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Southern Labor Archives: Work n' Progress - Lessons and Stories: Part V: "Post World War II" Era

"Post World War II" Era: Overview

Organized labor emerged from World War II in a seemingly stronger position than ever before. But the end of the war masked significant problems. A labor backlash and red scare swept the country and caught union leaders in its grasp in the late 1940s and 1950s. Organizing victories became fewer and fewer. Anti-labor politicians gained control of the Congress and passed repressive legislation like the Taft-Hartley Act, which severely damaged the ability of unions to compete with employers in organizing drives. With new ammunition, companies fought organizing drives harder and with greater success.

Meanwhile, the Congress of Industrial Organization's (CIO's) ambitious Southern organizing drive, called "Operation Dixie," failed miserably. Employers fought the drive with charges that communists ran the CIO. Organizers were often threatened or beaten. The defeat of the CIO foreshadowed other changes as well. Workers enjoyed newfound economic prosperity that allowed them to purchase automobiles and move away from the inner cities. Blue collar, manufacturing jobs declined after the war, while new service jobs grew dramatically. Black workers continued to face difficult challenges confronting these economic changes. Unions often failed to help black workers in the new economy.

After the war, however, organized labor leaders and union members had reason to be upbeat. The country's two labor federations, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the CIO, emerged from the conflict with 14.5 million workers in their ranks. Union workers made up 35 percent of the nation's employees. 

The CIO alone counted more than four million members. The AFL, which had now come around to the idea of industrial unionism, had 10 million members. The International Association of Machinists, had reached out to unskilled factory workers and made dramatic gains in their membership rolls. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters alone had 750,000 members. CIO affiliates like the United Steelworkers of America and the United Auto Workers (UAW) also counted hundreds of thousands of members.

In the middle of the war, the CIO had created a Political Action Committee (PAC). Different in many ways from today's PACs, organizers established the CIO-PAC as a grassroots group designed to mobilize labor's electoral strength on a continuing basis. Though labor's political efforts had mixed success, leaders like Phillip Murray of the CIO and William Green of the AFL enjoyed unprecedented access to the highest levels of government. Many of them agreed with UAW President Walter Reuther, who argued that unions should lead the way toward a reshaped post-war economic order. Reuther and others believed that labor should reach beyond the union movement to create broad public support for their objectives.

In reality, the post-war economic situation proved far different from Reuther's optimistic dream. Workers faced dramatic layoffs as military orders dried up following the war. A wave of strikes swept the country in the winter of 1945 and 1946, idling workers in steel, rubber, meatpacking, oil refining, and appliance industries. Walkouts in Rochester, N.Y., Oakland, Calif., and Pittsburgh almost turned into general strikes.

The militance workers displayed after the war made managers and employers fearful. The workers began a long campaign to reassert their rights in the nation's shops and foundries. They gave in on workers' wage demands. Most workers in major industries saw their wages increase by almost 20 percent after the war. But corporate executives won the battle to include important "company rights" provisions in the new contracts they signed with unions. These provisions forced unions to discipline their own workers who violated contracts. They also won planks that allowed them to impose production standards and to increase shop floor control.

Operation Dixie: Harvey Pike, Emil Luter, and Jimmy Cochrane at Muscogee, Columbus, Georgia, handing out leaflets at factory exit door. (L1987-38/15, Stetson Kennedy Collection)

"Post World War II" Era: Taft-Hartley Act

The contracts only hinted at what came next. Public opinion had turned against unions after the 1945-46 strikes. In June of 1947, the Republican controlled Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act over a presidential veto. The law sharply amended the pro-labor Wagner Act of 1935. It restricted unions and strengthened management prerogatives. The act limited the right to strike and force union leaders to sign anti-communist affidavits. If they failed to sign the documents, then the government barred their unions from using the National Labor Relations Board. The law also allowed states to pass right-to work laws that limited union strength.

