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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 >>

Events leading to the merger of the Fur and Leather Workers Union with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters

Russell discusses shifts in the leadership of the Fur and Leather Workers Union and their decision to merge with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters in 1955. Russell describes how by the early 1950s, the Fur and Leather Workers were under assault, from the federal government and more moderated factions of the labor movement, because of their progressive take on unionization and their Communist leanings. Ultimately, the executive board (of which Russell was a member) determined that they could best serve the labor movement from working within it. Although the decision led to the resignation of leader Ben Gold, the rest of the executive board voted to merge. Russell attributes the decision to their dedication to progressive thinking and the labor movement.

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

JOHN RUSSELL:
Yes, we did in '54. But in '54, by then there had been a series of raids and attacks and it was apparent that they were going to use the hatchet on us, you see.
WILLIAM FINGER:
Who was they?
JOHN RUSSELL:
They, the federal government, you know, where ever they could. And thinking began to shift, I'd say, in about '52 or '53. You know, raid after raid … we beat them off but it became a question of time as we saw it, you see.
WILLIAM FINGER:
CIO raids or AF of L?
JOHN RUSSELL:
All kinds … CIO, AF of L … political attacks by the government, everything, you see. We had guys in jail … Christ, they went to jail, Potash, and all these fellows, you see. Well, Potash went earlier than that, but we had guys who went and … there were guys who could have went … even Gold was under attack. They were trying to put him in jail, you see. So eventually we felt, "Alright, if there was any possibility, maybe we better find some group" … Well, it wasn't just a question of protection. I don't think that was the main, the only motivation. I think that we began to realize that we weren't influencing a hell of a lot of people outside the labor movement, you know. I mean, outside of our own union, in the other unions of the AF of L, CIO. And that the one thing that … [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
JOHN RUSSELL:
… were gone, you see, and that if we were going to do a service for the American Labor Movement, we had to be somewhere where we could influence it, you know. And while it is one thing to influence by example from outside, it's a hell of a lot better to influence by example inside, plus having something to say about policies inside, you see. Even if you are an isolated group inside, it would appear that you are better off, you see.
WILLIAM FINGER:
You had less and less power.
JOHN RUSSELL:
Less and less power, that's right, and less and less influence. So, you see as early as '52, there was … people were beginning to say, "Well, maybe we ought to think in terms of some reaffiliation …"
WILLIAM FINGER:
Would you meet together with the district people, and with the Executive Board, and talk like this?
JOHN RUSSELL:
Oh, I was on the national board. I was on the Executive Board of the AFL-CIO …
WILLIAM FINGER:
So you would talk with Gold and Potashe?
JOHN RUSSELL:
Oh sure, yes, and we had special … you know, we had meetings, Executive Board meetings, formal Executive Board meetings, but that could mean anything. That could mean meeting with some ACTU guys, some old socialists, some just plain simple economic trade unionists, you know, and all kinds of elements. So, you always had other meetings too, where the guys of progressive thinking could work out their own line of thought on a deal, and more and more, it became apparent that we were going to have to go … and there were some who resisted and Gold was one of the strongest.
WILLIAM FINGER:
He resisted?
JOHN RUSSELL:
Yeah. He recognized the validity of the thinking, but he also recognized the consequences of acting on it, you see.
WILLIAM FINGER:
In this Brody book, he talks about Gold citing the …
JOHN RUSSELL:
Non-Communists … this is what they were after him on, lying under oath, you know.
WILLIAM FINGER:
He was convicted, wasn't he?
JOHN RUSSELL:
Yeah, but he never served no time because we got it reversed, I think. We got it reversed. I forget the exact grounds, but the Constitutional grounds or something, you see…
WILLIAM FINGER:
But he resigned from …
JOHN RUSSELL:
In 1955, he finally resigned … I mean …
WILLIAM FINGER:
1954.
JOHN RUSSELL:
'54, yeah … Virgil was '55, and they took over in '54. He resigned after making a fantastic protest, one to make you almost cry. In doing it, you loved him. You knew how he must be bleeding to give up something he spent his lifetime building. But, it became the decision and the decision he had to live by.
WILLIAM FINGER:
Did he get isolated from the union after that?
JOHN RUSSELL:
Yeah. Now, there were others who had to go, you know, but they knew it too. They knew it even while they argued for going back into the labor movement. See, that is what always made me a proud guy to be associated with these fellows. Gold didn't, it wasn't no personal fear of having a job that motivated Gold, or anything like that, nothing that cheap or anything. It just was that he thought we were wrong in giving up the union … or sacrificing to move back into the labor movement. The other guys knew they were going to go, and yet they voted right down the line.
WILLIAM FINGER:
To go on in?
JOHN RUSSELL:
To go, …
WILLIAM FINGER:
Even though they …
JOHN RUSSELL:
WILLIAM FINGER:
Because of their history …
JOHN RUSSELL:
This, to me, was the greatest proof of their loyalty to progressive thinking, and they lived, I mean, they went out just like they always lived …