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Cartoon by “Blackie,” published in Labor Herald, January 29, 1921. Click for larger view>>

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Loyalty Oath

Of the Central Trades & Labor Council’s (CTLC) many special committees none was more controversial than the Screening Committee appointed by President Burke in February, 1949 after the Council unanimously approved a resolution that communists be unseated as delegates, and referred to the Legislative Committee a motion to amend the constitution to bar communists from meetings.

Although the CTLC in its early years had included members who were openly socialist and many members had welcomed and supported Eugene Debs, World War I and the Soviet Revolution led labor conservatives to taint as subversive a wide range of organizations and programs. In 1919, following a government investigation of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, headed by Sidney Hillman, the CTLC excoriated the local union and characterized Hillman as a radical. The federal raid that year on the Progressive Working People’s Labor Lyceum inflamed local hostility to socialists and a 1921 editorial cartoon (shown at right) in the council paper showed the new President, Edward Mitten, wrench in hand, ready to deal with a sink plugged by the Industrial Workers of the World: “Yes the pipes need a thorough cleansing of radicalism.”

Over the following years the CTLC refused to support appeals from Workers International Relief (1932), rejected an ACW invitation to participate in a May 1 demonstration for the 30-hour/5-day week (1933), refused to work with the National Congress for Unemployment and Social Insurance (1934), rejected Provisional Peace Committee plans for a peace demonstration (1940), appointed a special committee to ferret out Fifth Column activity (1940), and requested the AFL to review affiliation with the World Trade Union Congress (1944).

Often opposition to communism and to the CIO were linked, as in a 1945 editorial in the Council paper warning that “Rochester AFL labor today stands on the brink of a ‘sneak’ attack by the Communists and those extreme leftists in the CIO who continually ‘play ball’ with the Commies.” Thus the actual Loyalty Affadavit which the revised council constitution would require delegates and three witnesses to sign seems aimed at both the Communist Party and the CIO: “I do solemnly promise on my sacred word of honor that I am not now and never will so long as I remain a delegate to the [Council] become a member of the Communist Party or any revolutionary organization or give aid, comfort or support to any organization that tries to disrupt or cause dissension in the American Federation of Labor.”

After a third reading and much debate, the resolution to amend the constitution to ban communists passed overwhelmingly, though one speaker noted that “fascism was more of a threat to labor than communism.” Dissension in the Council followed immediately. Typographical 15 voted unanimously to forbid its members to sign the non-Communist affadavit, promising to send delegates until they were stripped of credentials. Their president made the point that “any move on the part of labor to voluntarily saddle itself with Taft-Hartley like anticommunist oaths, etc. makes labor’s fight to repeal the slave labor law weaker.” This sentiment was echoed by Laborers 435, who labeled the oath “an invasion of our civil liberties.”

Nevertheless, President Burke unseated delegates from Typographical 15 and Pressmen’s 38 and expelled CTLC Secretary Julius Loos, a member of the Typographers and editor of Labor News. After contentious debate Burke’s rulings to unseat and to suspend without trial were sustained. Local 15 filed an appeal with the AFL but AFL President Meany told Burke “to enforce the affadavit requirement at least until such time as the AFL ruled otherwise.”

In 1950, within months of the May decision of the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the non-Communist oath provision of Taft-Hartley, AFL President Green notified the CTLC that the AFL Executive Council had approved its new Constitution and By Laws “requiring that no delegates be seated who belonged to organizations which were not upholding American institutions.”