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History

From THE FIGHTING MACHINISTS, A CENTURY OF STRUGGLE
by Robert G. Rodden

Reds, Witch Hunts and the IAM

In some ways the anti-Communist hysteria of the late 1940's was even more virulent and far-reaching than the Great Red Scare of the 1920's. The delirium of the post World War II era was aggravated by the realization that America was no longer protected by oceans on both coasts. The Cold War began almost as soon as the shooting stopped. In Eastern Europe the Soviet Union either perverted or ignored agreements made with Roosevelt at Yalta and Truman at Potsdam. In Asia the Red Chinese Army, led by Mao Tse-tung swept American-backed forces of the Kuomintang into the sea. Communism seemed to be on the march everywhere. Then, when the Soviets developed an atomic bomb, Americans were shocked and frightened by evidence that the Russians had been helped by internal subversion and espionage here at home.

Throughout these postwar years, and on into the '50's and '60's, arch-conservatives in Congress, the media and elsewhere whipped fear of communism to a state of near hysterical paranoia. They not only set out to lynch actual Communists, but anyone who was suspected of progressive ideas, New Deal sympathies, left-wing associations or even overly intellectual tendencies. The net of suspicion caught many trade unionists. During the desperate '30's America's work places had bubbled with the ferment of Socialist, Wobbly and other left-wing ideas. Now, such ideas had become a crime.

The late '40's became a time of loyalty oaths and Congressional investigations, of secret informers and unknown accusers, blacklists and security clearances. This was a time when jobs, careers and lives could be ruined by unconfirmed allegations, malicious gossip and unfounded suspicions. In the early '50's a demagogue from Wisconsin. Senator Joseph McCarthy, became a power in the land by recklessly and without proof accusing individuals selected almost by whim of being Communists, fellow-travelers or Soviet stooges. McCarthy's name has entered the language as a synonym for unprincipled character assassination and kamikaze attacks on the Bill of Rights.*

* In discussion of a resolution condemning McCarthyism at the 1952 Grand Lodge Convention delegates of Celtic heritage took issue with linking such a fine old Irish name with "un-American character assassination." The secretary of the Resolutions Committee responded that the committee meant no offense but "The Thing" had to have a name. He quipped "We apologize even to the Hooligans and the Mulligans who have had their names attached to certain Shenanigans." The resolution passed.
When the IAM barred Communists from membership in the early 1920's it was the first union to do so. But in the 1940's Communists were being seen under every bed. Schools, the press, unions, government, churches, businesses and other institutions all scurried to rid themselves of any hint or suspected taint of Communism. Harvey Brown was not the worst of the rabid breed of witch-hunters who were seeing Reds everywhere. But in a lifetime of battles with the IWW and CIO he developed a loathing for Communism more genuine and justified than the political opportunism of a Joe McCarthy or Richard Nixon. Brown decided that rather than wait for a congressional probe he would root out any Communists that might have infiltrated the union.

His first target was Robert Schrank, a handsome, dynamic and brilliant young business representative of Lodge 402 in New York City. At the age of 28 Schrank was president of the New York State Council of Machinists. The youthful Schrank joined the IAM while working as a journeyman in a small machine shop in New York City. A born leader, he was soon masterminding organizing campaigns at far larger companies, including Cutler-Hammer.

As president of the New York State Council Schrank built the Machinists organization in that state into a political powerhouse. Harvey Brown viewed Schrank's success with some apprehension. As background it should be noted that state councils had grown like Topsy in the IAM. No one ever really planned them or at the start even thought much about them. But when some of the state councils began to meet prior to Grand Lodge Conventions to coordinate positions and strategy on upcoming issues the Executive Council began to perceive a threat, realizing, correctly, that state councils could become independent and competing power centers.

With a leader as charismatic as Bob Schrank in control of a council as large and powerful as New York, Harvey Brown and the Executive Council decided to write some new ground rules. An official circular, issued in May, 1944 stressed that state councils and conferences had no legal standing in the IAM, but would be tolerated if they limited themselves to legislative action and membership education. A year later a follow-up circular noted that in one state council, "An attempt has been made by usurped authority to . . . authorize a representative to perform a duty affecting the entire membership and a function that rests within the Grand Lodge." While this circular named no names, it was clearly aimed at Bob Schrank and the New York State Council. The "usurped" authority referred to the New York  State Council's  decision to send an observer to a left-wing World Labor Congress in Paris. The AFL was boycotting the meeting because invitations had been issued to representatives of organizations not considered bona fide trade unions (i.e. state-controlled worker organizations in countries behind the Iron Curtain).

The IAM's Executive Council accused the World Labor Congress of being a dual movement that subverted the International Federation of Trade Unions with which the AFL was affiliated. The Council voted to prohibit any IAM member of affiliate from participating in the World Labor Congress in Paris either as a delegate or observer.

When the 1945 Grand Lodge Convention met in New York a month later, Schrank raised Harvey Brown's hackles and suspicions even further. At issue, and the subject of lengthy debate, were a series of resolutions on the IAM's international labor affiliations. Schrank challenged the Executive Council's support for the International Federation of Trade Unions, urging the delegated to affiliate the IAM with the World Labor Council. Old-timers recall Schrank as a spellbinding speaker, but he failed to shake delegate confidence in Brown's leadership. The convention defeated Schrank's pro-World Labor Congress resolution and endorsed the Executive Council's support for the International Federation of Trade Unions.

