Tag Archives: Taft Hartley

Against the cold wind: The 1948 cafeteria workers strike

2 Jan

By Craig Simpson


1,400 members of a predominantly African American union in Jim Crow Washington, D.C. take on both a company intent on union busting and the Taft Hartley Act in a 78-day strike in the frigid winter of 1948 that included battles on the picket line, between the AFL and the CIO, and between President Harry Truman and Congress.


Cold winds blow on DC cafeteria workers: 1948

A mass picket outside the Federal Works Administration during the 1948 cafeteria strike.

Two cold winds swept into Washington, DC in the winter of 1947-48: a brutally cold season and the onset of the Cold War. For the cafeteria workers in government buildings in the District of Columbia neither development was welcome.

The contract between United Cafeteria and Restaurant Workers Local 471, the largest of one of the few predominantly African American unions, and Government Services, Inc. (GSI), the dominant private provider of cafeteria services to federal buildings, was set to expire at midnight on December 31, 1947.

The recently enacted anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act required all union officers to sign affidavits that they were not communists if their unions were to utilize provisions of the National Labor Relations Act.

GSI staked out a position that unless the Local 471 officers and those of the parent United Public Workers of America (UPWA), CIO, signed affidavits, they would not recognize the union, enter into negotiations or sign a contract.

Officers of both Local 471 and the UPWA refused to sign the affidavits, saying it was just an excuse for GSI to engage in union-busting and that the absence of such affidavits only returned labor relations to the pre-NLRB days and did not preclude negotiating a contract. Further, the umbrella organization for the local’s UPWA parent union, the CIO, was encouraging non-compliance as a tactic to blunt the Taft-Hartley law.

Taft-Hartley Act

Caravan to Oppose Taft-Hartley Act: 1947

A car caravan in Washington, DC in June 1947 urges a presidential veto of the Taft-Hartley Act.

Within the labor movement, there was still considerable debate over how to address the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act.

President Truman’s veto of the Act was overridden by Congress June 23, 1947. The necessary votes came from a Republican dominated Congress with the help of a large number of defecting Democrats. It was in response to 12 years of gains by labor unions culminating in the strike wave of 1945-46 that resulted in wage gains and increased membership for unions.

It also came after World War II as the United States began confronting the Soviet Union over influence in Europe and elsewhere.

To this end, Truman and others sought to cripple the still considerable influence of the Communist Party in all sections of U.S. society. While Truman vetoed the Act and was overridden by Congress, he had previously implemented a “loyalty” program in the federal government in March, 1947 that effectively barred government employment of communists and others with left-wing beliefs.

The new Taft-Hartley law placed sweeping restrictions on unions, including, but not limited to, the following:

  1. It outlawed secondary strikes, secondary boycotts and sympathy strikes designed to pressure employers. For example, it would be illegal for a union to organize a boycott of advertisers during a newspaper strike.
  2. It permitted employers to wage anti-union campaigns in their workplaces, including holding captive audience meetings. Since union organizers could generally be barred from workplace facilities, this tilted union organizing drives in favor of the companies.
  3. The Act permitted states to enact so-called “Right to Work” laws that allow workers covered by union contracts to opt out of union membership or service fees. This meant that unions had to represent workers who paid nothing into the union, and further meant that unions had to devote resources to recruiting members instead of representing members. Twenty-eight states as of this writing have right-to-work laws.
  4. The law also barred members of the U.S. Communist Party and other left-wing individuals from holding office in labor unions if those unions sought to utilize the National Labor Relations Board.
Pressman confers with CIO’s Phillip Murray: 1938

Lee Pressman (left) confers with CIO president Phillip Murray.

At the time, communists or communist allies led 16 international unions in the CIO—including the UPWA—and they covered over 1 million of the 3.6 million CIO members. Lee Pressman, a communist ally, was the general counsel of the CIO. The communists and their allies also held major and minor offices in many other unions and in state and local labor councils.

There were two umbrella labor federations at that time. The American Federation of Labor (AFL), founded in 1886 with its affiliate unions largely organized along craft lines and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) that began when a handful of unions formed a caucus within  the AFL in 1935 to organize industries across craft lines—all workers would be in a single union in a plant or factory. The AFL subsequently expelled the CIO unions , who went on to form their own labor federation. The two federations were bitter rivals.

There was extensive debate within the labor movement over whether to comply with the non-communist affidavits. At the time of the AFL and CIO conventions in 1947, approximately 80% of the total labor unions in the U.S. had not yet complied.

The 1947 AFL convention

Lewis visits Roosevelt at the White House: 1939

Mine workers chief John L. Lewis is shown outside the White House in 1939.

The issue was taken up by the AFL convention in October, 1947.

One issue facing the two  labor federations was whether the federation leaders had to sign affidavits in order for their affiliate unions to comply with the Act.

The NLRB, by coincidence, ruled on the second day of the convention that the officers of a labor federation did not have to sign the affidavits for their affiliate national unions to be compliant with the Act.

However, the AFL also faced the problem of its 1,390 local trade and federal labor unions that were directly chartered by the AFL in the same manner that any local union is chartered by its national union. This meant the AFL officers would have to sign affidavits if the directly chartered unions were to utilize the National Labor Relations Board.

Unlike the CIO, the AFL had few communists or other left-wing individuals holding major positions and no communist or ally led any national union.

John L. Lewis, the mine workers chief who had headed up the CIO industrial union organizing drives of the 1930s, had returned to the AFL and addressed their convention in August of 1947 and urged the group to refuse to sign the affidavits in order to render the Act meaningless.

“All we needed to do when we met in Chicago [at the AFL executive council meeting], was to do nothing and the act would have been discredited, there would have been no cases filed before the [National Labor Relations] Board, and its only functions would have been functions solely in the interests of the employer thus exposing its true nature as a weapon of class war, and effectively neutralizing it.”

“The signing of the affidavit isn’t the only thing that an organization has to do to conform to this act. This act is a trap, a pitfall for the organizations of labor and I am surprised that those who have been attempting to analyze it haven’t looked down the road just a few months or a year to find out some of the things that are inherent in this act.”

“This act was passed to oppress labor, to make difficult its current enterprises for collective bargaining, to make more difficult the securing of new members for this labor movement, without which our movement will become so possessed of inertia that there is no action and no growth, and in a labor movement where there is no growth there is no security for its existence because deterioration sets in and unions, like men, retrograde.”

Lewis was no left-winger, but understood that the Act restricted workers’ ability to fight the companies and opened up the unions to government intervention in their internal affairs.

George Meany, American Federation of Labor leader: 1940

AFL secretary-treasurer George Meany in 1940.

George Meany, the AFL’s secretary-treasurer, argued that officers of the federation must comply in order to “give federal labor unions the opportunity to qualify by signing the non-communist affidavit and meeting the other requirements of the law if they so desire.”

Meany proposed an AFL constitutional change that would make the executive council members instead “vice presidents” and “honorary” members of the executive council. This was a move that was apparently pre-approved by the NLRB and it would permit the heads of its affiliated national and international unions to make their own decisions. He argued:

The reason for this is that 13 members of the executive council are in a dual capacity in this American Federation of Labor. While they are members of the executive council they are also officers of international unions.

Meany also argued that it was a monetary issue. The AFL received more revenue from the quarter of a million members in the federal unions than was paid in by 75% of the international unions represented at the convention, and that revenue represented approximately half the total revenue of the AFL.

The 1947 AFL convention ignored Lewis’s plea and voted overwhelmingly to comply with the affidavit section. The only unions to vote against Meany’s plan were Lewis’s mineworkers and the typographical union.

President Green and secretary-treasurer George Meany were directed to sign the affidavits. Vice presidents of the federation—the representatives of individual unions—were re-classified as “honorary” and not officers. The decision as to whether individual unions would sign was left to those unions.

Union rushes to turn in anti-communist affidavit: 1947

The AFL’s Office Employees union president Paul S. Hutchings (left) became the first national union to turn in non-communist affidavits September 12, 1947.

Lewis left the AFL shortly afterward and never signed the affidavit. Most other major AFL union leaders quickly signed the affidavits as they sought a tool to drive out their internal opponents—communist or not—and to use in raiding other unions for their members such as the CIO unions that had not signed affidavits.

The AFL Office Employees International Union signed even before the AFL convention. Among the UPWA’s rival AFL unions that signed was the Hotel and Restaurant Union. Competition with the CIO unions had prevailed over opposition to Taft-Hartley.

The 1947 CIO convention

The CIO leadership initially supported a non-cooperation stance with the Taft-Hartley Act at their executive council meeting and refused to sign affidavits. Major unions, including the Steelworkers, International Longshore & Warehouse Union and the United Electrical Workers all refused to sign.

At the October, 1947 CIO convention in Boston, though, a long-simmering battle between the left-wing and the right-wing of the CIO was coming to a head. Murray continued to play the peacemaker and worked to steer the federation along a middle course.

But the dynamics of the CIO began to change in 1946 when anti-communist Walter Reuther narrowly defeated the communist-backed moderate incumbent R. J. Thomas for president of the UAW at their convention. Reuther won by 124 votes out of 8,764 cast.

George Marshall at the 1947 CIO Convention: 1947

George Marshall (center) shakes hands with Phillip Murray at the 1947 CIO convention.

A split also began to widen over the communist opposition to the U.S. Marshall Plan in Europe. Secretary of State George Marshall himself was invited to the CIO convention by Murray and gave a speech—a clear repudiation of the communist-allied unions.

The 1946 elections, where anti-labor Republicans had gained control of both houses of Congress, also frightened both the left and right wings of the CIO. But their solutions were different.

Truman seized the coal mines in 1945 and used a similar tactic against railroad workers to break their strike in 1946. Locally, he ordered the Capital Transit Co. seized by the government to halt a transit strike in 1945.

As a result of these and other anti-labor actions, the communist aligned unions began looking toward a third-party while the right-wing of the CIO began trying to make peace with Truman to blunt Republican control of Congress…and did so when he vetoed the Taft-Hartley Act.

Murray, never a supporter of the Communist Party, had valued the solidarity of the CIO over anti-communism and steered a centrist position. By early 1947, though, he was moving to the right.

At a closed session of the CIO’s executive council in the spring of 1947, Murray launched an attack on communists within the labor movement, saying:

“If Communism is an issue in any of your unions, throw it to hell out and throw its advocates out along with it. When a man accepts office to render service to workers, and then delivers service to outside interests, that man is nothing but a damned traitor.”

The formal resolution at the 1947 CIO convention on the Taft-Hartley Act characterized the law as “infamous…a triumph of repression…a legal monstrosity” and declared that the CIO “cannot and will not acquiesce in a law which makes it a crime to exercise rights of freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly”, and called for an “unceasing campaign” to secure its repeal.

In wording that became important for Local 471, the resolution went on to say that the CIO would not permit the law “to become an instrument for destroying existing contract conditions” and that a contract “is and must remain the workers’ bulwark against insecurity and exploitation.”

Missing from the resolution was any specific direction on whether to file or not file the affidavits—a compromise having been worked out ahead of time.

Instead CIO President Phillip Murray declared that he “had some personal convictions that ran very deep” and that he was “determined to neither file or sign.”

However, Murray also made it clear during his remarks that each CIO union was free to decide the issue for itself.

Petitions urge veto of Taft-Hartley anti-labor act 1947

CIO leaders pose with half a million signatures urging a veto of the Taft Hartley Act in 1947. Truman’s veto was overridden by Congress.

Thus, the October, 1947 CIO convention in Boston temporarily maintained the façade of a united organization, but opened the door for CIO union leaders to sign the affidavits.

Shortly afterward the CIO United Auto Workers directed their national officers to sign the affidavits at their 1947 convention. Walter and Victor Reuther used this resolution to force compliance among the locals and to drive communists out of leadership of some of their largest local unions.

The Communist Party and the left-wing unions

The Communist Party itself seemed unsure how to proceed in regards to the non-communist affidavits, and as a result there was not a unified response among the unions where it exerted influence.

While overall pursuing a policy of non-compliance, some Communist Party members who were union officials resigned their party membership while continuing to meet regularly with Communist Party officials, skirting the law.

Others communist union officials simply changed their Communist Party status from “open” or “closed” to “secret.”