The law's sponsors, Fred Hartley of New Jersey and Robert Taft of Ohio, hoped to reduce the frequency of strikes. But they also wanted to recast federal labor policy by changing the character and function of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The law gave employers more power to turn their workers against unions. Under Taft-Hartley, the president could request a federal injunction that required workers to return to work during strikes.

Labor objected to every part of the law, fearing that it would entangle unions in complex legal proceedings. United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) President John L. Lewis became the most outspoken critic of the measure. He vocally opposed the anti-communist provisions and took his union out of the AFL (for a second time) when he perceived that the leaders of the labor federation failed to share his revulsion of the act. Murray also refused to sign the affidavits and organizers from the UMWA and the CIO lost the ability to use the NLRB in organizing drives.

Other labor leaders saw the act as an opportunity. AFL affiliates made use of Taft-Hartley to challenge CIO unions whose leaders refused to sign the anti-communist pledges. They remained hostile to Taft-Hartley, but they also accommodated themselves to it. Reuther of the UAW used the act to raid communist-dominated local unions in electrical, machinery and farm equipment industries.

"Post World War II" Era: Split over Communism

Taft-Hartley revealed divisions within the labor movement over the communist issue. Communists had played a role in the revitalization of the labor movement of the 1930s. Lewis had recognized their ability as organizers and brought them into the CIO, where several rose through the ranks. International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union head Harry Bridges and CIO legal department head Lee Pressman proved sympathetic to the communist point of view. Communists faced attacks from right wing politicians and church officials in the years that followed World War II. They also faced criticism from liberals and socialists.

The insurgent candidacy of former New Deal Democrat Henry Wallace in 1948 split the CIO, which had endorsed incumbent Democrat president Harry Truman. Many unions broke ranks with the national organization and endorsed Wallace, who was critical of Truman's cold war policies. Largely as a result of this split, red baiting dominated the CIO's conventions in 1948 and 1949. Eventually anti-communists succeeded in expelling 11 unions from the CIO's ranks. The disputes had real consequences for workers. In Birmingham, for example, the steelworkers union engaged in an often violent raid against the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelterworkers local there. The USWA used the communist issue to turn enough white workers against Mine Mill leaders to win a representation election.

"Post World War II" Era: Operation Dixie

As the red scare grew, the CIO started an ambitious Southern organizing campaign called "Operation Dixie." Union officials had long believed that the low percentage of unionized workers in the South made the region an attractive destination for runaway northern business. CIO president Murray believed that organizing the South in the years after World War II would prove critical to the future of labor. The AFL also embarked on its own aggressive organizing effort in the South in order to compete with the CIO's Operation Dixie.

The CIO headquartered its efforts in Atlanta in the spring of 1946 under the direction of veteran UMWA organizer Van Bittner. From the beginning Bittner and fellow official George Baldanzi focused the organizing effort on textiles, the South's largest industry. They had few victories. When the drive ended in the early 1950s, the Textile Workers Union of America actually counted fewer members in the South than before the organizing campaign.

As CIO organizers began their ambitious drive in 1946, however, they were full of optimism. It quickly dissipated when the drive encountered sometimes violent opposition from businessmen, anti-union workers, and even AFL unionists, who blasted the CIO as a communist front group. The AFL's efforts often played into the hands of business leaders who preferred the conservative craft unionism it espoused to the industrial unionism of the CIO.

CIO veteran Lucy Randolph Mason remembered the violence she encountered during an organizing effort in Tifton in May of 1947. United Packinghouse Workers members, most of them black, faced intimidation and violence during a strike against the Armor plant in the city. The local sheriff, deputies, and city police violated the civil rights of the workers at will. Union opponents beat one worker so badly that both of his eyes were swollen completely shut and his face badly disfigured when Mason arrived to try to lessen tensions.

