Posts with the tag: Phillip Murray

The Archivist’s Nook: Walter Reuther – 50 Years Later

Today’s guest post is authored by Kimball Baker,  former graduate student of the Catholic University History Department.(1)

Walter Reuther with James P. Davis, Bishop of San Juan, at AFL-CIO Meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, February 1959. George G. Higgins Papers, Special Collections, The Catholic University of America.

A half-century ago, on May 9, 1970, America lost one of its greatest heroes, United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, in the crash of a plane whose engine, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, was missing parts and had parts wrongly installed—including one part installed upside down. To this day, there is no conclusive proof of foul play, although it is widely suspected.

This tragedy, and several similar tragedies, occurred amidst a time like today, when progressive social reformers are battling valiantly to promote social justice in every area of American life. Therefore, it behooves us to take a fresh look at Walter Reuther and what he fought for, and to realize the large extent to which today’s workers and worker-justice activists are standing on Reuther’s shoulders.

Reuther, in turn, was standing on the shoulders of the workers and worker-justice reformers who preceded his rise to dominance as a leader in the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) during their organizing and 1935 founding. Reuther and his fellow workers and activists saw Industrial unionism as a direct outgrowth of a democratic-socialist vision for the United States, a vision in which workers and other Americans can thwart income inequality and play larger roles in determining their economic and political destinies.

John Brophy laying a CIO wreath with Dan Benedict and Walter Reuther in Mexico. 12/13/1954. John Brophy Papers, Special Collections, The Catholic University of America.

One cannot fully understand worker justice in the 1930s and 1940s without exploring the extent to which unions in those decades were affected by the relationship between the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) and its allies, and U.S. socialists and their allies (including the Catholic social-action movement). Communists and socialists were bitter foes long before the 1930s, and except for a brief period of cooperation during the Popular Front era of the 1930s (cooperation which ended with the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 23, 1939), UAW and other CIO unions were constant battlegrounds. Communist workers everywhere had to follow a line of complete subjugation of worker interests to the war aims and foreign-policy objectives of the Comintern (the Communist Party globally), which still and always included world domination. During World War II, CPUSA-led union factions hampered collective-bargaining activities (already hampered by corporate domination of wartime union-management relationships) by demanding no-strike pledges and extreme production speed-ups, and by downplaying workers’ concerns with low pay, meager benefits, lack of worker input, and unsafe working conditions.

From UAW’s founding, Reuther courageously led the union’s democratic-socialist coalition. He was a member of the Socialist Party in the 1930s until 1938, when he joined the Democratic Party, and he played a major role in UAW going from 30,000 members in 1935 to 400,000 members in 1938. He sought cooperation with the workers of every union faction, and was a veteran of the sit-down strikes and of the bitter three-year-long struggle to organize Ford Motor Company (featuring the famous photo of Reuther bloodied by company goons).

Walter Reuther’s World War II innovations, however, most dramatically exemplify his leadership. His defense-readiness plan was extremely effective, and could serve as a model for dealing with today’s coronavirus. And most significantly, in June 1945 he filed a brief with all war-production agencies recommending that in postwar, “Increased production must be supported by increased consumption, and increased consumption will only be possible through increased wages.” Indeed, he made this recommendation part of UAW’s then-current round of negotiations with General Motors by proposing that the company’s workers be given a 30-percent wage increase and that it not be accompanied by an increase in the price of GM cars. Reuther’s proposal didn’t go through, but it was a ground-breaking challenge to economic inequality in a ground-breaking manner and promises to play a key role in today’s crucial national debates.

Letter of October 24, 1949 announcing a Testimonial Dinner in honor of Walther P. Reuther. Phillip Murray Papers, Special Collections, The Catholic University of America.

Poet Robert Frost speaks of the importance of the “the road not taken”; and America’s not taking the road championed by Reuther set a discouraging tone for the country’s postwar years, when labor had to yield to corporate dominance and the country entered an era of excessive consumer abundance. Reuther was disappointed, but he still fought hard for worker justice (such as by supporting Cesar Chavez and farmworker organizing and by promoting public-sector unions), and he expanded efforts he had long made on other social-justice fronts, including civil-rights struggles, Vietnam War protests, and a greater voice for young people.

Unfortunately, this road called for but not taken has received woefully insufficient attention in the few major biographies of Walter Reuther. Nelson Lichtenstein, for example, in The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, portrays Reuther after World War II as a champion of corporatism and consumer abundance, a portrayal which insufficiently accounts for Reuther having to row against the anti-labor current of that era and for his increased efforts in non-labor directions. Also, Lichtenstein neglects the positive anti-Communism which Reuther displayed and which helped propel him to the UAW presidency in 1947, helping bring about CIO’s expulsion of 13 CPUSA-led unions in 1949-50. Sadly, positive anti-Communism was soon replaced by the negative anti-Communism of the right wing and of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his ilk.

