The National Union of Marine Cooks and Stewards: Union Democracy, Civil Rights and American Communism, 1934-1954

anti racist

A good deal has been written about the experiences of left-led unions in the United States at the outbreak of the Cold War, but much less has been written about the origins and mechanics of the radicalism for which individual unions were targeted during the accompanying red scare. In the case of the National Union of Marine Cooks and Stewards (MCS), one of eleven unions expelled from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) for being "communist-dominated" in 1949-50, this absence is more striking when one considers its exceptional multiracial composition and concrete commitment to civil rights, to a degree that was even outstanding among other left unions. The militant stand of the MCS against racial discrimination, the practical nature of which was clearly expressed by the union's high level of racial diversity (40-50 per cent black, 25 per cent Asian, 25 per cent white) is an added distinction to "and in fact is strongly tied to" its commitment to union democracy and its resistance to the tightening bureaucratization and government restraints that followed the wave of wildcat strike activity during World War Two. The history of America communism and "fellow travelers" is also interlaced with the history of MCS, in ways that point out the relationship between ideas and the people who use them.


In shaping the character of the MCS, the role of communism—both as a body of ideas and through the practical interpretation of those ideas by the Communist Party (CP)—is far from incidental. The dynamics between “party line” Communists (who I will denote with a capital “C”), independent radicals (who may have called themselves communist, lower-case “c”) and other—non-revolutionary but equally devoted—worker-activists for racial equality and participatory democracy were brought into sharp focus in the labor movement during the decades surrounding World War Two. At this time, the possibility of a radical kind of worker self-management, the urgency of anti-fascism, and the palpable weight of black American exclusion and oppression hung in the air together at numerous flashpoints of unrest in an American workplace that was slowly absorbing the black diaspora from the U.S. South and experiencing perhaps to an unprecedented degree the manipulation of a government-business alliance. In this context, the MCS—a labor organization led by communists and composed largely of blacks—can be seen as one of the most dynamic and interesting expressions of this unique nexus of energy in U.S. history.


For many American workers, the Allied coalition that brought the United States and the Soviet Union together in World War Two was more than just a choice of tactics or geopolitical expediency. The threat of fascism stirred the hearts of millions in the U.S., and, aside from considerations of the danger to democracy, the fact that communists and trade unions in Europe were fascism’s first targets was not lost on many. The world depression that helped bring about the ideological competition between fascism and communism for the support of desperate workers in Europe also heightened class polarization in the U.S. and contributed to an increase in Communist Party membership. Especially relevant for American blacks, the rise of fascism in Europe coincided with a period of militant white supremacism in the U.S., one in which the KKK and its splinter groups were riding high, and the waves of black migrants were particularly vulnerable to attack. So while black Americans were no exception to the appeal of anti-fascism, vexing comparisons between the racism of the Nazis and the persistent and violent American racism that blacks contended with (and continue to contend with) in the United States complicated their stance with regard to any “American” efforts as both citizens and workers. It is important to note that the interest in anti-fascism and communism among U.S. blacks was far from simply an expression of patriotism or support for the war effort, but also contained strong elements of a black national consciousness. Robin Kelley has made a compelling connection between black American anti-fascism and the pan-Africanism revived by Marcus Garvey, pointing to the outcry among American blacks against fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and the subsequent participation of American blacks in the Abraham Lincoln Brigades, as an effort to defeat the same anti-African forces.[i]

But, international geopolitics aside, the nature of black support for communist leaders and ideas in the U.S. at this time—however rigid the party line may have been within some left-led unions—is consistent with that of organized workers in general, a support based solidly on a home-grown embrace of class politics and grassroots democracy that had emerged during decades of worker-employer confrontations. Also, for many blacks, this support was won by an active and explicit commitment to civil rights on the part of many communists, such as those in the leadership of MCS,[ii] whose dedication to the rank and file in this regard appears to have motivated them more than their loyalty to the party.

While the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact (when the CP opposed the U.S. war effort) certainly provoked a great deal of doubt and critique of the Party (along with many outright desertions), class analysis and communist internationalism—which found an expression among U.S. workers as anti-racism—continued to be a major force in the U.S. labor movement during the World War Two era. Few unions expressed these ideals as clearly and consistently as did the Marine Cooks and Stewards, who brought together a maritime tradition of rank-and-file participation and initiative, an unsurpassed dedication to racial equality, and the discipline and ideological commitment of the Communist Party.


“If the Negro’s struggle for liberation is crushed under the hammer blows of American racists, the whole labor movement will go down with it.”

- Paul Robeson, reporting on the 1951 MCS Convention in San Francisco.

