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Bert Cochran

Labor Union Trends

The Struggle for Control of the UE

(7 March 1949)

From The Militant, Vol. 13 No. 10, 7 March 1949, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America – the third largest union in the CIO with a membership of half a million or more – is now in the throes of an embittered battle for control, reminiscent of some of the slugging faction fights of past years in the auto union.

If there is any union experience that demonstrates to the hilt the bankruptcy of Stalinism and its baneful influence on the working class movement, it is the experience of the UE. The Stalinists here have had every possible opportunity to show what they could do. They enjoyed ideal conditions to build a left wing cadre and fuse their own leadership with the broad ranks.

The Stalinists were the original founders and first organizers of the union. They moved in on the ground floor and established their monopoly of control. Until a couple of years ago, they ruled over this big union, with jurisdiction over a number of key industries in the American economy, without any opposition, without any competition, without any interference. They had all the main offices, the treasury, the union paper and propaganda machinery, the undisputed authority.

Bureaucratic Brutality

With what results? Until the eruption of the present faction struggle, the UE was one of the worst machine-ridden structures in the CIO. The membership was permitted about as much democracy as the peoples of Stalinist-run Eastern Europe. Every semblance of opposition was consistently and brutality squelched, every critic was labelled a company stooge, and where possible, run out of the union. As late as the 1947 convention, the Stalinists tried to outlaw oppositions by declaring the Carey-Block caucus an “outside agency” and summarily ordering it to disband. The Stalinists gave a demonstration of bureaucratic arrogance and arbitrariness that must have turned many an AFL boss green from envy.

The most important task of Socialists in a union is to educate workers in class consciousness, militancy and the precepts of class solidarity. Have the Stalinists any notable achievements in this respect? Why, the UE membership is one of the most backward of the whole CIO. There is no large body of aggressive militants and seasoned shop stewards and strike leaders in the UE vaguely comparable to the militants of the auto union in Michigan, or the militants of the rubber union in Akron. The UE membership does not even compare favorably in this regard with the steel workers, who for a decade have been under the heel of the Murray machine.

A Zig-Zag Line

How could it be otherwise? How can you educate workers in self-reliance, combativity and class consciousness by repeatedly subverting the union and the workers’ interests and needs to the zig-zag line of Stalinism and the dictates of the Kremlin?

From 1937 to 1940, the UE leadership drummed into the heads of the members the gospel of Roosevelt, of reliance on the great white father in the White House. Matles and Emspak claimed they were “left wingers,” but they outshouted Lewis and Murray in their uncritical praise of Roosevelt, and built up inside their own union the cult that Lewis and Murray were peerless and unblemished labor leaders who should be followed and obeyed without question or doubt.

Following the short spell of spurious militancy during the Stalin-Hitler pact, the Stalinist fuehrers in the UE, after the Nazi attack on Russia, literally began wallowing in company-unionism, jingoism and red-baiting. They fingered radicals and just plain shop militants to the FBI and the managements and had them run out of the shops. They were the most shameless and ruthless practitioners of the no-strike pledge. They were out in front building “labor-management” committees and councils to eliminate “waste” and speed up work. They became the loud-mouthed spokesmen for speedup, taking the initiative in introducing and ramming down their members’ throats incentive schemes, bonus plans and other piece-work and speedup contrivances.

UE Shop Conditions

Is it any wonder that under this kind of leadership the native militancy of the workers was dampened and their ability to battle the corporations was weakened? Is it any wonder that during the Taft-Hartley period the UE proved the most vulnerable, of the “Big Three” in the CIO, to company attack and strike-breaking attempts? Is it any wonder that the UE leadership could not mobilize the necessary strength to beat back union smashing at the Univis plant in Dayton, Ohio and at Bucyrus-Erie in Evansville, Indiana?

In its present line of pseudo-militancy the Daily Worker is blasting – quite correctly – the timorous, wishy-washy wage policy of Murray and Reuther and seeks to counterpose to it the “class struggle unionism” of Matles, Emspak and Fitzgerald. The facts do not bear out these fancy pretensions and glib talk. On the level of wages and shop conditions, the UE – under Stalinist leadership – has never been a leader in the field but has trailed behind the other major CIO unions. Last year, the UE' made a big noise about taking the lead on the wage front; but after GE said no, the UE leadership was helpless and stood around doing nothing until the GM and Chrysler workers broke the employers’ resistance.

The figures further show that the wages of UE workers are lower than in the other major mass production industries. The latest Department of Labor statistics tell the story in black and white. Here they are:

Average Hourly Earnings
(These are not hourly wage rates.)


Soft Coal


Hard Coal


Rubber Tires




Iron & Steel


UE Industries

Electrical Equipment


Electrical Machinery


Radio & Phonographs


These wage figures are even more unfavorable to the UE than they seem at first glance. In the auto union, for example, piecework and bonus systems have been eliminated in all the important shops. Thus, the average hourly earnings and the hourly wage rates are roughly the same thing. The UE, however, is rotten with piecework, bonus plans and speedup schemes. The figures quoted above are therefore considerably higher than the average hpurly wage rates prevailing in the industry.

Chaos in Bargaining

In the auto union, where the Stalinists are in opposition, they howl about industry-wide bargaining. But in the UE, where the Stalinists have a monopoly of leadership, they have not taken in thirteen years one single, solitary, concrete step to effectuate a policy of industry-wide bargaining, bring UE wages up to the level of some of the other important industries and wipe out the wide differential in wages existing between one locality and the next, and from shop to shop. As a matter of fact, in no other major CIO union is there such a gap in wages between the smaller and the larger plants and in no other major CIO union are bargaining conditions in such a frightfully chaotic state.

As an example: Last year, the UE moved in behind the auto workers and secured their 11½ cent wage increase in GE and Westinghouse. The UE international organizers then proceeded to sign contracts in the smaller shops which provided for 10, 9, 3, 6 cents and even lower wage increases, and in some cases no increases at all. Anything went.

This is the incontrovertible record of thirteen years of Stalinist leadership of the UE – a record of ineffectiveness, company-union policies, bureaucratism and betrayal. Far from the self-styled “left wing” leadership distinguishing itself from Reuther and Murray in militancy, fighting policies and the winning of superior wages and working conditions, the Stalinists distinguished themselves only by their more unscrupulous demagogy, by their brutal suppression of all dissidents and by their softness and pliancy toward the corporations.

(A second article dealing with the history and program of the UE opposition group, will appear in next week’s Militant.)

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