[Marxism] Labor Witchhunts and Their Effects in California

Bonnie Weinstein giobon at comcast.net
Sun Sep 18 12:09:47 MDT 2011

Labor Witchhunts and Their Effects in California
By Howard Keylor
Sept/Oct 2011

The following is based on remarks made by Howard Keylor as part of a  
panel discussion on the 1940s and ’50s, and the early 1960s  
witchhunts in California. This panel was the first of the events of  
the July LaborFest program in the Northern California Bay Area.  
Keylor focused his remarks on the political context of the witchunt  
period. He is a retired member of the International Longshore and  
Warehouse Union and was a leader of the ILWU work stoppage against a  
ship carrying apartheid South African cargo in San Francisco in 1984.

I am glad that this discussion of the witchhunts of the late 1940s  
and the 1950s is focused upon the working class and its institutions,  
the trade unions and the left working class political parties and  
movements. Contrary to most of the books and movies about the  
witchhunts, the main victim was the working class. You have only to  
read Len Decaux’s book, Labor Radical, to learn how tens-of-thousands  
of workers were driven out of their jobs and subjected to public  
demonization. Len had been the CIO’s publicity director until he was  
purged. He traveled across the U.S. working at a series of printing  
jobs as he was followed by the FBI and fired from one job after  
another. Even naturalized U.S. workers had their citizenship revoked  
and were deported.

This was a time of great fear—a time of capitulation and betrayal.  
But it was also a time of great courage and intransigent resistance.

The attacks on the left were motivated largely by the perceived need  
of the capitalist class to drive the left out of the trade unions and  
to isolate the left from the working class. In this, the bourgeoisie  
and their government were successful. We have suffered from that  
defeat of our class up to the present where it is painfully clear  
that the working class and the oppressed have no effective  
organization or leadership to resist the current attacks.

The massive strike wave of 1946, the most extensive in U.S. history,  
shocked the capitalists. Even though the Communist Party had opposed  
those strikes, even expelling trade unionists who opposed that  
policy, the capitalists saw the Communist Party as a potential  
threat. They could not forget the role of the Communist Party in the  
mass union struggles of the 1930s. The Northern California CIO, which  
was influenced by the ILWU, opposed the 1946 Oakland General Strike.


The 1947 Taft-Hartley slave-labor law was a major step in the  
direction of emasculating the trade unions. Taft Hartley outlawed any  
member of the Communist Party from holding top union office. In order  
to utilize the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in  
representation elections, union leaders had to sign non-Communist  
affidavits. A number of union officials who resigned from the  
Communist Party and signed those affidavits were tried and convicted  
for perjury. These convictions were usually obtained with perjured  
information from government witnesses.

I recommend reading False Witness, by Harvey Mattusov. His perjured  
testimony was instrumental in convicting Clint Jencks, an  
International Representative of the International Union of Mine,  
Mill, and Smelter Workers (MM&SWU). He later revealed in this book  
that he had been induced by the Justice Department to lie. For that  
recantation Harvey Mattusov was himself convicted and jailed for  
perjury. The Justice Department officials who had coached Mattusov to  
lie were not indicted nor tried and convicted. The Taft Hartley  
prosecutions of MM&SWU effectively wrecked the union’s ability to  

The Taft Hartley non-Communist affidavits were seen as a green light  
to the CIO to expel 11 left-led unions in 1948. These expelled unions  
contained about a million workers and constituted approximately 20  
percent of the entire number of workers in the CIO. Who remembers the  
FTA (Food Tobacco and Agricultural Workers Union), FE (Farm Equipment  
Workers Union) or the ACA (American Communications Association)?

The anti-communist witchhunts were a justification to the CIO and to  
the AFL to carry out raids against these unions, leading to the  
destruction and dismemberment of all but two of them. Although the  
United Electrical Workers Union lost about 90 percent of its  
membership, it did survive. The only union which survived with its  
core membership intact was the ILWU.