The labor movement in the U.S. has a justified reputation for being racist and the foundation of the MCS in 1901—as an exclusively white and anti-Chinese union—is no exception to that bleak tendency. But within this movement there have been several watershed moments in which openings were made and interracial solidarity was embraced as both strategic and just. The MCS played a large part in one of these moments: the Pacific Maritime and San Francisco General Strike of 1934. As the labor journalist Fred Bellson related in 1939, 500 black workers who the shipping companies were attempting to recruit as scabs instead joined the picket lines. Later, “as a reward for their help in winning the strike, they were...taken en masse into the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union.”[iii] Of course, given the common employer practice of exploiting racial divisions to break strikes, one has good reason to doubt Bellson’s depiction of this mass recruitment as a “reward,” or of the initiative of these black workers as “help” for white unionists.[iv]

It is true that cooks and stewards jobs were among the least lucrative in the maritime trades, and, not accidentally, were often delegated to blacks.[v] Bellson’s tone is far from paternal in his description of the conditions faced by black seamen in the pre-strike period, including 16- hour workdays, penalization for the slightest offenses, forced kickbacks to officials, and various forms of harassment and wage pinching. The black journalist and one time seaman Thomas Fleming writes that “[w]e were something like butlers or maids” for whom “[t]here was no such thing as overtime pay,” and recalls that before the strike, the majority of black maritime workers who were organized at all were in a company union.[vi] And Stan Weir, a worker-scholar who spent many years on ships, states bluntly about black and Asian seamen: “they are the cooks, bakers, waiters, and janitors for the rest of us, the lowest paid and the takers of the most crap.”[vii] Weir goes on to say that “in ’34, they were some of the hardest fighters we had.”

It was clear to the more radical union officials and rank-and-file alike that such a two-tiered system was damaging to union goals and that interracial solidarity would be necessary to win the strike and protect its gains. Although such an awareness cannot be limited to communists (whether members of the CP or not), it seems clear that the presence of communists among union members and officials played a large role in this initiative.[viii] Harry Bridges, the well-known leader of the longshore workers (who later admitted to sympathizing with communists but not to joining the party), is reported to have gone to black churches on both sides of San Francisco Bay, where “he begged the congregation to join the strikers on the picket line, and promised that when the strike ended, blacks would work on every dock on the West Coast.”[ix] Although it is not clear whether MCS officials made any similar outreach during the strike, the stewards union was closely associated with longshoremen from this point on—as maritime workers, as militants, and as communists.

Soon after the successful strike the MCS constitution was rewritten to demand that “race is no longer pitted against race in the struggle for jobs” and to affirm the “equality of opportunity for work and education and for the essential values of life to all people, regardless of race, nationality, religion or political opinion.”[x] MCS insistence on black and white “checkerboard crews” and vigilance over fair hiring practices and work conditions became known up and down the coast. Black representation among union officials was also advanced. MCS held firm against punitive actions by ship-owners, intending to “demoralize racial unity,” who opposed integrated crews or refused to hire black workers at all. It is no coincidence that by the time of the 1936 strike to protect union hiring halls black workers actively enlisted the help of the entire black community.[xi] This kind of solidarity would prove valuable during the turbulent years of World War Two, and even more valuable during the backlash against labor in the war’s aftermath.


The World War Two years were not ones of peace between U.S. labor and business. They were, in fact, among the most militant years in the history of U.S. labor. As Jeremy Brecher recounts, “during the forty-four months from Pearl Harbor to VJ day, there were 14,471 strikes involving 6,774,000 strikers—more than during any period of comparable length in US history.”[xii] The last full year of the war, 1944, saw more strikes than any previous year in U.S. history.[xiii] What is especially remarkable about these actions is that they took place in spite of a “no-strike pledge” that was agreed upon by labor unions—including MCS and almost every other left-led union—and government soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Effectively skirting the constraints of this pledge, most of these wartime strikes were “quickie” or “wildcat” strikes (averaging under six days apiece), conducted by rank-and-file workers independent of and sometimes even against the official union leadership.[xiv]

With many industries gaining record profits amidst the urgency of wartime production, and with unemployment near zero, workers saw a unique opportunity to make demands. For many, the much-touted honor of supporting the war effort was not quite enough to compensate for the imposed speed-ups in industry and frozen wage levels resulting from federal “wage stabilization.”[xv] With the no-strike pledge proving insufficient against wildcats—and perhaps even promoting such activity by grossly depleting legitimate union arsenals—federal efforts to pacify and gain loyalty from unions intensified during the war years. The principal method at this time was the inclusion of “maintenance of membership” provisions in labor contracts, designed to counteract the declining appeal of dues-paying union membership at a time when workers were asked to work harder even while unions’ most effective weapon, the strike, was officially suppressed. In support of a tendency toward union bureaucratization seen as more amenable and less threatening by the federal government—“making the unions dependent on the government instead of on their members”[xvi]— these provisions made it illegal for a worker to quit during the duration of the contract.