Intimidation and beatings like those recounted by Mason proved commonplace. Thugs also ran off a small group of CIO organizers from the gates of a textile mill in Bibb City. When a larger contingent of CIO activists arrived a day later, the workers were unwilling to talk seriously about unionizing the facility for fear of retribution. Business leaders made sure that workers in Georgia textile mills received copies of the anti-union newspaper Militant Truth. Ministers on the company payroll often denounced the CIO as anti-Christian and communistic. 

The CIO's attempts to organize the American Thread Mill in Tallapoosa dramatically illustrated many of the difficulties the organization faced in its attempt to organize Southern workers. A British company had reopened a closed mill under the auspices of American Thread in 1944. At the end of the war the mill employed about 500 workers, which made it the largest employer in Haralson County. In the spring of 1945, even before the start of Operation Dixie, a CIO organizer named C.C. Collins traveled to the town to assess the mill's potential for organization. A group of businessmen, anti-union mill workers, political and law enforcement figures escorted him from Tallapoosa at gunpoint.

Two years later a group of workers formed an organizing committee and contacted the Textile Workers Union of America. The union sent organizer Edna Martin to Tallapoosa. Mill supervisors, company security guards and city police followed her and other organizers around town as they made calls on workers. As the union effort picked up, anti-unionist workers often cornered unionists and warned that the plant would close if the TWUA organized the operation. Management made use of the "freedom of speech" clauses in the Taft-Hartley Act to harass unionists. They also used their relationship with the local newspaper, which ran the slogan "Are You a Booster or are You a Knocker?" under its masthead, to increase pressure on the workers.

Eventually, a group of armed men and women broke into Martin's room at a boarding house. They made her dress in front of them, bound and gagged her, then put her in the back of a pickup truck. They drove to an isolated dirt road and released her with the warning that if she went back to Tallapoosa, she would be shot on sight. Predictably, the organizing effort failed.

The TWUA initiated another brief organizing effort in 1949, when members of Local 134 in Dalton traveled south to tell Tallapoosa workers about their strike against an American Thread plant in that city. The Dalton strikers urged Tallapoosa workers to join the TWUA. Nine men emerged from the mill with clubs and threatened the Dalton strikers. The strikers left, but returned two days later, when they were forced to leave the area at gunpoint. A Tallapoosa worker then attempted to hand out pro-union leaflets at the plant entrance. Anti-union workers attacked him and his wife when she tried to stop the beating. The TWUA never brought the American Thread mill in Tallapoosa under contract.

Anti-labor poster: Left: George Baldanzi, Vice-President of TWUA (CIO), Right: Mr. Smith. Eastman, GA, Eastman Mill. (L1986-30/3; Stetson Kennedy Collection)

"Post World War II" Era: Prospects and Limitations

A pair of strikes in nearby Rome in 1948 and two massive transit strikes in Atlanta in 1949 and 1950 illustrated the prospects and limitations on labor during this time. In the first strike, which began in March at the Anchor Rome Cotton Mill, managers easily recruited hundreds of strikebreakers. By May the plant was at full capacity. The company owners mobilized the press and law enforcement during the walkout, and strikers found their picket line activities severely restricted. TWUA Local 787 members faced "gun wielding" managers on the picket lines and a press willing to denounce the union and blame it for all violence related to the walkout. By the end of May the strike ended.

TWUA Local 689 fared much better in its strike against the American Celenese Mill in Rome a few months later. The workers walked out in August to protest a North-South wage differential that paid them less money than comparable workers in the company's other mills. The company agreed not to import strikebreakers but later reneged on that promise in October. Unionists defied court injunctions and thousands massed on the picket lines to prevent the mill from reopening. The company settled the strike and gave into to many of the union demands shortly after.

The Amalgamated Association of Street, Electric Railway and Motor Coach Employees union walked out against the Atlanta Transit Company in 1949 and 1950. Though the union faced a unified front of company officials, political leaders and the press, it managed to survive the 1949 strike and win some minor concessions in the strike a year later. Georgia Power controlled the transit company, and by 1949 managers were willing to endure a lengthy strike to win concessions from the union.

