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Farrell Dobbs

FBI and the Unions

(June 1940)

Source: Fourth International, Vol. 1 No. 2, June 1940, pp. 39 41.
Transcription & mark-up: Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE TRADE UNION MOVEMENT is today the victim of the most thorough-going governmental attack since the days of the Palmer raids. This assault, carefully planned and conducted in a most deliberate manner, daily becomes broader in scope and the methods utilized become more brazen. Its purpose is to prepare the American workers for docile submission to regimentation in industry and service in the military machine when Roosevelt, acting for Wall Street, plunges the United States into World War II. The ground for the campaign was prepared by Congressman Martin Dies and his “Committee on Un-American Activities.” He is now preparing to go back over the same ground and plow a little deeper. A pretense was made at investigation of fascist groups. Dies now announces that this phase of the work of his Committee has been satisfactorily cleaned up. Few people are so naive as to accept this statement at face value. The truth is that Dies has made a few motions in this direction for the record and that he is now prepared to get down to serious business in the attacks on the workers’ organizations. According to his own announcement, these are his intentions in the next stage of the campaign.

The task of the Dies Committee is to stir up public suspicion toward union leaders and militant rank and filers through a mud-throwing campaign. The real job is to be done by Roosevelt’s political police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is the spearhead of the entire anti-union drive. Thurman Arnold, head of the anti-trust division of the United States Department of Justice, is Roosevelt’s number one hatchet-man in the courtrooms. It is their ambition to make full preparations for M-Day, which is the War Department’s name for the day on which the American worker will be compelled to go to war.

Present-day appropriations for the Federal Bureau of Investigation are roughly fifteen times as large as they were in 1917, the year of United States entry into World War I. The FBI operates in all fields, finding grounds on whatever slender pretext for federal jurisdiction in labor cases. When this is not possible, the FBI gives full aid to the local police and courts.

J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, testified before the House Appropriations Committee in November, 1939, that the FBI has organized a “general intelligence division” which has compiled extensive records of individuals, groups and organizations engaged in what he calls “subversive activity.” All of these are earmarked for arrests in mass when Roosevelt plunges the country into war. The immediate objective of the government is to cull out of the trade union movement in advance of the war as many of the militant elements as possible. By this action they aim to terrorize the workers, and especially the working class leaders, so that there will be a minimum of resistance to the war plan. The record of government action against the unions shows what Roosevelt-Arnold-Hoover consider as “subversive activities” and just who they intend to terrorize.

The social outlook of J. Edgar Hoover is quite aptly characterized by his speech at the meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in July, 1935, in which he termed as “Enemies of society” even those who are advocates of the prison parole system. This federal fink-herder wrote Chairman Matson of the National Labor Relations Board in November 28, 1939, complaining that a Board field examiner was speaking in favor of a pardon for an imprisoned labor leader. The case in question was one in which the FBI had no jurisdiction, but Hoover is interested in keeping all labor leaders in jail no matter how they are put there.

The FBI has on several occasions sent out public requests that it be given notice of all working class meetings, parades and demonstrations so that they may have snoopers present. There have already been cases, for example, the Minneapolis WPA strike, where they sent agents-provocateur as well as snoopers. They have requested the trade unions to advise them of any “known subversive elements.” This is their not too subtle method of trying to make stool-pigeons out of the workers.

Industrial mishaps of whatever nature are today followed immediately by noisy FBI investigations of “sabotage.” When an old scow capsized in the Hudson River, Hoover thought it was the work of enemies of the U.S. government. These are dress rehearsals for the spy scare. It is only a short step from this to the branding of strikes as “industrial sabotage” and the prosecution of strike leaders as “agents of foreign powers.”

Thurman Arnold, during the early stages of his “antitrust” campaign, sent a letter to the Indianapolis Central Labor Union of the AFL, setting forth a list of what he called unquestionable violations of the Sherman Anti-Trust Law. These boil down in their essence to a demand for docile acceptance by the workers of all employer methods and practices which Arnold can force down the throats of the trade-unionists. Federal grand juries have returned wide-scale indictments against trade unions and trade union officials on charges of “criminal conspiracy in constraint of trade,” “interference with inter-state commerce” and any other charge which the FBI can dig up which will give Arnold an opportunity to wield the axe upon the trade union movement through the courts.