The end of the war did not mean an end to strikes. In fact, it precipitated a wave of strikes—both official and wildcat—as workers attempted to compensate for wartime losses in real wages and unions attempted to re-establish rank-and-file support. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics called the first six months of 1946 “the most concentrated period of labor-management strife in the country’s history.” That year saw major strikes in almost every industry and in many non-industrial sectors, including the single largest strike in U.S. history (750,000 steelworkers) and general strikes that shut down the cities of Rochester, Lancaster, Stamford and Oakland. By the year’s end, 4.6 million workers had been involved in strikes.[xvii]

The degree of rank-and-file solidarity demonstrated by this strike wave contrasts sharply with the more disassociated and individualistic responses of most union leaders, who generally made settlements without considering continuing strikes by other unions.[xviii] This distinction is key to understanding the later persecutions of unions like MCS, who, once the war was over, did not hesitate to wield the strike weapon (as shown in their 1946 pamphlet “The Strike as a Weapon of Labor”) and generally put great value in rank-and-file activity. As business analyst Peter F. Drucker pointed out at the time, “it was on the whole not the leadership which forced the workers into a strike but worker pressure that forced a strike upon the reluctant leadership.” Drucker went on to claim that “most of the leaders knew very well that they could have gained as much by negotiations as they finally gained by striking. And again and again the rank and file of the union membership refused to go back to work.”[xix] Whether or not it is true that negotiations would have proven as effective as strikes, it is certain that strikes demonstrate worker’s power in a way that negotiations cannot. Such demonstrations of rank-and-file strength and unity are strategic in themselves, and illustrate a demand for participation in (or even control of) workplace decisions that ran steadily in the tradition of MCS and the CIO’s other left-led unions.


As strikes persisted in the post-war years, often accompanied by local public support,[xx] it became clear to business leaders that more had to be done to reign in a considerable threat to corporate profits. Although President Truman, citing a “rebellion against the government,”[xxi] did not hesitate to employ federal troops to seize refineries, railroads and mines in order to break up strikes, such measures could obviously not be routinely used. As unions could clearly not be eliminated, the corporate-government goal became one of enlisting unions themselves to discipline the labor force. This new attitude was expressed by Henry Ford II at the January 1946 conference of the Society of Automotive Engineers in Detroit: “We of the Ford Motor Company have no desire to ‘break the unions’, or to turn back the clock... [Instead] we must look to an improved and increasingly responsible leadership for help in solving the human equation in mass production...Industrial relations [should be conducted with] the same technical skill and determination that the engineer brings to mechanical problems.”[xxii] In line with this approach toward the cultivation of “responsible” union leadership, the next measure taken to reign in worker revolt would prove to be the most effective in accelerating the bureaucratization of unions that took away most of their punch: the Taft-Hartley Act.

The Taft-Hartley bill was largely written by business representatives. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), representing 16,500 corporations controlling billions of dollars in assets, boasted that it had spent millions of dollars to get it passed by Congress.[xxiii] In short, the goal of the bill was to restrain mass strikes, ensure management control over production, and to prevent rivalries within unions from leading to excessive demands on management.[xxiv] As George Lipsitz puts it, business realized that “labor peace could be won only by restraining the rank and file and by strengthening the institutional power of trade unions. The Taft-Hartley law attempted to achieve both of those objectives.”[xxv]

Claiming an interest in redressing “imbalances” in the bargaining positions of labor and management, and in protecting workers themselves from the risky ventures of demagogic and irresponsible labor leaders, the bill came down squarely on the side of management, with provisions that effectively outlawed closed shops, sympathy strikes and exclusively union-run hiring halls (one of the biggest gains of 1934). It mandated the publication of union financial statements, giving employers the ability to gauge the probability and potential duration of strikes by glancing at the amounts available for a strike fund. It placed strict limits on the right to strike at all and allowed companies to sue unions engaged in unauthorized (wildcat) strikes—now considered an “unfair labor practice”—as compensation for lost production. Importantly, it denied National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) protections to supervisors or foremen attempting to unionize, thus driving a wedge between rank-and-file workers and generally sympathetic colleagues in lower management positions.[xxvi] One senator, in testimony on behalf of the bill, noted a “growing solidarity and discipline in unions,” and opposed supervisory unions on the grounds that they would “divide the loyalties of management at the critical point where it is in direct contact with day-to-day production.”[xxvii]

Other provisions of the law prohibited unions from endorsing candidates for public office, imposed mandatory “cooling off” periods (which take away the power of spontaneity of a well-timed strike and give owners time to regroup, find scabs, etc.), banned “jurisdictional” strikes, such as ones conducted in order to protect a union from “raiding” (stealing of membership) by another union, forbade mass picketing (a major means of gaining support from the public and other unions), and granted federal injunctions versus strikes threatening “national paralysis.”


