It was the rightwing's favorite boogie-man for decades--the Birchers accused virtually everyone of sympathizing with it, the FBI spied on it and disrupted it. Most of the Left hated it as well--it was joked that "when it rains in Moscow, the CPers all carry umbrellas". But the Communist Party USA, though it was small in number, always had an influence far larger than its actual size.
The central figure in the story of the Communist Party USA was William Z Foster. In 1901, at the age of 20, Foster, a factory worker who had lived in Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, Oregon and Massachusetts, joined Eugene V Debs's Socialist Party in Spokane, Washington. But his politics were far more radical than the Socialist Party's, and when he advocated revolution instead of the Party's electoral politics, Foster was expelled in 1909 as a "left-wing factionist". He then joined the IWW (the Industrial Workers of the World, or "Wobblies") during one of its Free Speech Fights in Washington. As a Wobbly, Foster wrote several pamphlets and served as the IWW's representative to the 1911 International Labor Conference in Budapest. Foster soon found himself differing from the IWW on tactical questions, however--the IWW viewed the American Federation of Labor (AFL) as weak and reformist, and wanted to build an alternative revolutionary labor union, while Foster thought it more effective to "bore within" the AFL's unions and turn them radical from the inside. His arguments against "dual unionism" led him to split with the IWW in 1911; he left and formed his own organization, the Syndicalist League of North America (SLNA).
Before the SLNA collapsed in 1914, Foster met two members who would always remain politically close to him, an accountant named Earl Browder, and another former Wobbly named James P Cannon.
Foster became an organizer for the Chicago branch of the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, then worked as an organizer for the AFL. Unlike most other leftists of the time, Foster did not oppose US involvement in World War One, and even sold war bonds in 1918. As a result, when mass arrests of union organizers and leftists took place in 1918 and 1919, Foster was not one of those arrested. After the war, his primary interest was in organizing the large number of unskilled workers in Chicago's sprawling meatpacking and steel industries.
The first national labor organization in the US, the Knights of Labor, had already attempted to organize the meatpacking industry in the 1870's, and both the AFL and the IWW had made similar failed efforts more recently. But Foster recognized that the First World War presented a unique opportunity. Labor shortages caused by the war would make it more difficult for the companies to find scabs and strikebreakers. Meanwhile, the Federal government needed huge amounts of meat to feed its troops, and would be willing to see concessions made rather than interrupt production with a strike.
Foster decided to make his move in 1917. Within the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL), the local AFL union council, he formed a Stockyards Labor Council which united all the various meatpacking craft unions into a single industrial-based organization, and called a strike. As he expected, the Wilson Administration stepped in quickly, pressuring the companies to make concessions and agree to arbitration--and threatening to seize the meatpacking plants as a wartime measure to keep production going, if necessary. As a result, the meatpacking workers won an eight-hour day, a large pay increase, and overtime pay. Membership in the Amalgamated Meat Cutter's Union soared.
The arbitration award had not forced the company to recognize the Union, however; in addition, internal strife soon weakened the organization, as the Amalgamated Meat Cutters craft union claimed all the new members for itself and repudiated the unity of the Stockyard Labor Council. When the war ended, the companies fired all the Union members, and, after a failed strike attempt in 1922, Foster's effort to organize the meatpacking industry came to an end.
Foster faced similar problems with his other big project--the effort to unionize the steel industry. The Chicago Federation of Labor, at Foster's urging, drew up a plan for a unified organizing body which would bring together all of the various craft unions under the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Tin and Steel Workers, and sent delegates to the national AFL to seek support. When the AFL national leadership proved to be unenthusiastic about the idea (the AFL had always supported craft unions against the industry-based unionism of the IWW), Foster and the CFL decided to go it alone, focusing their efforts on the steel plants near Gary, Indiana, and the Monongahela Valley near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1919, the strike began. It quickly spread to Ohio, West Virginia and elsewhere, and within weeks over half the American steel industry was idled.
But with the end of the First World War, the situation had now changed. The steel companies flatly refused to negotiate or recognize the Union, and the federal government now once again supported the companies. In this era of the Palmer Raids, the Red Scare and the IWW Trials, Foster's previous association with the IWW was trumpeted by the companies. In Gary, Indiana, General Leonard Wood imposed martial law, while in Pennsylvania, strikers were beaten and arrested. Fourteen unarmed strikers were killed. The national AFL, led by Samuel Gompers, refused to provide financial support, and as strike funds ran out, Foster called off the strike in January 1920, and resigned his organizer post with the Chicago Federation of Labor. It was a crushing defeat--for the labor movement as well as for Foster.
