FROM 1936 TO 1938 I was involved in so many activities I had little time for my family and old friends. I devoted myself more and more to the new friends who shared my fanatical sense of dedication. I found little time to read anything except Party literature. This was necessary to hold leadership in a union where many of the leaders were trained and established Communists.
The Teachers Union was growing rapidly in numbers and influence. The college teachers in the Union grew so numerous that a separate local with a separate office was established for them, Local 537. Together with the WPA Local Number 453, our membership grew to almost nine thousand and we extended control to many upstate locals. At its peak the Union boasted ten thousand members, and in it the Communist Party had a fraction of close to a thousand. Among them were Moscow-trained teachers and men and women who had attended the sixth World Congress of the Comintern.
The president of the Union, Charles J. Hendley, a history teacher at George Washington High School, was not a Communist. He was a militant socialist and did not join the Communist Party until he retired from the school system. He then became associated with the Daily Worker. He was, however, willing to join with the Communists in the many and varied campaigns of the Teachers Union and of the labor movement generally. He grew to like many of the Communist Party leaders in the Union and that tended to minimize political differences. He was a lonely man; the Union and its leadership were his family and his social life.
The Party left nothing to chance. When in 1936 Lefkowitz and Linville left the Teachers Union because the Communists had control, the Party immediately suggested a candidate for office manager, and Dorothy Wallas, a brassy and pleasant blonde, was placed there to insure Party control, and especially control of the president.
Mr. Hendley carried a full program as a teacher and had little time to give to office detail, but the efficient Miss Wallas was always at hand. He grew fond of her and relied more and more on her judgment, not knowing, of course, that she was a Party member. Miss Wallas meantime used her position as palace favorite to run the office as she saw fit, and, since Mr. Hendley was at school all day, she began to make important decisions.
I was seldom in the Union office. I was at Albany, or out of town organizing, or at City Hall, or at the Board of Education. But to be effective in the Union I found I had to give some consideration to the inner-office politics and I soon learned that Miss Wallas was an inner wheel functioning smoothly. She and I did not clash because I did not want a road block in my relations with Mr. Hendley. As I had often heard her criticize the Communists, I was convinced that she was not one.
There was another group at the office, a rigidly communist puritanical group, old-time leaders of the fraction. The thirty or so who made up this group had known each other for years. They had led the struggle against Linville and Lefkowitz. Some had the blessings of Moscow and they were a sort of elite corps, disciplined and unbending except when the Party spoke.
There was a subtle struggle for leadership between this inner core and myself. My strength in any controversy lay in the fact that the Party was using me in labor, legislative, and peace campaigns and that I was used in key positions in labor politics. This gave me prestige which I used to keep the life of the Union from freezing into a rigid communist pattern. I deferred to them often, however, and was firm only when it came to Union policy on the economic interests of the teachers and the need to gain political respect for the Union.
The Party literature of the period was stressing the increasing importance of united fronts for peace, against fascism, against discrimination, against economic insecurity. Earl Browder and other Party leaders were warning Union leaders not to regard Marxism as dogmatic, but as flexible in meeting new situations. As a matter of fact, this literature sometimes seemed a handicap, cluttered as it was with double talk used purposely by Marx and Lenin. Browder emphasized the importance of relying on Stalin who was building socialism in Russia, and only on Stalin because of his shrewdness in dealing with all, even with enemies of the working class, such as English and American capitalists.
We who were the leaders of the united-front period used to shake our heads at the old guard in the Union and scornfully call them Nineteen Fivers, referring to the Russian Revolution of 1905. Yet I see now that this old guard with its endless disputation gave stability to Party control of our Union. It was their whole life; few got anything for their endless hours of work except the right to control. They were dour people though, and some of them, such as Celia Lewis and Clara Rieber, were so dedicated that they were intolerant of anyone’s opinions except the opinions of those on their side. I never saw them laugh and I doubt if they knew how.