Driven out

Utilizing the Magnuson Act, which required all maritime union members  
to apply for and possess a Coast Guard Pass, the sea-going unions  
were purged of all of their leftists and militants. All militants of  
the left-led Marine Cooks and Stewards Union for example lost their  
right to go to sea.

Leftists were driven out of many of the AFL and CIO unions in  
California during this period often using the anti-communist  
provisions of union constitutions.

One of the most important of the expelled CIO unions was the FTA, the  
Food Tobacco and Agricultural Workers Union. In the post-WWII period  
the FTA had organized the cannery workers in California in a campaign  
including hard-fought strikes. In a NLRB bargaining election in 1946  
the FTA lost to the Teamsters by a narrow margin in an election  
characterized by open collaboration between the cannery bosses and  
the Teamsters, featuring hysterical anti-communist propaganda.

This is the union, which in 1948 led a three-months strike of 7000  
Filipino asparagus cutters in the delta area west of Stockton, a  
strike in which I participated. Philip Vera Cruz has a chapter about  
this strike in the book A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and  
the Farmworkers Movement, based on his oral histories. This is the  
only recorded literary reference to this massive strike. Philip later  
went on to become Vice President of the United Farm Workers Union. I  
probably met Philip at that time although he (like me) was just  
starting out in strike actions.

FTA Local 78 had organized the packing shed workers in Arizona and  
California, which covered lettuce, melons and small fruit packing  
from the Salt River Valley in Arizona (lettuce), to the Imperial  
Valley (lettuce), to the Salinas Valley (lettuce, carrots and  
artichokes), to the Central Valley (melons), all the way to Lake  
County, Middle River, and Placerville (small fruit). The activists  
were the refugees from the 1930s dust bowl who followed the packing  
season living in trailers. I worked in this industry in 1949 and was  
impressed at the level of rank and file participation in stabilizing  
a union of seasonally employed often migratory packing shed workers  
which did not have unemployment insurance or a union shop requiring  
membership and compulsory dues payment. The Wagner act had omitted  
“agricultural” workers from unemployment insurance and forbade them  
from signing Union Shop contracts. Packing shed workers were  
classified as “agricultural” workers. Local 78 was also largely  
destroyed during the witchhunts with major vigilante violence in  

Another of the expelled unions that was important in California was  
the Farm Equipment Workers Union (FE). I met Wyndam Mortimer in  
Stockton in 1948 when he was an FE representative servicing a farm  
equipment plant in that city. “Windy” was probably the most talented  
of the Communist Party organizers of the auto industry during the  
1930s. He led the Flint sit-down strike and should have become the  
President of the United Auto Workers Union. Wyndam had been removed  
from his post as UAW Vice President during the purges.

The Magnuson Act (Magnusson was a Democratic Senator) was designed to  
also apply to shore-based longshoremen. Many ILWU longshoremen who  
applied for the Coast Guard Pass to be allowed to work in the Army  
and Navy piers were refused the pass and were barred from working at  
those piers. When the Coast Guard announced that Coast Guard passes  
would be required to work at non-military commercial piers, the union  
responded that if any ILWU longshoreman was turned away from working  
a commercial dock to which he had been dispatched, then no  
longshoreman would work that pier. This is about the only case where  
the government backed off from a confrontation with a union resisting  
the witchhunts.


The employers and the government had been defeated in a bruising  
confrontation during the 3-months-long strike of 1948 in which they  
had set out to destroy the ILWU. The waterfront employers had only  
one main contract demand: “Get rid of your leaders!” One interesting  
event during this confrontation was when the NLRB, acting under the  
auspices of the Taft Hartley Law, conducted an “election” in every  
port on the coast in which ILWU longshoremen could vote directly on  
whether to accept the bosses’ last offer. Not one longshoreman showed  
up in any of the dozens of polling places to vote! Toward the end of  
the strike the bosses began using scabs at Fort Mason, a commercial  
dock in San Francisco, to load military cargo; the ILWU had refused  
to handle any military cargo during the 1948 strike. The ploy failed  
when many of the scabs were visited on returning to their residences  
by the longshoremen’s “educational” committee and had their legs  
broken. They all quit.

