- Labor's Cold War: Local Politics in a Global Context
American labor historians have maintained that Cold War anticommunism contained postwar militancy and undermined the labor movement's ability to effectively respond to the growing diversity of the workforce, deindustrialization, mechanization, and conservative attacks on unions. Following recent work that seeks to understand how the anticommunist crusade played out in specific union locals and working-class communities (Robert Cherny et al., American Labor and the Cold War), this useful volume takes us to a surprising new array of Cold War theaters from the steps of Milwaukee's city hall to the barricaded gates of a suburban Tokyo film studio. Importantly, editor Shelton Stromquist notes, several of the essayists found that labor's progressive agenda survived even as national politics shifted to the right and business launched an anti-union offensive.
David M. Lewis-Colman traces black autoworker Sheldon Tappes's growing disillusionment with the Communist Party, culminating in his friendly witness testimony against several former associates before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Organizing on new political terrain, Tappes embraced liberal anticommunism and charted a moderate course for civil rights reform that sought an end to employment discrimination and opened up leadership slots to African Americans in the United Automobile Workers. Unlike Tappes, union leader Leo Jandreau never testified against his former comrades or engaged in anticommunist rhetoric even as he moved his members from the left wing United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE) into the CIO's International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE). Lisa Kannenberg argues that Jandreau realized that the besieged UE was poorly situated to defend the interests of his Schenectady-based local, but also notes that HUAC lost interest in having him testify after he switched to the CIO. In his study of Latino labor politics in Los Angeles, Kenneth C. Burt takes the Cold War labor declensionist narrative head on. He argues that social democrats replaced Communist leaders in new Latino civil rights coalitions of the 1950s that were far more robust and effective than earlier Communist-led organizations. Examining the experiences of Mexican-American miners in New Mexico, James J. Lorence explains that Communist [End Page 299] Party success was built upon pre-existing organizing traditions and the swelling pride of World War II veterans.
These four essays are a useful reminder that labor's radical traditions sprung from many sources, including socialism, shop floor activism, New Deal liberalism, and ethnic identity politics. The Communist Party had no monopoly on progressive politics. Nevertheless, it is hard not to come away from the volume struck by a sense of loss. Whether those losses be the collapse of interracial public housing in Milwaukee, the destruction of community-based labor organizing in the Missouri Valley, or the CIO's failure to develop a foreign policy independent of the Democratic Party, the damage was real and the costs were steep. Sure labor activists discovered how to help progressive politics survive the Cold War, "but doing so did not make it thrive" (158).