When the Taft-Hartley bill became law in 1947 MCS reaffirmed the resistance to it that they had shown ever since the bill was introduced. Calling Taft-Hartley a “slave act” and “the first step toward an American putsch against the unions,” the editors of the MCS Voice attempted to rally MCS members—and all workers—to resist the provisions of the bill and mobilize for its repeal. Referring to the 1934 general strike in San Francisco—one of the major battles of the 1930s that led to the original winning of union hiring halls—the editors proclaimed: “not since 1934 when maritime workers were shot down in defense of their rights has there been such a determination to fight.”[xxviii] In an article before the bill passed, one union leader who’d been through those struggles warns: “some of you good stewards will go aboard, and if you don’t part your hair just right, they will take you off, and there will be nothing you can do about it.” If the Taft-Hartley bill passed, he warns, “friends of the ship-owners” will get the jobs and when you are fired “the ship-owners put you on their blacklist.”[xxix] After the bill passed, Henry Matzoll, another senior MCS member, recalled the “fink halls”: “I remember the old days before the hiring hall...when if you weren’t a company stooge you had to buy your job from the crimps. Under the Taft-Hartley law they will try to bring those days back again.”[xxx]

The important overall effect of most of the law’s provisions was to enforce industrial peace by strengthening union bureaucracies—and their ties to government—at the expense of rank-and-file initiative. But some union leadership, such as that of MCS, the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), and other left-led CIO unions, because of their political leanings, were not expected to play ball. Even before the passage of Taft-Hartley, MCS leaders were questioning the legitimacy of the NLRB—the most prominent institutional link between labor and government—as a fair arbiter of labor-management conflicts, pointing to various cases of NLRB foot-dragging in resolving grievances with employers.[xxxi] As George Lipsitz summarizes this problem for the business-government partnership, “centralizing power in the hands of union leaders could backfire if the wrong people led unions.”[xxxii] In order to weaken unions whose class-conscious leadership was not apt to collaborate with business, it was necessary to employ more invidious devices.


Perhaps the most infamous section of the Taft-Hartley Act was section 9(h), which required union officers to sign affidavits swearing that they were not members nor had any affiliations with the Communist Party. Union leaders who refused to sign the oath would thereby annul NLRB representation for their union, making it powerless in conflicts with employers. Taft-Hartley appeared at a time in which anticommunist hysteria was becoming established as the government’s primary psychological tool in pushing through its emerging Cold War policies. With some corporate leaders—ecstatic about wartime profits and fearful of a post-war slump—calling for a “permanent war economy,” and the Soviet Union making a strong industrial comeback, the Truman administration—despite a war-weary public inclined toward demobilization—decided to keep the United States at “code red” by presenting the Soviet Union as “not just a rival but an immediate threat.”[xxxiii] When in early 1947 Great Britain asked for U.S. support in putting down a left-wing guerilla movement in Greece—though this movement was receiving no Soviet aid—the administration seized the chance. The Truman Doctrine, with its commitment to help “free peoples...resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures,” and its request for $400 million in military and economic aid for the right-wing government in Greece (some also went to Turkey), laid out what was to become standard Cold War practice. When Senator Arthur Vandenberg told President Truman that it would be necessary to “scare the hell out of the American people” in order to convince them of the necessity of his doctrine, this advice was taken very seriously.[xxxiv]

One direct outcome of this new stance was Taft-Hartley’s section 9(h). When the bill was introduced, President Truman—who had already mandated the Federal Employees Loyalty Program and “had proposed more drastic anti-union measures himself,” bowed to public pressure (especially that of labor leaders, with whom he sought to keep his dwindling standing) and actually vetoed the bill, saying that the noncommunist oath would “cause strikes and disruptions...which is exactly what the Communists desire.”[xxxv] His veto was overridden.

As with the law’s other provisions, MCS opposition to the noncommunist affidavits was vocal and sustained. In one article, MCS Voice editors even compared the new law to the early Nazi regime, which had also aimed at communism and attacked trade unions for their strikes that affected “the public.”[xxxvi] But what made the affidavits particularly threatening to MCS leadership was the fact that there were Communists among them, even if that did not mean, as a redbaited CIO was soon to accuse, that their union was “dominated” by the Communist Party. MCS President Hugh Bryson was known to express sympathy with communist ideas, but perhaps more importantly was known as a leader who put a high value on worker unity and strikes. During the fight against Taft-Hartley he signed the oath anyway (and was later convicted of perjury for doing so)[xxxvii], all the while seeking solidarity within the increasingly strained CIO. When he wrote in MCS Voice that “workers can’t rely on the NLRB under the new law...[t]hey will have to strike to get union recognition,”[xxxviii] this militancy was taken seriously by business and government advocates for “labor peace.” As the Cold War saw its first flash points and anticommunist ideology became entrenched, the political split deepened within the CIO and the stage was set for organized labor’s own show trials: the CIO Hearings against its left-led unions. With these hearings, business and government managed to put another coat of red on their fear of rank-and-file revolt.

CIO HEARINGS: “Communist domination” or Democracy on Trial?

The CIO hearings to expel MCS and its other left-led unions are important because they showcase the complex relationship between communism as doctrine and communism as a “fellow traveler” with native working class radicalism. And to better understand this relationship, and the contradictions of redbaiting, it is crucial to look at the evolution and development of this radicalism in organized labor, with a particular focus on the idea of union democracy and the tensions of black/white labor alliances. The history of the CIO reveals much in this regard.