The employers’ organization collapsed and was reconstituted as the  
Pacific Maritime Association by J. Paul St. Sure who brokered a deal  
with the ILWU leaving the contract intact. That deal included a  
pledge not to challenge the ILWU’s jurisdiction on the waterfront. In  
return the ILWU agreed to pull back from organizing on the Great  
Lakes and in the New Orleans area and to discontinue their organizing  
in the Central Valley of California.

Teamster raids continued on the Warehouse division of the ILWU with  
considerable losses.

There was an historic anomaly in the way in which the Communist Party  
and its allies in California confronted the witchhunts and the way in  
which the CP nationally dealt with the attacks. The CP had determined  
that the U.S. was entering a period of fascism in which it was  
necessary to lower its public profile and to send about ten percent  
of its membership underground. This proved to be very demoralizing to  
those who participated. The Socialist Workers Party had flirted with  
this idea but rejected it.

The CP in California had a somewhat different profile to that in the  
rest of the country. Members continued to be active in open peace and  
civil rights campaigns. The Weekly Peoples World, edited by the  
unusually able journalist Al Richmond, continued to have a wide  
readership and distribution. When people in Stockton, for example,  
were reluctant to subscribe by mail, we got a weekly bundle of the  
paper and my comrades and I spent a week ducking FBI observation to  
deliver the papers to individual subscribers.

Leftists in California tended to be much more confrontational and  
challenging when subpoenaed to appear for interrogation before the  
House Un-American Activities Committee. When HUAC subpoenaed every  
leftist attorney in Southern California, the hearings turned into a  
disaster for the witch-hunters. Every attorney went on the offensive  
with eloquent attacks on the politics and personal records of the  
members of the committee. I used to have a set of tape recordings of  
those hearings; it made a great listening experience.

When Paul Robeson was refused a venue to perform anywhere in Northern  
California, my Stockton comrades helped to organized a concert for  
him in the largest Black Baptist Church in Stockton. The  
establishment and the local newspaper came unglued, but the church  
was totally packed with standing room only for the concert.

The 1948 campaign of the leftist Independent Progressive Party in  
California reached into remote corners of the state with many  
candidates and much propaganda. In the Congressional District, which  
included San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties, the unknown IPP  
candidate got 25 percent of the vote.

In the late 1950s CP members were deeply involved in the Democratic  
Party Club movement, which resurrected the moribund Democratic Party  
in California.

There is an historical precedent to this California CP  
exceptionalism. In 1934, the California Communist Party was ordered  
to concentrate all of its resources into organizing farm workers in  
the Central Valley. Sam Darcy, State Secretary, ignored those orders  
from New York and threw all CP personnel and resources into the  
developing maritime union struggles. Sam proved to have been right  
but he was removed from his post and disappeared from history.  
Perhaps the moral of this story is that mutiny is sometimes the best  

The main legal base of the McCarthy period witchhunts, including the  
Smith Act, the McCarran Act, provisions of Taft-Hartley, the Landrum  
Griffin and the Magnuson Act were finally overturned as  
unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. State criminal  
syndicalism laws, which were also used to jail leftists were also  
finally overturned. No doubt this was because they had served their  
purpose and this level of suppression was no longer needed. The left  
had been shattered, the trade unions had been purged of class  
struggle militants, and bourgeois parliamentary democracy could go  
back to its job of fooling the masses into believing that they had  
any real role in government.


My own view is that this is not the case today. The ongoing general  
collapse of capitalism requires a high level of institutional  

The growing level of resistance to the current repressive government  
measures gives me hope that the working class and the oppressed will  
not retreat into submissive silence but will openly challenge the  
corporations and their political shills and their repressive  
apparatus. This resistance is handicapped by the reformist politics  
of most of the fragmentary left.

Capitalist state repression will end only when the corporations are  
seized and expropriated without a dime of compensation.

—LaborFest Presentation, July 3, 2011

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