As the effects of the law began to be felt, some left-wing unions mimicked the AFL and re-named the offices that communists or their allies held in an effort to put them outside the definition of “officers.”

Most communist-influenced unions, however,–like the UPWA, United Electrical Workers, Agricultural Workers, Mine, Mill and Smelter–refused to sign.

Jim Crow town

African American parents picket & boycott DC schools: 1947

African American parents stage a picket and boycott of a inferior segregated school in Washington, D.C. in Dec. 1947.

In the late 1940s, the District of Columbia was still a distinctly southern town. Jim Crow laws required segregation of parks and recreation facilities and public schools.

An 1872 law passed by the District that prohibited discrimination in entertainment establishments, restaurants, bars and hotels was ignored. Likewise an 1873 ordinance that required public facilities to be open for “any respectable, well-behaved person without regard to race, color or previous condition of servitude” was also ignored. These were the so-called “lost laws” that had been removed from the city code without being repealed.

Restrictive covenants in a number of areas of the city prohibited the sale of property to African Americans. Where such covenants did not exist, custom often enforced segregation as rigidly as the covenants.

Private sector employment was also largely segregated, with classified ads specifying whether the applicant should be black or white.

Within the U.S. government, in 1913 President Woodrow Wilson reversed the gains that African Americans had made after the Civil War when he re-segregated the federal workforce and introduced separate work areas, eating and bathroom facilities for blacks and whites into the government buildings and firing or demoting a significant number of African American federal employees.

Segregation in government began to break down during the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt. For example, the Interior Department dismantled separate eating and bathroom facilities in the 1930s.

African American postal clerks union meeting: 1932

A meeting of the D.C. African American Local 148 of the National Federation of Post Office Clerks in 1932.

Much of the rest of the overt Jim Crow federal segregation only began to be dismantled on the eve of World War II when Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 in 1941. It barred discrimination in the federal government and in defense-related industries. Roosevelt backed his order with a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) designed to enforce the order.

Unfortunately the District’s most contentious case involved the Capital Transit Company that refused to hire African American operators and conductors for its streetcars and buses while it cut service in the city for lack of white workers.

The FEPC issued an order for the transit company to desegregate, but never enforced the order. The FEPC expired with the end of World War II and supporters were unable to muster the votes in Congress over a southern filibuster to continue it.

The AFL unions in the city still largely barred African Americans or required separate black and white locals. There were long-standing predominantly black unions among sleeping car porters and within the Post Office. However, with the advent of the CIO in 1937, black workers began flocking into its desegregated unions.

D.C. Laundry workers vote union: 1937

D.C. Dry cleaning workers staged a 3 week strike and voted to unionize in 1937.

Predominantly black unions were formed among cafeteria workers and in the dry cleaning plants. Within the federal government, African Americans joined the UPWA at the Bureau of Engraving, Library of Congress and elsewhere.

Within the AFL, the predominantly African American redcaps formed a union in 1933. The longstanding laborers’ and cooks’ unions were strongholds of black progressives. The American Federation of Teachers chapter at Howard University likewise provided a pool of black progressives.

Many of these union leaders and members were active and an integral part the city’s civil rights movement.

The city, like most of the rights movement across the country, awoke to new tactics during the “Scottsboro Boys” campaigns of the 1930s, where communist advocates for African American rights began taking their campaigns out of the churches and into the streets.

From 1938-41, the left-wing National Negro Congress led a campaign against police brutality, marching in the streets and employing other new tactics while the New Negro Alliance led a boycott campaign against businesses in the black community that would not hire African Americans.

The NAACP’s embrace of Marian Anderson’s quest for a venue in Washington, D.C. in 1939 produced what was effectively the largest rally for civil rights in the country.

Protesting Capital Transit’s Jim Crow hiring policies: 1943

2,000 people march calling for hiring African American as D.C. streetcar and bus operators in 1943.

A campaign that united the disparate currents within the black community to desegregate the Capital Transit Company held a march and rally of 2,000 people in 1943.

World War II interrupted many of the campaigns, but after the war rights activists resumed their campaigns. The post-World-War-II world was a different one, however.

Local civil rights activists had worked well together in the late 1930s and early 1940s, despite rivalries at the national level. However, when there was a brutal lynching of four African Americans in Georgia in 1946, the National Negro Congress and the NAACP organized separate marches in Washington.

Likewise the campaigns to continue the FEPC and to eliminate the poll tax were largely organized by two separate wings of the civil rights movement—the left wing around the communists and the moderates around the NAACP.

The Truman administration initially continued Roosevelt’s policy of treating all wings of the movement equally. He personally met with a delegation headed by the left-wing Paul Robeson in the fall of 1946.

Truman at NAACP: 1947

In 1947 Harry Truman becomes the first President to address an NAACP convention.

In 1947 Harry S. Truman became the first president to attend an NAACP convention, held in Washington, D.C., where he announced his support for a law barring discrimination in employment in both the public and the private sector.

By this time Truman had already issued his order barring communists in the government. The U.S. Attorney General developed a list of organizations that were labeled communist, and it included the National Negro Congress.

Truman was also increasingly worried about a possible independent bid for president on a pro-labor, pro civil rights, peaceful co-existence with the Soviet Union platform by popular former vice president Henry Wallace and backed by communists and other left-wingers. Such a campaign, while unlikely to win, would draw votes away from him and aid his likely Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey.

His appearance before the NAACP convention was, in part, intended to further drive a wedge between that organization and the Civil Rights Congress and the National Negro Congress, two groups allied with the Communist Party—and signal which side was acceptable.

Cafeteria workers union

Local 471 had its origins in a predominantly black independent union organized by cafeteria worker Rosa Lewis early in 1937.

The independent Cafeteria Workers Union immediately took a progressive stance and attended the International Labor Defense meeting in June 1937. There it endorsed anti-lynching legislation, called for freedom for the “Scottsboro Boys” and denounced chain gangs.

The union’s 500 members joined with the newly formed CIO affiliated Cafeteria and Restaurant Union in August, 1937 during a meeting at Garnett-Patterson Junior High School.

Belford Vance Lawson: 1936 ca

Belford Lawson is elected the first president of Local 471 in 1937.

The CIO initially paid for three full-time workers: two organizers and a business agent and elected attorney Belford V. Lawson, Jr. as president of the new organization. Lawson was also a founder and one of the driving forces of the New Negro Alliance in the city.

The group then conducted an organizing drive within the federal cafeterias. Local activists Thomas and Marie Richardson, the children of Griffin Richardson who was one of the organizers of the Red Caps union a few years earlier,  assisted in the effort.

The company agreed to a preferential ballot supervised by the NLRB, contending at the time that they were a quasi-government agency and not subject to a formal NLRB election.

The company agreed to honor the results and the Cafeteria and Restaurant union won recognition on May 25-26, 1938 by a vote of 542-119 of Welfare and Recreation Association (later renamed GSI) employees.

At the time of its recognition by GSI, the workers had no sick pay or vacation and the workers earned far less than a living wage.

The local was based in the government cafeterias such as those at Labor, Commerce, New Interior, Old Interior, Justice, Supreme Court, War and Munitions and Farm Credit Buildings, but quickly took up organizing in the private sector and won elections at the Horn Café and the Norfolk Grill.

Cafeteria workers strike Government Printing Office: 1938

The rival AFL Hotel & Restaurant union stages a 17-day strike at the Government Printing Office in 1938.

An established rival, the predominantly white AFL affiliate, the Hotel and Restaurant Union, quickly became more militant with arrival of the CIO, staging a 17-day strike in 1938 at the Government Printing Office, winning increases in pay, holidays and vacation and limiting hours of work.

However, the CIO union came to dominate the unionized cafeterias across the city and by 1944 Oliver Palmer, one of the initial organizers of the union, was serving as business agent of Local 471. Palmer also served on the executive boards of the local National Negro Congress, local Congress of Industrial Organizations and the national board of the UPWA.

In 1946, Richard Bancroft, the African American former national president of the left-wing American Student Union and a graduate of Howard University, became president of the Local 471 after fighting in the Marine Corps in the Pacific during World War II.

Black workers strike for better conditions: 1941

Local 471 also organized private sector cafeterias like the S&W shown during this 1941 strike.

The two activist African American leaders were a powerful duo to head the union, both Palmer and Bancroft having backgrounds in leadership and organizing.

By 1946, the union had grown to 5,000 members covered by 15 different contracts, including cafeteria workers in 54 different government buildings—some of which had multiple cafeterias.

According to a 1946 Afro American newspaper article, Palmer estimated “that since the time the first union contract was signed in 1938 until present, wages of cafeteria employees in the District have risen over 100 per cent or from a $10 weekly average to $22.50 a week.”

1947 dispute with GSI

Strike begins at government cafeterias: 1947

President Richard Bancroft passes out picket signs at the onset of the 1947 cafeteria strike.

GSI took an aggressive posture in bargaining the 1947 contract agreement demanding an end to union dues check-off, offering small wage increases despite rising inflation and seeking to weaken the grievance arbitration clause, among other demands.

The union had priorities of its own such as wage gains, improved vacation, 15 days sick leave per year, a hospitalization plan and arbitration of all suspensions and discharges. The date of retroactivity of contract provisions was also an issue.

A tentative agreement was reached with the union negotiating committee in late December but was rejected by the union membership, primarily because of insufficient wage increases.

The union sought to continue negotiations while working under an extension of the 1946 contract. However, GSI refused to grant an extension.

Work stopped on January 7, 1947 at the 50 GSI facilities by an estimated 2,200 workers who ordinarily fed 128,000 federal government workers. The union termed the work stoppage a lockout while the company labeled it a strike.

GSI sought to open the cafeterias with supervisory staff, but many closed or severely curtailed hours and operations.

Two large government facilities were unaffected by the strike. National Food Corporation instead of GSI operated the Pentagon and Agriculture Department cafeterias.

In the instance of the Pentagon, negotiations were proceeding “satisfactorily” according to the union and the management. At Agriculture there was an agreement ready for signature providing for a 10 ½ cent hourly increase.

The union called a mass meeting at the Shiloh Baptist Church at 9th & P Streets NW, where picket assignments were given and arrangements were made for feeding strikers and providing other assistance.

Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Denounces Transit Hiring: 1942

Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, shown here speaking in D.C. in 1942, headed the 1947 strike support committee.

The union also set up a citizens’ committee meeting to support the strike where at least 12 organizations pledged cash, food and moral support. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D. -N.Y.) was named chairman of the Emergency Committee to Support Cafeteria Workers.

Represented organizations included the Washington chapter of the National Negro Congress, CIO Industrial Union Council, the Washington chapter of the UPWA, National Council of Negro Women, Episcopal Church League for Industrial Democracy, Columbia Typographical Union 101, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the AFL Pastry Cooks and Kitchen Employees Local 209, Washington chapter of the Substitute Printing Union, Southern Conference for Human Welfare, the American Veterans Committee chapters 11 and 341 and the local chapter of the AFL Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union.

Picketing was extended to nearly all government cafeterias while negotiations continued.

After eight days, an agreement to end the work stoppage was reached with the assistance of federal mediators.

The union and the company agreed to submit certain items to arbitration, including: the amount of wage increase, retroactivity of the contract, whether all discharges would be subject to arbitration, check-off for union dues, guaranteed work weeks for full-time employees, wage differentials for part-time workers, sick and annual leave and a hospitalization benefit.

When the arbitrator’s decision was rendered March 13th, the union won nearly all of its demands in the one-year agreement.

A ten-and-a-half cent per hour raise was granted in line with the contract negotiated at the Agriculture Department. Fifteen days of annual sick leave was implemented after five days absence, vacation was improved from 12 to 15 days annually after 18 months of service, arbitration of all discharges and suspensions was continued, continued deduction of union dues, the probationary period was reduced from three months to two months, retroactivity went to the January 14th date both parties had agreed was the maximum prior to agreeing to arbitration.

The only union demands that went the company’s way were a failure to gain a hospitalization plan and improvements in the definition of “full time worker” that would have given a part time differential to a larger group of employees. There were no concessions to the company in the agreement.

While the company made no statement, their initial attempt at weakening the union had failed and instead, the union was greatly strengthened.

