1940s: The War and its Aftermath


The early years of the War decade found the CSFT struggling much as it had in the past, although with the benefit of hindsight we can see the first signs of change in the air. While for three years – 1941-44 – there was no official AFT state federation in California, local activities did not come to a halt. The labor movement was seemingly stronger than it had ever been. As a result of its militant pre-war organizing, more workers belonged to unions than at any point previously. Agreements between major corporations and labor-facilitated by the government – had achieved union shop agreements and automatic dues check-offs in return for a “no-strike” pledge for the duration of the war. Thus the atmosphere for union organizing had become quite different from the AFT’s earliest days.

The national AFT was at last gathering a real head of steam. In 1943 the national union reported that it had just experienced its greatest growth spurt in over twenty years. It was using its new-found strength to play a greater role within the AFL nationally and to fund heightened organizing campaigns. Officially it came out against the witch hunts of the Dies Committee, although internally there was a growing movement against Communist influence, which resulted in the expulsion of the New York and Philadelphia locals in 1941. Despite these traumas, the union continued to grow during the war.

Meanwhile, the California Federation actually lost members. By 1941 the CSFT spoke for a mere 250 members. National Secretary-Treasurer Irvin Kuenzli complained in a letter to CSFT Secretary May Kirkham in January that the money spent organizing in California over the past few years far exceeded the per capita dues payments to the national; membership had decreased by nearly 100 teachers. By the end of the year AFT revoked the charter of the CSFT for maintaining less than the required five locals in good standing.

After the start of the war, San Francisco Federation president Ed Gallagher explained to the national office that transportation was difficult in such a large state, and the war had drained off members to’ service. Apparently, factionalism and personality conflicts between local leaders hadn’t helped matters any, either. In a letter to the CSFT’s locals, which had by now grown again to nine, Gallagher pleaded for renewed coordination. He asked Local 31’s Ruth Dodds, a national AFT vice president, to assist his efforts in pulling the CSFT back together. Although Gallagher and Dodds personally didn’t get along, by July of 1944 Dodds had submitted the necessary local letters to the national AFT, and the CSFT, with a new charter, had another lease on life.

With such a small statewide membership, it makes sense that much of the organization’s energies went into coalition work with the rest of the labor movement. Yet there was a surprising amount of local activism as well. In 1940 Local 430 successfully fought against pay cuts, and in the same year achieved a restoration of the jobs of the Chaneys, two union teachers who had been fired for their political activities. Palo Alto Local 442was a strong participant in the Co-op movement, extremely popular in California; Palo Alto member Joel Berreman, of Stanford University, became the CSFT’s first president of the decade. The Sacramento local waged a winning struggle for sabbatical leave pay. Just before Pearl Harbor, the CSFT presidency moved south, with Frank C. Davis of UCLA, Local 430, picking up the torch.

Local activism, however, couldn’t overcome the essentially poor state of affairs in the CSFT, attested to by a laconic summary in American Teacher ”A report on a program of action and policy to justify the federation’s existence and provide for an extension of its influence was the basis of much of the convention’s discussion.” The delegates also promised one another that four issues of a state newsletter, to be named California Teacher, would appear each year. (The promise was not to be fulfilled until 1948.)

There were some significant energies expended, if not well-coordinated, around curricular issues. In California, as across the rest of the country, school boards in many districts caved in to conservative pressures to ban a series of social studies textbooks, Progressive Education, by Harold Rugg, which had been in common usage. Under the banner of academic freedom, Locals 61 and 430 drummed up considerable labor support in the losing effort. The CSFT lodged protests with local and state politicians, to no avail.

After 1941 AFT locals in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles worked to support the war effort and various social issues. Members of the San Francisco local donated a day’s salary to the city’s War Chest. Local 430 activist Abraham Minkus was appointed chair of a district wide committee convened by the Board to study interracial relations in the school district, which led to Board-approved in-service and education programs.

