Communism, American labor unions and the CIA

One thing I learned from reading Les Leopold’s biography of the visionary labor leader Tony Mazzocchi was the great harm done to the labor movement by the anti-Communist drive of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

It drove out some of the most effective and dedicated labor organizers, created lasting bitterness and division within labor and led to a secret alliance with the Central Intelligence Agency.

This was not just something imposed on labor by the anti=Communist oath required under the Taft Hartley Act of 1947.  It was part of a drive by liberals such as Walter Reuther, who organized a purge of the United Auto Workers, and Hubert Humphrey, who did the same for the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota.

I came of age in the 1950s and, as I became politically aware, I became a Cold War liberal myself.  I thought of Communists as followers of a kind of cult, blindly following a leader, who in this case happened to be Joseph Stalin, one of history’s bloodiest tyrants.

The Mazzocchi biography shows this view had some truth in it, but it was not the whole story.  Some American Communists were among the bravest fighters for civil rights and labor rights.

They ran African-Americans for public office at a time when no Democrat or Republican dared to do so.   The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most trusted white adviser was a former top Communist fund-raiser.

It seems like a paradox that fighters for democracy and freedom in their own country could be mesmerized by a totalitarian foreign ruler, but it was so.

The writer Doris Lessing, who was a Communist in Rhodesia as a young woman, said the idea, however illusory, that she was being backed up by a powerful country where ideals of justice gave her spiritual strength.

Tony Mazzocchi was never a Communist and never followed any party line, Communist or otherwise.  He thought many of the Communists he knew were unrealistic and overly ideological.   He didn’t hate, fear or shun them, but he was held back—for example, when he considered running for Congress from Long Island—by the fear that these associations could be used to discredit him and the labor movement.

The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, like the United Auto Workers and the AFL-CIO itself, worked closely and secretly with the Central Intelligence Agency to support anti-Communist unions in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

If I had known about it at the time, I would have thought it was a good idea.  Moscow supported pro-Communist unions, so what would be wrong with Washington supporting anti-Communist unions?   I would have seen this all in the context of a great struggle of democracy against totalitarianism.

The problem with the way I thought back then was the assumption that the CIA, which had engineered the overthrow of democratic governments in Iran and Guatemala, could be trusted as an ally of either workers or democracy.

In the 1950s, there was a fear of Communist infiltration and subversion of left-wing and progressive movements.  But the really effective infiltrators and subversives were the FBI and the CIA.

Mazzocchi’s great rival for leadership of the union was Robert Goss, who put in nine leaders as an employee of a labor union organization in Latin America that was widely known to be a CIA front organization and regarded as ineffective by the CIA itself.

Goss was effective at playing office politics at headquarters and regarded Mazzocchi as a dangerous radical.  He felt that labor leaders could be equal partners with American business leaders to their mutual benefit.

A few American business leaders have taken that attitude—Joseph Wilson, the builder of Xerox Corp., for one—but they are rare.

More typical was the experience of the president of a United Auto Workers at Rochester Products division of General Motors, whom I knew in the 1980s.   He talked his members into accepting a wage and benefits concessions in order to make the division more competitive, only to find his negotiating partner had been given a big bonus as a reward.

Goss narrowly defeated Mazzocchi in elections for president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers in 1979 and 1981, resulting in Mazzocchi’s leaving the union for a time.  By the time new leadership invited him back, the union had gone into irreversible decline.


Remembering Mazzocchi by David Moberg for In These Times.

The Man Who Never Sold Out by Mark Dudzic for Labor Notes.


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One Response to “Communism, American labor unions and the CIA”

  1. Fred Says:

    It was a sad time. And big business had every reason to encourage McCarthyism in its struggle with labor.

    OTOH it was arguably a labor union, Solidarity, that started the fall of communism.


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