Lull before the storm

Following the 1947 strike, the corporation came under the scrutiny of a Senate Civil Service subcommittee on various charges of maladministration, inefficiency, failure to pay the federal government money due, “haywire” purchasing and evasion of priority regulations during World War II.

At the same time, it was revealed that GSI was a member of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). This gave a number of senators pause since the organization was supposed to be non-profit and GSI’s board was composed entirely of government officials except for two who were former government officials. Pro-labor senators were also concerned because NAM was the leading business organization that advocated for the Taft-Hartley Act.

Phillip Fleming, key figure in 1948 cafeteria strike: 1936

Lt. Col. Phillip Fleming, head of the Federal Works Administration.

However, Federal Works Administrator Philip B. Fleming dismissed most of the charges, saying that abandoning GSI operation of federal cafeterias might return thousands of workers to the old days of “bringing cold food from home in paper bags” and buying box lunches from peddlers “up and down the streets.”

After Fleming’s testimony, Congress did not pursue the issue further.

More serious was the failure of 40 GSI cafeterias and food bars to qualify for District of Columbia licenses in May, 1947 due to unsanitary conditions. GSI requested additional funds for cafeteria repairs, but were turned down by the House Appropriations Committee, which held that such repairs should be made out of regular operating funds.

By August, about half of the food service facilities had passed inspection and were set to receive licenses while repairs continued on the others.

Then in October, 1947, it was revealed that GSI was operating its federal food service at a loss. GSI’s comptroller Samuel Goodacre warned that higher wage demands in the upcoming contract with Local 471 would put further stress on the operation and make an already weakened business unsustainable. He called upon the board to raise prices.

But the GSI board repudiated Goodacre and voted not to raise prices and agreed to partially cover the deficit with profits from park concessions. Goodacre resigned shortly afterward. In retrospect, it is clear the GSI board had decided to try to break the union at this point in order to lower labor costs.

A chill sets in

Government agencies had drastically shrunk in the post World War II period. And particularly large reductions were made in the year since the last Local 471 contract.

For the upcoming 1948 contract, there were 50 facilities covered that served about 80,000 meals per day. About 1,600 workers were in the bargaining unit.

Negotiations for a new contract between GSI and Local 471 opened November 28, 1947 and promptly halted. The agreement then in force was set to expire December 31, 1947.

GSI board chair General U. S. Grant III: 1928 ca.

Gen. U. S. Grant III, chair of the board of GSI.

GSI president Maj. Gen. U. S. Grant III demanded that officers of both Local 471 and its parent UPWA both file non-communist affidavits. Grant also demanded that the unions publish financial statements called for under the Taft-Hartley Act.

Grant was the grandson of the Civil War general and former President. He served in the Philippine-American War, World War I and World War II, but his politics were different from his grandfather.

In 1928-29, he served as Inauguration chair for President Herbert Hoover. W. E. B. Dubois believed Hoover saw African Americans as “sub men.” Walter White of the NAACP called Hoover, “the man in the lilly White House.”

In regards to his attitudes toward African Americans, in 1948 while Grant headed the National Capital Planning Commission he called the charges that local institutions were entrenching segregation “false and unjust” despite rampant Jim Crow under the purview of the commission.

Grant would still later resign his chairmanship of a Civil War Centennial commission after he declined to intervene when an African American commission board member was refused admittance to a Jim Crow hotel. Grant’s inaction prompted a NAACP boycott of the centennial events.

The union refused to discuss the demand to sign the non-communist affidavits and stated it would clarify its position on the affidavits later.

A statement released after the negotiating session and approved by Grant said GSI “did not want to be placed in a position where the only recourse open to the union was to call a strike in any controversy.”

This was a smokescreen because the contract between GSI and Local 471 contained a grievance procedure with binding arbitration and strikes were only permitted upon expiration of a contract.

Palmer responded on behalf of the union days later in a letter to Grant charging that it was a “clear violation of the law for an employer to seek to impose upon a bargaining agent conditions or qualifications as a precedent to collective bargaining.”

Palmer continued that the union would not consider filing the non-communist affidavits unless “it becomes necessary” and only after it is considered and approved at a membership meeting.

“Almost too astonishing to merit comment,” was Grant’s response.

Preparing for battle

Both sides began positioning themselves for the coming battle.

The union filed a 30-day strike notice against GSI with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

Meanwhile, the national AFL Hotel and Restaurant Union began canvassing GSI cafeterias with a leaflet that read in part,

“We have signed for the protection of our members the necessary affidavits that our leaders are not Communists.”

“For labor leaders to refuse to comply with the law, such refusal which might lead to a strike, is not leadership.” 

“The entire strength of the Washington Central Labor Union and the American Federation of Labor is yours if you want it.” 

Cafeteria Local 471 leader Oliver Palmer: 1958 ca.

Cafeteria workers union business agent Oliver Palmer.

Palmer charged that the AFL membership drive was “company inspired” and pointed out that fraternal “relationships between local AFL unions and our union has been very good over the course of the years.”

That move by GSI failed when the AFL withdrew its organizing attempts in mid-December.

The union leaders already had support for their position in refusing the affidavits since they had brought the issue to a union membership vote back in July. The members voted overwhelmingly to support their leaders. The position was re-affirmed in December when members again voted to support their leaders.

The next salvo by GSI came on December 19th when GSI moved to deny recognition to the union.

GSI filed a petition for a representation election with the National Labor Relations Board. They knew the NLRB would deny the petition under the Taft-Harley Act, since Local 471 had not filed the necessary affidavits. Grant said,

“Our decision to petition the NLRB came as a result of the claim of these same union officials that our employees on December 12 voted to support them in their refusal to sign non-Communist affidavits and file financial statements.” 

In regard to the financial disclosure issue, Palmer responded,

“Our union members know a lot more about the financial situation in their union than the government or anyone else has been able to learn about GSI’s books.”

Local 471 set up another broad support committee, the Citizens Committee in Support of the Cafeteria Workers, which Grant quickly labeled “misinformed” and “misled.”

The union announced it contacted the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service for assistance with negotiations.

Even before FMCS’s position was known, GSI quickly rejected its help, once again taking the position that the affidavits and financial statement provisions in the Taft-Hartley Act must be complied with before GSI would negotiate.

In response, the union released a letter from NLRB general counsel Robert N. Denham that stated that the Remington-Rand Corp. could enter into a contract with the CIO United Electrical Workers, even though the union had not filed non-communist affidavits.

Cafeteria workers union at the Pentagon (4): 1964

Pentagon cafeteria workers in 1964.

Meanwhile, A. C. Boehm, general manager of the Pentagon post restaurants in behalf of the National Food Corp. said contract negotiations with Local 471 were proceeding satisfactorily and that non-communist affidavits like those demanded by GSI are “not an issue.”

GSI’s position did not waver.

At a December 22nd union meeting at the Shiloh Baptist Church, members unanimously authorized their leaders to call a strike.

In a meeting with Grant on December 29th, The CIO’s Washington Industrial Union Council president Henry Beitscher told GSI that Local 471 had the full support of the CIO and that its three and a half million members were in the same category as local cafeteria workers, having refused to submit affidavits.

Grant told reporters that he would inform the board, but it “would not change the situation whatsoever.”

On December 31st, the union announced that a strike by its 1,600 members at GSI would begin officially at midnight. However, due to the four-day holiday weekend, picketing would not begin until Monday, January 5th.

Later Palmer said he would wait until a membership meeting on January 4th before formally calling a strike.

Meanwhile, the NLRB regional office dismissed GSI’s petition for an election as to whether Local 471 was a “certified” bargaining agent under the Taft-Harley law.

GSI immediately interpreted the NLRB decision as having “advised the corporation that the United Cafeteria and Restaurant Workers, Local 471, UPW-CIO is disqualified as a bargaining agent,” according to the Washington Post.

The text of the letter released by the NLRB said nothing about disqualifying the union.

Grant gave a statement to the press, “Since this union cannot legally represent our employees, there can be no legal strike.”

The eve of battle

Over the long weekend Local 471 members who worked at 18 Pentagon cafeterias and snack bars ratified a new contract with the National Food Company on January 2nd. The union bargaining committee at the Pentagon was the same as the one that GSI refused to negotiate with.

The Pentagon agreement contained a 6 ½-cent per hour raise and established sick leave of up to 12 days per year, among other improvements.

GSI promptly announced the same day that it would grant a 6 ½-cent raise to all employees who stayed on the job. Such a move was “phony as a three dollar bill,” the union responded.

Palmer released a statement that read in part:

“GSI employees are only too well aware of the company’s schemes to enslave them and will not swallow any of the lying propaganda designed to break their union and will not accept the phony offer which has no guarantees. The employees know that the company has never kept its word and they are determined to fight for their rights as free men.”

“We have reports from the cafeterias this morning that wherever GSI’s announcement was made, it was greeted with scorn by the employees who have learned exactly what to expect from this evil minded management. The employees knew weeks ago that GSI would make just such a fake offer on the eve of a strike.”

Grant released a statement that said GSI had informed employees “any work stoppage was being called by unauthorized union officials.”

NLRB's non-communist affidavit for unions: 1955 ca.

A copy of a non-communist affidavit similar to the one Local 471 officials refused to sign.

Grant continued to try to gain public support by more red-baiting:

“We have heard charges that UPWA’s leadership is communist-inspired and think it is our duty to have this matter clarified before contracting for employment exclusively within government buildings.”

Grant further charged that Local 471 officials did not represent the wishes of their membership.

“The seeds of the present labor disturbance were undoubtedly sown during last year’s negotiations which culminated in a strike because the union said its membership repudiated an agreement signed by union officials.”

“Remembering last year’s fiasco, the corporation decided that it must be assured this time by these officials that they were fully qualified to sign a binding agreement which could not be overturned during the contract period.”

The Washington Post reported, “Palmer has maintained that the membership’s rejection of the agreement last year was ‘simply an instance of union democracy.’ He said the agreement had been signed under the condition that it be ratified by the workers.”

GSI employees rallied at the Shiloh Baptist Church at 1500 9th Street NW on January 4th, the day before cafeterias were scheduled to reopen.

The union members heard Bancroft urge them to “die on their feet fighting like free men rather than submit to slavery” and correctly predict that their “fight before it ends will become the concerns of the Democratic National Committee and the White House,” according to the Washington Post.

Palmer addressed the workers about the need to strike, saying, “if there were an alternative, we would take it, but there is no alternative.”

In an important signal that Local 471 had support beyond a spectrum of left-leaning organizations and individuals, Mary McLeod Bethune, president of the National Council of Negro Women and former close advisor to President Roosevelt, sent a message, “God bless you, give you courage, give you faith.”

GSI meanwhile hired 250 replacement workers to assist 350 supervisors in keeping the cafeterias open with a limited menu and announced that further replacements would be hired depending on how many workers supported the strike.

GSI sets out union-busting case against Local 471: 1948

GSI’s Washington Post ad to the public on the first day of the strike.

“The corporation is extremely sorry that such a senseless, useless strike is to take place. It could have been prevented very easily if union officers had taken an oath against communism,” J. C. Niehuss, a GSI official, told the Washington Post.

In a last-minute effort to stave off a strike, national CIO vice president Allan S. Haywood appealed to Maj. Gen. Phillip B. Fleming, Federal Works Administrator, to intervene in the dispute. The Federal Works Administration leased space to GSI at no cost and split the profits with them.

In an advertisement published in the Washington Post, GSI reiterated its position and made its final argument to the employees and the general public:

“The strike—which is robbing hundreds of employees their pay envelopes—is caused by the political interests of radical labor leaders who point blank refuse to disassociate themselves from a foreign ideology.”

‘We fight against GSI slavery’

Cafeteria workers picket in the sleet and rain: 1948

Cafeteria workers picket outside the Commerce Dept. January 6, 1948 in the sleet and rain.

The outside temperature January 5th reached a high of 43* F, relatively balmy for January. But perhaps in a sign of things to come, that would soon change with average temperatures for the month only reaching 28.8 degrees –a full ten degrees below normal.

Picket lines were set up at nearly all government cafeterias except the two that were requested to be closed by the agencies—Labor and the Supreme Court. Oscar Chapman, undersecretary of the Interior Department, made a request that Interior also be closed during the strike, but Grant refused the request citing another agency that also used the cafeteria.

Picketers carried signs such as: “We fight against GSI slavery,” “GSI refuses to bargain,” and “On strike for a living wage.”