Georgia Power officials engaged in an aggressive public relations campaign to attack the union during the walkout, which began on April 30. Authorities appointed a grand jury to investigate the union and considered introducing a bill in the state legislature allowing them to seize the transportation system. The union caved in to the pressure, and on May 19 workers went back to work under a contract that compromised on most of their demands.

A year later, however, under similar conditions, the union held out for 37 days. Georgia Power agreed to sell the transit system to a group of local owners. The new owners settled with the workers, who won some minor gains.

By the early 1950s, the CIO called off Operation Dixie. The attacks on labor had not ended, however. As the Red Scare grew on the national level, unionists in Dalton found themselves in the center of the storm. Dalton's textile unionists, members of TWUA Local 134 and Local 185, had acquired a measure of respect after World War II. They had managed to survive bitter labor disputes during the 1930s. During the 1940s they played an important role in the politics of northwest Georgia.

But increasingly the region's industrialists succeeded in marginalizing the two locals, which represented workers at the Crown Cotton Mill and the American Thread Mill. The chenille industry, spearheaded by the Tufted Textile Manufacturer's Association, grew rapidly. As a result, the businessmen worked hard to keep the industry union free. The textile unionists occupied a space more and more on the region's economic periphery.

Billboard erected by management, North Georgia Textile Mill, to counter CIO's Operation Dixie, 1946. (L1986-30/15, Stetson Kennedy Collection) 

When they attempted to organize the chenille operations in 1955, the TWUA locals ran into major opposition. The unions allied with a local church, the Church of God of the Union Assembly. The minister, Charlie Pratt, recruited a long-time activist named Don West to publish a pro-union newspaper. 

When the first group of pro-union workers walked out at a latex plant and formed TWUA Local 10, industrialists, with the cooperation of the local newspaper, responded with an aggressive campaign of red baiting. They denounced West as a communist in several front-page articles. Fights broke out on the Local 10 picket lines as strikebreakers tried to enter the plant. Officials enlisted the help of the state police to keep the facility open.

National and regional right-wing figures traveled to Dalton to help defeat the union drive. They eagerly joined in the red baiting of West and other unionists. Eventually a grand jury investigated the activities of West and the strikers. The industrialists succeeded in their campaign of public pressure. The workers lost the strike and the chenille industry remained non-union.

The defeat of union efforts in Dalton and the rest of the South reflected massive changes that swept the country in the 1950s and early 1960s. Union workers enjoyed tremendous wage increases, and they found they could afford new cars and houses. They sold their homes in the cities and moved to new suburbs that sprang up after the war. The suburbs grew and the population of most large cities began a period of steady decline. By the mid-1960s, almost half of the nation's "blue collar" workers lived in suburbs.

Women increasingly entered the workforce, while mechanization eliminated the jobs of thousands of miners and farmers. Clerical and service employment increased to 50 percent of the workforce by 1950. Agricultural and mining jobs dropped from 25 percent of the workforce in 1940 to five percent by 1970. Blue collar jobs decreased to 40 percent of the workforce by 1960.

Black workers' wages grew, but they often found themselves trapped by segregation. They made significant gains in industries like auto and steel, but they lost jobs as urban plants closed and moved to the suburbs. Black workers had a difficult time competing for these jobs because of segregation, housing discrimination, and higher education requirements. The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, established by Congress in the early 1960s, proved chronically under funded and faced a difficult task in trying to help black workers overcome these difficulties. Unions also failed to help their black members meet many of these challenges. Many AFL craft unions, in particular, barred blacks from apprenticeship programs outright or practiced informal segregation.

The failure of many unions to confront civil rights issues would divide the labor movement in the years that followed. Organized labor faced a difficult road in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s as the hostility toward unions increased and the economy continued to shift toward service jobs. By the early 1960s, the momentum generated by the New Deal of the 1930s and gains during the war years had ended, and unions entered a lengthy period of retrenchment and retreat.

