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labor The Life of a Progressive Activist: Emspak Book Details Labor Struggles in Difficult Times

It is necessary to the success of working people to develop a consciousness of class solidarity among workers and the realization that their plight is the result of predatory capitalism in which the welfare of human beings matters little.

UE Secretary-Treasurer Julius Emspak, President Albert Fitzgerald and Director of Organization James Matles testifying before Congress.,

 “With all their faults, trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of people, for the developing of character in men and women than any other association” 

--- Clarence Darrow, famed attorney and advocate for the rights of working people

Labor cannot stand still. It must not retreat. It must go on, or go under. 

---Harry Bridges, founder and late president of  the ILWU, representing West Coast longshore and warehouse workers.



"If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the grounds. They want rain without thunder and lighting. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters…. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."

---Frederick Douglass


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“If you want to understand today you have to search yesterday”

---Pearl S. Buck, American novelist


Starbucks! Amazon! Actors and writers on strike! Nurses going out on strike! Graduate students and resident physicians organizing! New leadership closer to the rank-and-file elected in the Teamsters and Auto Workers unions! Strikes and threats of strikes increasing across the country! Over 60 percent of Americans approving of labor unions, the highest percentage in 60 years! All signs of a new awakening in the labor movement and new interest in unions among young workers.


But we’ve been there before. Unknown to many of the new workers, there was a time when organized labor was a major player in the country, when one out of every three workers in private industry belonged to a union. How did its role diminish so? What happened along the way to reduce union membership to only 10 percent of the work force? And what are the chances, if the labor movement is rebuilt, that it won’t happen again?


There are no simple answers to these questions. We can only review the history of the past 70 years or so to try to gain some insight, however limited, to the factors that led to the decline and how we can renew the fighting spirit and victories of the labor movement - a movement that was responsible for the greatest gains of working people ever seen in our country and the building of a middle class that has sustained American prosperity for several decades.


There have been books by scholars and academics that have tried to record what has happened over the years. But very few from anyone who has actually lived through these times and has told his story as a lifelong labor organizer and progressive activist. That’s why a recent book by Frank Emspak, Troublemaker: Saying No to Power, is so valuable.


Emspak is the son of Julius Emspak, who for many years was secretary-treasurer of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). Once one of the largest unions in the country, UE became the target of the anti-communist witch-hunters of the McCarthy era and was almost destroyed in the process. Emspak’s book recounts his life as a young anti-war activist during the Vietnam war, a scholar who earned a PhD in history, and a labor union organizer through the years of the decline of the labor movement.


Labor’s decline was initiated when the CIO surrendered to the basic precepts of the cold war and the McCarthy era. Members of the Communist Party had been instrumental in building the unions in the auto, steel and electrical industries, the three largest unions in the CIO as well several other smaller unions. In 1947, right wingers in Congress fired the first shot in the war on unions with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act. Among its other provisions, it allowed states to pass laws mandating the open shop (in the states, they called them “right-to-work” laws although they had nothing to do with a person’s right to work) and another one that the officers of a union had to sign an affidavit that they were not members of the Communist Party. If they refused, they could not seek the important services of the National Labor Relations Board in organizing and holding elections for organizing. (This section of Taft Harley was later held unconstitutional, a violation of the free speech provision of the First

Amendment.) In the United Auto Workers and the United Steel Workers, they succeeded in purging the leadership of people who did not go along with the new orthodoxy. But UE refused. Pressure on the CIO leadership mounted  to expel leftist-led unions. Although the CIO leadership resisted at first, it finally succumbed in 1950 and expelled UE and a number of other unions. The CIO then chartered a new union, the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE) which proceeded to stage wholesale raids on UE shops that critically reduced the membership of UE, replacing it with a union that was less militant in the fight for labor rights.


That story has a special significance for me as a teacher, now retired. As a young teacher I was active in a progressive teachers union in New York. Even though it was before the days of collective bargaining for teachers, the union  fought and won many things for teachers and children. But the deliberately engendered hysteria brought on by a witch-hunting Board of Education and congressional committees frightened teachers off and led to the decimation and decline of the union. It paved the way for the subsequent rise of a rival union with a right-wing leadership that had previously done very little for teachers, gaining the blessing of the Board of Education and winning collective bargaining rights. This union through the years has built up an immense bureaucracy, making backroom deals with politicians, even to the point of supporting those who had voted for the New York State law that effectively outlawed strikes by public employees. The result has been an erosion of teaching conditions over the past 30 years and the failure to call any mass union actions for nearly 50 years.


Emspak takes us through his early years in the aftermath of the CIO expulsions and its merger with the AFL. With the exception of a few courageous unions, the nation’s union movement joined the cold war parade as a junior partner, its leaders endorsing the Vietnam War and other ventures abroad while abandoning militant trade unionism and organizing at home. While the general prosperity of the country allowed for the unions to function this way for a while, gaining some increases in wages and benefits while ignoring the slowly growing wealth and income gap between workers and the very rich, it found them unable to stage a major fight back when the axe fell beginning with the Reagan administration in 1981.


Emspak was a major player in the fightback effort. After college and graduate school at the University of Wisconsin where he was a leader in the anti-Vietnam war movement, he and his family moved to Lynn, Massachusetts, where he worked at the United Shoe Machine Company and was active in UE, the union representing its workers.