We had one man in the Union who was so talented in manipulation that he was regarded as the Stalin of the Union — Dale Zysman, also known as Jack Hardy. He had been to Moscow. He had written The First American Revolution, thus implying that a greater one was to come. A junior high-school teacher, he was a tall, personable young man with a keen interest in baseball and he held his pipe in his mouth at exactly the angle Stalin did his. The communist fraction had installed him officially as vice-president of the Teachers Union and also unofficially as the arbiter in all disputes between Party members and groups. He also established contacts with non-Party personalities for possible work in the Union. It was he who tried to give the Union Executive Board a well-balanced appearance by persuading Protestant and Catholic teachers to accept posts on the Board where most of the members were communist atheists.
Dale also maintained an espionage system which brought back information on what was going on in the Union as well as in the inner circles of other teachers’ organizations. Those who worked in this espionage system, particularly in other left-wing groups, became twisted personalities. Dale, I learned later, reported directly to “Chester,” a man I was to know as the chief of the Party’s intelligence service.
Later I ran into a real problem with Dale and our blond office manager. Dorothy was making my position with Mr. Hendley difficult by false stories about me. I could not spend hours in the office just to counteract office intrigue. I got nowhere when I took the matter to Dale. But one day two bookkeepers brought me evidence of financial irregularities. They did not want to take it to Mr. Hendley because Miss Wallas was involved. I took this up with Dale and got a brush-off.
Then one day the mystery cleared. We learned that Miss Wallas was not only a good Communist but that she was also Dale’s sister! It explained much, and I thought it should be taken up with the leaders of the fraction. But when I stated my discovery and looked at Celia and Clara and the others to get their reactions it was clear from their faces they had known it all the time. I was the one kept in the dark. Miss Wallas was soon afterward sent elsewhere and I was free to carry on my work; but for some time I was unnerved by this duplicity.
Attending conventions took much of my time. No convention of teachers in the United States ever went unnoticed by the Communist Party. The national office would call the leaders of the teacher Communists and discuss with us the nature of the organization and inquire if we had Party members in it. If we had, we would decide which resolutions they were to introduce and which they were to oppose. If we had no members, observers would be sent to make contacts. Particular attention was given to pushing federal aid to the public-education program and to the issue of separation of church and state at these conventions.
We also carefully prepared for meetings of learned societies, such as mathematics and modern-language associations, and those composed of professors of physics, history, and social studies. A careful search of Party members and friends of the Party was made, as well as of liberals and special-interest groups. This was all done months in advance. Then a campaign began to get certain people elected or to have them volunteer to go to a convention so that we would have a core of dependables. Finally we drew up a plan of action to put through certain measures and to try to defeat others.
We felt it was important at these meetings of learned societies to defeat everything which did not conform to Marxist ideology. The result was that the ideology of many of our learned societies has within the last thirty years been deeply affected. The Communists establish a fraction in such societies and whenever possible a leadership for a materialistic, collectivistic, international class-struggle approach.
The conventions were invaluable in bringing together the growing group of scholars who were not members of the Party but who followed Marxist ideology idealistically. For the strength of the Party was increasing in high positions; and job getting and job promotions are a sine qua non of academic gatherings. Men are drawn where power is, and these academic men were no different in that respect from traveling salesmen. The Party and its friends were assiduous in developing the job-getting and job-giving phase of these meetings.
At the end of a convention they returned with lists of new conquests, the names of men and women who would go along with us. These names were given to the district organizer of the Party in the locality where each professor lived. The organizer would visit and try to deepen the ideological conquest by flattering his victim, disclosing to him new vistas of usefulness, and by introducing him to an interesting social life. The methods were many; the end was one — a closer tie to the Party.
Before long a professor would become involved in the proletarian class struggle. His name would then be used to support communist public declaration on national or international policies. Soon the professor identified himself with a “side,” and all the good people were on his side and all the greedy, the degraded, the stupid were on the other. Soon he began talking of “our people” and thinking himself part of an unnumbered army of justice marching to a brave new world, or, as one French intellectual Communist, who lost his life in the Resistance, put it, toward “singing tomorrows.”
American Federation of Teachers conventions were held during the summer months so teacher delegates could attend without having to leave their classes or to get special permission. This Federation was unique in American education in that it was the only teachers’ association organized on a union basis.
