Abstract: Counter-Revolution: Anti-Communism, Labor, and the Rise of Self-Service in New York City, 1948-1953

Daniel Opler


Department store workers' unions in New York City were in many respects extremely powerful. Yet even these unions, whose leaders recognized self-service as a threat to workers' jobs by the early 1950s, failed utterly in their efforts to prevent the institution of self-service retailing. In this paper, I explore why the unions' campaign against self-service failed, focusing particularly on American anti-Communism during the late 1940s and early 1950s as a major cause of the failure to prevent what industry experts at the time described as the self-service "revolution" in retailing. Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, the relatively radical unions representing workers in New York City's department stores were under constant attack from more conservative unions. In this environment, radical union leaders were far more willing than they might otherwise have been to allow self-service retailing to be put into place. While leaders' occasional willingness to back down was certainly one reason the unions failed to defeat self-service, it was not the only way in which anti-Communism made possible the institution of self-service retailing. When union leaders did fight against the rise of self-service, most importantly during a strike against self-service and the accompanying layoffs at the Hearn's store, union leaders nonetheless found anti-Communism a major obstacle. Store managers bought advertisements in the city's newspapers accusing the union leaders of being Communists. The National Labor Relations Board refused to support the unions' charge that eliminating jobs in order to create a self-service store was an unfair labor practice, and the state Supreme Court issued an injunction against picketing at Hearn's. Trying to prove to the public that they were not Communists, union leaders quietly abided by the injunction, in the process abandoning their efforts to prevent the self-service revolution.