One of his experiences at the shoe machine company is  valuable lesson for the organizers of today’s workers. He company had a large tract of land outside the plant that could be divided into plots where individual workers could raise vegetables for their families. Emspak cultivated one of these plots and was successful in harvesting an abundance of vegetables. But he also started to cultivate flowers on a part of the land, something that many of his fellow workers thought a big waste of the soil. Until he made it a practice of giving bundles of the flowers to the others to take home to their wives. While many of them knew him as a leftist and a possible communist at a time when the atmosphere was hostile to leftists and communists, this simple gesture showed him to be to be one of them, not some alien creature from a foreign power. The experience is valuable today when young workers seeking to organize are often confronted by company propaganda that “union bosses” are seeking to organize them simply to collect their dues. And while most young workers cannot cultivate a flower garden, organizing drives have been most successful when the union activists are seen by their fellow workers to be just like them rather than some sinister outside force.

His employment at United Shoe Machine came to an end when the changing nature of manufacturing eventually claimed the company which started cutting back its operations in the mid-1970’s and went out of business a few years later.


The other major industry in town was the General Electric plant. Emspak began working there with the demise of the shoe company. The workers at the GE plant were once organized into Local 201 of UE but had since succumbed to the raiding operation against UE and were now a local of IUE. Emspak became active in the local and was soon elected to office over the active opposition of higher officials of IUE who remembered the name of his father, the former secretary treasurer of the rival UE.


His experience as a union leader at the GE plant is instructive in the building of rank-and-file union leadership. Often with the collaboration of unions like IUE, he writes, “excessive and unpredictable scheduling, company driven efforts to eliminate affordable medical care, undermining job security and pensions are still with us because the interests of working people and our communities have not had the strength to insist that our interests become part of the design of the technologies powering our economy. Management’s designs have remained fixed on increasing shareholder value, by increasing productivity and thus maximizing profits, whatever the ancillary costs.”


But the push to maximize profits at the expense of workers inevitably stirs dissatisfaction. A group of more progressive union members, including Emspak, began encouraging workers to become active on the local’s committees. There was a general distrust of GE management, whose unchecked power had made them arrogant and often insulting in dealing with workers.

As more and more younger workers came in, replacing older ones who were retiring, the newer ones were less inclined to take the company’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude. There was a particular growing desire to fight back at the Wilmington  GE plant where Emspak worked. The progressive union members began building a base. They made sure they were good workers who did their jobs well and were honest and could be trusted by their fellow workers, gaining their confidence. They listened to their grievances, making suggestions but not trying to impose their will over those of their fellow workers. They encouraged more rand-and-file employees to actively participate on the committees of Local 201, not leaving it to the traditional union functionaries.


So successful were they in getting their fellow workers to see that they stood up for their rights, that Emspak was eventually elected to the executive board of Local 201 over the fierce opposition of its officers. A particular episode he recounts stands out. 


An air conditioning duct that ran through his workroom had sprung a massive hole that directed cold air designed for the entire plant only to his department. On a hot summer day, while the rest of the plant worked in sweltering heat, his workplace registered 50 degrees and workers shivered in cold. Despite all the complaints, nothing was done. The workers in his department decided to act. Emspak, as the union representative, informed the company that it was too cold to work and the workers put down their tools and walked off the job. Within a few minutes the whole plant was slowing down as the word of the walkout spread. And suddenly, voila!, the air conditioning duct was fixed that afternoon.


Emspak’s book is a valuable recounting of the personal and political life of a progressive activist in the decades when such activities were made very difficult. As Paul Buhle writes in the book’s preface, “Frank Emspak’s journey connects the Old Left with the New Left, unions in the industrial era and beyond, and the struggle to communicate to a wide public with all the modern means available.”


While the current struggle to build and rebuild the union movement faces different problems as production has moved from mass industries to high tech and new issues like climate change disasters have arisen, working people need to find new ways of organizing to deal with them. Many younger workers find themselves employed by companies whose workplaces, like Starbucks, number in the thousands of small shops rather than in a few giant plants. Others find themselves boxed in by the development of computerized robots and artificial intelligence that replaces workers. No one yet knows the answer to how to organize workers under these circumstances. There are probably many answers, not just one, depending upon the characteristics of each industry. The new strategy and tactics in each case have to be worked out by the experience of workers directly involved and cannot be set down in any rigid formula.

But what is also necessary to the success of working people is the development of a consciousness of class solidarity among workers and the realization that their plight is not just the result of the workings of the one company they work for but the result of an advanced stage of predatory capitalism in which the welfare of human beings matters little. Only  corporate profits counts. In the successful CIO organizing drives of the 1930’s, communists provided this ideological outlook which brought working people together. In the world of today, new leaders with this class outlook need to be brought forth. Indeed, it is already happening. The statements of some leaders of current union actions have reflected the view that their struggle is not just theirs but a part of a larger struggle of working people all over this country and, indeed, all over the world.

In this new situation, Troublemaker, is an important piece of history that can illuminate the continuing fight for a better future for all.

Paul Becker has pursued a multifaceted career for many years as a high school teacher, a journalist and a union activist. His journalism career began while in the service as a U.S. Army correspondent in Europe with the army newspaper, Stars and Stripes, and editor of the Heidelberg Area Command newspaper, The Heidelberg Post. Throughout his teaching career, he authored many articles on American history as well as those that promoted the cause of public education.

Early in his career, he was on the executive board of the New York Teachers Union and a member of the editorial staff of its weekly newspaper, Teacher News, devoted to the ongoing battle for teacher rights and for expanding and enriching public education for all children. Later, he was the editor of the quarterly Teacher Action, a rank-and-file publication in the United Federation of Teachers, the New York local of the American Federation of Teachers. For ten years, he was the UFT chapter leader in his school handling grievances and union issues with the school administration and was twice a candidate for president of the UFT.