On the first day of the walkout, Palmer estimated the strike to be “more than 95 percent effective.”

GSI spokesperson Niehuss said that about one-third of the normal workforce was in the cafeterias, including supervisors and 300 new workers hired over the weekend. He said 200 more strikebreakers that had been hired would join them.

Seeking to break the unity of the strike Niehuss continued, “The indications are that many workers didn’t report for work because they wanted to see what the next fellow would do. Now that they see they won’t be alone, we expect they will be drifting back.”

Appeal for aid for cafeteria strikers: 1948

An ad published in the Washington Post by the strike support committee appealing for funds.

The union had prepared for a long strike and set up soup kitchens for workers at the Shiloh Baptist Church and at the union’s offices at 1015 M Street NW.

The Washington Post surveyed six cafeterias where managers reported an average customer volume of less than 50 percent, with menus cut by about 60 percent.

Meanwhile the Post wrote an editorial that condemned the union for not signing the non-communist affidavits, but found that to be irrelevant for negotiations and charged GSI had switched positions.

“An informal election conducted by the government originally confirmed Local 471 as a bargaining agent because of GSI’s contention that its position as a quasi governmental agency made the Wagner Act inapplicable. Thus GSI’s insistence that certification be a prerequisite to bargaining in this case represents a complete switch from its previous stand.”

“In any event, it seems to us that an acceptable settlement on this score [differences over wages and benefits] should not be difficult if GSI were to forego its legalism and make a real effort to get together with the union. On this point it is significant that the union already has concluded an amicable agreement with the operators of the Pentagon cafeterias and is in the process of reaching a similar agreement at the Department of Agriculture.”

On the second day of the strike, the union picket lines were up again at all agencies as a snowstorm moved in.

Cafeteria service improved with the hiring of additional replacement workers, but skilled workers such as cooks and bakers remained scarce.

GSI spokesperson Niehuss announced that the strikers’ jobs were being permanently replaced. “GSI cannot take back anyone whose job has been filled.”

On another front, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service announced it would not be further involved with any union whose leaders refused to sign non-communist affidavits, depriving the union of another source of government intervention.

Rev. Jernigan with BYPU youth: 1943

Rev. William Jernigan was among those who signed an appeal to President Truman.

Union supporters including Mary Church Terrell, past president of the National Association of Colored Women; Rev. William Jernigan, executive secretary of the Fraternal Council of Negro Churches; Belford Lawson Jr., former president of Local 471, Washington attorney and national president of Alpha Phi Alpha; Joseph L Townsend, dean of the Howard University medical school; and Dr. E Franklin Frazier, Howard University professor sent a telegram to President Harry Truman expressing concern over “GSI’s refusal to bargain.”

“We urge you to use your good offices to induce this company which operates on property of the United States Government, to bargain in good faith in the American way with the union of its employees.”

Once again, the union support represented a broad spectrum of backing within the African American community.

On January 7th, GSI was providing near-normal service with 750 strikebreakers and pre-cooked meals provided by vendors. However, the number of meals served was still well below the pre-strike level.

The union hit GSI for creating a health hazard by hiring employees without required physical examinations.

The Post editorialized, “GSI, although it has long recognized the union’s authority to represent cafeteria employees, seems to have seized upon the [Taft-Hartley non-communist] affidavit clause as a convenient union-busting bludgeon.”

Palmer issued another statement on the issue:

“This is an obvious attempt to capitalize on the witch hunt hysteria which now dominates the nation’s capital. Never before has anyone, in or out of public life, raised and questioned whatever about the loyalty of government cafeteria employees or their representatives.”

“We deeply resent the slur upon our members contained in GSI’s argument on this issue It is typical of the contempt management has shown for its Negro employees for the past 27 years.”

CIO asks Truman to intervene

CIO and Steelworkers president Phillip Murray: 1942

CIO President Phillip Murray personally met with the strike leadership and asked U.S. President Truman to intervene.

On January 8th, CIO president Phillip Murray himself met with the union on strike strategy and sent a letter to President Truman asking him to order the board of trustees of GSI  “to refrain from union-busting activities” and to meet with Local 471. The GSI board was composed largely of current or former government officials selected by the heads of the various federal departments.

Murray charged the federal government with intervening on the side of GSI and urged Truman to stop the government from its “partisan intervention into the situation” and to set up a “collective bargaining conference” to settle issues in the strike.

Murray also charged that Federal Works administrator Fleming used federal building guards to escort strikebreakers to and from the cafeterias.

GSI spokesperson Niehuss condemned Murray’s involvement:

“He may find he has chosen strange bedfellows by inserting himself so strongly in this dispute after three top government agencies have refused to intervene.”

“Does he not realize that the entire government is requiring loyalty statements from its employees?”

Meanwhile Charles Sands, an international representative of the AFL Hotel and Restaurant Workers announced renewed plans to recruit GSI workers.

Sands passed out two leaflets—one to strikers and the other to strike breakers—asking them to join his union and seek collective bargaining rights. The leaflets charged Local 471 with “striking over a political issue.”

In support of Local 471, Clarence Mitchell, national labor secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) met with GSI head Grant, urging him to submit the strike issues to a third party.

The local NAACP pledged its support to Local 471 and urged GSI to bargain with the union:

“We the representatives of over 10,000 citizens of the District of Columbia…urge you [GSI] to recognize the basic good intentions of Local 471 and begin negotiations with it toward the amicable settlement of the present strike.”

GSI spokesperson Niehuss announced that any striker that failed to report to work by January 9th “will receive their final check,” reiterating that GSI intended the strikebreakers as permanent replacements.

Niehuss also claimed that he had 1,000 workers on the job serving 60,000 of the usual 80,000 government employees. He claimed that by January 12th, the beginning of the second week of the strike, “normal” service would be resumed at nearly all cafeterias.

But Niehuss added, “There are still some jobs open for regular employees who want to come back.”

The union ridiculed the claim and facetiously responded, “by Wednesday they’ll say they’re competing with the Waldorf Astoria.”

As the strike began its second week on January 12th, the union modified its picketing strategy and staged a mass picket where hundreds of strikers encircled the Federal Works Administration building demanding the agency order the cafeterias closed during the dispute.

Congress begins to insert itself

Fred Hartley of anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act: 1940 ca.

Rep. Fred Hartley, one of the sponsors of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act. 

Congress began inserting itself into the dispute as Rep. Fred Hartley (R-N.J.), one of the authors of the Taft-Hartley Act, urged union members to rid “yourself of your leaders, elect good, honest Americans not afraid to sign a simple statement that they do not believe in the Communist Party platform.”

Rep. Fred E. Busby (R-Il.) read a report compiled by GSI into the Congressional Record, naming five UPWA and Local 471 officials as communists.

But Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (D-N.Y.) urged President Truman in an open letter to intervene in the dispute:

“Although this company is a quasi-governmental enterprise whose trustees are leading officials of the United States government, it has pursued the worst anti-Negro labor policy of any corporation in the nation. In the 27 years of its existence, this company which fattens on government support, has never placed a Negro worker in a supervisory, managerial or even in a cashier’s position.”

On January 15th in temperatures that ranged from the teens to the 20s another mass picketing took place at the Interior Department at 18th & C NW, and a scuffle at the Navy Department on Constitution Avenue between a strikebreaker and pickets resulted in three arrests—all union members.

Two more union members were arrested at the National Gallery of Art on January 17th in a confrontation with a strikebreaker.

The calls for Truman to intervene could not be ignored by the President. By this point in time, Truman had written off the left wing politically but CIO president Murray, Mary McLeod Bethune, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, and the NAACP were all necessary supporters for what was expected to be a tough election in 1948.

At the same time Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and had just passed the Taft-Harley Act. Public opinion polls had supported restrictions on labor and the Republicans were ready to jump on Truman for any sign he was “soft” on communism.

Federal intervention after all?

Rev. Brooks at cornerstone ceremony for Lincoln Temple: 1928

Rev. Dr. Robert W. Brooks (standing beside table) led a delegation to the Labor Department.

As the strike entered its third week January 19th, Rev. Dr. Robert W. Brooks led a delegation of the Interdenominational Ministers Alliance into a 40-minute meeting with Secretary of Labor Lewis B. Schwellenbach, asking for his intervention in the dispute.

When he emerged, Brooks told the Washington Post, “The Secretary told us he is certainly working on it. He is doing all he can and asked us to give him until tomorrow night to see if a plan he has will work out.”

GSI personnel director J. C. Niehuss responded that the union no longer represented cafeteria employees who had been hired as permanent replacements:

“Even if the union complied with the Taft-Hartley Act tomorrow, we still couldn’t bargain with a union that doesn’t represent our workers,”

Scabs wanted in Cafeteria Local 471 strike: 1948

GSI ad for strike-breakers in the Washington Post.

As frustrations mounted, three different confrontations between strikers and strikebreakers occurred resulting in the arrests of eight. Six strikers were arrested, including four women, while two strikebreakers were arrested.

Bancroft declared the union was having success in turning back strikebreakers and told reporters that many had only waited to pick up their paychecks on Friday and would not return to work on January 19th “now that they have learned the real issues.”

But despite Bancroft’s bravado, the strikers by this point were becoming desperate. Strikebreakers had largely filled their jobs, and while many of the hot meals were not prepared on-site, the cafeterias were operating close to normally.

Battle takes on national significance

Clare Hoffman (R-Mi.) immediately called a meeting of a special subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and Labor for January 20th.

At the hearing, Hoffman grilled Schwellenbach about his potential intervention and whether he was trying to subvert the Taft-Hartley Act by forcing an employer to bargain with a union that had not signed the affidavits.

Schwellenbach placed Local 471’s refusal to sign affidavits in context when he testified the Labor Department “contacted 57,000 unions” about complying with the Taft-Hartley provisions. “As of last week we had only 10,003 comply.”

A breakthrough occurred on January 21st when it was revealed that President Truman asked Labor Secretary Schwellenbach “to investigate the whole situation” and to attempt to settle the strike.

Schwellenbach immediately asked for a legal opinion on whether (1) an employer is barred from negotiating with a union if the non-communist affidavits are not filed and (2) if they are not barred, are they required to negotiate?

Schwellenbach also said he would meet with Maj. Gen. Fleming, the administrator of the Federal Works who held the power to close cafeterias and terminate the GSI contract upon six months notice or immediately for non performance.

Niehuss, usually quick to comment, said, “Now that it’s in the hands of the government, we feel we needn’t say anything. Our case is well-known: we believe our position is legally and morally correct.”

Palmer commented, “At last the President has seen fit to step into a situation that has become a national disgrace. GSI—which uses government property and equipment—has been embarrassing the Administration.”

The battle began taking on national significance as the CIO executive council voted full support for the strikers and urged Truman to intervene, while the New York Times reported on Schwellenbach’s involvement.

The Department of Labor solicitor, William S. Tyson, issued a memorandum opinion January 23rd.

Tyson held:

  1. The national policy is to encourage free and voluntary collective bargaining between employers and employees.
  2. The National Labor Relations Act as amended by the Labor Management Relations Act, 1947 (Taft-Hartley) does not prohibit employers from bargaining collectively with unions representing a majority of their employees even though the union has not filed the affidavits and organization and financial statements provided for in Section 9 (f) and (h) of the Act.
  3. The ability of a union to secure board certification because it has not filed the affidavits and organization and financial statements provided for in Section 9 (f) and (h) of the act does not disqualify the union from acting as the bargaining representative of the employees, and does not therefore bar the employer from bargaining with the union.

Tyson reiterated that the union is barred from seeking the assistance of the NLRB but that the Taft-Hartley law, nevertheless, made it a duty for employers and employees to “exert every reasonable effort to make and maintain agreements.”

Tyson further said that the NLRB’s dismissal of a petition by GSI for a representation election “does not bar the employer from continuing to bargain with a union of his employees.”

Contradicting the Federal Mediation Service, Tyson quoted Section 204 of the Act and said, “…where these efforts in collective bargaining failed, the parties should utilize the assistance of the mediation service.”

Tyson conceded that enforcement of this section of the Act without the involvement of the NLRB was problematic, but noted that the Act incorporated provisions for filing suits in federal district courts without regard to compliance with the affidavits section.