"Post World War II" Era: Unions confront red baiting and violence

Organized labor emerged from World War II in a strong position. More than 14 million workers belonged to unions, about 35 percent of the total workforce. The power of unions began to wane, however, when hostile political leaders passed the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. 

The Congress of Industrial Organizations began an ambitious campaign to organize Southern workers called "Operation Dixie" in 1947. The organization called off the project in 1953 after making only modest inroads into the region. CIO organizers fell victim to red baiting and many were met with violent attacks. 

Transit workers in Atlanta idled the city's buses and street cars in a series of strikes after the war. After an unsuccessful strike in 1949, the union managed to hold out for 37 days a year later and made some modest gains in its new contract. 

Red scares swept the country and Georgia was no exception. A pair of Textile Workers Union of America locals in Dalton found themselves marginalized in the mid-1950s after an unsuccessful organizing drive in the area's chenille and carpet mills. Industrialists defeated the drive by berating organizers with charges of communism. 

The nature of work changed as the 1960s dawned. Fewer people worked in factories. For the first time, white collar employees, like clerical and office workers, outnumbered manufacturing employees. 

"Post World War II" Era: Nanny Lee Washburn: 'Becoming a real radical' in the Deep South

When Nanny Lee Washburn arrived on an Atlanta picket line during the great textile strike of 1934, police quickly arrested her for trying to "overthrow the government."

The evidence? Washburn had carried a few copies of the communist newspaper The Daily Worker with her to the picket line.

Later, in the 1950s, Washburn again found herself in jail -- this time for distributing petitions in Atlanta trying to prevent accused spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg from going to the electric chair.

Washburn's career as an organized labor and civil rights activist spanned more than 60 years. Though never a high ranking official, she symbolized the kind of activism that fueled and sustained the labor movement.

Washburn was born in Douglasville in 1900. Her father belonged to the Populist Party and later organized the cotton mill where he worked. Washburn's brothers served as organizers for the militant Industrial Workers of the World.

Washburn went to work in a textile mill when she turned seven years old. "It was a very hard life, especially for the women," she remembered.

Washburn's union and civil rights activism began about 1930. She organized unemployed workers, public employees, and helped defend the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama.

Washburn also campaigned against the poll tax and lynchings. She became active in the anti-nuclear movement and attended the World Peace Council in Sweden in 1954.

In 1965 Washburn helped civil rights activists during the Selma to Montgomery march. She also worked on a lower-profile campaign in Demopolis.

Washburn continued her activism until late in life, working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference though the 1970s. In 1992, Washburn attended a rally for South African activist Nelson Mandela in Atlanta.

When she died, Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell proclaimed May 3, 1996 "Nanny Washburn Memorial Day" in the city. The mayor cited Washburn as an example of the "most noble qualities in human beings: truth, courage, conviction and compassion."

The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, The Great Speckled Bird, and 75 Years of Struggle! The Life of Nanny Washburn.

"Post World War II" Era: Sources

Michelle Brattain, "'A Town as Small as That'': Tallapoosa Georgia and Operation Dixie, 1945-1950," Georgia Historical Quarterly, Summer 1997.

Michelle Brattain, "Making Friends and Enemies: Textile Workers and Political Action in Post-World War II Georgia," The Journal of Southern History, February 1997.

Douglas Flamming, Creating the Modern South: Millhands and Mangers in Dalton, Georgia, 1884-1984.

Douglas Flamming, "Christian Radicalism, McCarthyism, and the Dilemma of Organized Labor in Dixie," in Race, Class, and Community in Southern Labor History.

Barbara Griffith, The Crisis of American Labor: Operation Dixie and the Defeat of the CIO.

F. Ray Marshall, Labor in the South.

James W. May Jr., "Atlanta Transit Strike, 1949-1950, Prelude to Sale," in Essays in Southern Labor History.

John Salmond, Miss Lucy of the CIO: The Life and Times of Lucy Randolph Mason, 1882-1959.

Robert Zieger, American Workers, American Unions, 1920-1985.

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