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Labor's Little Giant

Once there was something called the "labor vote."

Nov 21, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 10 • By ARNOLD BEICHMAN
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The Master of Seventh Avenue

David Dubinsky and the American Labor Movement

by Robert D. Parmet

New York University, 436 pp., $45

THE FIRST TIME I met David Dubinsky, president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), was in 1942 as he was strolling on the Atlantic City boardwalk with a few colleagues. As a novice labor reporter on the liberal-left newspaper PM, which was loaded with Communist staffers, open and concealed, I had been assigned by PM's labor editor James Wechsler, an anti-Communist like me, to cover the union's executive board meeting.

I walked up to the 50-year-old Dubinsky and introduced myself. He greeted me with a sneer: "Aha, another Communist from PM."

I don't know what impelled me to reply: "If you were 10 years younger, I'd kick the sh--t out of you."

I then turned and strode away. I grabbed a boardwalk hot dog for lunch and then sat down in the hotel lobby, site of the ILG board meeting, trying to figure out how I would manage to get a story after insulting the union president. About 2 o'clock, Joe Shaplen, the New York Times labor reporter, came up to me. Shaplen (his son, Bob, became a noted foreign correspondent) and I had met several times when I was a stringer for the Times and he knew my politics. Said Shaplen: "Dubinsky says you should come into the board meeting. We'll go in together."

Obviously, Shaplen had given me full political clearance. There was an important story at the board meeting: Dubinsky had decided that his union ought to secede from the nascent Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to return to the American Federation of Labor. John L. Lewis, the CIO founding president, had invited the Communist party to recruit CIO organizers. When Dubinsky had remonstrated with Lewis over his coziness with the CP, Lewis said teasingly, "Well, Dave, who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?"

A few years later, when Lewis, still the isolationist, even after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, had been kicked out as CIO president by his erstwhile CP colleagues, Dubinsky taunted him with, "So, John, who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?"

To understand Dubinsky's importance in American history, not merely labor history, and why he deserves a serious, scholarly biography, it is important to understand how furiously the Soviet Union was dedicated to penetrating and controlling Western trade unions. It was a task assigned by Lenin, who had written that Communists must "agree to any sacrifice and even--if need be--to resort to all sorts of stratagems, artifices, illegal methods, to evasions and subterfuges, so as to get into the trade unions, and to remain in them, and to carry on Communist work within them at all costs."

In post-World War II France and Italy, Moscow-controlled Communist parties controlled trade unions in strategic sectors of the economy like the waterfronts. There were months in postwar Europe when the only way to ship NATO arms to both countries was by plane. The Communist-controlled dockers' unions in Marseilles and Leghorn barred unloading vehicles and ordnance from American freighters. One-quarter of the CIO executive board were either CP members or under CP control.

The Soviet attempt to take over the unions had begun in the aftermath of the Russian revolution. And the resistance came almost immediately from Dubinsky's union. He was reviled by the CP, which composed a little ditty that ran something like this:

Oh, the cloakmakers union is a no-good union,

It's a right-wing union by the boss.

And it concluded with this refrain:

Oh! They preach socialism and they practice fascism

In the right-wing union by the boss.

Dubinsky was what we would today call an anti-Communist hardliner. It is a lamentable omission from this biography. Whether out of ignorance or political choice, Robert Parmet devotes a mere sentence to an important event in Dubinsky's political career.

In 1941, Stalin ordered the arrest, as Nazi spies, of two Polish Jewish socialists, Henryk Ehrlich and Victor Alter, both of whom had sought refuge in the Soviet Union from the invading German army. Both men had been members of the Polish Socialist Bund. Determined to wipe out any trace of Polish independence, Stalin ordered the Katyn massacre, in which some 5,000 Polish officers were executed. The Alter-Ehrlich arrests were part of the same genocidal, anti-Polish pattern.