What Tyson did not say was that in this situation the federal government could close cafeterias or terminate GSI’s contract in order to force a settlement.

Congress acts against the union

Rep. Clare Hoffman aids union busting: 1948

Rep. Clare Hoffman, chair of the House subcommittee investigating the GSI strike.

Representative Clare E. Hoffman (R-Mi.) accused the Truman administration of trying to nullify the Taft-Hartley Act.

“What is the President trying to do? Sabotage the Taft-Hartley Act, which it is his sworn duty to enforce by suggesting that it need not be used?”

“The question of whether GSI may bargain with Local 471 is not the issue The real issue is whether the Administration can force GSI to bargain with union officials who refuse to comply with the Taft-Hartley law—union officials who do not deny they are Communists.”

Hoffman scheduled a hearing of his House Education and Labor Subcommittee for January 26th.

Meanwhile GSI responded that they were studying Tyson’s opinion, but that their first reaction was that it would have “no effect,” according to Niehuss.

“There will be no settlement with Local 471, unless it can prove it represents our present employees.”

Bancroft, speaking on radio station WQQW, responded:

“We of the union say to GSI, ‘Your permanent employees are on strike.’ This strike with its attendant picketing will not end until every striker is back on the job every strikebreaker is fired and we have a union contract to guarantee decent wage and working conditions.”

Hoffman’s hearing

Hoffman’s intentions were clearly signaled when committee staff accompanied by U. S. deputy marshals raided the union’s former offices on January 26th at 930 F Street NW at 9 a.m. prior to the opening of the subcommittee hearing.

Alfred Bernstein, UPWA negotiations director, told the committee that F. Albert Reiman, a committee staff member, deputy marshal James Collins and three other men came to the office and demanded custody of union records.

Bernstein said they arrived with blank subpoena forms, asked people for their names, and then filled in the blanks.

The only people present were Bernstein and a UPWA secretary named Lila Pollin.

Bernstein testified at the hearing that they persisted “even after I told them I had no authority over records and didn’t even know if there were any there.”

Pollin testified that when the men showed up, records were “in the process of being moved” to a new office. She added that she had no knowledge of what records were available since some furniture and filing cabinets had been moved.

Pollin was read a list of organizations from U.S. Attorney General Tom Clarke’s list of “subversive organizations” and asked if she was a member of any. Pollin denied she had any connection with the Communist Party or any of the organizations listed.

During Bernstein’s questioning, Hoffman asked if Bernstein had ever refused to take a loyalty test

“Of course not. I resent that question. I proved my loyalty in the jungle. I volunteered for military service; if I hadn’t, I would have been over the legal age limit too.”

Bernstein termed the tactics “a witch hunt at its worst” and said after the hearing that Hoffman’s committee is “Hell-bent on breaking the strike.”

Hoffman said he hoped to have Bancroft and Palmer testify at the hearing on January 27th.

When Robert N. Denham, general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, testified Rep. Wint Smith (R-Ka.) asked, “Isn’t the employer under a duty not to bargain with a union that fails to file the Communist affidavits?”

“Not exactly. It’s his privilege to bargain or not bargain as he wishes,” replied Denham.

Meanwhile Schwellenbach announced he had “a very general discussion of the whole situation with Maj. Gen. U. S. Grant III, GSI president with no conclusions reached.”

At his hearing on January 28th, Hoffman learned that none of the five union officials he sought had been served with subpoenas.

Hoffman was seeking UPWA president Abram Flaxer, secretary-treasurer Eleanor Nelson, organization director Robert Weinstein along with Local 471 officials Palmer and Bancroft.

Hoffman said he wanted to ask them if they were communists:

“I don’t want to charge anyone with being a communist. But I would like them to tell us.”

Hoffman promptly recessed the hearing, but scheduled another to be held on February 2nd.

CIO chief meets with Labor Secretary Schwellenbach: 1946

CIO chief Phillip Murray and Labor Secy. Louis Schwellenbach during the 1946 steel strike.

On January 31st Schwellenbach met with Local 471 officials in his Labor Department offices for 90 minutes.

At the meeting were Local 471 officials Oliver Palmer, Richard Bancroft and UPWA attorney and negotiator Alfred Bernstein. Assistant Secretary John Gibson was also present.

Schwellenbach did not talk about the substance of the discussions, but commented on Hoffman’s attempt to subpoena the union.

“When they called up for the appointment I told them: ‘you come in the front door and go out by the front door. And if you see anyone serving subpoenas, take them.’”

“I have never seen anybody dodge a subpoena very long,” added the one-time federal judge and U.S. Senator.

Flaxer was served his subpoena later on January 31st when he arrived for an appointment with Schwellenbach. Flaxer and CIO organizing director Allan S. Haywood conferred with the Labor Secretary for 90 minutes.

Palmer and Bancroft were never found by the marshals, but announced they would attend the hearing voluntarily.

Union officials testify

On February 1st the union called for a mass meeting where they called upon the members to rally at Hoffman’s hearing and prepared them for what to expect.

As the strike began its fifth week, Hoffman’s hearing made for a wild night February 2nd as hundreds of cafeteria workers jammed the House Education and Labor Committee hearing room where one of Flaxer’s attorneys was thrown out, the representative for the NAACP was cut off by Hoffman, and upon adjournment Hoffman was booed by union members who attempted to follow him to his office.

Flaxer to organize state, local government workers: 1937

UPWA head Abram Flaxer in his office.

When Flaxer was called to testify, Hoffman refused to permit him to read a statement. Instead, for 30 minutes, Hoffman fired questions like:

“Were you ever a member of the Communist Party?” and “Are you now or have you ever been affiliated with…?” and then listed one by one the organizations listed by the Attorney General as subversive as well as others.

Flaxer repeatedly responded:

“For me to answer this question would be inimical to the best interests of the strikers because it assumes that the issue is my political beliefs and not the economic needs of the strikers.”

“My second reason is that this question invades and violates my freedom of opinion.”

As same line of questioning continued, Flaxer began answering, “same answer, same reason.”

At the request of Rep. Arthur Klein (D-N.Y.), Flaxer was permitted to give his statement that read in part,

“Finally, by answering the question, I feel that I would be lending aid and comfort to the current drive to destroy civil liberties in our country.”

“Nor can I, by answering this question, aid and abet the red-baiting hysteria which in the hands of labor-hating employers and their allies is sweeping this country.”

“The sole purpose of the committee is to give strength to the company’s strike breaking endeavors.”

“I submit that the entire inquiry amounts to an abuse of congressional power. In this instance, such abuse helps only a sweatshop employer intent on preventing Negro workers from enjoying the benefits of unionism.”

During the two hours of questioning Flaxer stated that in refusing to sign the non-communist affidavits, the UPWA was following the general CIO policy of noncompliance with the Taft-Hartley Act.

Flaxor: We do not have to comply with the Taft-Hartley Act. We have no benefits under it. We have been thrown back 50 years by the Taft-Hartley Act.

Hoffman: Do you think that’s far enough?

Joseph Forer, defender of civil rights: 1949 ca.

Attorney Joseph Forer

One of Flaxer’s attorneys was forcibly ejected from the hearing when Rep. O. C. Fisher (D-Tx.) asked another UPWA attorney, Joseph Forer, “Are you the same Forer who defended Gerhart Eisler?”

Eisler was a Communist Party member who was initially charged with refusing to answer questions before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1947. He had two trials in 1947—one for refusing to answer HUAC questions and the other for immigration violations.

Eisler was sentenced to one and three years in prison respectively and was the subject of deportation hearings along with five immigrant labor leaders. Eisler would later jump bail in 1949 and flee to the German Democratic Republic where he worked for many years. It was alleged by his detractors that he was Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s personal representative within the Communist Party USA.

When Fisher asked his question, Nathan R. Witt, Flaxer’s other attorney jumped to his feet and objected. A shouting match followed with Witt blasting Fisher for questioning an attorney about his clients, while Hoffman called House Office police to remove Witt.

Flaxer also testified that the Taft-Hartley Act had no direct effect on his union, with a few exceptions.

Hoffman: Well, all right. The Taft-Hartley Act provides that your union can, if it wishes, force an employer to bargain, does it not?

Flaxer: No. The Taft-Hartley Act does not provide that.

Hoffman: So you say that if you comply with the provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act you still cannot bargain collectively?

Flaxer: No; we cannot bargain collectively regardless of compliance.

Hoffman: Sure you can.

Flaxer: But the point I am trying to make is that we do not fall under the Taft-Hartley Act, and we do not have to be concerned by its provisions as an individual union.

Hoffman: But you will concede, will you not, that if you want the benefits of the Taft-Hartley Act, you must comply with its terms.

Flaxer: Well, sir we have no benefits deriving from the Taft-Hartley Act, especially us.

Flaxer was pointing out that as a union of overwhelmingly government employees, the Taft-Hartley Act, except the one provision that bars federal employees from striking, did not cover them.

This testimony was troubling for Local 471, because Flaxer was clearly more concerned with the larger issues that his union faced than the specific situation at GSI where the Taft-Hartley Act was applicable.

Clarence Mitchell, NAACP rights advocate in Washington: 1957

NAACP labor secretary Clarence Mitchell had his testimony cut off.

The hearing ended when Clarence Mitchell, national labor secretary for the NAACP began his testimony by saying he would not answer any questions about the cafeteria strike itself.

Hoffman quickly cut him off, banging his gavel and declaring the hearing recessed. The workers in the audience began catcalls and booing; and police halted a number of strikers when they attempted to follow Hoffman while they shouted at him.

Local 471 testifies

When the hearing reconvened February 3rd, cafeteria workers again showed up by the hundreds as their local leaders, business manager Oliver Palmer and president Richard Bancroft, took the witness chair.

Both Bancroft and Palmer dismissed Hoffman’s questions about communist affiliations as “irrelevant.”

As he had with Flaxer the day before, Hoffman read a long string of questions to Palmer such as asking if he had signed a petition to for the release of Communist Party chief Earl Browder from jail, if he was ever a member of the Communist Party and if he was an official of the National Negro Congress.

The back and forth turned to the question of the non-communist affidavits

Hoffman: You know if you want to force GSI to bargain with your union you’ll have to sign one of these affidavits.

Palmer: No I don’t know that!

Hoffman: Well, you’ll know that before you’re through.

But Palmer gave as good as he got:

Hoffman: Why can you not be friendly and agreeable, and when there is a simple question, answer it?

Palmer: I can’t be friendly and agreeable when you are trying to persecute 1,500 colored workers and deny them the right to have a union.

Hoffman: Nobody—

Palmer: And that is the purpose of this, that is the purpose of this and the only purpose of this.

Hoffman: Wait a moment.

Palmer: The question is do 1,500 Negro workers have a right to have a union.

Hoffman: Certainly they do.

Palmer: John L. Lewis did the same [refused to sign a non-communist affidavit], took the same action.

Hoffman: Forget it.

Palmer: You didn’t bring them up here. You brought us up here because we are Negroes.

Hoffman: You are mistaken as you can be.

Palmer: You brought them up because we are Negroes [applause].

Hoffman: You remember what I told you about applause.

Palmer: You want to smash the Negro union. [Thunderous applause].

Hoffman: Wait a moment. Once more. I only want to repeat, you folks are here just through the courtesy of the committee. That is twice, three times. You know, we used to say when we were kids three times, and out. That is not a threat. That is just a promise of what is going to happen if the disturbance continues.

Washington Post reports on Local 471 officials’ testimony: 1948

The Washington Post reports on Local 471 officials’ testimony.

When Bancroft testified, Rep. Fisher questioned him, describing a number of organizations such as the American Student Union, the American Youth Congress and the Southern Conference for Human Welfare as “communist fronts” and asking about Bancroft’s affiliation with them to which Bancroft responded “irrelevant.”

Bancroft also took the opportunity to make his points:

“I would like to say at this point that I appeared at this hearing. If you will permit me the opportunity to make this statement, Mr. Fisher, to provide you with facts that had to do with the strike of 1,400 Negro workers against Government Services, Inc., to indicate to you the reasons for it, the reasons for membership actions of our union, to indicate to you the history of the relations of our union with Government Services, Inc., and they have existed over a period of 10 years, though with difficulty, and to indicate to you that I have been disturbed frankly, because I had the feeling that a congressional committee would not use some of the tactics which have been used here in not discussing those issues relevant to the strike, not seeming seriously concerned about the fact that 1,400 Negroes have been deprived of their livelihood because of a capricious and arbitrary action on the part of an employer whose history is replete with such capricious and arbitrary actions in the past, and I have been seriously disturbed by it.”