When the CIO originally split from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in November 1935, in the midst of major labor upheavals, it did so as a reaffirmation of a commitment to industrial unionism and class solidarity.[xxxix] In contrast to the AFL, who insisted on organizing only along trade or craft lines, the CIO sought to “organize the unorganized”—without regard to race—in mass production industries. Communists, many of whom had proven themselves effective combatants in the open class war of the 20s and 30s, were soon to be common among its ranks. In the years after the repression and demise of the Wobblies (as members of the anarchist-influenced Industrial Workers of the World were called), communists had taken over “as the chief radical element operating within the labor movement” and were “the main carriers of the ideas of militant action and industrial unionism.”[xl] But the radical elements of industrial unionism were not defined solely by communist beliefs. As Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin recount, the “insurgent origins” of independent organizers within this movement were revealed and affirmed by a commitment to organizing “from the bottom-up by an independent rank-and-file cadre,” without whom “the CIO could well have been stillborn.”[xli] And although the CIO record in living up to its official commitment to racial equality is mixed, even the contingent support of black workers—with urgent hopes for employment and advance, communism or no communism—did much to keep the CIO unions effectual.[xlii]

But communism is of course inseparable from a commitment to working-class organizing, and rank-and-file appreciation of this commitment on the part of communist organizers—even during the height of the Red Scare—was durable. Discussing how communists maintained their positions in unions in the early 1950s, Lipsitz states: “In truth, [workers’] loyalty to union leaders or activists associated with past struggles constituted an endorsement of previous militancy and affirmation of that militancy as part of working-class identity. Coupled with an enduring faith in direct action, rank-and-file defense of Communist leaders represented a clear ideology, although it did not involve a choice between abstractions of capitalism or communism.... Even in the face of concentrated repression, workers chose to advance their class interests.”[xliii]

MCS member Morris Pinsky perhaps best expressed this agency when he was asked during the expulsion hearings whether there were communists in the MCS. After responding that the union contained “every kind of a political belief that you can think of”, and that such identifications were a worker’s “own personal business,” he was asked by the investigating committee if there were any fascists in the union. He answered “yes” and then was asked whether that was allowed by the MCS constitution:

“The Fascist is such a minority that he has no following.”

“Do the Communists have a base?”

“I imagine so. I have heard Communists talk, you know. Yes, the membership listens to them.

“I see. The membership listens to them, and at various times carries out—

“Oh, sometimes, you know. You know, a worker is a peculiar person...He makes up his own mind. You can’t make up his mind for him.

“That’s all I have of this witness.”[xliv]



Because of its importance in appealing to unorganized workers—who perhaps above all are seeking a way to control their own lives—and its importance within the class-conscious recognition of the worker as an active and potentially powerful agent in changing the social relations of labor, democracy in left-wing labor unions can be understood as an organic consequence. Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin call it “the product of both insurgency and radicalism in the working class.”[xlv] In their study of CIO unions, they find a stronger commitment to union democracy among communist-led unions (including MCS) than among noncommunist and anticommunist unions.[xlvi] Although there are certainly important exceptions, and without denying that party-line leaders could definitely display authoritarian tendencies, Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin locate a distinct democratic tradition within those very unions who were attacked and expelled by the CIO for being “dominated” by an outside organization.

It is important to note here that actual domination by Communists—including overt policies against rank and file initiative—was far from unknown. Anticommunism, particularly useful in putting labor leaders sympathetic to corporate goals in power—especially in the automobile, electric and maritime trades, where Communists initially held a significant proportion of leadership positions—was not a potent tool against labor when Communist interests coincided with those of “patriotic” Americans.[xlvii] During most of World War II, communist-led unions—including MCS—vigorously enforced the no-strike pledge, and the Communist Party itself, obsessed with winning the war against Hitler after Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, was the only group within the labor movement in favor of a National Service Act to draft workers. Party factions within unions also pledged aid to the Coast Guard in “weeding out undesirable elements” among maritime workers, an offer taken up by the Coast Guard when an actual “screening” program began. The CP also helped finger unemployed maritime workers for the draft boards. Noting the many zealous compromises with business by “Communist dominated” unions, a Businessweek article (March 18, 1944) observed that such unions had “moved to the extreme right wing position in the American labor movement.”[xlviii] In such a situation, perhaps it is obvious that not all “anticommunists” within labor were coming from the right.[xlix] As Henry Spira has documented, for leftists attempting to defend union democracy against Stalinists, “fighting to smash the party machine was fighting to defend the membership’s right to control its own union.”[l]

The struggle between noncommunist union radicals and party-line leaders is in itself an important chapter of labor history, not only because it illustrates organizational tensions and the problems of hierarchy within unions, but also because it points to the larger historical problems concerning class formation, vanguardism and party politics that have emerged with the communist-guided revolutions of the twentieth century. It does not come much into play in the history of the highly democratic Marine Cooks and Stewards. But the reality of this power struggle is important to recognize because—as the CIO hearings illustrate—it gave ammunition to those who used anticommunism to bring unions down.