The history of the plan for affiliating teachers with labor is interesting. It was first tried in 1902 in San Antonio where a charter was issued directly by the A.F. of L. Later the same year the Chicago Teachers Federation, organized in 1897, affiliated itself with the Chicago Federation of Labor to get labor support for a salary fight with the “vested interests.” Many prominent Chicagoans, among them Jane Addams, urged the teachers to affiliate with labor.
A debate raged in educational periodicals as to the advisability of teachers unionizing, a debate which has gone on ever since. By 1916 twenty teachers’ organizations in ten different states had affiliated with labor. Some were short-lived, due to local suppression, or to loss of interest, after the immediate objective was won.
In 1916 a call was issued by the Chicago Teachers Union to all locals affiliated with labor. A meeting was held and the American Federation of Teachers, a national organization, was founded. The next month it affiliated with the A.F. of L. with eight charter locals in Chicago, Gary, New York City, Scranton, and Washington, D.C., with a combined membership of twenty-eight hundred. The American Teacher, a magazine published by a group of individuals in the New York union, was endorsed as the official publication. At first hostile, boards of education exercised pressure against the new teachers’ organization, but by 1920 there were one hundred and forty locals and a membership of twelve thousand.
The American Federation of Teachers in the beginning was sparked by socialists. Its growth was due to the antiwar principles of the American socialists, for there was need of an organization to help teachers involved in the anti-war struggle. Even then most of the members were not socialists but were attracted by the Federation program for economic and social aid. By 1927 the Federation had declined in membership and prestige because of attacks on organized labor. With the coming of the depression it again began to grow and by 1934 there were seventy-five locals in good standing with an active membership of almost ten thousand.
By that time the Communists were displacing the socialists from posts of radical leadership in unions. The steady march of the Communists into the Federation at this period was planned and not accidental. Since twenty-five teachers could form a local and send delegates to the national convention, the communist district organizers began promoting the organizing of teachers, and these began to send delegates, often charming and persuasive ones.
Many of the teachers were not interested in the political struggle in the Federation and did not care to go as delegates. Even in the New York local in my time it was difficult to get non-Party people to go as delegates because the Federation did not pay expenses. But the keenest competition existed among Party members. The communist fraction within the Federation drew up its list carefully and it was considered a mark of honor for Party members or fellow travelers to be selected.
Of course, from 1936 to 1938 our delegation from Local 5 to Federation conventions had to be divided between the communist group which was in control and the opposition which consisted of socialist splinter groups. The struggle between these groups was carried to the national conventions, often to the consternation of the political innocents who still believed that all American politics was ruled by the Republican and the Democratic parties. They could not understand the bitterness, the vituperation, and sometimes the terror which their colleagues exhibited. But one fact was clear to others: the conventions of the Federation became battles for the capture of the minds and the votes of the independent delegates.
My first federation convention was in Philadelphia in 1936. Since it was close to New York City, we were able to send a full quota of delegates while many of the out-of-town locals were forced to send only token representation. To make matters worse we had impressed on the members of the New York fraction that even if they were not delegates they would be needed to entertain and lobby with delegates from other sections. We were so well organized that we were in almost complete control. The arrangements were in the hands of the Philadelphia local, itself communist led and controlled. The party assigned its ablest trades-union functionaries to hold continuous secret sessions in a room at the convention hotel to aid comrades on all questions.
If I had not yet been convinced that the road to progress was the one pointed out by the Communists, I was certainly overwhelmed by the sense of power which this convention manifested. To it came professors whose names I had read in academic literature and in the press. There was a wide range of delegates, from university men and women of distinction and old-time classroom teachers with the staid dignity that seemed so much a part of the profession in America to the young substitute and unemployed teachers who eyed their situation with economic fear and political and philosophical defiance. There was also the WPA troop, an assortment of men and women who were called teachers but many of whom had been shifted into this category because they were on relief, or had a college education, or some talent that allowed them to be called teachers, such as teaching tap dancing or hairdressing.
A great leveling process was at work in American life and at that time it seemed to me a good thing. So it also seemed to the Communist Party, but for a different reason. This professional leveling would fit teachers better into its class-struggle philosophy and so bring them to identify themselves with the proletariat.
