor movement at home.”

The United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA-CIO) successfully organized most of the large meat-packing plants in the United States by 1943 when it was fully chartered as a union in the new Congress of Industrial Organizations. Unfortunately after World War II ended, the CIO slowly but steadily embraced the anti-Communist policies of the day. In 1949 eleven unions were purged from the CIO for their alleged Communist sympathies and affiliations. Even though the UPWA was not one of the eleven it increasingly opposed the militarization of the Cold War, avoided some of the worst internal manifestations of “red-baiting” of union members, and, in 1953 took a stance against the U.S. Cold War record and the Korean War. It published in The Packinghouse Worker, the union newspaper, a condemnation of U.S. Korean War policy in a four-page essay entitled “The Road Ahead.”

McCarthyism, the Korean War, and “The Road Ahead”

The use of the “Communist threat” to generate support for an imperial U.S. foreign policy and repression of union militancy was well advanced by the time Senator Joseph McCarthy gave his February, 1950 speech that made him famous identifying 204 Communists in the State Department. Along with the anti-labor Taft–Hartley Act requiring union leaders to sign affidavits swearing they were not Communists, the Internal Security Act of 1950 required “Communist front” and “Communist action” groups to register with the government. Spy trials, such as those against Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, Smith Act trials of members of the Communist Party, and investigations by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), had thoroughly poisoned the political atmosphere such that serious debate about United States foreign policy was stifled.

HUAC particularly called public hearings in communities where workers were on strike; ordering union leaders to appear to answer questions about their political affiliations. The issue of “Communism,” which was often defined as opposition to U.S. foreign policy, was divisive in the labor movement even after the eleven progressive unions were purged from the CIO in 1949.

Anti-Communist sentiment found its way into various district organizations of the UPWA. For example, in 1950, one of the ten UPWA districts passed a resolution barring Communists from office in the union. This prompted Vice President Frank Ellis, a former organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, to declare that “No labor union ever was destroyed by an employer. Unions break only when they quarrel among themselves “(Packinghouse Worker, April 21, 1950).

A more typical resolution was passed by the progressive Chicago-based District One convention. It said: “We reject red-baiting and witch-hunting. We reaffirm our belief that the sole judge and worth of any union member shall be his contribution to the advancement and the interest of the packinghouse workers.” The resolution also opposed those forces which favored “a shooting war,” and urged “active measures for peace,” including United States-Soviet negotiations on resolving the arms race. The connection between foreign policy and labor issues was proposed. “We packinghouse workers have felt the effects of the Cold War policy in terms of heavy layoffs, of speed-up and the piling up of grievances and of sharp attacks on the very existence of our union” (Packinghouse Worker, April, 1950).

At the 1950 UPWA national convention President Ralph Helstein spoke against barring Communists from office. However, guest speaker CIO President Philip Murray attacked the recently ousted eleven unions as “Communist-dominated” and spoke of the “Communist bloc” within the CIO “who continued to vote for Russia, for Communism-against their own unions and their own country. To hell with them” he declared (Packinghouse Worker, June 10, 1950).

Subsequently, after the onset of the Korean War in late June, 1950 Murray wired President Truman declaring: “The CIO stands solidly behind your effort to halt this act of Communist aggression and to restore peace in Asia (Packinghouse Worker, July 14, 1950). In his Labor Day speech in September, Murray warned that workers were being challenged by the threat of world war. “The threat comes from the masters of Communist world strategy. They have already shown their tactics and their objectives in Korea. We support our government’s efforts to halt the vicious aggression provoked by the Communists in Korea”(Packinghouse Worker, September, 1950).

Despite Murray and his supporters in the CIO, the UPWA left-center coalition of the 1940s held together. A theme running throughout statements of left-center forces in the union was that anti-Communism, anti-labor legislation, and a militaristic foreign policy were all connected. Lyle Cooper, UPWA economist, warned that war is being used to create prosperity for the rich. He said that the “biggest danger in all of this is that the powers that be become afraid of peace. Since war orders become the foundation for this phony prosperity, a war psychology must be maintained and spread as wide as possible among our people” (Packinghouse Worker, November, 1950).