The MCS, however, would not go down easily. Countering CIO accusations of being dominated by Communists, MCS “defendants” and rank-and-file witnesses make repeated reference to the level of democracy in their union, both embedded in their constitution and shown in their day to day practice. Secretary-Treasurer Eddie Tangen, who calls MCS “the most democratic union in America,” goes on to describe the ways in which democracy and participation are maintained in the union. Among other examples, he cites the direct election of committee chairman by the membership, member-run arbitration committees, easy recall votes (only one hundred signatures were required to remove the president), and rank-and-file oversight of auditing committees.[li] MCS rank-and-file members affirm this, with one senior member calling MCS “the most democratic union I have ever met up with.”[lii] In terms of participation, MCS leaders state proudly how Bryson and Tangen had recently been reelected by a four to one majority, with ninety-nine per cent of members casting votes.[liii] And several statements to the committee point out the hypocrisy of CIO officials who would criticize the more integrated MCS leadership for being antidemocratic while failing to scrutinize the “lily white” composition of the officials of other CIO unions.[liv]

The consistent backing of MCS leadership by their rank-and-file members seems also to be a result of the real gains in wages and benefits won by the union during these years. Whether or not an officer was communist, in this regard, mattered little. The MCS Voice, naturally, often contained articles celebrating the high levels of wages and benefits enjoyed by MCS members—but these claims are consistently backed up by statistics comparing favorably the conditions and wages of MCS with those of other maritime unions. This point of pride also comes up in the hearings, and must largely account for the strong loyalty to their leaders—communist or not—that seems to characterize MCS membership. As Don Watson, an MCS member in the early 1950s, stated, “I thought communists were good trade unionists and I felt like I’d like to be working along with them.”[lv] As Jane Record states, “the mere fact that [union members’] officers had been adjudged party-line followers was not, for them, a sufficiently compelling reason to overturn the leaders, especially if the latter were ‘delivering’ for them in other respects.”[lvi] As the next section shows, this sentiment was particularly resonant with black workers, when part of what unions were “delivering” was an active stance against Jim Crow.


At this time of the ’34 strike, one of the most significant newspapers of the black community in the Bay Area was the San Francisco Spokesman, a weekly founded and edited by the black communist John Pittman in 1931. The newspaper vigorously supported the strike, during which its editors lent their printing presses to the Communist Party newspaper, The Western Worker, resulting in their destruction by vigilantes.[lvii] The Spokesman went under in 1935, but black community support for its workers and for MCS, their most representative union in San Francisco, continued in the decades that followed. In 1943 another prominent black weekly was founded, the Sun-Reporter, whose writers and editors expressed this support consistently. Although not a communist newspaper, the Sun-Reporter attacked redbaiting and the pernicious alliance between anticommunism and white racism that showed itself to workers everywhere from the deep South to the San Francisco waterfront. The newspaper’s editors saw MCS practices as a model for the kind of participation and “democracy in action” that black people were seeking in the larger society, and celebrated MCS members who knew that “to achieve equal rights in their union alone is not enough, and for that reason...are constantly active on community and national issues.”[lviii]

The Sun-Reporter took a strong stand against both the federal waterfront screening for “subversives” (initiated by President Truman’s Federal Loyalty Program and codified by the Mangnuson Act in 1950) that fatally weakened MCS after its expulsion from the CIO in 1950 and the raids on MCS membership by anticommunist unions soon after. One screened black seaman told the paper: “Screening is an attempt to drive Negroes from the waterfront and to undermine the unions that have fought for racial equality. I have found that Negroes with key jobs have been the first to be screened.”[lix] One member of MCS gave this account: “In the ‘screening’ process, as in the federal governments ‘loyalty’ board hearings for government employees, any activity against Jim Crow was proof of a suspected person’s disloyalty. Black workers were asked: ‘Have you ever had dinner with a mixed group? Have you ever danced with a white girl?’ White workers were asked whether they had ever entertained blacks in their homes. Witnesses were asked: ‘Have you had any conversations that would lead you to believe [the accused] is rather advanced in his thinking on racial matters?’”[lx] Don Watson, a communist seaman[lxi] and civil rights activist who was screened off ship in 1950 and soon became secretary of the Committee Against Waterfront Screening,[lxii] concurs, stating that “the most active” members would be screened and calling the whole process “an attack on the union itself.”[lxiii]

The close relationship of anticommunism and opposition to racial equality was also exposed by the Voice and the Sun-Reporter in another of its expressions: membership raids on the MCS and ILWU by anticommunist unions. Sun-Reporter articles during these raids indicate that black ambivalence about communism and CP influence was less important than defending these largely black organizations. These sentiments offer an interesting complement to the literature on the struggle of the CP to maintain its influence in labor unions after the war.[lxiv] It has been suggested that this effort in general depended largely on the degree to which black workers stood by the communist leadership in these unions.[lxv] This suggestion certainly holds true for the (however brief) post-war survival of the MCS, a fact that even a staunch anticommunist like Max Kampelman—who generally attributes CP success in U.S. trade unions to strong-arm tactics and deception—must grudgingly admit. [lxvi]