Ironically, during Reuther’s fight for his innovative challenge, James Matles, President of the CPUSA-led United Electrical Workers-CIO (UE), secretly negotiated with GM on behalf of the 30,000 company workers which UE represented. The UE-GM agreement unfortunately became a basis of the much weaker agreement which UAW eventually had to settle for.

Delegation of American labor leaders, including Walter Reuther, with West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, 1960s. Joseph D. Keenan Papers, Special Collections, The Catholic University of America.

In The Wage Earner, a highly-regarded Detroit labor newspaper, the paper’s editor, Paul Weber, commented in October 1945 on the Reuther challenge: “If Reuther succeeds in forcing GM, one of the country’s largest industrial empires, to redivide the fruits of its production, the day of gigantic profits in American business will be done … [T]he result may not be the end of capitalism, but it will certainly be the beginning of a new kind of capitalism.”

 

The actual result, as we know, was swallowed up in the machinations of runaway capitalists and right-wing politicians, who then gave us decades of assaults on workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively—including, in 1981, President Ronald Reagan’s firing of 12,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, or PATCO (see Collision Course, by labor historian Joseph A. McCartin, Oxford University Press, 2011). Such assaults continue today, but thanks to the renewal of the democratic-socialist vision for America’s future, Walter Reuther’s “road not taken” promises to become a wide highway of worker justice and of social justice in general.

 

(1)Kimball Baker is the author of “Go to the Worker”: America’s Labor Apostles (Marquette University Press, 2010). For further reading about Walter Reuther in the 1930s and 1940s, he suggests The UAW and Walter Reuther, Irving Howe and B. J. Widick (Random House, 1949).

The Archivist’s Nook: John Brophy – A Pennsylvania Miner’s Life

Miner’s Hospital, Spangler, Pennsylvania, as it appeared in 1946, which was built in 1919 under John Brophy’s leadership. Photograph courtesy of CardCow.com.

Even though he had impacted the lives of generations of my family who labored in the coal mines of England, and Scotland, and Pennsylvania, John Brophy is the most important labor leader nobody knows. I did not know who he was before I deposited myself in the Catholic University Archives, home of Brophy’s Papers, in 1989. The English born Brophy was one of our own and rose to leadership in the Central Pennsylvania district of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in the early twentieth century. In this pivotal role he bettered the lives of mining families like mine achieving greater pay, safer working conditions, and accessible health care. In this last capacity, he presided over the 1919 construction of the Miner’s Hospital of Spangler, Pennsylvania, where my family members entered the world, departed life, and were treated for ailments, including my son, who was one of their last patients before closing its doors for the final time in 1999.[1]

Brophy speaking at a labor rally at Six Mile Run, Pennsylvania, August 17, 1924. John Brophy Papers, Special Collections, Catholic University.

Brophy was born in 1883 in St. Helens, Lancashire, England. As recent Irish immigrants, the Brophys were new to the coal mines of England where his mother’s family, the Dagnalls, had been working for generations. One of Brophy’s English great grandmothers toiled in the mines, as was common for women and small children, before being prohibited to do so by Lord Shaftesbury’s Mines and Collieries Act of 1842. The Brophy family immigrated to the United States in 1892 and settled in Phillipsburg, Clearfield County, Pennsylvania. Young Brophy began working in the coal mines with his father in 1894, and joined the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in 1899. As a union activist, Brophy was elected president in 1916 of District 2, representing Central Pennsylvania. The signature highlight of his presidency was getting the celebrated ‘Mother’ Mary Harris Jones, known as ‘The Miners’ Angel,’ to visit his district to give a 1921 Labor Day Address.

A converted stable in Phillipsburg, Pennsylvania, the Brophy family’s first home in America, 1893. John Brophy Papers, Special Collections, Catholic University.

In the early 1920s, Brophy was a member of the Nationalization Research Committee, which supported nationalizing the mining industry. He remained as UMWA District 2 president until 1926 when he challenged John L. Lewis for the UMWA Presidency. After obtaining victory using questionable methods, the vindictive Lewis expelled Brophy from the union.[2] He did not serve officially in the labor movement, though he researched the history of mining in the United States and taught for a labor school in Pittsburgh. For many years, he continued to support the nationalization of mines, and visited the Soviet Union as part of a trade union delegation. Additionally, he worked for the Columbia Conserve Cooperative in Indiana, run by the father of labor activist Powers Hapgood. In 1933, he returned to organized labor when Lewis brought him back into the UMWA bureaucracy. He then became an important figure in the national office of the Committee for Industrial Organizations (CIO), an industrial union federation, after it was founded in 1935.

