The US working class and the institutional labor movement was shaped by anticommunism. Anticommunism preceded the founding of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, and this early history affected the later experience. It reinforced conservative positions on union issues even in the period before the Cold War, and forged the alliances that influenced the labor movement’s direction, including the campaign to organize the South, the methods and structures of unions, and US labor’s foreign policy positions. While the Communist Party of the USA (CP) was a hierarchical organization straitjacketed by an allegiance to the Soviet Union, the unions it fostered cultivated radical democratic methods, while anticommunism often justified opposition to militancy and obstructed progressive policies. In the hottest moments of the postwar development of domestic anticommunism, unions and their members were vilified and purged from the labor movement, forced to take loyalty oaths, and fired for their association with the CP. The Cold War in the working class removed critical perspectives on capitalism, reinforced a moderate and conservative labor officialdom, and led to conformity with the state on foreign policy issues.
Adam J. Hodges
The first Red Scare, which occurred in 1919–1920, emerged out of longer clashes in the United States over the processes of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization as well as escalating conflict over the development of a labor movement challenging elite control of the economy. More immediately, the suppression of dissent during World War I and shock over a revolution in Russia that energized anti-capitalist radicals spurred further confrontations during an ill-planned postwar demobilization of the armed forces and economy. A general strike in Seattle in February 1919 that grew out of wartime grievances among shipbuilders raised the specter of Bolshevik insurrection in the United States. National press attention fanned the flames and continued to do so throughout the year. In fact, 1919 became a record strike year. Massive coal and steel walkouts in the fall shook the industrial economy, while a work stoppage by Boston police became a national sensation and spread fears of a revolutionary breakdown in public order. Ultimately, however, much of the union militancy of the war era was crushed by the end of 1919 and the labor movement entered a period of retrenchment after 1922 that lasted until the 1930s. Fall 1919 witnessed the creation of two competing Communist parties in the United States after months of press focus on bombs, riots, and strikes. Federal anti-radical investigative operations, which had grown enormously during World War I and continued into 1919, peaked in the so-called “Palmer Raids” of November 1919 and January 1920, named for US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who authorized them. The excesses of the Department of Justice and the decline of labor militancy caused a shift in press and public attention in 1920, though another Red Scare would escalate after World War II, with important continuities between the two.
Communist activists took a strong interest in American trade unions from the 1920s through the 1950s and played an important role in shaping the nature of the American union movement. Initial communist trade union activism drew upon radical labor traditions that preceded the formation of the American Communist Party (CPUSA). Early communist trade unionists experimented with different types of structures to organize unorganized workers. They also struggled with international communist factionalism. Communist trade unionists were most effective during the Great Depression and World War II. In those years, communist activists helped build the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and bring industrial unionism to previously unorganized workers. Throughout the history of communist involvement in the US labor movement, international communist policy guided general organizing strategies. Shifts in international policy, such as the announcement of a Soviet non-aggression pact with Germany, proved politically difficult to navigate on the local level. Yet, Left-led unions proved to be more democratically run and focused on racial and gender equality than many of those without communist influence. Their leadership supported social justice and militant action. The Cold War years witnessed CIO purges of Left-led unions and federal investigations and arrests of communist trade unionists. Repression from both within and without the labor movement as well as the CPUSA’s own internal policy battles ultimately ended communist trade unionists’ widespread influence on American trade unions.