Whether or not the Communist Party represented a real vanguard for civil rights, as some contend,[lxvii] or merely used the presence of blacks in their unions to “cover” their conservatism (especially during the war and the no-strike pledge) in other disputes with owners, as others claim,[lxviii] a study of the local black press leaves little doubt that black seamen and their community at large viewed MCS, communists and all, as a fair and effective advocate of their material interests.[lxix] Their support for the MCS during the 1951 membership raids by a trio of anticommunist unions[lxx] is well expressed by a Sun-Reporter editorial entitled “Now Is the Time to Stand Firm.” Decrying the Jim Crow policies and corrupt practices of the raiding unions “long before it became fashionable to save America from Communism,” the editors state that “minority people have fared better in the ILWU under Bridges, and in the MC&S under Bryson, than they have in any other labor union in the United States.” From the “commonsense point of view” of the editors, “the issue on the waterfront is not necessarily one of Communist infiltration as much as it is a movement of labor power politics. The issue which means most to the waterfront workers is one of ‘pork chops.’”[lxxi]

But while the record of the MCS on these “pork chop” issues compares favorably with that of other maritime unions—as statistics on wages and working conditions in the union newspaper never fail to point out—it would be a mistake to assume that only material interests were considered in the black community’s support of MCS and its communists. As one black MCS worker in San Francisco stated: “Sure, the union leaders follow the party line. But I let white folks worry about Communism. Bryson has given us colored guys a fair shake. Why should we want to swap over to an outfit where we’ll be associating with unions that don’t even let Negroes belong?”[lxxii] Black workers did not forget that the “MCS was one of the very few organizations that accepted them fully when they migrated to the West Coast during the war.”[lxxiii] In addition to the sense of justice fostered by the MCS emphasis on civil rights and participation, the union played a significant role in the successful resettlements of the black diaspora from the U.S. South—in the very creation of cohesive black communities on the West Coast—not only through employment but also through the development of friendships and solidarity. This dramatic testimony from a black MCS member in Seattle who had migrated from the South sums up a lot:

“The union is my father and my mother and I am the son who will give my life for it. The union has put bread in the mouths of my children. It has given me a home, it has straightened my back so I don’t bend to any man. It took me by the hand and said ‘Learn to read,” and I learned to read. Big words, words they never had in those chicken coop schools. In the union I learned a trade. What would I be down in that country—an ignorant cotton picker? Wherever the union sees wrong, it points it out. It stands up and says, ‘That’s wrong. Do right. Do like we do. Treat your brother right.’ I been in MC and S a long time, I lost my prejudices. I had them. But I met real brothers here. I met big men who mean what they say. If my brothers sleeps in the foc’sles, I sleep with them. My white brothers, my black brothers, my brown brothers, all of them. We the children of the union, we all together.”[lxxiv]


Whatever “labor power politics” may have been pursued by anticommunists and party-liners alike, a study of the labor and local black press, the transcripts of the CIO expulsion hearings, as well as a survey of the secondary literature regarding maritime and other left-led unions of the time, reveals that the highly diverse MCS rank and file maintained an independent and progressive disposition that served both their moral and material interests. Without denying the ideological rigidity, opportunism, and deception of both Communist Party members and their opponents in American trade unions, the discipline, democracy and interracial solidarity seen in the MCS is a reminder of the best historical currents of the U.S. working class.

These qualities were not enough to resist the forces of anti-communism and corporate-government collaboration that followed World War Two. When the MCS, along with ten other left-led unions, were expelled from a red-baited and increasingly collaborative CIO, it marked not only a recognition of the real danger of communist ideas to the profits of U.S. businesses, but also a recognition that a significant group of independent-minded workers, informed and inspired by decades of grassroots labor militancy, could not be integrated into the growing corporate-government-union consensus that has dominated U.S. labor relations since then.


[i] Kelley 1994

[ii] Among many other testimonials from within MCS itself, the black Alabaman civil rights leader John L. LeFlore (1903-1976) called MCS president Hugh Bryson “a two-fisted fighter for equal justice for everybody” [Le Flore 1970] LeFlore had contacted Bryson regarding a “hate strike” vs. a black MCS seaman in Alabama in 1946.

