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Leon Sverdlove On the Taft-Hartley Act

The Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947, symbolized the anti-labor climate of postwar America. The act expanded the power of employers and the government to prevent union organizing and strikes, and made it difficult for unions to take industrial action. The most difficult aspect of the bill for many unions to swallow required labor leaders to declare themselves to be non-Communist if they wanted to participate in NLRB elections. While many union members, like Leon Sverdlove of the Jewelry Workers union in New York, resented having to divulge their political views, they accepted the actís requirement in order to protect what union rights they had left. As Sverdlove found, however, even accepting the actís dictates did not protect unions and their members from accusations of communism, and many unions and workers suspected as communist sympathizers were forced out of organized labor.

Listen to Audio:

SVERDLOVE: So people were looking down their noses at us, as having sold out, or betrayed the interests of the working class, but it made no sense to us. And it was even more dramatic when it came to the Taft-Hartley Act. If you didn’t sign the Taft-Hartley Act, you couldn’t have elections, you couldn’t present grievances against the employer for unfair labor practices. And a lot of unions, with people like myself, who felt the way we did, were heroic about it. “We’ll never sign. Why should we have to? Asking us our politics under the American constitution . . .” It all sounded good, but it wasn’t for real.; it just wasn’t for real. So, if we don’t sign, we’re going to leave ourselves wide open to charges by the International that we’re not protecting the interests of the members of the union, which would be very true. And it would make us subject to charges and possible expulsion and then what? So we’d have a group, a few of us left-thinking, progressive-thinking people who would be bounced out, after all the years of work... And then what? And that’s exactly what happened to so many left-wing unions. It’s as if somebody had just a few firecrackers to shoot off, and he shot’em off before the Fourth of July, and on the Fourth of July he had nothing. That’s the way we felt about it. So we signed the Taft-Hartley Act, you know, we signed whatever the document was that to be signed that could resort to the Labor Board. How could you exist? We would say, “How can we get along without the Labor Board?” You just couldn’t do it.

We made the turn, and we became, what shall I say — more moderate. But that didn’t prevent us from continuing to sponsor, to participate in anything that was progressive. I would say that the connection that was severed was one of a specific left-wing policy sponsored by the Communists at that time. That’s what we broke with. I’m not ready to dump that whole period, and flush it down the drain. I don’t think so. For me, it was a real developmental thing and I have to admit, depending on what you want to call it, any education that I had, was during the course of the years that I spent in the left-wing movement, closely associated and related to the Communist Party. There’s no question about it, that whatever inherent abilities I might have had were sharpened and developed in that period.

From 1947 to 1959 were the twelve years in which the political factor was used by those who were posed against us. But they had changed in character from being social democrats to being out-and-out racketeers. [In the 1947 election] we were defeated on the basis of speeches made that we were agents from Moscow — that was the height of the McCarthy period — it was just the beginning of that rather. That’s all they could say against us, that we were Communists. They dug up leaflets and they clobbered us. From then on, until 1959, it was one big struggle to get rid of them. We’d go to conventions really concerned for our physical well-being. Telephone calls to our homes, to our wives, three o’clock in the morning, “You want to see your husband tomorrow? He knows what he’s got to do.” Things of that sort. But we finally caught up with them and from then on out I would say that, first of all the racketeering locals disappeared — some left on their own, some we expelled — till we got rid of all of them. Some of them went to jail. Others are still under indictment. But that was the fight that took place in all those years up to '59. Then [Harry] Spodick was elected, and it was after that that I would say that the political atmosphere changed. We still battled, but it wasn’t what it had been before. It wasn’t a question of getting the racketeers out anymore. To the point where in 1968 when I ran, I ran unopposed. That was amazing. To run unopposed after all those years.

Source: Interview by Debra Bernhardt 10/23/79
Courtesy Wagner Labor Archives/Tamiment Library