The late 40s saw a war within labor that cut across the lines of the AFL/CIO split, in which the right and left wings of the involvement fought to the death. As a result of the Cold War, labor became a target for a resurgent national conservatism. The Taft- Hartley Act passed in 1947 over Truman’s veto, effectively crippling the labor involvement by preventing it from utilizing its militant organizing tactics of the previous decade. Taft-Hartley also mandated loyalty affidavits for union officers which affirmed non-membership in the Communist Party. Rather than face investigation by HUAC and other crusading governmental bodies, the leadership of the AFL and the CIO offered to “clean house” themselves. Many unions were expelled from the CIO for alleged communist domination, and AFL unions suffered upheaval and internal witch hunts.

In 1948 the CIO purged its Public employee union, which had given shelter to the expelled AFT locals from the East Coast. HUAC hearings connected with the CIO action dragged out the old AFT schism, casting a shadow on teachers everywhere. Compounding matters, teacher strikes led to legislative reprisals, calling for loyalty oaths, jail terms for strikers, and investigations of “subversives.” AFT faced an uncertain future.

This is the background for the story of Los Angeles Local 430 in the second half of the World War II decade, a story which contains many of the elements of a tragedy. The CSFT’s largest local had achieved some notable successes, winning a few important teacher defense battles, gaining substantial amounts of new members and earning the accolades of the national AFT in 1946 for its good work. By 1948 the Los Angeles Local had absorbed a couple of smaller teacher associations and its membership topped 800. Its president, Harold Orr, had been elected president of the CSFT in1946 and reelected twice. Under his leadership the statewide organization was growing, with several locals in northern California pushing over 100 members and new activists and leaders emerging among them. (One of these, Ed Ross, president of Alameda County local 771, had barely lost the election against Orr for president of the CSFT at its 1947 convention.) At Orr’s urging, the number of locals paying per capita dues to labor councils and the California Labor Federation increased from four to eleven; and a statewide organizing fund was established for the first time in years.

As occurred after the first World War, the influx of returning veterans in 1945-6 helped drive membership numbers upward; so Orr’s leadership was not the only factor in CSFT growth. Nor was Orr’s style of leadership without problems for organizing Los Angeles teachers. In a district of 11,000 teachers, the overwhelming majority were not impelled to flock into the arms of the AFT in any case. Orr and his group practiced a highly politicized brand of unionism, characterized by an increasing sharpness of tone as the immediate postwar years grew less hospitable to the liberal-left coalition that had held together within many unions for a decade’ There were teachers who, open to a bread-and-butter unionism, failed to appreciate the nuances of the connection between their daily classroom lives and ‘the deleterious effects of the Truman Doctrine on the class struggle in Europe” – a typical discussion topic at local 430 meetings. In addition, some members complained of Orr’s “heavy gavel” at the local’s meetings, making it difficult for opposing Points of view to carry the field.

In 1947 Los Angeles teacher Walter Thomas helped found an opposition caucus to Orr’s group of left-leaning officers and activists. That year Thomas ran and lost against Orr for the Local 430 presidency. The following year Thomas’ caucus raised the money to send him to the AFT national convention, where he made a presentation to the Executive Council claiming voting irregularities in the election. He also asserted that Orr’s group was following the Communist Party line in its decision making, and acting in a generally undemocratic fashion.

The national AFT Executive Council decided an investigation was in order, not only of local 430 but also of San Francisco Local 61 at the same time. In San Francisco the local had had longstanding connections with the California Labor School, an independent labor studies center with classes on economics, politics, parliamentary procedure, labor history and collective bargaining. It had hosted an official reception of visiting union leaders from around the world during balmier times for U.S.-Soviet relations, the 1946 United Nations meetings in San Francisco. This was now held against it; and the San Francisco Labor Council, formerly friendly to the school, was warning its locals that the school was Communist-controlled.

Following the investigation of the locals, the national AFT ordered San Francisco to sever its relationship with the California Labor School or face expulsion. After initial resistance, the local gave in to pressure from the national AFT, the San Francisco Labor Council, local politicians and George Meany himself, putting its members on notice they were no longer to support or teach at the School. The local remained in good standing.

Local 430 didn’t fare so well. The national Executive Council found that the local was guilty of six charges. Interestingly enough, the voting irregularity accusation was not one of these. Four of the charges were quite vague, e.g., “The AFT in Los Angeles was in general disrepute”, and “Publications of Local 430 were undignified and discreditable.” Of the two findings with substance, one determined that the local had cooperated with a CIO union, directly ignoring AFL directives. The other determination was the key: that the Los Angeles teachers union refused to take action in support of Section 9, Article 3, of the AFT constitution (barring membership to Fascists, Nazis and Communists). Since no one was accusing the local of harboring Fascists or Nazis, the inference was unmistakable.

