First PAC Used $600,000 to Elect Roosevelt, Boost Unions

Oct. 10 (Bloomberg) -- In this election, political action committees and so-called super-PACs have come to play an outsized role in campaign finance. These organizations are nothing new, but they have come a long way from their origins -- particularly when it comes to their scale and electoral goals.

The first organization to call itself a political action committee was formed in July 1943 by the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and it was done to re-elect a Democratic president and friends of labor.

The new PAC arose largely in response to the Smith-Connally Act of 1943, which aimed to curb a growing number of strikes during wartime and to constrain the labor movement itself. The act decreed a 30-day waiting period between a strike vote and a walkout; allowed the government to take over munitions plants threatened by labor disputes; forbade strikes in federally operated facilities; and restricted monetary contributions to political candidates by labor unions.

‘Let’s Become Politicians’

For organized labor, these changes were unsettling. After all, it wasn’t until 1935 that private-sector unions legally gained the right to bargain collectively, and their status remained controversial to many Americans, especially in wartime. Franklin D. Roosevelt had been the most supportive president organized labor had ever known, but a coalition of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats had cut deeply into his base. As attacks on unions intensified, labor regarded Roosevelt’s re-election as crucial to its survival.

Devised by Philip Murray, head of the CIO, and Sidney Hillman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the new PAC professed to be nonpartisan, although everyone knew its mission was to back Roosevelt and other New Deal candidates. “Let’s quit blaming the politicians and face the responsibility of full citizenship,” Hillman told the membership. “Let’s become politicians ourselves.”

Union members responded by giving the PAC a war chest of $600,000, an amount that hostile newspapers soon exaggerated. Because the donations were voluntary, and came from members rather than union treasuries, they didn’t violate the Smith-Connally Act’s restrictions.

The Democrats had lost heavily in the 1942 elections partly because voter turnout had been so low. So Hillman sent an army of canvassers into the field with pamphlets, leaflets and stickers. Affiliated unions were urged to form their own local PACs to get out the vote and galvanize their membership.

Registration of new voters rose throughout the country, especially in cities. In the spring primaries of 1944, several antilabor candidates were defeated and three chose not to run again. One of them was Martin Dies of Texas, the chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which investigated the PAC in January 1944. He withdrew after voter registration climbed sharply in his district. Kiplinger’s Magazine warned that the “CIO Political Action Committee (Hillman) must now be recognized as a major force in elections.”

‘A Great Campaign’

Conservatives accused the PAC of being dominated by communists with a collectivist agenda. Time magazine called the PAC’s attempt to convert at least some of the CIO’s 5 million members into political activists “something unique in American labor, and in American history. It is the first sophisticated, thoroughly professional entry of labor into politics … the most formidable pressure group yet devised by labor -- a pressure group backed with money, brains and an army of willing workers.”

Roosevelt won the election after what proved to be an ugly fight with New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey. Opinions differed sharply over how significant a role the PAC had played in his victory, but the president didn’t hesitate to express gratitude for its support.

“It was a great campaign,” Roosevelt wrote to Hillman, “and nobody knows better than I do how much you contributed to its success.”

(Maury Klein is a professor of history emeritus at the University of Rhode Island and the author of 16 books on American history. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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