On the Defensive: Walter Reuther's Testimony before the McClellan Labor Rackets Committee

By Baltakis, Anthony | Michigan Historical Review, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

On the Defensive: Walter Reuther's Testimony before the McClellan Labor Rackets Committee


Baltakis, Anthony, Michigan Historical Review


From January 1957 to March 1960, the United States Senate's Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field, popularly known as the McClellan Committee, pursued the most extensive investigation of labor-management relations in American history. On 30 January 1957 the United States Senate authorized the select committee to examine "the extent to which criminal or other improper practices have been engaged in the field of labor-management ... in groups or organizations of employees or employers ... and to determine whether any changes are required by the laws of the United States." (1)

A long and colorful history lay behind the select committee's formation. During World War II Senator Harry S. Truman (D-MO) had led an investigation of government procurement that revealed widespread corruption. Early in 1941, after conducting an individual fact-finding tour of Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri at the behest of constituents complaining of waste, Truman introduced a resolution to create a new Senate committee charged with examining misuse of military spending. The new special committee to investigate the national defense program, usually designated the Truman Committee, uncovered considerable evidence of impropriety. Due to the success of Truman's endeavor and the favorable publicity it garnered, in 1946 the Senate established a Standing Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Department, later renamed Government Operations. (2)

In 1952 Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) became chair of the Government Operations Committee; under his direction it assumed a very different role. In the past, investigations of Communism had been conducted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and the Internal Security Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee. McCarthy received permission to scrutinize Communism. Throughout 1953 the McCarthy Committee examined cases of procurement of defense equipment, handling of State Department fries, mismanagement of the Voice of America, use of pro-Communist books in overseas information programs under the direction of the State Department, and other cases of alleged Communist infiltration of the government. (3)

Following victories in the congressional elections of 1954, the Democrats regained control of Congress in January 1955 and McCarthy relinquished the chairmanship of the Government Operations Committee to John Little McClellan of Arkansas. McClellan hired Robert F. Kennedy as his chief counsel in charge of investigations. Together McClellan and Kennedy turned the committee away from its previous obsession with Communism, concentrating instead on domestic corruption. During 1955 committee investigators unveiled a major scandal involving contracts for military uniforms. Sworn testimony disclosed that Harry Lev, a Chicago hat manufacturer, had given $50,000 to Captain Raymond Wool of the Armed Services Textile and Procurement Agency to obtain a government contract that permitted Lev to produce hats of substandard quality. After a year of probing, the subcommittee concluded that "unscrupulous contractors had bribed both civilian and military personnel." In 1956 the committee announced its intention "to expand its investigation into procurement matters" in the garment and uniform field. (4)

An attack on a reporter a few months later led to an expansion of the inquiry to include organized labor. On 15 April 1956 labor reporter Victor Riesel was approached by a man outside Lindy's Restaurant in New York City. The man threw sulfuric acid into Riesel's face, permanently blinding him. Riesel had just finished a broadcast on corruption in the International Union of Operating Engineers. He had also recently given testimony to the Justice Department on "gangster methods in the trucking and garment industry." A few months later, while attending the dedication of the new AFL-CIO headquarters, President Eisenhower informed union leader George Meany that his administration intended to take steps against underworld infiltration of unions. …

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