The Schrank Case

Following the convention FBI agents came to Brown with information that Schrank was once a member of the Young Communist League. Brown confronted Schrank at a meeting in New York. Schrank recalls that he told Brown, "Harvey, I signed a non-Communist affidavit under the Taft-Hartley Act. I am not now a Communist, okay? But what you need to know is that I'm not going to recant, cooperate with the witch-hunters, or be intimidated . . ." In later years Schrank observed that though he became anti-Soviet when the "workers' paradise turned into a huge torture chamber" he refused to engage in Red-baiting.

The upshot was that Brown suspended Schrank from office and ordered a trial board. Rather than respond Schrank went to court and got an injunction restraining Brown from action against himself or Lodge 402. Although the injunction was granted on the narrowest of technicalities Brown was temporarily checked.

Schrank was a persuasive pamphleteer as well as an inspirational speaker. Early in 1948, he published a furious broadside against the Taft-Hartley Act. It was titled "This Is Aimed At You--An Expose Of The Taft-Hartley Plot To Break The Union and Hi-Jack The American People." The cover showed a startled worker with a gun pointed at his head. This fire-eating booklet sold for 15 and went into at least two printings of 25,000 each. It made a point-by-point attack on what Schrank and others branded the "Slave Labor Act". In a stinging indictment Schrank condemned AFL and CIO leaders, which included IAM officers, for signing the anti-Communist affidavits required by the law. Upon reading Schrank's incendiary tract Harvey Brown saw red in more ways than one.

Following Brown's earlier attempt to suspend him, Schrank openly mailed circulars attacking the IP throughout the union. He also traveled around the country to meet with dissident groups such as partisans of Hook and Dillon in Lodge 68. Schrank's response to Brown's trial-by-convention ploy was a mass walkout by his supporters. When the convention expelled him and suspended Lodge 402, Schrank returned to court where he successfully argued the IAM Constitution did not authorize turning a Grand Lodge convention into a trial committee. After a series of frustrating and time-consuming legal maneuvers, the Executive Council authorized an out-of-court settlement in which Schrank kept his membership and the lodge was released from suspension. Having won every battle against Brown and the Executive Council Schrank finally went too far during the Korean War when he opposed and voted against a District Lodge 15 resolution condemning Communist aggression against South Korea.

Until then he could always count on the unshakable support of his own membership in Lodge 402. But at this even they gagged. With American boys dying in Korea, the membership of Lodge 402 repudiated their delegates to the district. Schrank's enemies in the district, who had grown in number, seized this opportunity to refuse to seat him at the next district meeting. Charges were then filed against Schrank in his own lodge. With his enemies closing in on all sides he left the IAM and took his considerable talents to the openly left-wing Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers.

Later in life Schrank became well-known and widely respected as n author, teacher and consultant. During a long and distinguished career Schrank served with the New York City Mayor's Productivity Council, the National Academy of Science, the U. S. Department of Labor and many other governmental boards and universities. In 1981 he retired from the Ford Foundation where he had written extensively on the world of work. In his autobiography, Ten Thousand Working Days, he recalled fond memories of his days in the labor movement:

Being an elected union official was one of the most exciting jobs I ever held. It was full of challenges, not from things or to tolerances of hardness, but from concern for people, their needs. wishes and dreams. Imagine, working to fulfill dreams . . . In those burgeoning union days we sang of our solidarity . . . The people who worked in the labor movement . . . were the dreamers of change.
Bob Schrank may or may not have been a Communist with a capital C. But as a street-wise kid form New York, who had been taught reverence for the tradition of Eugene Debs by a Wobbly father, he was certainly too radical for the conservative railroaders who still dominated the IAM's Executive Council in the 1940's. IAM leaders were not alone in their implacable opposition to anything or anyone suspected of Communist leanings. CIO President Philip Murray opened his 1949 Convention with the declaration, "There is enough room within the CIO to differ about many subjects, ideas, questions, economics and social and trade union policy but there is no room within the CIO for Communism." The delegates responded by expelling ten unions accused of Communist domination. These included the United Electrical Workers (UE), Mine and Mill and Smelter Workers and the West Coast Longshoremen.

Harvey Brown Meets Mandatory Retirement

Sixty-one years after the IAM's founding Harvey Brown became the first International President forced to leave office by a constitutionally mandated retirement age. Talbot and Creamer stepped aside voluntarily while still young. O'Day an O'Connell failed reelection. Johnston and Wharton broke under the strain of the office.

As his retirement neared Brown was as energetic and pugnacious as ever. Given a choice he undoubtedly would have stayed on until he was carried out. But the 1945 Convention set sixty-five as the age of retirement in the IAM. Brown cheerfully applied this new rule to GVP Carr in 1947 although there was some question that the delegates meant it to become effective until 1949.

Some old-timers suspect Brown wanted the 1948 Convention delegates to make him an exception to the sixty-five-year limit. If so, he was disappointed. His closing remarks were tinged with regret that he would never again participate in a Grand Lodge Convention. His retirement was marked with appropriate banquets, ceremonies, honors gifts and tributes from the powerful and famous throughout the land, including the President of the United States.

Harvey Brown did his part to transform Tom Talbot's little union into one of the largest and most powerful on the North American continent. Unready for retirement, Brown soon went to Germany to head the Office of Labor Affairs of the U.S. Occupation Forces. His mission was to help make German unions more independent and less subservient to authoritarian German tradition. The Germans appeared to like his brusque, authoritarian manner. Before he left to return to the States they named a 10,000 unit worker's housing project in Luebeck after him. Harvey Brown died in Washington in 1956 at seventy-two years of age.


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