Both Bancroft and Palmer testified that the union membership had directed them not to comply with the non-communist affidavits.

Bancroft provided the minutes of the union meeting where the members voted to refuse to comply with the Taft-Hartley Act on July 22, 1947.

“The executive board recommends, after a thorough discussion on the Taft Harley law, that our union go on record that we do not use the facilities of the National Labor Relations Board.”

“A motion was made and seconded that the recommendation be accepted. After much discussion on the recommendation the motion was carried unanimously.”

During the course of the two union officials’ testimony, Hoffman three times threatened to clear the hearing room as cafeteria workers booed and shouted at subcommittee members.

Also called to testify was Albert C. Boehm of the National Food Service, which operated the Pentagon’s cafeterias.

“I’ve always found the union to be a responsible organization,” said Boehm, to the outrage of Hoffman.

Boehm testified “As we interpret the law, there is no requirement for a union to comply with the Taft-Hartley Act as long as the question of (union) representation does not occur…there is a duty on our part to bargain…”

Hoffman shot back, “There is no legal obligation to bargain at all.”

After the hearing, Hoffman threatened contempt charges against union leaders who refused to answer questions about whether they were members of the Communist Party or other organizations.

The union members had shown their solidarity in large numbers and enthusiastically backed their leaders. However, Bancroft’s testimony was more subdued than the usual fiery speeches that he honed in his days at the ASU. The events of the next few days revealed why.

Schwellenbach says to sign affidavits

During an unrelated hearing on Labor Department reorganization February 5th, Hoffman brought up the GSI strike again to Schwellenbach.

Hoffman asked Schwellenbach about the visit of Abram Flaxer to the Labor Department and what Schwellenbach said to him.

Schwellenbach: I said you file these affidavits or I’m not interested.

Hoffman: I personally want to congratulate you. Didn’t you take the position GSI could bargain whether the affidavits are filed or not?

Schwellenbach: Yes.

Hoffman: Don’t you agree they should file the affidavits before seeking the aid of the government?

Schwellenbach: Yes, I told them so.

Schwellenbach had met separately with Flaxer and local 471 officials Bancroft and Palmer prior to Hoffman’s hearing Feb. 2nd-3rd. It was now clear that Local 471’s ace in the hole—President Harry Truman—was also insisting on the union filing the affidavits before he would help the union.

Local 471 signs the affidavits, Bancroft quits

Leaders of striking union take non-communist oath: 1948

Local 471 officials submit non-communist affidavits.

The following day eight Local 471 officers, including Palmer, signed the affidavits. Bancroft resigned the office of president rather than sign.

“Now GSI can stop seeking excuses to evade their obligation to bargain,” said Palmer.

GSI’s position didn’t change. Niehuss said affidavits must be filed by both the local officers and by the UPWA officers and that the local must win an NLRB election among those workers now on GSI rolls, according to the Washington Post.

“The corporation does not intend to displace any of its 1,300 present employees,” Niehuss said.

According to the Post, officials of the national UPWA indicated there was no chance that the UPWA officers would file.

Meanwhile, strikers staged another mass picket at the office of Federal Works Administrator Phillip Fleming, while snow flurries blew around them, calling on him to force GSI to bargain.

On February 8th, the union held another mass meeting at the Shiloh Baptist Church where Rose Randolph, the vice president that succeeded Bancroft as president, presided.

With Bancroft in the audience and speaking in favor, a resolution passed blasting the government for interfering on the side of GSI and charging GSI with trying to break the union because it was composed almost entirely of African Americans.

The resolution charged the government with unfair labor practices and said in part:

“Though we have picketed early and late in bitter cold and through snow and slush, we are confident of victory.”

“Scabs have been encouraged to trespass on federal property while we have been denied the warmth and restroom facilities in the buildings which our taxes helped to build and maintain.”

“GSI’s attacks on us have been made because we are Negroes and are aimed halting the right of Negroes to belong to a union of their own choice and to bargain fairly without the dishonest injection of false issues.”

Washington, D.C. Shiloh Baptist Church: 1970 ca.

The Shiloh Baptist Church where Local 471 held meetings and set up a soup kitchen for strikers.

GSI spokesperson Niehuss dismissed the charge, saying, “As far as we are concerned the government has been entirely neutral.”

“The United Public Workers have tried to turn this into a racial matter and their charge has no basis in fact. GSI has been the predominant employer of Negro help in the District and the charge of discrimination against the colored race is patently ridiculous.” 

Force GSI to negotiate?

The next day the Washington Post reported that a high administration source said President Truman ordered Federal Works Administrator Philip B. Fleming to require GSI to bargain with the union.

Fleming had the power to close cafeterias or terminate the contract with GSI.

According to the Post, the White House source said that when Local 471 officials signed the affidavits, it removed the “moral” issue that the White House viewed as the main obstacle to their involvement.

Hoffman hastily called a hearing February 10th and summoned Fleming.

Hoffman: Have you received any such orders?

Fleming: I have not

Hoffman: Oh, dear.

Hoffman then called the Washington Post reporter Frank Wilder as a witness, but Wilder refused to name his source and stood by his story.

Grant testified and repeated that GSI would not bargain until UPWA officials signed affidavits and Local 471 won an election among the replacement workers.

At one point Hoffman told the 40 strikers jammed into the small hearing room that they might get their “friends” who stayed on the job to vote for Local 471.

“We have no friends at GSI. They’re all scabs. We are all GSI employees,” shouted a woman from the back of the room.

At the White House, presidential secretary Charles G. Ross told reporters that Truman “has no comment on the strike situation beyond what he has already said; namely, that the situation is entirely in the hands of Secretary Schwellenbach.”

One reporter asked Ross, “Does this mean the story in the Washington Post is wrong?” to which Ross replied, “I have no further comment to make on it.”

The next day, with Hoffman out of town, Rep Fisher called the managing editor of the Washington Post, James Russell Wiggins, who testified “The story we received is in its essentials correct.”

Again, more than 100 Local 471 members jammed the hearing room.

The latest effort to haul the media in to testify about sources and other issues marked the third time in four months that Hoffman’s committee used this tactic—implying contempt of Congress charges if they refused to answer.

Meanwhile the strike was past the five-week mark with no end yet in sight. Frustrations were growing on the picket line and the courts were beginning to act on previous arrests.

Two strikers were convicted in court of previous incidents while a new incident occurred at the Independence cafeteria at 7th and Independence Avenue SW. Police reported that a woman striker hit a non-striker on the head with an umbrella.

Two days later another striker was convicted of assault while a scab was jailed for 90 days for carrying a pistol.

The union called a mass meeting for the striking workers February 15th and about 1,000 attended.

Bernstein, who was serving a negotiator for Local 471, told reporters that at Arlington Farms, the military police had been used “for the first time” to escort strikebreakers through the picket lines.

Niehuss denied the claim but said there was a “fairly large concentration” of pickets there, and that Public Works Administration guards took “preventive measures” after some strikers attempted to chase workers in the cafeteria there.

Conciliator appointed

Conciliator in 1948 Cafeteria Local 471 strike: 1944

George E. Strong, a labor relations veteran, is appointed as conciliator.

A little over a week after the Post reported that Truman would intervene in the strike, a conciliator was appointed by Federal Works Administrator Philip B. Fleming.

George E. Strong, a veteran of World War I and II with broad experience in both the army and the government for settling labor disputes was named to try to work out an agreement to end the strike.

Strong, who had resolved over 100 strikes, was optimistic he could reach a settlement, “This is just another dispute. I’ve seen them much tougher than this.”

GSI’s board of trustees changed their tune a bit as they agreed to discuss the dispute with the conciliator.

Strong immediately began meeting with the principals involved, including GSI head General Ulysses Grant III, the negotiator for Local 471 Alfred Bernstein, Secretary of Labor Lewis Schwellenbach, Local 471 officials, Government Services attorney John L. Cross and others. After five days of meetings, he reported on February 20th that there was “some progress.”

While this shuttle diplomacy was going on the support committee for the union held a fundraiser for the strikers at Turner’s Arena February 19th featuring acclaimed actor, singer and left-wing activist Paul Robeson.

Robeson - Take Jim Crow off the American dollar: 1949

Paul Robeson came to D.C. many times to lend his support. Here, he pickets with Bureau of Engraving workers.

Robeson performed before the 2,500 people assembled and told them, “I know of no appearance in this city that meant more to me than tonight. We are sick and tired of picking up the crumbs.”

Former Local 471 president Richard Bancroft told the group, “Local 471 is being used as a guinea pig in an effort to break unions,” referring to the Taft-Hartley Act.

The event sponsored by the Citizens Committee in Support of Cafeteria Workers raised $7,000 that was enough to keep the strike going for five days. Robeson donated his services as well as a $100 check.

Samuel Rodmans, a support committee member, told those assembled that it cost about $10,000 per week, including $250 a day for a soup kitchen, $150 a day for food and $5-6,000 a week for strikers rent and fuel bills in order to maintain the strike.

As the strike dragged on, clashes again erupted on the picket line—again at Arlington Farms where Palmer charged that a supervisory employee “provoked the whole thing.”

“He made himself so officious as to start conducting strike breakers through our picket lines. He hit one of our people. I don’t know where they get the authority to interfere with orderly picket lines.

Niehuss maintained the strikers were “chasing the employees into the dormitories.” The picket line was “so dense that patrons couldn’t get into the building.”

Strong raised the spirits of strikers when he announced February 24th that he expected to settle the strike “in the next few days.”

Committee obstructs settlement

Hoffman responded to this news by ordering 16 witnesses, including high government officials, to appear February 28th in a closed hearing to find out if the Truman administration was trying to settle the 54-day old strike by bypassing the Taft-Hartley Act.

He also announced he wanted to know if the administration was putting “pressure” on GSI to force it to bargain with Local 471.

Among those subpoenaed was George Strong, who was trying to craft a settlement between GSI and Local 471.

Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.) responded that he was “shocked that any member of Congress would try to keep any labor dispute from being peacefully settled. If the administration is trying to settle the strike, it should be praised, not criticized.”

Rep. Arthur G. Klein, House Labor Committee: 1950 ca.

Rep. Arthur G. Klein said the committee hearing was “obstructing” a settlement.

Rep. Arthur Klein (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Labor Committee condemned the subcommittee hearing as “obstructing” a resolution of the strike.

The subpoenas indeed had a chilling effect.

During the hearing Strong pointedly told Hoffman his committee had impeded progress in the negotiations.

Strong: As a matter of fact I tried to work it out along those lines [strikers having first preference of vacancies] and I was making quite a bit of progress. In fact, I was hopeful even up until last night that I could do it.

Hoffman: Nothing this committee has done or any statements issued by it have interfered in any way with your negotiations.

Strong: Yes. It has.

While the hearing was supposedly “secret,” details quickly leaked out.

GSI had offered to immediately take back between five and six hundred employees, but after subpoenas were issued GSI said it would take back strikers as positions became available—backtracking and making Strong’s position as conciliator untenable.

Strong did not ask the two parties to meet, but to agree to an outline of the conditions under which the strike could end and lead to some type of written agreement

Specifically there would be a written agreement, but no contract per se until the union was “certified.” Strong would act as “administrator” to decide questions arising between the GSI and Local 471. The company would agree to administer a voluntary check-off of union dues. The company would not discharge strikebreakers to make way for returning strikers but would re-open the Labor Department and Supreme Court cafeterias with union members and fill existing vacancies with union members. Those not immediately recalled would have first priority on vacancies that arose. Economic details were not revealed at that time.

Again hundreds of union members turned out for the hearing, but were initially turned away. Later a small group of spectators was admitted.

The committee’s inquiry was an outrageous intrusion into an attempt to settle a strike where details of the parameters of a possible settlement were openly discussed before the parties had agreed upon them–or in the case of Local 471 even heard them.

Cafeteria Local 471 nemesis Rep. O. C. Fisher: 1965 ca.

