Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950
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This movie was produced in later 1952 for the UE-Sentner defense by filmmaker Carl Marzani, who had himself already served time in prison as a payback for his production of the UE's brilliant Deadline for Action film, a damning and effective portrayal of corporate complicity with Axis powers during WWII..

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The film is interesting in respect to several notions about labor in the 1950s, and continues some of the themes of the Deadline for Action .

Here, the story of the 1950s is not one of consensus, but of continued class warfare. Instead of a labor peace, the film highlights the concepts of repression of workers rights by corporations and the government; it depicts police as the willing tools of corporate power.

Film courtesy of the United Electrical Workers Union and UE Archives-University of Pittsburgh. Image above courtesy of William Sentner, Jr.

Many thanks to Steve Bottoms of Somerville, IN for help in acquiring this film, and to David Sapadin for help in getting it on-line.

Note: This is an excerpt only, and the first section of the film deals with Mrs. Sentner's prosecution under immigration laws and the Walter-McCarran Act, which sought to deport immigrants for their political beliefs. That is the reference in the opening sequence. In fact, it was her family's experiences in the U.S. coal mines that had radicalized her. Mrs. Sentner came to the U.S. as a child, and her attempts since 1939 to gain citizenship were denied because of her former membership in the Communist Party. She was named one of the "top 83" Communists in the U.S. and a major danger. In fact, her own activism was truncated by family responsibilities after 1938; she had no direct involvement in the Party after that point, and her activism was mainly support for District 8 union activities.

The effort to "get her" was clearly undertaken to make her husband seem more dangerous, and connected to foreign influences. The first attempt to deport her was timed to coincide with District 8 elections. See Conclusion chapter for more information on this.

Regarding the references to the major struggle discussed in the film:

The UE merged with the Farm Equipment Workers (FE) union in 1952. FE members were facing one of the leading anti-union companies in the country, International Harvester.

Harvester Management sought to drive the militant FE-UE left-wing from its locals, hoping to bring in the tamed United Auto Workers union.

The conflict arose when Harvester sought to close its Chicago McCormick Works Twine Mill. When the company started to move equipment, the workers "left their jobs and bricked the hole back up. Then they began a sitdown strike in the plant."

The next day the Chicago police marched on the plant in a massive display of force. They arrested 142 workers--44 of them women. The conflict continued, forcing major confrontations with the Chicago police, and more arrests of union leadership.

One Chicago paper remarked that the "left-wing leadership [adheres to] the radical tenet that a worker has a property right in his job" and condemned the notion declaring that the "free and unrestricted moving in search of cheaper production" made the U.S. great.

The union sought to make the plant closing a subject of its negotiations for the next contract, but International Harvester sought a complete roll-back of all the major shop-floor democratic gains made by workers since the union had been organized. Management re-wrote the contract and told the workers to take it or strike. It was similar to the effort at union busting that workers confronted in the 1980s and 1990s. The strike began August 21, 1952.

Of the city's 38 police districts, all but 4 provided guard details to ensure the safe passage of strikebreakers to and from the plants, and some scabs recieved round-the-clock police protection.

The House Un-American Activities commmitee came to Chicago to "expose the Communist affiliation" of a few FE leaders. (Only a handful of leaders and members were or had been members.)

Sentner's arrest came in the middle of his negotiations with Eagle Signal (see section in Conclusion for this story), but he was also assisting in the International Harvester struggles and Farmall strike in the Quad Cities.

In the beginning of the strike, however, all the hallmarks of militant, rank and file-led mass actions seemed to hold promise for continuing a style considerably different from the mainstream labor at the timel

On October 10, 1952 police arrested Harold Ward, a Black worker, for the murder of William Foster, a scab in the International Harvester McCormick plant. The Chicago police, with no evidence, blamed the FE-UE, and suggested that the UE's strike struggle was on par with Soviet Union's mass murders.

The UE on the other hand suggested that the attack on Ward was racially-motivated, in line with the history of Chicago police ruthless tactics: "Harold Ward symbolizes the new Negro-the kind of militant and courageous young Negro leader that Harvester and its cops hate and fear. Harold Ward has demonstrated time and again that he is not afraid to stand up and fight in the shop or out for the rights of his people and his fellow workers...He is the spirit of cooperation between Negro and white workers that spells final victory for all working men and women."

Harvester used the killing and the allegation of the FE-UE involvement in it, to gain an injunction allowing no more than 6 pickets at the plant gate. This eliminated the mass picket line strategy that is seen in the film, and ended the strike.

Ward was declared not guilty a few weeks after the end of the strike. No one else was ever arrested for the killing. The trial was already depleting union resources, and combined with the prosecutions of other leaders such as Sentner, had perfect timing for a union already stretched thin.

The strike was a bitter one, and the loss in the strike, brought about by injunctions and repression, was a major blow to the FE division of the UE, from which it never recovered.

The feisty FE was decimated, and by 1954-55, its locals were merging with the UAW.