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The Role of Technical/Professional Workers in Progressive Social Change

September 18, 2000 by Administrator in September/October 2000

by Bob Heifetz

During the 1930s and 1940s, members of the left-led Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians (FAECT) helped build a radical political agenda. The experiences of this group of technical and professional workers offer lessons for progressive planning today.

The Great Depression of 1929 devastated working America, including its professional/technical workers. By 1932 architects had less than one-seventh the work they had in 1928. Six out of seven draftsmen, specification writers, and superintendents of construction lost their jobs. Between 1930 and 1934 more than one-third of all engineers had some period of unemployment. Half the unemployed were out of work for more than one year. In December of 1932, 2,000 of the 10,000 chemists and chemical engineers in New York City who lived or worked within fifty miles of City Hall had been laid off.

In response to the Depression, several small technical employee organizations loosely organized as the United Committee of Architects, Engineers, and Chemists. On the morning of August 12, 1933, the American Institute of Architects and the American Society of Civil Engineers published their agreed upon minimum wage standards for draftsmen. Not only were these insultingly low, but the professional organizations responsible failed to consult members. The Committee’s response was rapid and forceful.

That evening the United Committee called a meeting attended by 200 angry draftsmen. A follow-up meeting was attended by more than 500 technical workers, resulting in the birth of FAECT. FAECT not only challenged the insultingly low minimum wage standard but also the absolute failure of the professional societies to involve their members in those decisions. Within six months, locals were formed in Philadelphia and Chicago. By the time of its first national convention in Chicago in December of 1934, over fifteen locals with over 6,500 members nationally were organized.

FAECT’s members were predominantly technicians in industrial, medical and dental laboratories, construction draftsmen and chemists. They organized in a wide variety of locals, including museums, dental labs, architectural firms, housing authorities, WPA projects, and shipyards. They attracted civil service workers and corporate employees in the oil, auto, electrical, and chemical industries.

Professional status and advancement, and commitment to raising professional standards, are major concerns in organizing professionals. FAECT’s Federation Technical School, founded in 1936, responded to the needs of unemployed workers, assisting members in preparing for licensing and civil service exams and in keeping abreast of technological advances. Enrollment grew rapidly from 25 in the initial spring semester of 1936 to over 600 by the fall of 1937.

Vanguard of Technical Professions

FAECT proclaimed itself the “progressive vanguard of the technical professions,” vowing to cooperate with “fellow workers” in the factories. In January of 1937, the Federation joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The Federation behaved like a fairly typical CIO union. It raised the usual bread and butter demands without pressing for any special privileges over its blue-collar fellow workers. It regarded collective bargaining and strikes as normal trade union tactics. FAECT joined the CIO’s support of the New Deal, demanding more social and public works programs and publicly subsidized housing. It polemicized against big business and passed resolutions safeguarding civil rights and civil liberties and against the rising tide of fascism. At the chapter level, FAECT architects aided tenant organizations in their legal actions against slumlords. It inspected slum buildings, identified housing law violations, wrote briefs its lawyers presented in courts, and appeared as an expert witness on behalf of tenant organizations.

Among FAECT’s members were many progressive professionals including Frederick L. Ackerman, first technical director of the New York City Housing Authority, architects Percival Goodman, Simon Breines, Henry Churchill, James Marston Fitch, and Progressive Architecture editor, Tom Creighton.

With the onset of World War II, FAECT released an important publication, Producing for Victory-A Labor Manual for Increasing War Production. Published by the CIO, it called upon President Roosevelt and the War Production Board to direct the mandatory creation of Labor-Management Committees in all defense plants. Through such committees, “FAECT must take its placeˆwith the rest of organized labor in ending the dominance of monopoly in the defense program.” While Fortune Magazine stated that the Committees should be limited to “making suggestions,” Charles E. Wilson of General Motors viewed them as labor’s attempt “to press the boundary further and further into the area of managerial functions, threatening the American [sic] system with a social revolution imported from east of the Rhine.”

Herein lies the essential issue. Expertise and professional and technical skills are needed to run industry. But to whom, to what social class or constituencies, are they to be responsible? To the private sector or to society as a whole? FAECT, by joining the labor movement, was endowing itself with the ability to run industry independently of corporate control.

Another critical issue was that of research. FAECT’s Washington Chapter editorialized that, “ˆnecessary research must soon assume a public character, so that the fruits of scientific work will be devoted to the whole nation, in distinction to the secretive character of the research work of the industrial laboratoryˆ” During the Depression and World War II, a number of scientists joined FAECT for economic, political, and ideological reasons. Some were involved with very sensitive wartime research, including development of the atomic bomb. Both Robert Oppenheimer and his brother, Frank, were members, as were numerous other progressive scientists.

Backlash and McCarthyism

These trends raised serious concerns for the War Department, and by the early 1940s it requested the FAECT local at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory to be disbanded. General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, charged with developing the atomic bomb, stated in a memorandum to the Secretary of War on 17 August, 1943, that “the activities of the FAECT Local No. 25 have already seriously compromised the security of the Berkeley workˆIt is essential that action be taken to remove the influence of the FAECT from the [Berkeley] Radiation Laboratory.” On November 2, 1943, President Roosevelt was notified that CIO President Philip Murray had been contacted and would immediately instruct the union concerned to stop efforts to organize.

By 1946, many of the left-led unions in the CIO were experiencing growing Cold War repression. FAECT sought to strengthen itself by amalgamating with the closely associated and considerably larger (34,000 member strong) left-led United Office and Professional Workers Union (UOPWA). That union in turn was expelled from the CIO in the spring of 1950.

Implications for Today

By integrating professional and technical members of “the new working class” with the “old (blue collar) working class,” FAECT contributed to weakening the ideological, psychological, and organizational ties management had sought to build with members of this new stratum. That historic initiative needs rekindling. FAECT also showed how a broadly based labor movement can help introduce structural reforms within the capitalist system.

A broadened labor movement potentially contains within its ranks all the skills necessary to both transform the old system and design and operate a new one. Can Planners Network members contribute to reviving FAECT’s initiative within a reinvigorated labor movement, both as members and/or allies? Are we moving toward a greater radical proletarianization or conservative bourgeoisification of technical and professional work? Will changes in the industrial work process begin to erode the social and economic status of professionals and the relative autonomy they achieved through professional degrees and licensing?

What seems critical in the coming period is the development of a transformative strategy committed to bringing compatible pieces together around a common vision where the quality of life, not money, is the bottom line. A critical actor within this process, as in the 1930s, will be labor. And both within and outside the ranks of labor, the technical/professional workforce will play a strategic role.

A modest, though useful first step toward rebuilding this alliance might be to form safe and lively metropolitan regional centers for the progressive activist community and representatives of Central Labor Councils to address these issues, exchange ideas, and mobilize support for shared concerns and actions. As in Seattle, technical/professional workers can offer their skilled services to promote a common progressive agenda, both as members of the labor movement and as allies within a broad-based community coalition dedicated to progressive social transformation.


Bob Heifetz lives in San Francisco. Among the many sources of information supporting this brief summary of a longer article are two members of Planners Network: Tony Schuman and Morris Zeitlin. For readers interested in the complete article and/or references, please contact the author at bapn(at)igc(dot)org.

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Planners Network is an association of professionals, activists, academics, and students involved in physical, social, economic, and environmental planning in urban and rural areas, who promote fundamental change in our political and economic systems.