The charter of the Los Angeles Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 430, was revoked outright, and the local expelled from the AFT. The Thomas group became the charter members of the new Los Angeles Teachers Union, AFT Local 1021. Orr and his associates were refused access to the Pages of American Teacher to explain their side of the story, and told to come to the next convention and appeal the decision, as provided for in the AFT constitution. They sent a representative, whose arguments failed to persuade the delegates; the resolution upholding the Executive Council’s decision was supported by a roll call vote of 792-108, and Local 430 was no more.

Over 100 members and friends of the new local 1021 came to the chartering ceremony in October 1948, which received a fair amount of positive press. In attendance along with the new president, Joseph Voorhees, were local union and political leaders, including Roy Brewer, national Vice-President of IATSE, who had made his career by redbaiting and helping to break left leaning unions in Hollywood. Over time Voorhees, anxious to disassociate the LATU from its predecessor’s “red” public image, appeared before legislative committees to divulge what he knew about Orr and Local 430. This was part of a long-term effort by Local 1021 to remove the taint of Communism from teacher unionism in Los Angeles.

Within five years many of the former leaders of Local 430 were no longer teaching, having been fired by the School Board for taking the Fifth Amendment at HUAC hearings, to which they had been summoned after being named by another teacher as Communists. The LAFT attempted to join the CIO, but was thwarted by United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther, who said that teachers belonged in the AFL. The former local persisted in a non-affiliated existence coming to Board meetings and publishing a newsletter until the mid-50s.

Strains between the new local and the state organization were evident from the outset. The CSFT found itself at the end of the 40s with a membership less than half of what it was previous to Local 430’s expulsion. For not only did they lose several hundred teachers in Los Angeles; the Cold War atmosphere — like the Palmer Period in the 20s — made teachers think twice about joining any union. In Los Angeles the new union struggled with Problems from both ends of the political spectrum: old 430 members loyal to the vanquished LAFT held aloof from Local 1021 because the new union was on the wrong side in the Cold War; while most teachers stayed away in droves because1021, was still an AFT local, and too radical by definition. Membership numbers dipped in many CSFT locals in 1948-49, but Los Angeles suffered the most.

With Orr gone, Ed Ross became president of the CSFT. CSFT leaders, including Ross, found themselves in a difficult position. Whatever differences they may have had with Local 430 leaders’ politics, many of them personally liked and respected the Los Angeles teachers for having pulled the organization back together. A north-south split emerged along the lines of primary allegiance to the CSFT (north) and to the national AFT (south). Another division opened up between the large locals (primarily Los Angeles and San Francisco) and small locals, relating to per capita obligations to the CSFT. Local 1021 kept lines of communication open to the national organization; but mutual distrust conspired with geography to keep the CSFT divided.

Ross did what he could to remedy the situation. Developing the most extensive organizing plan yet by the CSFT, he raised $2500 from the California Labor Federation and from the AFT to organize in both ends of the state. He got the AFT to send out national staffer Victoria Almon to assist. Ten thousand letters were sent to California teachers. The long-promised CSFT newsletter, California Teacher, first saw its mimeographed light of day in August 1948, edited by CSFT secretary Emma Brubaker. It has managed to maintain regular publication ever since.

Ross himself, a full-time classroom teacher, found the time and means to go from city to city to encourage teachers to organize, the union paying only for his expenses (and sometimes not even that). He was re-elected at the November 1949 convention, and during his full term helped eight more locals to come into being. He worked thanklessly and without spectacular success to mend fences with Local 1021. He also presented two important resolutions at the California Labor Federation convention. One established labor-funded scholarships for high school students, a program that, much expanded, remains in place to this day. With the other resolution, all AFL unions in California condemned special loyalty oaths as a condition of employment for teachers. In his role as a working teacher who somehow created room in the rest of his life to represent the interests of all California teachers, he prefigured the vision and activism of CSFT’s famous president of the next decade, Ben Rust.