The Sherman Anti-Trust Law was enacted by Congress in 1890 as a result of the pressure from the workers and farmers who demanded that the huge trusts and monopolies be curbed by the government. It was first used, not against the trusts, but against the American Railway Union in 1894. Thereafter, the courts often invoked it against the unions, acting under pressure from the employers. The worker-farmer revolt against this practice became so strong that in 1914 Congress passed the Clayton Act specifically exempting labor from the “conspiracy” charge which the courts were justifying on the basis of the Sherman Law.

Today, under the “great liberal” Roosevelt, who is the real head of the FBI, the Department of Justice and its anti-trust division, the old practices are again revived. Workers are already in the federal prisons as a result of this drive. Others are under heavy bond pending appeal of convictions to higher courts; still others are now on trial or are under bond awaiting trial. A considerable number are under probation to federal officers with jail sentences hanging over their heads.

The first union victory in the fight against the “anti-trust” campaign was recorded on May 6 when a Federal District Court ordered a verdict of acquittal in a case against the Washington, D.C. local union of the AFL Teamsters. According to the latest reports Roosevelt-Arnold-Hoover were “undecided” whether an appeal would be taken to a higher court in a further attempt to jail these trade unionists.

The workers have little fear of the city police or any other local police agency against whose acts of violence they have had to defend themselves in strikes. Above all, they have little or no confidence in the cop as being in any way their friend. It is different with the FBI. There is much confusion in the minds of the workers on this point. Roosevelt understands this and is taking full advantage of the fact.

A feeling of awe towards all federal authority is drilled into the minds of the workers during their school days and then carefully nurtured by clever propaganda throughout their adult life. This is the primary advantage of the FBI as an instrument for the campaign against the unions. There has been a careful special buildup to augment the standing of the FBI in the eyes of the workers. The highly dramatized campaign against Dillinger, Machine-gun Kelly, etc., provided the stage for the buildup. A series of movie plays glorifying the “G-Men” has reinforced the drive. News reels of the “G-Men” in training, accompanied by the inevitable sadist speech by J. Edgar Hoover, have been a powerful supplement. The radio has contributed its share through the Gang Busters serial and through numerous other devices. These factors have been a big help to Roosevelt in his anti-union drive.

The methods employed by the FBI in arresting workers and bringing them to trial are deliberately calculated to create the general public impression that they are dangerous characters. The most popular hour for the arrest of trade unionists by the FBI is between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. in the morning. The daily press is often tipped off in advance of the arrest so that they may obtain pictures of the “G-Men” herding the workers off to jail handcuffed and fastened together by a chain. Put in jail and still half asleep, the workers are given the old tough-cop–good-cop act. The first “G-Man” who talks to them acts very hard-boiled; a little later another “G-Man” comes in who pretends to be friendly and wants to “help” the worker. If he doesn’t get a “confession” he then tells the worker hair-raising stories about what happens to those arrested by the FBI who do not “tell all.” A companion action to this phase of the program is the frequent searching of workers’ homes without even so much as the formality of a warrant.

Bail bond for workers arrested by the FBI has been uniformly high and, not satisfied with this, the FBI has in many cases interfered with the efforts of the unions to secure bond. And, once presented, the bond is submitted to a super-technical scrutiny; if any technicality can be found to justify the action, the bond is rejected. Another popular practice of the FBI is to prevent the arrested worker from establishing contact with a lawyer until the last minute before he is arraigned for hearing, so that he has little time to confer with his counsel to prepare a defense.

A good example of FBI methods is the case of the arrests and convictions of seven officers of local unions of the AFL Teamsters in Federal court at Sioux City, Iowa. In this case the FBI made minute measurements of a stretch of highway at the boundary between Minnesota and Iowa in order to establish jurisdiction for the Federal Court. High bail was set for the accused workers and all manner of interference was put in the way of their efforts to obtain the bail bond. Almost a year and a half had elapsed since the time of the alleged unlawful act. During this period the FBI had taken all of the time it considered necessary to prepare its case. The seven trade unionists were rushed to trial without opportunity to prepare adequate defense. One defendant had less than 48 hours from the time he was first able to see a lawyer until he was brought to trial. The men were all sentenced to two years in a Federal penitentiary and are now under bond pending an appeal to the higher court.

