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The electrical workers: a history of labor at General Electric and Westinghouse, 1923-1960.

The Electrical Workers: A History of Labor at General Electric and Westinghouse, 1923-1960.

Ronald W. Schatz's book is a fascinating history of 37 years of labor relations in the two largest electrical companies in the United States. This history not only details the organization of the unions but also discusses the philosophical ideology of the unions' leaders.

In many ways electrical workers are a group apart from other American workers. In the early 1920's, they were involved in creating products that were on the leading edge of technology. Their skills were many and varied--from the molding of huge electrical turbines to the winding of gossamer wires into electrical coils; from sheet metal crafting of generator housings to assembly-line work on electrical appliances. Men performed the heavier tasks, women, much of the delicate work.

Early in the period studied, electrical workers turned to labor organizations to represent them in their quest for a better working life. Interestingly, General Electric (GE) and Westinghouse did not discourage union representation. Electrical company managers adopted a "corporatist' philosophy of managing--that management should strike a balance between the interests of the stockholders and the workers and not subjugate one to the benefit of the other. Thus, GE and Westinghouse "fashioned a set of labor policies intended to achieve the unity of labor and capital . . .'

Paradoxically, the labor organization that resulted from the benevolent management policies was heavily influenced by Communist and Socialist officers. That organization, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), got its start at GE plants in Schenectady, NY, and Lynn, MA, and Westinghouse factories in East Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, PA, in the early 1930's. The founders were men like James Matles, head of the metals branch of the Communist-led Steel and Metal Workers Industrial Union; Horace Hunt, a member of the Communist party in Erie, PA; Frederick Steele, who represented the Communist-led Trade Union Unity League; and George Bush, a veteran Socialist community leader in East Pittsburgh.

Another founder, James Carey, had been a leader in a Philco Corp. local union in Philadelphia. Carey was a staunch anti-Communist, but acquiesced in the political beliefs of the others at the formation of the union. He became president of the United Electrical Workers, with Matles as director of organizing, and several other avowed Communists in leadership positions in the union.

Initially, the United Electrical Workers unsuccessfully sought a charter from the American Federation of Labor. The AFL told Carey to enroll his members with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). But when the IBEW offered nonvoting "Class B' membership to Carey, he refused. The United Electrical Workers later became an affiliate of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

In the book's preface, Schatz points out that his research showed that the Communist-led unions did not slow down war production during World War II. This "revelation' is well-documented with statements of the "change of heart' of the Communist union leaders after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Prior to the invasion, when Germany and the Soviet Union had a "nonaggression' pact in force, Communist union leaders obstructed war production intended for Britain on the grounds that the United States was supporting an "imperialist war.'

After World War II, and with the advent of the cold war, Communist union leaders began to have problems. A provision of the Taft-Hartley Act required union officers to sign an affidavit stating that they were not members of the Communist party. Many UE officers refused to sign the affidavits. Opposition to Communist presence in unions also came from the Catholic church and from anti-Communists within the unions.

In 1949, James Carey formed a rival union, the International Union of Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (IUE) which was chartered by the CIO, while the UE was expelled from the Federation because of alleged Communist domination. The IUE and UE then embarked on certification campaigns to gain control of the local unions. The resulting strife left the two unions in command of fewer workers than the UE had represented before the split. Other unions such as the Machinists (IAM), the Auto Workers (UAW), the Electrical Workers (IBEW), and the Teamsters (IBT) gained representation rights over some of the former UE locals. The fractionation of the union allowed the electrical companies to redesign jobs and manufacturing facilities and ultimately to disperse their facilities around the Nation, rather than concentrating them in the Northeast. Another result of the unions' weakness emerged as "Boulwareism,' a bargaining strategy in which an employer attempts to persuade the employees that his or her initial offer is in their best interests, thus bypassing the union, and changes this offer only if he or she receives new information or persuasive arguments from the union.

Author Schatz has developed many other themes in his presentation, such as the role of women in the unions, seniority, and incentive pay. A criticism of the Industrial Relations Research Association's book of 1980, Collective Bargaining: Contemporary American Experience, was that the day-to-day life in the workplace and practices in the work settings were virtually ignored. That should not be a criticism of this book.
COPYRIGHT 1985 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:McCollum, James K.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1985
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