From militant strikes to anti-communist purges: the Grand Rapids labor movement after WWII

In previous articles we have looked at the fight for an 8 hour work day in Grand Rapids, the 1911 Furniture Workers Strike and the impact that the 1936-37 Flint Wildcat Strike had on Grand Rapids organizing efforts.

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Each of these examples of labor organizing in Grand Rapids continued to build upon the growing push for workers to join unions. After the UAW and the CIO began organizing in Grand Rapids, union membership grew significantly. However, union leadership at the national level cut a deal with business leaders and the Roosevelt administration and agreed to not strike while the US was involved in World War II.

Despite the no-strike pledge, union membership in the US grew from 7.2 million in 1940 to 14.5 million at the end of WWII. However, the strikes began almost the moment that the bombs stopped dropping on Japan. In September 1945, 43,000 petroleum workers and 200,000 coal workers struck. In October 44,000 lumber workers, 70,000 teamsters, and 40,000 machinists joined them.

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Then in November 1945, the UAW called its first major strike against GM since the company was unionized in 1937. Nearly a quarter of a million men walked out. In Grand Rapids, this same dynamic began where workers who had years of frustrations during the no-strike pledge of WWII began to challenge the capitalist class by engaging in walk outs and strikes.

In 1946, workers at the UAW Local 730 at the GM plant in Wyoming, Michigan were part of the national UAW strike that lasted for 113 days. (see photos above and below, sourced from The Story of the UAW Region 1-D) The UAW striking workers were fighting for better wages, pensions and improved working conditions, all of which were denied them during the no-strike pledge during WWII.

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With the growing labor unrest and increased militancy of workers in the US, the capitalist class decided to fight back. In response to the growing influence of labor unions, Congress passed in 1947 the Taft-Hartley Act. It prohibited jurisdictional strikes, secondary boycotts and “common situs” picketing and closed shops. The law became known as the “slave-labor bill” in union circles.1947

However, the Taft-Hartley Act was not the only tool that business owners used to undermine unions after WWII. There was a growing interest to attack and expose anyone connected to the Communist Party and those who embraced more radical ideals. This political tactic led to what became known as Red-baiting and eventually McCarthyism.

Beginning after WWII, communism now became the new boogeyman and ushered in the Cold War era.

Many people know about the blacklisting that took place with actors, directors and script writers in Hollywood, but less is known about the purges that took place in organized labor.

According to Michael Johnston’s thesis, Non-Union Grand Rapids: 150 Years of the Big Lie, Grand Rapids unions also participated in the “red scare.”

The earliest doctrinal battles of the Cold War years were fought out in Grand Rapids, beginning in late June of 1946. Fred Bonine, president of UFWA Local 415, joined with other locals from around the country in issuing a national resolution calling upon locals across the country to “divorce” themselves from the “communist wing of their union.”Step_by_step_greene

Bonine led his local out of the CIO and into the Upholsters of the AFL. As one of the largest unions in the area, and one of the largest unions in the entire UFWA, this Cold War red baiting and raising took on national significance.

The Kent County CIO Industrial Union Council was caught in the middle. In spite of the reputation as a conservative city, the CIO Industrial Union Council urged the local to “remain in the CIO to fight the reds.”

Johnston goes on to write:

The UAW used the red scare to raid the American Seating Company unit of UFWA Local 415. It began a protracted, bitter campaign to decertify the Communist influenced union. After two NLRB elections, the UAW finally ousted the furniture workers replacing it with UAW Local 135, chartered March 14, 1949. The UAW also raided the UE local at the York Band Instrument Company chartering a local there on January 19, 1950.

Thus, it was clear that the business class would use any means necessary to undermine the militancy of organized workers, both through legislation and by questioning their loyalty to the nation. This period of Grand Rapids and US history was the beginning of the decline of unions and organized labor, a decline that continues to this day.

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