[iii] Bellson, 1939

[iv] In addition to the long-range strategic concerns of gainful employment, one must also imagine that the sharpened class antagonism of the moment carried its own motivations, as Thomas Fleming, a freelance black journalist at the time, relates: “I heard there was a truck picking up people who wanted to be scabs. It would arrive one night at 35th Street and San Pablo Avenue in Oakland. So I came down there with a couple of students I knew real well. I felt a little bad about it, but I needed the money. When you've been out of work a long time, you'll take anything where you aren't breaking any laws. A truck came up there all right, but it was the wrong truck. It was loaded with striking workers, and they had baseball bats, which they started swinging. We jumped off that damn truck and took off running. I didn't try any more after that. I saw it was wrong then. (Fleming, Part 65)

[v] But these positions were also often held by Asians and homosexuals, as reflected in the high percentages of both of these groups among the MCS membership. Fleming recounts that two shipping lines, Matson and Dollar, did not hire black stewards at all before 1934; instead their stewards were mostly Asian. These histories of course deserve more attention. (Fleming, Part 34)

[vi] The Colored Marine Benevolent Association, controlled by the Pacific Steamship Company (later Dollar Lines). (Fleming, Part 31)

[vii] Weir, 2004. p117

[viii] Nelson 1988, p259

[ix] Fleming, Part 65

[x] Foner 1974, p225

[xi] Bellson, 1939

[xii] Brecher, 1997. p243

[xiii] Remarkably, these strikes occurred while the Smith-Connally War Labor Disputes Act (1943) was in force, allowing government take-overs of strike-bound plants and making it illegal to even advocate striking. Brecher, 1997. p240

[xiv] Brecher, 240

[xv] Brecher 238

[xvi] Brecher 239

[xvii] Brecher 246

[xviii] Brecher 247

[xix] Brecher 247

[xx] Brecher 158

[xxi] Brecher 247

[xxii] Davis, 1986. p102

[xxiii] Ginger, 1987. p243

[xxiv] Lipsitz, 1994. p157

[xxv] Lipsitz, p172

[xxvi] Supervisors at this time were not immune to the appeals for labor activism, perhaps spurred on by their unique and difficult position in “bear[ing] the brunt of rank-and-file discontent with work, while serving as the focal point for management anger over inadequate production.” Lipsitz, p173, 174.

[xxvii] Lipsitz 174

[xxviii] MCS 1947c. Nick Bordoise, one of two maritime workers killed on Bloody Thursday in San Francisco, was an MCS member.

[xxix] MCS 1947b

[xxx] MCS 1947f

[xxxi] MCS 1947a

[xxxii] Lipsitz 178

[xxxiii] Zinn, 1980. p417

[xxxiv] Lipsitz, 201 n8

[xxxv] Ginger, 258

[xxxvi] MCS 1947e

[xxxvii] Bryson was sentenced to five years in prison with a ten thousand dollar fine (though the case was appealed and he ended up doing less time).

[xxxviii] MCS 1947d

[xxxix] Stepan-Norris p2

[xl] Stepan-Norris p33

[xli] Stepan-Norris p72

[xlii] Foner 1974, p232-237

[xliii] Lipsitz, p200-201

[xliv] CIO, p714-715

[xlv] Stepan-Norris, p94

[xlvi] Stepan-Norris, p87

[xlvii] Lipsitz, p178

[xlviii] Spira in Hall, p251

[xlix] Stepan-Norris, p4-7

[l] Spira in Hall, p251. In an interesting episode that deserves more study, one-time communist Joseph Curran, head of the National Maritime Union (NMU), became “anticommunist” in the name of wresting control of his union from Communist Party control. But, instead of rejecting authoritarianism, he actively maintained it for the sake of organizational expansion and a new-found anticommunist crusade. His new “anticommunist” NMU was one of the principal “raiders” of MCS membership after their expulsion from the CIO. See chapters by Henry Spira, James Morrissey, and James R. Prickett in Hall (1972).

[li] CIO, p692-697

[lii] CIO, p708

[liii] CIO, p697. MCS 1950.

[liv] CIO, p693

[lv] Watson 1994, p25

[lvi] Record, p91

[lvii] NYU

[lviii] Sun-Reporter 1951a,b

[lix] MCS 1951a

[lx] MCS 1951b

[lxi] Watson left the party in 1956, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary

[lxii] Watson 2004

[lxiii] Watson 1994, p33

[lxiv] As in Levenstein and Stepan-Norris.

[lxv] Rosen p176

[lxvi] Kampelman, p214. Overall, Kampelman’s contention that the traditions of the U.S. labor movement are hostile to Communism would seem to hold true only to the extent that Kampelman does not distinguish communist ideas from Communist Parties, with all of the elitism and hierarchy that went along with them. His study is also compromised by a focus on union leadership and a lack of consideration of the agency of the rank and file.

[lxvii] Nelson p259

[lxviii] Weir 1975 p175

[lxix] As suggested by note 66 above, it is important to recognize that the practices of CP local chapters could vary widely with regard to civil rights (or “the Negro Question”) during this period, and the overall CP stance on this issue has been frequently called into question. See Griffler for the 1918-1938 period.

[lxx] These unions were: Dave Beck’s Teamsters Union, Harry Lundberg’s Sailor’s Union of the Pacific, and Joe Ryan’s AFL Longshoreman’s Union.

[lxxi] Sun-Reporter 1951c

[lxxii] Record p92

[lxxiii] Nelson p259

[lxxiv] Foner 1974 p287



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