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Vol. 74/No. 8      March 1, 2010

Why gov’t framed up SWP,
union fighters in 1941
(Books of the Month column)
Below is an excerpt from “The 50-year Domestic Contra Operation,” an article from issue six of New International magazine. The Spanish translation, a booklet titled 50 años de guerra encubierta, is one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for February. It describes the history of U.S. government spying and harassment against the labor, Black, antiwar, and other social movements. It also explains the victory for democratic rights won in 1986 through a lawsuit brought by the Socialist Workers Party against FBI spying and disruption. The piece below is on the government’s frame-up of leaders of the Socialist Workers Party and Minneapolis Teamster union militants under the Smith Act in 1941. Copyright © 1987 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

In 1941 the Roosevelt administration, working in concert with the top International officials of the Teamsters, moved against the class-struggle leadership of the Minneapolis Teamsters. This leadership had refused to retreat from its position that labor must organize itself and set its priorities independent of the needs and prerogatives of the capitalist government and political parties. It continued to argue for the formation of a labor party based on the unions. It defended the colonial freedom struggle and championed the fight for the rights of oppressed nationalities in the United States. And it fought every move to sap the power of the labor movement by bringing unions under the control of government agencies.

The legal centerpiece of the Roosevelt administration’s antilabor offensive was the use for the first time of the Smith Act, which had been adopted in 1940. For the first time in the United States since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, this gag law made the expression of ideas a crime.

In June 1941, FBI agents and U.S. marshals raided the branch offices of the Socialist Workers Party in St. Paul and Minneapolis. They hauled away cartons of communist literature from the bookstores and libraries on the premises.

In Washington, D.C., Attorney General Biddle himself announced the plans for prosecution. “The principal Socialist Workers Party leaders against whom prosecution is being brought are also leaders of Local 544-CIO in Minneapolis,” he told the press. “The prosecution is brought under the criminal code of the United States against persons who have been engaged in criminal seditious activities, and who are leaders of the Socialist Workers Party and have gained control of a legitimate labor union to use it for illegitimate purposes.” Biddle’s harangues against editors of Black papers provide a pretty good idea of the broad scope the attorney general gave to the term “seditious activities.” From the standpoint of the government, any union activity dissenting from the drive toward entry into the war was illegitimate.

The government had three objectives in the crackdown on the Teamster local and the SWP.

First, it aimed to purge the labor movement of those who would not go along with imperialist war goals and militarization of the country and to intimidate into silence others, inside and outside the unions.

Second, the government wanted to erase the stronghold of union power and democracy represented by the Minneapolis Teamsters. The leadership of that union was inspiring emulation of class-struggle methods throughout the Midwest and educating workers in the need for socially conscious labor action and political independence from the capitalist parties. Although these leaders represented a minority point of view in the labor movement, that could change. The fight they were waging could become a rallying point to draw together significant forces in the unions, among the unemployed and unorganized, among Blacks, and among working farmers.

Third, the government sought to push the SWP in the direction of going underground. It wanted to force the party to give up some of its public activities and to concede that it must function at least in part illegally. The rulers’ goal was to restrict the space for working-class politics.

The relationship of class forces imposed by the labor movement’s retreat allowed the capitalist government a good measure of success in its first and second objectives. But it totally failed in driving the SWP underground. One of the party’s first responses to the indictments was to nominate James P. Cannon, its national secretary and one of those facing trial, for mayor of New York City. The SWP launched a vigorous petition campaign to win Cannon a spot on the ballot. The party also initiated a nationwide defense effort that continued until the last of the defendants was released from prison. Throughout this fight, the SWP forcefully asserted its constitutional right to carry out political activity. It published and distributed Marxist literature. It participated in and helped to advance the activities of the unions, the NAACP, and other organizations. SWP members explained communist ideas to fellow GIs, fought together with them against race discrimination in the armed forces and other abuses of citizen-soldiers, and took advantage of every opportunity to present the views of the party… .

A jury returned convictions against eighteen of the twenty-eight defendants on one count of the indictment, finding them guilty of a conspiracy to “advise and teach the duty, necessity, desirability and propriety of overthrowing and destroying the Government of the United States by force and violence… .” Sentencing took place on December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese forces attacked the main naval base in the U.S. colony of Hawaii, and the day Congress voted a formal declaration of war. Twelve of the defendants received sentences of sixteen months in federal prison, and six were sentenced to one year.  
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