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Flaxer to organize state, local government workers: 1937 | by Washington Area Spark
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Flaxer to organize state, local government workers: 1937

Abram Flaxer, former general manager of the New York Local Union of Municipal Employees, announces a nationwide campaign July 13, 1937 to organize state, county and municipal workers under the auspices of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

 

Flaxer, a former vice president of the AFL-affiliated AFSCME, established the new union, dubbed the State, County and Municipal Workers of America (SCMWA), It achieved its largest success in New York City, but also gained significant representation in Milwaukee, Chicago and Pittsburgh.

 

In 1946 the SCMWA merged with the CIO’s United Federal Workers to form the United Public Workers of America, growing to become the largest public sector union in the U.S. with about 100,000 members.

 

Flaxer became president of the merged union and Ewart Guinier became secretary-treasurer. Guinier’s daughter would later be nominated for Assistant Attorney General by President Clinton in 1989, but later withdrawn in the face of opposition in part due to Guinier’s father’s communist beliefs.

 

In the Washington, D.C. area, the United Cafeteria and Restaurant Union Local 471 with 5,000 members was an affiliate. It had a strong base among federal workers in the Labor Department, Bureau of Engraving, Library of Congress, Commerce Department and Veterans Administration and pockets in other federal facilities in the city.

 

The federal government set out to suppress the union through a series of restrictive laws. The UPWA in turn took up the fight against restrictions on free speech of federal employees in a long, ultimately unsuccessful campaign.

 

The UPWA fought the 1940 Hatch Act, which prohibited political activity by federal employees. The UPWA felt the purpose of the Act was to repress leftists rather than clean up the civil service (a purpose the head of the U.S. Civil Service Commission confirmed). However in 1947, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Hatch Act arguing that federal employment was a privilege and that individual rights were subordinate to the interests of the federal government.

 

Congress passed legislation in 1946 depriving federal workers of their salaries if they belonged to any union which advocated the right of federal workers to strike, and which required them to sign affidavits that they did not belong to any union that did.

 

In 1947, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which made it illegal for federal employees to strike and penalized them with immediate dismissal. The Act also required union officials to sign non-communist affidavits if they were to utilize the National Labor Relations Act. While federal and state employees were not covered by the Act, Flaxer represented private sector workers as well, like the cafeteria workers, and refuse on principle to sign the oath.

 

On March 21, 1947, Truman issued Executive Order 9835, which barred members of the Communist Party or anyone in "sympathetic association" with it from federal employment, required all federal employees to sign affidavits that affirmed they were not communists and did not seek the overthrow of the U.S. government, and authorized the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Civil Service Commission to investigate allegations of disloyalty.

 

The loyalty oaths were particularly vexing for the UPWA because only the most left-wing unions and organizations tended to support collective bargaining and the right to strike for public employees, and to strongly oppose racism in public employment. It was common for anyone who demanded equal rights for blacks and other minorities to be branded disloyal.

 

The union was busied by the numerous dismissals of government employees with left-wing views, but prevailed in only a few cases.

 

Flaxer led the union to support the third party candidacy of Henry Wallace in 1948 that advocated worker rights, racial justice and peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union. Wallace was defeated and the issue led to the expulsion of ten unions from the CIO, including the UPWA.

 

Flaxer had attempted to show that the UPWA carried out policies independent of those of the Communist Party, but the die was cast by anti-communist leaders of the CIO led by the autoworkers’ Walter Reuther and the textile workers’ Emile Rieve.

 

The UPWA was immediately faced with defections, but held the majority of membership for several years, but was constantly waging battles against politicians with an anti-communist agenda and rival unions attempting to raid their units.

 

In 1952, Flaxer testified before a one-person Senate Internal Security subcommittee of Congress and was citied for contempt when he refused to turn over the union’s membership list. During the hearing his wife and several former associates testified against him, further damaging the UPWA.

 

Flaxer’s contempt case twice went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately overturned it on technical grounds.

 

In 1953, Flaxer urged the remaining units with about 35,000 members to disaffiliate from the UPWA in order to ward off some of the anti-communist attacks. Following this, the union dissolved.

 

Flaxer died after a long illness in New York in 1989.

 

One of the largest remnants of the UPWA is Hawaii’s United Public Workers, now an affiliate of AFSCME that represents about 5,000 workers.

 

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 photographer is unknown. The image is a Harris & Ewing photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress, reproduction number LC-DIG-hec-23018 (digital file from original negative)

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Taken on July 13, 1937