Rep. O. C. Fisher (D-TX) accuses President Truman of “evading the nation’s labor laws.”

After the hearing the three subcommittee members, Clare Hoffman, O. C. Fisher and Wint Smith, issued a statement accusing Truman of “evading the nation’s labor laws.” In the same statement, the three praised GSI and urged Local 471 to purge itself of “communist influence and domination.”

The next day, Strong issued a statement expressing “surprise” at Hoffman’s accusation and continued by saying,

“As I read the Taft-Hartley Act, there is nothing in it which prevents or even discourages the parties to a labor dispute from settling it by private negotiation or by utilizing a third party acceptable to both.”

Strong ‘fed up’

On March 2nd Strong announced, “I’m just about fed up” with his attempt to settle the strike, but said he would give it one last try.

While Strong’s efforts continued, the trials of strikers charged in connection with picket line incidents continued and in one case resulted in a hung jury. Picketing was temporarily suspended at all struck government cafeterias while negotiations continued.

Hoffman called another hearing March 6th that featured him berating Strong for negotiating with Alfred Bernstein of the UPWA who had not signed a non-communist affidavit. The exchange in part went:

Hoffman: Mr. Bernstein refused to tell us whether he was a communist or not, did he not?

Strong: I don’t know

Hoffman: He did refuse to tell us whether he was affiliated with certain organizations, which were charged with being communistic in their activities. Accepting that as a fact, why do you want to sit across the table and deal with Mr. Bernstein?

Strong: I don’t want to sit across the table.

Hoffman: Why do you do it?

Strong: Simply because I have always understood that a union has a right to be represented by whom they please.

Hoffman: That’s it all right. They can have a habitual criminal. They can have a convict in the penitentiary represent them if they want. If you want to, you can go to prison and deal with a convict. You are the representative I understand, appointed by the President.

Strong: I don’t know anything about that.

During the hearing Strong testified that both GSI and the union had agreed to all terms except whether he would be the administrator of disputes or whether arbitrators selected from the American Arbitration Association (AAA) would decide issues related to the agreement.

The union was opposed to using the AAA because of the undue delay it would cause, while GSI opposed Strong—perhaps because of his criticism of their backtracking.

At a meeting of the union during the evening of March 7th, Palmer announced a resumption of picketing. He told the members that the union officials had accepted Strong’s plan for a settlement, but that it had been rejected by GSI.

Truman adviser refuses subpoena

John Steelman, chief of staff of President Harry Truman: 1943 ca.

Presidential assistant John R. Steelman refused a committee subpoena.

The next day presidential assistant John R. Steelman refused to answer a congressional subpoena to testify at yet another GSI strike hearing.

Hoffman said he was referring the matter to the U.S. Attorney. “I would like to know if presidential advisers are exempt from our subpoenas,” Hoffman said.

He also announced that he would seek contempt of Congress citations against union officials for failing to answer the questions by the committee members. He named Palmer, Bancroft, Flaxer and Bernstein.

Apparently not well practiced in setting up witnesses for contempt charges, Hoffman repeatedly made statements to all the witnesses such as, “If that is your comment, if that is your answer that is all right”—one of the statements he made to Flaxer.

Steelman wrote to Hoffman the next day:

“As you know, my official duties are to advise and assist the President of the United States. After the receipt of each of the subpoenas, I promptly informed the President, and in each instance the President directed me, in view of my duties as his assistant, not to appear before your subcommittee.”

Hoffman responded,

“If presidential advisers are exempt, then—my God!—he could have 50 of them down there. He has them in mobs. Maybe all these GSI strikers are his advisers too.”

On March 11th, Strong made a written report to Federal Works administrator Philip Fleming that blasted GSI and the Hoffman subcommittee for the breakdown of his efforts to settle the 66-day strike.

“The activities of this committee that has been investigating the strike under direction of Rep. Clare E. Hoffman (R.-Mi.) have made settlement of the strike almost impossible.”

“Just when I thought I had the strike settled, the subcommittee would get in contact with GSI, or issue subpoenas, or hold at hearing at which GSI’s representatives would made commitments under oath which they could not modify to effect a settlement.”

Strong told a Washington Post reporter that GSI “is intent on breaking this union.”

Feds threaten to takeover cafeteria services

Fleming says U.S. may run cafeterias to end strike: 1948

The Truman administration threatens to terminate GSI contract.

More than 10 weeks into the strike on March 16th, Fleming threatened to terminate GSI’s contract and have the federal government take over running the cafeterias.

The Washington Post reported, “Fleming, the government’s ‘landlord’ of the cafeterias, personally notified GSI President U. S. Grant III, that he is seriously looking into the feasibility of terminating GSI governmental contract.”

Fleming added that he thought Strong’s proposal was a “reasonable” one and said he tried without success to convince the GSI board of trustees to accept it.

Fleming’s remarks were followed up the next day when John W. Gibson, assistant Secretary of Labor, said the company acted in “bad faith” during the efforts by Strong to settle the strike.

Gibson told a delegation of Local 471 members that GSI’s rejection of Strong’s recommendation was especially galling, “particularly after having investigated Strong and then accepting him” as conciliator.

GSI made a proposal to Fleming March 19th to settle the one outstanding issue, which Fleming promptly rejected. However, Fleming sent GSI a counter-proposal.

The following day, GSI announced that they “substantially accepted” Fleming’s proposal. “There are one or two items still to be adjusted, but it is believed they will not cause any material difference of opinion.”

The union scheduled a meeting for March 21st to consider the possible settlement after making a statement that they weren’t yet sure what the terms were.

Hoffman was now the one who was desperate. He released the subcommittee report to the full committee, which charged Truman with setting a “very dangerous precedent” for evading the anti-communist provision of the Taft-Harley Act and saying in part,

“…unions refusing to file anti-communist affidavits may come to the White House for appointment of a sympathetic conciliator and arbitrator.”

This precedent, Hoffman alleged, could now be applied to strikes in coal, auto, electrical and steel industries as well as to the “comparatively trivial” GSI strike.

But Hoffman’s efforts were in vain.

Union accepts terms

Hundreds of Local 471 members met at Shiloh Baptist Church March 22nd and overwhelmingly ratified the agreement.

The sticking point of who would decide disputes was settled by permitting Fleming to name the arbitrators. Fleming named Federal Works division counsel Daniel L. Boland to administer terms of the agreement and counsel Alan Johnstone to rule on any appeals from Boland’s decisions.

The rest of the agreement largely followed the one proposed by Strong three weeks previously.

  1. Under its terms, the two closed cafeterias would re-open and be staffed by returning union members. Several hundred others would be quickly recalled to fill current vacancies while the rest would be called in as vacancies occurred. It was estimated that 20 strikers per day could be returned.
  2. The six-and-one-half-cent raise granted by GSI that matched the Pentagon agreement would be incorporated.
  3. Union dues would continue to be deducted.
  4. The agreement did not bind GSI to meet directly with Local 471 officials or to negotiate a contract after this agreement ends December 31, 1948. However, there was a provision under which discussions of a new contract could take place under the administrator.
  5. Picket lines were to be withdrawn.

The union called the settlement “a smashing victory” and held a victory party later in the night at the Shiloh Church.

GSI, while not breaking the union, had realized labor savings and never directly negotiated with Local 471 and was not bound to do so under the settlement.

The strike ended after 78 days and it was certainly a victory for Local 471. The largest of the few predominantly African American unions in the city had taken on a company intent on breaking the union…and survived.

Former DC cafeteria union head as a California judge: 1990 ca.

Richard Bancroft, shown in a photo circa 1985.

The cost of that victory was suffering through weeks of bitter cold, privation, members jailed and losing a smart, capable leader in Richard Bancroft with many members having to wait to be recalled back to work, but they had preserved their union.

However, on the larger question of resisting the Taft-Harley Act by non-compliance and negotiating outside of it, the results were more mixed.

The Truman administration indicated they would intervene only if union officers signed the non-communist affidavits.

However, the settlement did circumvent the law with government intervention, despite the technical non-compliance with Taft-Hartley, since the UPWA officials never signed the non-communist affidavits.

The strike won acceptance from the Department of Labor that existing unions that refused to sign non-communist affidavits did not lose their bargaining rights.

But the strike signaled that while larger, more strategically placed unions like the mine workers and electrical workers may be able to secure agreements without signing the affidavits, smaller units like Local 471 would have difficulty surviving.

In that sense, the Local 471 strike was a defeat for those who advocated non-compliance as a method of fighting the Taft-Hartley Act.

Aftermath

Cafeteria strikers given harsh sentences: 1948

Cafeteria workers are given harsh sentences for picket incidents.

The trials that resulted from incidents on the picket line continued, and on April 17th, five pickets convicted of assaulting strikebreakers were each sent to jail for six months—a harsh penalty designed to send a message to Local 471 and other unions. Judge John P. McMahon stated while imposing the sentences:

“These crimes happened in broad daylight in downtown Washington with all its crowds. Strikers have no right to intimidate non-strikers and if they do, they will not go unpunished here,” 

The assaults involved fisticuffs and none of the strikers used weapons. The harsh sentences contrasted with the earlier 90-day jail sentence given a strikebreaker who brandished a pistol.

In May, the government moved further in its anti-communist quest: the Federal Works Administration implemented a mandate that all cafeteria workers must sign loyalty oaths where they swore they were not communists or communist sympathizers.

Some U.S. senators and representatives introduced bills in June to end GSI operation of government cafeterias and replace the service with a government-run operation. The bills, however, did not move.

As contract negotiations approached for Local 471 at the end of the year, Local 471 announced it had withdrawn from the UPWA in November and would continue as an independent union. This removed one of the last objections that GSI had for direct bargaining.

Shortly afterward Local 471 and GSI reached an agreement, after four days of negotiations, for a 1949 contract. The union obtained a 7-½ cent per hour raise, a company-financed group hospitalization plan, seniority in layoffs, and voluntary check-off of union dues. GSI in essence recognized the union again without the NLRB certification they demanded.

The fight against Taft-Hartley for Local 471 was over and after a year-long battle, they finally won a contract agreement with GSI.

Things did not end as well for the UPWA. It was expelled from the CIO, along with 10 other unions for being “communist-dominated” in 1950. Flaxer fought a number of raids by other unions and dis-affiliations of local units over the next few years.

He was called before a House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952 where a number of former UPWA officials, as well as his wife, testified against him. He was cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over UPWA membership lists to HUAC. UPWA represented approximately 60,000 members at that point.

By 1953 UPWA membership had dropped to about 35,000 members. Flaxer urged the remaining units to go their own way to avoid continued persecution as communist allies and he dissolved the organization shortly afterward. Flaxer’s contempt conviction was later overturned by the courts on a technicality.

The Supreme Court and lower courts initially upheld the non-communist affidavit on national security grounds or on the issue of preventing “political strikes,” studiously avoiding ruling on the civil liberties issue, Years later, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the non-communist affidavit on First Amendment grounds in 1965 in the case of the United States vs. Brown–long after communists had been driven out of the mainstream of the labor movement..

Local 471 progressive tradition

Grande dame of civil rights pickets in D.C. - 1950

Mary Church Terrell pickets a D.C. Kresge’s in 1950.

Local 471 continued its progressive tradition and in 1950 joined with 87-year old civil rights Grande Dame Mary Church Terrell to form the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of D.C. Anti-Discrimination Laws (CCEAD).

The group sought, through direct action like sit-ins, boycotts and picketing while lobbying and challenging non-compliance of the law through the courts, to enforce DC’s so-called “lost laws” that prohibited racial discrimination in the city..

The campaign began with Terrell and three others, including Local 471 member Essie Thompson, being refused service at the Washington, D.C. Thompson’s Restaurant at 725 14th Street NW. After being denied service, the four filed suit to enforce the old anti-discrimination laws.

It was a natural fit for the union where African Americans prepared and served food in the city’s private sector cafeterias for an all-white clientele.

Palmer led the union to provide the ground troops for Terrell’s pickets, and most large department store and chain drug store lunch counters desegregated under pressure from Terrell’s group in the years 1950-53.

Anti-discrimination flyer from Terrell and Palmer: 1953

A 1953 appeal to supporters signed by Terrell and Palmer.

