Pressman confers with CIO’s Phillip Murray: 1938
Lee Pressman, general counsel of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), confers with CIO chair Phillip Murray July 22, 1938 at a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. on the Republic Steel strike.
Pressman was named counsel of the CIO in June 1936, appointed by union chief John L. Lewis as part of a conscious attempt to mobilize left-wing activists on behalf of the new labor federation.
"One of Pressman's unofficial roles in the CIO was liaison between the CIO's Communist faction and its predominantly non-Communist leadership,” according to Time magazine.
Pressman began his career in private practice, later taking posts in the U.S. government for several years in the early 1930s.
Pressman was a top-flight labor attorney who helped negotiate many major contracts from 1936 until his resignation in 1948. His influence with the heads of the CIO John L. Lewis and later Phillip Murray cannot be underestimated.
As the Cold War with the Soviet Union began, Pressman’s position became untenable. Pressman argued that the CIO should support the third party candidacy of Henry Wallace in the 1948 elections, but was defeated on the CIO council by a 3-1 margin.
Pressman resigned and shortly afterward, the CIO expelled 11 unions for communist domination. It was the end of a marriage that produced the greatest union density in U.S. history at around 33% of the workforce.
Pressman was accused of being a Soviet spy but there is little evidence of intelligence gathering. Instead later evidence indicates he may have been part of a broader support network that funneled money to progressive causes.
After leaving the CIO, Pressman aided Wallace’s candidacy and ran as the American Labor Party candidate for Congress in New York. Both lost their bids.
Pressman resumed private practice representing left-wing unions, but their numbers quickly dwindled during the McCarthy era.
In 1950 Pressman testified before the House Committee on Un American Activities (HUAC) where he probably gave deceptive testimony:
“In my desire to see the destruction of Hitlerism and an improvement in economic conditions here at home, I joined a Communist group in Washington, D. C, about 1934. My participation in such group extended for about a year, to the best of my recollection. I recall that about the latter part of 1935— the precise date I cannot recall, but it is a matter of public record — I left the Government service and left Washington to reenter the private practice of law in New York City. And at that time I discontinued any further participation in the group from that date until the present.”
Pressman’s testimony was not particularly helpful to the committee.
Whittaker Chambers, the former Communist espionage agent turned conservative darling pointed out: "By 1951, he (Lee Pressman) was prepared to concede that he had been a Communist, that the Ware Group [a communist study group composed of mid-ranking government officials in Agriculture, public workers and other agencies] had existed, that he had been a member of it. He named three other members whom I had named. He could not remember four other members whom I had also named, and he insisted that he had never known me in Washington."
With his status and power gone during the McCarthy era, he made the following observation during a 1957 interview:
“I don't think today's generation has nearly as exciting a life as we did when we were in our twenties, but I suppose it's the times. It seems to me that the labor movement with all the strength it has nowadays should be able to organize several million unorganized workers."
Pressman died in New York in 1969.
For more information and related images of random radicals, see flic.kr/s/aHske413N1
The photographer is unknown. The image is an ACME News Pictures photograph obtained via an Internet sale.