At the convention were various interesting personalities: neat, quiet Albert Blumberg from Johns Hopkins University, the shrewdest communist agent in the Federation; Jerome Davis, just fired from the Yale Divinity School, thrown out, we were told, because he had dared promote a strike of student cafeteria workers; Mary Foley Crossman, president of the Philadelphia local, a fine and able woman; Miss Allie Mann, a good parliamentarian and charming woman from the largest Southern local of Atlanta, and one of the noncommunist leaders.
The convention was entirely swallowed up by the Communists. They passed every resolution they wanted and I began to feel that we had enough votes to pass a resolution for a Soviet America.
Jerome Davis was elected president of the Federation and his cause became the rallying point around which we fought during the next year. The fight for his reinstatement at Yale also became a Teachers Union cause.
The college division of the Federation voted to picket Yale and I was elected to a committee to negotiate with the Yale Corporation for his reinstatement. We were an unusual group of pickets for we wore caps and gowns and paraded with dignity on the beautiful campus, but we carried picket signs to show that we were the intellectual brothers of every worker on strike.
After some hours the Yale Corporation agreed to see a committee of three chosen from the delegation. I was one of them. In a gloomy paneled room with high ceilings we sat in high-backed chairs — my feet hardly touched the floor — and faced four members of the Corporation, silent men who would not talk except to say they were there only to listen. In vain we asked questions. The answer was always the same: they were there to listen, not to argue.
We outlined our demands. We made propaganda speeches about the role of American educators and about the right of a professor to participate in community problems. Then we reported to the assembled academic picketers that the power of concentrated wealth which the Yale Corporation represented had heard our remarks and promised to consider them.
As a result of our efforts the Corporation agreed to give Professor Davis a year’s salary but refused to reinstate him. We were satisfied. He had got something out of our efforts and the Federation had a president who was a college professor.
The next convention was held in Madison, Wisconsin, the following year and again I was a delegate. Our Teachers Union had fared well that year in New York, having grown enormously in numbers, prestige, and victories. I had once again taken a leave of absence from Hunter in the spring of the year to represent the Union at the legislature. The trustees of the college had been reluctant to grant this leave but intercession by Mayor LaGuardia, with whom I was still on friendly terms, again assured my leave.
The CIO organization of mass unions and the rapid rise in union membership everywhere had brought great prestige and tremendous power to labor. We teachers rode on labor’s coattails and were grateful to the Party for helping us to remain close to labor through all the shifts.
By 1937 the sit-down strikes in large plants and in WPA and welfare offices in New York fired the imagination of young intellectuals in the Teachers Union and we were eager to throw our lot in with the CIO. Wherever the Party teachers had influence we joined with strikers and walked in their picket lines. In New York we joined the newspapermen at the Brooklyn Eagle and at the NewarkLedger; at the telegraph offices we joined the communications workers. On the water front we gave time and money and even our homes to striking seamen. We marched in May Day parades in cap and gown.
That year we went to the convention hoping to take the Federation into John L. Lewis’ CIO. We were fascinated by him, by his shaggy head and incredible eyebrows, by his biblical allusions, and by his Shakespearean acting. We were an odd group as I see it now, madcap intellectuals escaping from our classrooms, to teach workers’ classes in Marxism and Leninism in our free hours. A few of the more astute paid only lip service to this activity, hoping to capture higher posts in academic circles where better service could be given to the cause. But most of the professors involved in this merry-go-round became better politicians than they were educators.
The convention at Madison had a large contingent of college professors, especially from teacher-training schools, and they began more and more to dominate the Federation. Among them were John de Boer and Dorothy Douglas and a score of brilliant left-wingers, including the attractive Hugh de Lacy from the West Coast. Even then De Lacy was engaged in splitting the Democratic Party by the formation of the Democratic Federation which resulted in his election to Congress. He was a valuable addition to the communist cause.
The Communist Party had told us that it did not want the teachers to go into the CIO. It felt it had enough power within the CIO whereas in the A.F. of L. the Party’s forces were diminishing. I was bitterly disappointed for I believed that with the liberal CIO forces and its funds the Teachers Union movement could be vastly expanded. The A.F. of L. did not like to spend money in organizing teachers.
