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Cold winds blow on DC cafeteria workers: 1948 | by Washington Area Spark
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Cold winds blow on DC cafeteria workers: 1948

A picket line by some of the 2,000 members of the United Cafeteria Workers Local 471 during an 11-week strike during winter--January 5-March 24, 1948.

 

They are picketing in front of the Federal Works Building on F Street between 18th and 19th Streets NW.

 

The strike began after a private company--Government Services, Inc.—insisted that the union leaders sign affidavits swearing that they were not communists before they would negotiate with the union.

 

The recently enacted Cold War-era Taft-Hartley law prohibited members of the Communist Party from serving as union leaders and required all union leaders to sign non-communist affidavits if they were to be subject to provisions under the National Labor Relations Act.

 

A number of unions, notably the United Mine Workers of America led by John Lewis, refused and companies still bargained contracts with the union outside of the labor board processes.

 

However, GSI refused to bargain and took the position that the failure to file the affidavits disqualified the union as a collective bargaining representative at the 42 cafeterias in government buildings where it represented workers.

 

The union, which had won a strike against GSI the previous year, charged that the affidavits were a smokescreen for union-busting.

 

The House Labor Committee investigated the strike and hundreds of strikers turned out, booing congressional representatives opposed to the union and cheering their leaders.

 

The cafeteria workers union was affiliated with the United Public Workers and the UPW president Abram Flaxer testified, “I submit that the entire inquiry amount to an abuse of congressional power. In this instance, such abuse helps only a sweatshop employer intent on preventing Negro workers from enjoying the benefits of unionism.”

 

Flaxer continued, “We do not have to comply with the Taft-Hartley Act. We have no benefits under it. We have been thrown back 50 years by the Taft-Hartley act.”

 

Rep. Claire Hoffman (R-MI) responded by suggesting that the law didn’t go far enough and said, “Do you think that’s far enough?”

 

Clarence Mitchell, national labor secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was cut off by Hoffman during his testimony and Hoffman adjourned the hearing.

 

Some of the cafeterias opened with scabs and the strike began to drag on despite widespread community support.

 

Finally President Harry S. Truman sent in a mediator who reached a settlement that was accepted by the union but initially rejected by GSI. Under political pressure, GSI agreed to the deal.

 

Union officials agreed to sign the affidavits. President Richard Bancroft resigned rather than file an affidavit. The union members would be called back to work to fill vacancies. A small raise was negotiated and binding arbitration was obtained on efficiency issues for the one-year agreement that ran through 1948.

 

The strike represented a mixed outcome for the workers, but their union survived. As the United Public Workers collapsed during the Cold War, Local 471 survived as an independent, eventually re-affiliating with the broader labor movement after the merger of the AFL and CIO.

 

Annie Lee Moss, who helped turn the tide against McCarthy era during her testimony in 1954, had been a member of Local 471. See flic.kr/p/SX9pFd

 

Local 471 stood as a progressive beacon during the 1950s and its president Oliver Palmer served as petition campaign chair for the Mary Church Terrell led group, The Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the D.C. Anti-Discrimination Laws that led the successful effort to desegregate public facilities in the District of Columbia.

 

For more information and related images, see flic.kr/s/aHsm1ZnVra

 

For a deep dive into the 1948 cafeteria workers strike, see washingtonspark.wordpress.com/2018/01/02/against-the-cold...

 

The photo is by Horan. The image is courtesy of the D.C. public library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

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Taken in February 1948