By Gerry Scoppettuolo, August 15, 2022
On a hot dusty day in September 1949, 34-year-old Moranda Smith strode bravely down the main street of Apopka, Florida. The Klan was after her and she knew it. The night before, a group of Klansmen had kidnapped a Black man and tried to force him to reveal where she was staying. They threatened his life and forced his face into the ground, but he would not reveal her whereabouts. They left his beaten body on the streets for all to see as a warning. When “Sister Smith”, as she was known, learned of this she marched alone through the city the next day, to show that she – and her union, Food and Tobacco Workers CIO (originally the United Cannery Workers Union, UCAPAWA) – were not afraid.
At the time, Moranda Smith was the Southern Regional Director of the Food and Tobacco Workers Union CIO (FTA), a union with over 100,000 members and a powerhouse in the Jim Crow south. At the time (1949-50) Smith was the highest elected African American woman in organized labor and likely, the highest elected woman in labor, overall. Her union was led, like her, by a cadre of dedicated communists Black and white, revolutionaries who unafraid took on the prevailing political power of the ruling white supremacist establishment in Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina and other localities throughout the south.
Sister Smith had been traveling throughout the region visiting her many union locals, trying to defend the FTA from raids and hostile takeovers by both the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Often traveling by bus and eating in segregated restaurants she would find overnight accommodations in the homes of her rank and file, usually Black and white women. She was on a desperate mission to save her union which by that time did not have access to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ballot or its legal protections after the passage of the Taft-Harley Right to Work law in 1947 which required union leaders to sign a non-communist affidavit in order to access the protections and rights guaranteed in the 1935 Wagner Act.
Although the CIO had been the beacon of progressive labor and the civil rights movement since 1936 during the Popular Front era, by 1947 it had new cold war leadership led by longtime anti-communist Walter Reuther of the UAW. The CIO began purging its own ranks by way of the loyalty oath in 1946 even before Taft Hartley was signed into law in 1947.
The assault on the FTA by the CIO and the NLRB government apparatus, followed the collapse of the CIO’s Operation Dixie in1946 which had been touted as a campaign to organize the south on a non-racial basis. By the end of that year, it was apparent that this effort had mostly failed. Operation Dixie director Van Bittner refused to allow radical unions like the FTA to take part despite their successes in organizing. Instead, the campaign focused on white workers who worked in the racially segregated textile industry. Their union, the old AFL Textile Workers, had been routed in the massive textile workers general strike of 1934, but only after a rank-and-file prairie fire of 400,000 workers defied their backward AFL leadership organizing mill after mill from Maine to the Carolinas. The biggest strike in U.S. history would only be put down by US army machine guns and the murder of ten strikers.
By 1936 John L Lewis and the United Mine Workers had successfully challenged the racist, craft-oriented AFL and launched a historic campaign in basic industry uniting Black and white workers as never before on an inclusive industrial basis with the full cooperation of the National Negro Congress (1936-1947). In 1937 Lewis gave a CIO charter to the communist-led Cannery Workers Union, UCAPAWA, soon to be renamed the Food and Tobacco Workers Union CIO….