The Party took no chances on having its instructions miscarry. Rose Wortis and Roy Hudson, from the Central Committee, were at the convention hotel to steer the comrades aright. Roy was a tall, angular ex-seaman and Browder’s labor specialist. He pounded the table and laid down the law. I told him frankly that I thought we ought to go with the CIO and Jerome Davis and the professors agreed. But we were informed that the Party did not wish it, and discipline was firm among the floor leaders. A vote was taken and we held to the Party line. The Communists uniting with some of the conservative members of the Federation defeated the CIO proposal.
In the city-wide 1937 elections in New York, the Party, which had helped establish the American Labor Party the year before, captured several important places within it. In city politics there was a steady elimination of differences between the major parties, and responsible leadership in the two old parties was disappearing. This led inevitably to the control of all parties by a small group around Fiorello LaGuardia, whose political heir was Vito Marcantonio. It was a personal dictatorship. Nominations were traded in the struggle for power, and the Communist Party was not slow in insinuating itself into this struggle.
Those who say LaGuardia was a great mayor forget that he did more to break down the major political parties and party responsibility than any other person in New York State. The streets were clean, taxes were lower, graft was less obvious, but under LaGuardia political power was transferred from the people organized into political parties into the hands of groups exercising personal power. The real political power passed to the well-financed, well-organized unions of the CIO and of the left-wing A.F. of L. and to the organized national minority groups, Negro, Italian, Jewish, etc. These groups were used as political machines to get votes and their self-appointed leaders were rewarded with the spoils of office. This new pattern I saw repeated over and over again, and it drained both Republican and Democratic Parties.
I saw LaGuardia meet with the Communists. I saw him accept from Si Gerson and Israel Amter written withdrawal from a position to which they had been nominated and receive a certificate of substitution at the mayor’s request. A half-hour later I heard him address the Social Democrat wing of the American Labor Party at the Hotel Claridge, and the first thing he did was excoriate the Communists. Communists were in the audience and not one of them seemed even to notice this humbug. Thus LaGuardia played with both wings of the Labor Party to his own advantage. Such were the politics to which the idealists were giving themselves.
The election campaign for 1937 was important to the left wing for it could begin now to make deals for power, with the Social Democrats of the American Labor Party, with the Democrats, with the Republicans, and with men of wealth who wanted public office and public spoils.
The American Labor Party that year supported the LaGuardia slate, which included Thomas Dewey for district attorney. I was surprised when Abe Unger, a Party lawyer whom I knew well, asked me to help organize a woman’s committee for the election of Thomas Dewey. How Abe got into that campaign I do not know, but I do know that he organized for Dewey the labor groups which had earlier opposed him because of his investigations and prosecution of many unions.
I remember one especially hilarious Teachers Union meeting that year just before the election. It was held at the Hotel Diplomat and we were cheering the candidates of the American Labor Party and its allies when Thomas Dewey, accompanied by his campaign managers, whizzed into the meeting and whizzed out again after making a short speech. And I thought, with satirical amusement, that politics does indeed make strange bedfellows.
By 1938 my work for the Union and for the schools was engaging me so deeply that it interfered with my work as a teacher, so I decided to resign from Hunter and take a full-time position with the Union.
Many of my friends were surprised to hear of my decision. They were amazed that I should be willing to leave the college, my tenure, and my pension, and other rights for an uncertain union job at a reduced salary, and worst of all for a job dependent on yearly elections.
President Colligan was deeply distressed when I told him and he asked me to reconsider. “These people will take you and use you, Bella,” he warned me, “and then they will throw you away.”
I looked at him. I could see that he was sincerely troubled about me and I appreciated it. But I thought him old-fashioned and fearful of new viewpoints. Besides, I knew he was a Catholic and opposed to the forces with which I was associated.
I shook my head. “No, I have decided,” I told him. “In this country one hundred and forty million Americans have no tenure and no security. I’ll take my chances with them.” And I handed him my resignation from Hunter College.