In 1953, in an 8-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1871 Organic Act creating the then D.C. City Council granted it general police power to regulate local affairs, that the 1872 and 1873 regulations fell within this authority, and that they remained valid.

The remaining segregated facilities then fell like the last few tiles in a line of dominoes.

Palmer remained active in politics and led his union to affiliate with the Hotel & Restaurant Union in January, 1956 after the AFL and CIO federations merged. The union was renamed Local 473 at that time.

He served on both the AFL-CIO D.C. Central Labor Council executive board and the D.C. Democratic Committee, becoming a leader in the Home Rule fight seeking voting rights in the District of Columbia.

The union was ultimately merged with other D.C. area locals to form Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE)  Local 25 in the 1970s. A merger at the national level between the clothing and needle trades union UNITE and the hotel and restaurant union HERE occurred in 2004. In 2009, UNITE-HERE Local 23 was formed over a large geographical area to focus on food service, parking lot and airport concession workers.


Author’s notes

Lewis joins picket line at Press Cafeteria: 1940

The daughter of John L. Lewis, Katherine, pickets with Local 471 at Press Cafeteria in 1940.

We often cannot choose the time and place of our battles and Local 471 found itself in that position in late 1947. Despite tremendous odds against them, they held their union together, not only through the long strike, but through its aftermath.

Their ability to withstand a determined employer is worth examining.

They had capable, experienced leaders who involved and mobilized the rank-and-file early and throughout the strike. They had the benefit of waging a strike just the year before so that they and the rank-and-file were better prepared for the long battle.

Perhaps caught off guard by the demand for the non-communist affidavits, they pivoted quickly and prepared the members well for what was to come.

GSI stuck to their message of keeping communists out of the government buildings, but Local 471 hammered their own message of a union-busting employer that wanted to smash the African American union—a message that ultimately resonated with their own members, the larger public in the Washington, D.C. area–and the highest government officials.

One can almost hear the conversations that must have taken place on the all-male, all-white GSI board composed of government officials accustomed to segregated federal facilities with African Americans in the lowest paying jobs in Jim Crow Washington, D.C. about the impudence of these African American leaders of a predominantly black, female union.

Local 471 was able to survive the fight by keeping the rank and file informed and active—not only picketing facilities, but holding mass pickets, regular meetings and massing for the House committee hearings.

They prepared well for sustaining the strikers through the long battle by setting up a broad strike support committee that raised funds to help provide food as well as rent and utility money for their members.

They were able to do so because the leaders expanded their base of support beyond a narrow group of left-leaning individuals and organizations, making sure to involve moderate African American individuals and groups.

They capitalized on their location in Washington, D.C. to grab the attention of the CIO president Murray and U.S. President Truman.

As happens when our forces emerge from battle intact, a little luck on the timing probably helped. Later in 1948, Murray had abandoned his centrist course in the CIO and turned solidly against the left leaning unions.

DC cafeteria union’s 20th anniversary: 1958

20th anniversary celebration of Local 471, renamed Local 473, after affiliating with the Hotel & Restaurant Union in 1956.

In some instances around the country, union members abandoned their leaders behind communist accusations, but Local 471 stayed the course, confident that their leadership made the correct decision to fight.

The members had faith in their leaders not only because the union had uplifted its members in its 10 years of existence, but because the union leaders were forthright with their members and they perceived their leaders as fighting for them.

Criticism of the Communist Party and its policies is certainly a legitimate topic, but there is little doubt that the expulsion of communists and their allies from the mainstream of the American labor movement drastically weakened unions in the early 1950s.

Besides a general fear of communists during the hysteria of the Red Scare, the main charge against the communists was their “undemocratic practices.”

The communists did in fact caucus before union meetings and try to manipulate parliamentary procedure to win their internal battles within the unions. But so did their opponents. That’s the same way the U.S. Congress works—making the non-communist affidavit requirement more than a bit hypocritical.

The result of the communists’ expulsion was actually less democratic unions as remaining union leaders often ran them as personal fiefdoms.

Widespread new organizing ground to a halt or found itself still-birthed in the period after the expulsion from the CIO of communist leaning unions. Instead, the CIO and AFL concentrated their organizing efforts on raiding the unions that wouldn’t sign non-communist affidavits.

Many of the CIO unions that had been socially active turned to narrow business unionism focused only on collective bargaining and grievance representation–and leaving them unprepared for the challenges to come.

Some of the Communist Party-led and allied unions successfully fended off many of the AFL and CIO raids. The United Electrical Workers (UE), the Farm Equipment Union (which ultimately merged with the UE), Longshore and Warehouse and Mine, Mill and Smelter surprisingly beat back a number of raids.

Doing so was not only difficult because of the climate of the times, but because of the twisted way the NLRB applied the Taft-Hartley law.

If, for example, the CIO International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE) was seeking representation at a plant represented by the now-unaffiliated and non-complying United Electrical Workers (UE), only the IUE’s name would appear on the ballot. For the UE  to “win” the NLRB election, the workers had to vote for “no union” in order for it to continue as bargaining representative. Talk about an organizing challenge!

While the state of the labor movement today has many causes, one of them was the exclusion of the communists with their talented organizers and vibrant unions that advanced the rights of African Americans and women and brought real wage gains to workers. That is not to say that everything would have turned out great. The Communist Party itself withered during the 1950s and had difficulty attracting new members.

In retrospect, refusing the non-communist affidavits in order to neutralize the Taft-Hartley Act was a tactic that was doomed before it had a chance to be implemented once the AFL and CIO left the decision to individual unions.

At that point communists within the labor movement were in a very bad position due to the requirement. Sign it and have charges brought against you for a false affidavit, don’t sign it and you’ll be thrown out of your union. If you go your own way, you’re fighting not only the employer, but the AFL and the CIO.

Future Progressive Party Presidential Candidate Henry A Wallace: 1939

Henry Wallace in 1939

Just as complicated was the decision to support Henry Wallace in the 1948 election. The anti-communist current was already sweeping the nation, fed by Republicans and Democrats alike. The Wallace campaign took a principled stand that the U.S. should seek peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union, along with racial equality and repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act.

Often critics of Wallace’s campaign call it naive. But at that point in time, the Soviet Union’s successful assistance in bringing about communist-led governments in some Eastern European countries was all within its sphere of influence agreed to by Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt near the end of World War II.

The Soviets did not intervene on the side of communist forces in Greek civil war because Greece was in the British sphere of influence.

The Marshall Plan was driven more by the U.S. fear that Italy and France may vote communists into power while Truman also saw an opportunity to potentially wrest Poland and Czechoslovakia from the Soviet sphere of influence.

A strategic path of peaceful co-existence was not likely to succeed given the broad political support at the time for confrontation, but it was not wrong in principle to wage a fight around it in 1948.

There is little written about the Cold War decapitation of African American labor leadership in the Washington, D.C. area.

Marie Richardson at Home at Her Desk

Marie Richardson in 1946.

Among experienced local African American trade union leaders who were driven out, jailed or buckled under to anti-communist pressure during the Red Scare were Thomas Richardson of the UPWA, Marie Richardson Harris of the UPWA and the National Negro Congress, Henry Thomas of the Laborers, William S. Johnson of the Hotel & Restaurant Local 209 and Richard Bancroft of Local 471.

The connections between the old activist African American labor movement of the 1930s and 1940s that was intimately intertwined with the civil rights movement of the time and the new activist movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s was effectively severed.

The new rising African American leadership within unions had to try to re-invent the wheel in the 1950s in unions that largely emphasized grievances and contracts, but not organizing and the connection to larger social issues. Black leaders who saw the labor struggles and civil rights as intertwined and part of the larger national and international issues were largely gone– along with their strategy and tactics.

Palmer’s continued activist leadership of Local 471 gives us a hint of what the other path may have been.

What became of Bancroft, who resigned as president rather than sign a non-communist affidavit?

He enrolled in the Howard Law School where he graduated at the top of his class in 1951, moved to California where he went into private practice. He was a founder of the Charles Hamilton Houston Bar Association and was later appointed to the Superior Court in California. He returned to Washington, D.C. in his last years where he doubtless took pride in his days at Local 471.

Were Bancroft and Palmer members of the Communist Party? Neither ever claimed membership.  However, the somewhat discredited FBI paid informer Mary Markward, who infiltrated the Washington, D.C. Party, testified in 1951 that Bancroft was a member of the Northeast club of the District’s Communist Party.


Sources include:

The Washington Afro American; The Washington Star; The Washington Post; The Atlanta Daily World; The New York Times; The CIO: 1935-1955 by Robert Zieger; Reshaping American Society and Institutions, 1945-1960 by Robert H. Bremner and Gary W. Reichard; Hearings before a Special Subcommittee of the Committee on Education and Labor, House of Representatives, Eightieth Congress, second session: Investigation of GSI Strike; Labor’s Struggles, 1945-1950, a participants view by Irving Richter; The Labor Standard, Vol. 4, No. 2; The Office Worker, April 1947; Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 65, No. 5; Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions, Judith Norris and Maurice Zeitin; A National Issue: Segregation in the District of Columbia and the Civil Rights Movement at Mid-Century, Wendell E. Pritchett. Also incorporated is previous research done for the Washington Area Spark.


The author was an activist for 50 years in the Washington, D.C. area.  He is a graduate of the National Labor College, the former secretary-treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and former executive director of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400. He also worked for the Metropolitan Washington Council AFL-CIO and Progressive Maryland. He is also a former bus operator for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and currently resides in North Carolina.


Want to read more from this period in D.C. history?

DC’s fighting barber and the end of public school segregation – (1947-54) It wasn’t Brown v. Board of Education that ended legally segregated schools in the District of Columbia. It took a working class-based effort of pickets, boycotts, demonstrations and lawsuits that purposely excluded  the NAACP’s legal team.

Strike wave at Washington, D.C.’s Capital Transit: 1945 –  An economic battle during the greatest strike wave in the nation’s history that was intertwined with racial politics of the day produced a new generation of union leaders that turned what is now Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 into a powerhouse union.

Shootings by D.C. police spark fight against brutality: 1936-41 – Police killings of African Americans spark the local Communist Party to take on a fight against police brutality. The fight ended up with a broad-based coalition that honed the tactics of the later civil rights movement and brought a reduction in police shootings.

The D.C. women streetcar operators of World War II – The Capital Transit Co. refused to hire African Americans to operate streetcars and buses during a severe labor shortage, turning instead to white women. Who were they? What was their story?

A D.C. civil rights and labor leader remembered: Marie Richardson – From helping her father organize a union as a youngster to being jailed for 4 1/2 years during the McCarthy era, Marie Richardson Harris was an activist fixture in the Washington, D.C. area as the first woman to serve as a union’s national representative, to carrying the civil rights struggle through World War II while the men were away fighting and then into the Cold War where she became a casualty.

Police raid fundraiser by Progressive Party supporters: 1948 – The New Deal coalition crashes during the Cold War, but not before the left wing makes one last stand by running Henry Wallace for president on a pro-labor, pro-civil rights, pro-peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union platform in 1948. Here, the reality of what they faced begins to raise  its head when police raid a fundraiser for the Progressives in the District of Columbia.

The fight against Capital Transit’s Jim Crow hiring: 1941-55 – A group of young people take on one of the most visible symbols of Jim Crow in the nation’s capital–the Capital Transit system that refuses to hire African Americans as streetcar and bus operators. From humble beginnings, to mass marches, to a refusal of Presidents Roosevelt and Truman to back a government order to desegregate, through the cold war and to a resolution that includes agreement by the city’s transit union to a desegregation plan.

Looking for photos of the period? Try some of the following:

Jim Crow at U.S. Engraving: 1947-50
DC’s fighting barber: 1947-54
DC swimming pool integration: 1949-54
DC National Negro Congress: 1936-55
For fair employment: 1941-50
Abolish poll taxes: 1940-48
Free Willie McGee: 1945-51
Bilbo has got to go: 1945-46
No police brutality: 1941
No police brutality: 1936-40
DC Jim Crow Theaters: 1922-54
Fighting Capital Transit Jim Crow hiring: 1941-55
Cafeteria Local 471
DC Red Scares
Marie Richardson remembered
No police brutality: 1936-40
Liberation of Dachau: 1945
D.C. area strike wave: 1945-46
Capital Transit strikes: 1945
Wartime strikes: 1942-45

 

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