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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Russell, July 25, 1974. Interview E-0014-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Progressive outlook of the Fur and Leather Workers Union

Russell addresses the progressive nature of the Fur and Leather Workers Union during the late 1940s and early 1950s, leading up to its merger with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union. According to Russell, the Fur and Leather Workers Union envisioned a broad organized coalition of workers—white and black, men and women. He describes how he and other organizers were well-researched in the history of their primary base of support in western North Carolina and eastern North Carolina and that the workers they organized were in line with this progressive outlook. In addition, he addresses how the Fur and Leather Workers Union, particularly its leader Ben Gold, began to experience red-baiting during these years.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Russell, July 25, 1974. Interview E-0014-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

WILLIAM FINGER:
That was helping you get this strength … these strong unions, you got them together and they seemed to be pretty …
JOHN RUSSELL:
Well, basically, our program and policies flowed out of the policies of the international union. And of course, both Hardy and myself, and some other people we knew, were pretty well aware politically of what was the score around the world, you know, and in the country. And I think probably that between our policies and political positions which we thought were correct, which helped to at least orient us toward building the kind of progressive trade union, that united black and white and women, all elements, in a way that we wouldn't have, I am sure, if we hadn't had that kind of understanding and influence and background.
WILLIAM FINGER:
Do you think much of the … besides strength that you brought from your awareness of the international situation and the Fur and Leather Workers positions, any kind of, you know, ground swell from the local people, say in Andrews of Hazelwood … did you have to build everything that you got, or did they want that kind of progressive trade union?
JOHN RUSSELL:
No, I think we, you see, we understood … it. I did a lot of reading, Hardy was really up on the history and traditions of the mountain people, he did a lot of studying on this. And what we did, you see, is we used the progressive role of mountain people during the Civil War, and other times, to help their learning and understanding in that period of time there too, you see. For instance, you know that the mountain country sent a lot of troops to the Union and were anti-slavery, and these things we were able to use, this past history and tradition, to begin to develop some understanding on the current problems of black and white issues, for instance, and the red-baiting going on, and all these things. So that we were able at least to soften the impact of outside attempts from the outside to split and divide our people.
WILLIAM FINGER:
Local people knew you were being red-baited?
JOHN RUSSELL:
Oh yes, yes, sure, sure … in practically every issue. For instance in 1950, when we left the CIO, before I even got back from the convention, the CIO had organizers into Asheville and into Newport, Tennessee attempting to take them away on the grounds that we were a bunch of communists and that Ben Gold had been found guilty, or had been charged with lying under oath about the Taft-Hartley law, and things like this. And they came in making a big issue out of the red issue, you see, and offering to lead these workers out to the good sane, as they say "sensible" american trade union … that wasn't going to have all that foreign dominance and influence. But I think that certainly it was a credit to our union, to our policies and programs, as well as to the terrific understanding of these people in the mountains, not only as far as tolerance is concerned, and things like that, but real understanding, that the red … I don't say it didn't go right over their head, we had some problems with certain people, but basically, they just shook it off and said, "This is our union, it fought for us, and by God we are in it, we don't give a damn what they call them." And that is probably as good, in that period of time, as you could expect from any group, you know.