One of Foster's fiercest critics during the steel strike, however, was the newly-formed Communist Party.
After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Lenin and the Bolsheviks enjoyed widespread support in the American labor and socialist movements. While a few American leftists (mostly Anarchists and Syndicalists) challenged the dictatorial centralized "leadership" of the Russian Communists, most viewed the Soviet Government as a true workers' democracy. As a result, the American socialist movement was split, as a new faction, led by John Reed and Louis C Fraina, wanted to give up the Socialist Party's reliance on peaceful electoral methods, emulate instead the example of Lenin's Communist Party, and organize for immediate Revolution in the US. By 1919, most of the Socialist Party membership were Bolshevik supporters, and a referendum proposing that the Socialist Party affiliate with the Communist International (Comintern), the international organization formed by the Leninists to support the Russian Revolution, passed with over 90% of the vote. The Socialist Party's "moderate" leadership responded by expelling nearly two-thirds of the entire membership and called an emergency Party convention in Chicago.
The expelled members, led by John Reed, crashed the convention and demanded to be reinstated as members. The Party leadership called the police to escort Reed and his supporters out, and the entire left-wing faction then walked out, met together in an empty hall nearby, and formed the Communist Labor Party. At the same time, another group led by Louis C Fraina refused to attend the Socialist Party convention, and instead formed their own Communist Party of America. Later, in 1921, the two parties, under orders from the Comintern, joined together to form the Communist Party USA.
Many of the more militant organizers within the union movement quickly joined the new Communist Party, and as a result the Party kept a close eye on the biggest fight in the labor arena at that time--the 1919 steel strike. Convinced that the Revolution was imminent in America, the Communists called for workers to turn the steel strike into a national general strike to seize power. The American Federation of Labor was castigated as reformists and sellouts, and Foster himself was lampooned in the Communist Party publications as "E Z Foster" for his presumed willingness to cave in to the AFL's timidity.
After the defeat of the 1919 steel strike, however, the Communists took a new look at its organizer, William Z Foster. In 1920, several old friends of Foster's who were now members of the Communist Party, including a number of former Wobblies, met with him and formed a new organization together, the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL), with the aim of agitating within the existing AFL craft unions for militant industrial unionism. Foster was invited to Moscow to attend the conference of the Profintern, the international organization of Communist-supported trade unions, where he was appointed to be the Profintern representative in the US. Foster joined the Communist Party when he returned to the US, and the Trade Union Education League was soon accepted as a Profintern affiliate.
In 1923, the Chicago Federation of Labor, now directed by John Fitzpatrick, called for a convention to establish a left-wing Farmer-Labor Party, which soon began contesting local elections. The Communist Party, in turn, directed Foster and his TUEL to gain influence within the new group, and Foster dutifully packed the Farmer-Labor convention with Communist Party supporters, leading Fitzpatrick and the CFL to abandon the group. The Farmer-Labor Party collapsed.
The Communist Party's machinations not only led to a permanent split between Foster and his friend Fitzpatrick--it produced a backlash within the AFL against all the Communists. Wherever TUEL formed a caucus within an existing AFL union, they were expelled.
This debate led to faction fights within the Communist Party, and Foster, with the aid of James P Cannon, was able to win control of the Party's leadership. In 1925, however, the Russians at the Comintern sent their own observers to the Communist Party's convention, and removed Foster from leadership, replacing him with his rival Charles Ruthenberg. Years of factional fighting began, as rival Stalinist groups fought with each other, as well as expelling suspected Trotskyites.
The Communist Party, meanwhile, was also steadily losing its influence within the labor movement. After a failed strike in 1925, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) drove out all its Communist members. The Communist Party also backed a failed attempt by insurgent candidate John Brophy to wrest control of the United Mine Workers of America from John L Lewis, which led to retaliation and expulsion. And the AFL leadership continued to remove Communists wherever it found them.
The biggest blow came in 1928, when the Comintern ordered that its international affiliates stop supporting existing trade unions and form their own rival revolutionary unions instead. It was the very "dual unionism" that Foster had disagreed with since his IWW days, but, bowing to Moscow's wishes, Foster disbanded TUEL, and set up a "Trade Union Unity League" to organize Communist-led labor unions in opposition to the existing AFL unions. The effort failed miserably.