John Brophy with coal miners in the Donbas (Donets) Coal Basin, Ukraine, during a tour of the Soviet Union in 1927. John Brophy Papers, Special Collections, Catholic University.

From 1935-1938, Brophy was the CIO’s first National Director.  He was also Director of Industrial Union Councils and Director of Industrial Unions. He tirelessly traveled to assist in the creation of state and local industrial union councils, support important strikes, and speak as a representative of the national CIO. He was a mainstay in the CIO national office during its twenty year existence as an independent labor federation. In his capacity as a CIO representative, he often traveled abroad to meet with international labor organizations, and served on a number of government agencies, such as the National War Labor Board and the Wage Stabilization Board. After the merger of CIO with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1955, he continued work in the national AFL-CIO office as a trouble shooter, as well as serving with the Community Services Department.

Union leaders of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO): Francis Gorman, President, United Textile Workers; Philip Murray, Vice President, United Mine Workers; Charles Howard, President, Typographical Workers; John L. Lewis,

Brophy was only able to finish a draft of his autobiography. It was later edited and rewritten with the help of John Hall, and published in 1964, the year after his death, as A Miner’s Life. Brophy’s vehement advocacy for workers’ rights was influenced by his deep Roman Catholic faith, and his reliance on the papal encyclicals on social justice of Pope Leo XIII (Rerum Novarum, 1891) and Pope Pius XI (Quadregisimo Anno, 1931). His personal papers, which include portions currently being digitized, reside in the Special Collections of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. The papers of his colleague Phillip Murray, and the pre 1955 merger records of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the organization they both helped found, are also maintained here. Additional Brophy related materials can be found in the labor history collections of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) and Penn State University (PSU).[3]

 

[1] John Brophy, A Miner’s Life. Madison and Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964, pp. 217-219; Maier B. Fox, United We Stand: The United Mine Workers of America, 1890-1990, Washington, D.C.: United Mine Workers of America, 1990, pp.  290-291; Robert Zieger, The CIO, 1935-1955. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1995, p. 27.

[2] An incarnation of old Miner’s Hospital survives in nearby Hastings, PA, as Conemaugh Miners Medical Center.

[3] Special editorial thanks to TSK.

The Archivist’s Nook: More Than You Imagine – The Archives at Catholic University

Photograph from the opening ceremony for the Archives at CUA, December 8, 1949, with, left to right, Patrick O'Boyle, Archbishop of DC and Chancellor of the University, Fr. Henry Browne, first CUA Archivist, and Wayne Grover, Archivist of the United States
Photograph from the opening ceremony for the Archives at CUA, December 8, 1949, with, left to right, Patrick O’Boyle, Archbishop of DC and Chancellor of the University, Fr. Henry Browne, first CUA Archivist, and Wayne Grover, Archivist of the United States

Though there was a museum at The Catholic University of America (CUA) going back to the university’s founding in the late 19th century, the Archives at CUA originated much later as shortly before World War II Msgr. Francis Haas began collecting the papers of important Catholic labor leaders such as Terence Powderly, head of the Knights of Labor (1879-1893), and John Mitchell, president of the United Mine Workers of America (1898-1908). These papers were stored in Mullen Library, but there was no staff to organize nor rooms where researchers might examine them. After the war, history faculty, particularly Rev. John Tracy Ellis, worried that university history and of Catholic Americans generally was being lost through neglect of vital records and papers.

As a result of Ellis’ advocacy, a committee that included Msgr. Edward Jordan (the vice rector), Mr. Eugene Willging (acting director of the library), and Rev. Henry Browne, was formed to establish an archives envisioned as the “memory” of the university, a depository for collection of the nation’s Catholic leaders and important organizations, and a resource for the history of Catholics in the American labor movement. The Archives officially opened on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8, 1949) in an impressive ceremony that included Wayne Grover, archivist of the United States; Archbishop O’Boyle, chancellor of the university; Ernst Posner, archivist of American University and a seminal theorist of archives; Philip Brooks, president of the Society of American Archivists; and Dr. Guy Ford Stanton, executive director of the American Historical Association (see photograph above). They spoke of the importance of archives in the preservation of culture, and, specifically, of the Catholic Church’s long tradition as a keeper of historical records.   Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: More Than You Imagine – The Archives at Catholic University”