A part of the whole plan is for the FBI, both by example and by direct collaboration, to stir up similar actions by the local police and prosecuting attorney. A chain of interrelated actions against the workers is thus set in motion, both by the federal cops and the local cops. One agency supplements the other. A typical example of this is the case of Republican presidential aspirant Thomas E. Dewey’s attempt to smear the Building Service Employees International Union of the AFL through the George Scalise case. The Building Service workers do not need the help of the cops-and-robbers minded Dewey to administrate their union. However, Dewey insists that they shall have his full interference whether they want it or not. During the second day of the proceedings of the union convention just held at Atlantic City, Dewey’s henchmen broke into a session, placed four officials of the union under technical custody and disrupted the meeting so badly that it was necessary to adjourn. When W.L. McFetridge, one of the four, was later elected to succeed Scalise as president of the union, the New York Daily News came out on May 8 with the headline: “Man Sought by Dewey Heads Scalise Union.” A swarm of FBI agents snooped around the convention headquarters, eavesdropping on conversations and spreading malicious gossip among the delegates.

There has been a veritable epidemic of seizures of the books and records of trade unions by the FBI and local police and prosecuting attorneys. In all parts of the country bosses serving on federal and county grand juries have been eagerly poking their long noses into the records of the unions that have been brought into the grand jury room.

The employers are rapidly falling into step with Roosevelt’s anti-union drive on their own initiative and by their own methods, to say nothing of the whole-hearted cooperation they give to the FBI and the local cops. Damage suits are instituted against the trade unions at every opportunity. Finks are planted in the unions to institute suits for accounting and then the union records are dragged into court and pried into by attorneys and accountants, hired and paid for by the employers’ association.

The boldness of the drive against the leading officials of trade unions demonstrates Roosevelt’s urgent desire to get the job done. It is also unmistakable evidence of his contempt for those very leaders who give him their unconditional support. The next item on the Roosevelt-Arnold-Hoover agenda will be a sweeping follow-up campaign directed against a much broader strata of the trade union movement.

Some trade unionists seek reasons to consider Roosevelt innocent of any complicity in this campaign. They point out that he did not appoint Thurman Arnold to the post of attorney-general when Frank Murphy was elevated to the United States Supreme Court. They credit Roosevelt when the Department of Justice does not always get the full appropriation which it requests. But they are only deceiving themselves and others. These little incidents do not affect die general line. Make no mistake about it. Roosevelt is the head man of this anti-union drive.

The AFL is at present bearing the main brunt of this attack. But this does not mean that the CIO can afford to remain silent or hope to escape it. Fines and sentences have already been imposed upon leaders of the CIO Fur Workers Union. This is only a beginning. There seems to be a general belief in the CIO that it is safe to stand aside and permit the AFL to stand up as best it can against these attacks. This attitude is obviously motivated by factional considerations resulting from the struggle inside the trade union movement. Such a policy will in the end bring grave consequences to the CIO movement. Even in the AFL, although additional unions are constantly falling into the line of fire, there is a strong tendency on the part of those unions not involved to ignore the whole matter more or less. They will pay heavily for this ostrich policy.

The trade union movement is confronted by a vital threat to its very existence. Roosevelt is preparing to sterilize the unions. There are many willing hands to help him. The failure of the movement to defend itself can only intensify the attack and result in the unions becoming tied land and foot by the government. Then they will be unable to perform their natural functions as independent organizations of the workers.

The carefully planned anti-union drive of the government must be met head-on. The defense of the unions must be just as carefully and thoroughly worked out as the attack. Facts must be recognized. Every section of the movement is affected. The independence of the labor movement is at stake. A powerful united campaign of defense must be launched with the full participation of all trade unionists.

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