The Role of Technical/Professional Workers in Progressive Social Change
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
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 place…with 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
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, "…necessary 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 laboratory…" 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
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 work…It 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
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
For more than 20 years, PLANNERS NETWORK has been a voice for progressive
professionals and activists concerned with urban planning and social
justice. For permission to reprint items from our newsletter, contact
Thomas Angotti at email@example.com. Our postal address is 379 DeKalb
Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11205. Our phone number is (718) 636-3461.
Executive Editor: Thomas Angotti