The Magazine

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.

Dubinsky had known both men as a boy in Poland before he emigrated to the United States. When he heard about their arrest, he announced a public protest meeting at Carnegie Hall. Here is where a little scholarly research would have been in order. In the name of winning World War II, Dubinsky was pressured privately to call off this meeting by such eminences as Eleanor Roosevelt, who said she was speaking for FDR. Wendell Wilke sent a letter to Dubinsky saying he wouldn't appear at the protest meeting lest he lose his influence with Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin's foreign minister.

Another aspect of Dubinsky's anti-communism was his underwriting of the fight against the 1949 Stockholm Peace Appeal, when the Moscow road show--including the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, no less--came to New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. With Sidney Hook, the embattled philosopher, in the lead, a group of us organized an ad hoc organization which we called Americans for Intellectual Freedom. From somewhere, Dubinsky found the money to finance our coup.

The Dubinsky era encompassed a time when the American labor movement was truly a movement, and was accepted as an integral part of the political process. The founder of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, had laid down this edict: Reward your friends and punish your enemies. In other words, no undying loyalty to any one political party.

Major newspapers and periodicals had labor reporters because labor was regarded as an important, full-time beat, which it no longer is. The New York Times once had three labor reporters, one of whom, Louis Stark, won the 1942 Pulitzer Prize "for distinguished reporting of labor stories." Labor leaders like George Meany, Walter Reuther, and Dubinsky were sought after as spokesmen for an important sector of the population. Lyndon Johnson was the last president to worry about the labor vote. (One of the book's excellent collection of photographs shows the six-foot-three LBJ helping the five-foot Dubinsky into his overcoat after a White House visit.)

Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan got along without the "labor vote," whatever it represented in the late 1960s and thereafter. But in the Roosevelt era the labor vote was so important that, in 1939, FDR, preparing for a third-term bid, wrote to Lewis and the AFL president William Green, pleading with them to "end the breach" and negotiate "peace with honor."

Dubinsky was a man of fixed principle on the question of communism and union corruption, but he was pretty flexible about everything else. I was witness to an example of his flexibility. It was during a discussion between Green's successor, George Meany, and Dubinsky on whether to accept a large grant offered to the AFL by the Ford Foundation for a history of the American labor movement. Meany, conscious of past labor difficulties with management, and possible future difficulties, insisted on rejecting the offer. Dubinsky demurred and said, in Yiddish, which he then translated with a grin for Meany's benefit: "Der goy is trayff aber sein gelt is kosher"--or, the gentile is non-kosher but his money is not. But the decision of the blunt-spoken Meany, no shtetl casuist like Dubinsky, won the day.

The foregoing is a helluva thing to be doing to an author whose admirable scholarly work I am supposed to be reviewing. Parmet's work will surely have an honored place on the shelves of Cornell University's Kheel Labor Center, as has an earlier work, David Dubinsky: A Life with Labor, co-authored by Dubinsky himself and A.H. Raskin, one of the New York Times's famed labor reporters.

Arnold Beichman is a Hoover Institution research fellow. His updated biography, Herman Wouk: The Novelist as Social Historian, was recently published.