Strong opposition to U.S. foreign policy was expressed by resolutions and statements from several UPWA district organizations. One district declared that the Korean War was being used as a “smokescreen” for reactionary attacks on workers’ living standards. District One, which included the Chicago meat packing plants proclaimed that “The Taft-Hartley and McCarran laws have been crammed down the throat of labor and the promises of civil rights and fair employment have been thrown into the waste basket.” They condemned the use of worldwide military forces that were protecting markets and profits overseas. “… it has become increasingly obvious that the war in Korea is being used by giant U.S. corporations as an excuse for piling up billions in profits at the expense of the farmers and working people of our country and their sons who are fighting.” (Packinghouse Worker, May 12, 1951 and July 13, 1951).

All of these expressions of opposition to U.S. foreign policy and domestic repression stimulated two analytical statements from the international union leadership. The first, a front page Packinghouse Worker commentary, was titled “We Shall Speak Up Now!” The article discussed the growing military power over civilian government and that government and military power increasingly served the interests of big business. All of these forces planned for more war and to divide and weaken the labor movement. Fear was used to attack schools, unions, churches, and other institutions. The commentary referred metaphorically to “germ warfare,” a spreading disease that induces massive subservience to the wishes of the military and war profiteers. In response to this milieu of fear and repression, the commentary claimed, unions must speak out (Packinghouse Worker, March, 1953).

The second document was a four-page statement entitled “The Road Ahead,” inserted in the April 1953 issue of the Packinghouse Worker. At the outset it asserted that the drift of the United States and the world toward war and oppression required discussion and a dedication to social change. Particularly “…unless there is a very quick and drastic change in the thinking and action of the labor movement, history will record that in the showdown, labor failed miserably in the performance of the historically progressive function which is properly assigned to organizations of working people.” The document lists such problems as the danger of nuclear war, the Korean War, high taxes for the war machine, and repression of dissent. Big business, it contended, had pursued profits at home and overseas unconcerned by these problems while labor remained silent.

The document discussed the “dictatorship of fear” which had resulted from repression and witch-hunting. Labor, it was argued, must speak out and act to defend liberty from the attacks of those who would stifle dissent. “The Road Ahead” therefore involved freedom, world peace, and prosperity, suggesting that the war-peace issues and the freedom and prosperity issues were interconnected in a fundamental way (Packinghouse Worker, April, 1953). Consequently, the UPWA leadership decided that the labor movement had to extend its horizons beyond collective bargaining; that successes on bread-and-butter issues, better working conditions, and economic security depended on a foreign policy of peace and anti-colonialism.

Class Struggle, Peace, and Justice

Sometimes stories such as that of the UPWA in the 1940s and 1950s capture our attention because they are interesting or inspiring. Also, sometimes these stories provide insights that still bear relevance to political struggles today.

In the case of the UPWA, its effectiveness as a workers’ organization was affected by its willingness to resist the power of big capital. This effectiveness was hindered by the Cold War foreign policy of the 1940s to the 1960s, competition between it and other unions, the mass mobilization of cultural and educational institutions to promote the fear of Communism, state repression, and efforts to incite racism among the membership of the union.

In the face of exploitation, repression, anti-Communism, and racism the union staked out an independent politics in the depths of the Cold War. Central to this politics were two principles: first, that the humanity of all workers is determined by their common struggles and solidarity; and second that the character of the foreign policy of the United States is intimately connected to the well-being of the working class.


(This essay was taken from Harry Targ, “Foreign Policy and Class Struggle in the United Packinghouse Workers of America: 1945-1953,” Nature, Society and Thought, Vol.4, no.1/2 1991).