As a result of all the chaos, Communist Party membership fell by almost three-fourths. By 1932, there were only some 5,000 members remaining in the Communist Party--and over one-fourth of those were FBI informants.
The American labor movement, meanwhile, was being revitalized by two factors--Franklin D Roosevelt's New Deal, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
One of FDR's primary tasks in combating the Great Depression was the maintenance of labor peace and the avoidance of disruptive strikes. Realizing that the cause of most strikes was the company's refusal to recognize the unions, the New Deal introduced a package of laws that established the legality of labor unions and put machinery into place through which unions could gain legal recognition, making the company legally obligated to bargain with it. The result was a huge surge in union organizing during the 30's. And prominent among these efforts was the CIO.
In November 1935, United Mine Workers President John L Lewis called together a number of other AFL unions, including the Oil Workers, the ILGWU, and the United Textile Workers, to form a caucus within the AFL called the Committee of Industrial Organizations, which would attempt to organize the basic industries, such as steel and autos, along industrial rather than craft lines--all the workers in any industry, regardless of their craft job, were to be in the same union. The CIO's first success was in the electrical industry, where the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) successfully fought a strike at the General Electric plant in Schenectady, New York. Within a year, UE had over 600,00 members in 1300 different plants across the country.
The next move planned by the CIO was an organizing campaign in the steel industry, where Foster had failed almost 20 years before. Just as the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) began its work, however, an unplanned war broke out in Flint, Michigan, where the United Auto Workers carried out a daring sit-down strike that occupied the General Motors body parts plant, shut down GM's entire production, and held it for 44 days before forcing the company to recognize and bargain with the Union. Buoyed by the UAW's success, the CIO was able to obtain recognition of the United Steel Workers Union from the US Steel Company simply by threatening the same disruption and loss of production.
In 1938, the CIO renamed itself the Congress of Industrial Organizations and left the AFL, forming its own rival union confederation.
Many of the CIO's organizers were Communist Party members, and the flagging CP-USA now saw the union movement as a way to revitalize itself (the Communist Party had also made some gains among Hollywood actors and script-writers and some American academics). At this point, however, the subordination of the American Communist Party to Stalin's foreign policy goals took center stage, and it was disastrous.
By 1935, the Soviet Union began to be alarmed by Hitler's Germany, and directed its affiliates to carry out a "Popular Front" policy, in which Communist Parties would work together with other parties to oppose fascism. As part of this directive, the Comintern also gave up its opposition to existing labor unions (which allowed Communist Party members to become organizers for the CIO).
In 1939, however, Stalin signed a Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler, and Comintern policy changed literally overnight. Now, affiliated Communist Parties were directed to focus all their efforts on preventing war and opposing military efforts against the Nazis.
In June 1941, however, the Nazis invaded Russia, and Comintern policy quickly flip-flopped yet again. Now, Communist Parties everywhere were called upon to help defend the Socialist Motherland. Comintern-affiliated unions were instructed to make "no-strike" pledges so war production would not be hampered--the CP-USA went so far as to oppose the civil rights March on Washington that was being organized by A Philip Randolph to demand equal treatment on the job for African-Americans.
At the end of the war, the Communist Party, now led by Earl Browder, attempted to gain some independence from Moscow, and tried to set his own policies that reflected the circumstances within the US. In response, Browder was ousted in 1945 by a Comintern-organized coup, and was replaced by the most loyal Stalin-supporter the Russians could find--William Z Foster. Foster dutifully defended the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, and actively purged the CP of Troyskyites.
In 1949, the Federal government filed charges of subversion against Foster, his lieutenant Eugene Dennis, and several other CP leaders. Foster, although indicted and charged, was not put on trial due to his frail health. The others were convicted and sentenced to jail. As a result, much of the Party membership went underground to avoid prosecution, which only left it with dwindling numbers and isolated it from any real political action. The final blow came when the CIO expelled all its left-leaning unions and purged its ranks of Communists, requiring all its members to sign pledges that they were not CP members. In 1955, the CIO rejoined with the AFL to form the AFL-CIO.
In 1957, William Z Foster retired as head of the Communist Party and handed over control to his protege, a steel worker named Gus Hall. Under Hall's leadership, the CP-USA, now shrunken to a tiny remnant and riddled with FBI informants, would remain a pliant mouthpiece for Moscow until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
William Z Foster died in September 1961, at the height of the Cold War, during a trip to the USSR. He was given a state funeral by the Soviets, and his ashes were interred in the Kremlin Wall.