Monday, May 31, 2010

Charles A. Hayes: bounced out

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Before he came to the House of Representatives as an elected member, Charles Arthur Hayes appeared in Congress to defend himself against accusations of Communism. In 1959, 57-year-old Joseph Poskonka told the House Un-American Activities Committee that he had endured insults and beatings for 16 years as a member of the Communist Party. The reason he did so was not out of a strong devotion to the party's ideals, he testified, but because he was an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation assigned to infiltrate the United Packinghouse Workers of America union and report on any Communist activities there. He told the committee that the union was rife with such subversion, and that Communists were trying to take over areas of American industry related to food production in order to tamper with it should the country go to war with the Soviet Union.

Poskonka identified Hayes as one of several union leaders in the Communists' pocket. Hayes, then serving as district director of the United Packinghouse Workers of America and vice president of the Illinois state AFL-CIO, was summoned to Washington to testify before the committee as part of a three-day hearing focusing on the UPWA. He invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination eight times when questioned on any past involvement with the Communists. He did choose to denounce the movement and say he was not a Communist at that time. The Fifth Amendment declaration unnerved AFL-CIO officials enough that they asked Hayes to step down from his state position, but he refused. Congress did not press Hayes on his activities, and the matter faded away.

Hayes was involved with union activities for most of his life. Born in Cairo, Illinois in February of 1918, he graduated from high school in 1935 and went to work as a railroad section hand. From there, he went to work with a flooring company and organized a successful strike in 1938. Following this victory, he formed a union of black carpenters and joiners and served as its president from 1940 to 1942. The union later opened up to white workers as well.

Hayes transferred his union activities to the meatpacking industry after leaving the flooring company to become a fresh pork worker. He joined the grievance committee of the United Packinghouse Workers of America union in 1943, became a field representative for it in 1949, and served as district director from 1954 to 1968. He later served as vice president of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America union, and held the same post in the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. This latter organization was the largest one included in the AFL-CIO, and he remained there from 1979 until his retirement in 1983.

Though Hayes pushed for the traditional goals such as improved working conditions and better wages and benefits, he was also active in civil rights. He fought for desegregation in the dressing rooms and cafeterias of the meatpacking industry, as well as improved advancement opportunities for black workers. He sought to get women and blacks to serve as leaders in labor unions, and in 1972 he joined other black labor leaders in a Miami Beach conference to form a coalition in support of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern to counter opposition by some white labor leaders. He organized rallies in support of the Montgomery bus boycott and provided financial support and manpower for events organized by civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

In April of 1983, two-term congressman Harold Washington was elected the first black mayor of Chicago. He resigned his seat in the House of Representatives, and a special election was scheduled for August to fill the vacancy. Thirteen candidates threw their hats in the ring for the Democratic nomination in July, but Hayes had a special advantage. He supported Washington in his 1977 attempt at the mayor's office, as well as the successful 1983 campaign. In return, Washington threw his support behind Hayes. This angered many of the other candidates, who charged Washington with using machine tactics such as intimidation to ensure a Hayes victory, but they conceded that they would support Hayes if he won the nomination. Hayes came away with the Democratic nod after securing 45 percent of the vote. This election essentially guaranteed his entry into the House; the district was mostly black and strongly Democratic, and in August he got 94 percent of the vote after running against Republican candidate and newspaper columnist Diane Preacely.

It was the first of five consecutive victories in the House elections. After the 1983 election, Hayes announced that he was serving notice on Republican President Ronald Reagan. Saying that Reagan's cuts to anti-poverty programs had left one-third of the nation's blacks under the poverty line, he declared, "We must replace him with a chief executive who is committed to solving the problems of poor people. We've got to put America back on the track of greatness." His other goals upon entering office included a reduction in unemployment, which was especially burdensome in his district; a bilateral freeze on nuclear weapons; a national health service; and shifting funds from military budget to aid domestic programs. He authored the Dropout Prevention and Reentry Act to provide $500 million in federal funds to state and local governments to cut down on the dropout rate, which was also especially high in Chicago. He got in another jab at Reagan along the way, saying the President's cuts to education were “a callous disregard for the dreams and aspirations of millions of poor and disadvantaged children and young adults.” Hayes also sponsored numerous bills to try to decrease unemployment rates and provide relief for workers laid off in massive plant closings in Chicago. One of these bills, the Income and Jobs Action Act of 1985, sought to boost the provisions of 1978 Humphrey Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act to increase employment opportunities with the growth of productivity.

In his continuing advocacy of civil rights, Hayes ran up against the law soon after his re-election in November of 1984. He had introduced legislation to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions against South Africa to get that country to end the discriminatory practice of apartheid. The Reagan Administration disagreed with taking a harsher stance, feeling that change could be achieved through diplomatic efforts. As a result, Hayes and several others took part in large-scale protests at the South African Embassy at the end of the month to protest apartheid, seek the release of several black labor unionists jailed in that country, and pressure the White House into changing the diplomatic stance and putting sanctions into place. Numerous people were arrested due to violations of a city code forbidding protesters from being within 500 feet of an embassy. Secret Service agents arrested Hayes inside the embassy itself after he entered along with Reverend Joseph Lowery, the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Immediately before the arrest, Hayes told reporters that he could not sit idly by while racist policies stood and that he was hoping to end "the atrocious situation in South Africa." He was released immediately after the police booked him on a charge of misdemeanor unlawful entry. Numerous other high-profile people were arrested in the protests, including several Democratic congressmen and Yolanda King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. Within days of his arrest, the charges against Hayes and 10 others were dropped.

Shortly before Hayes' bid for the Democratic nomination in 1992, he was named in a wide-ranging scandal in the House. The Sergeant at Arms provided an informal banking service, and dozens of representatives had written bad checks on insufficient funds in the bank; the New York Times said the practice "effectively resulted in interest-free loans." Some representatives had only written a few checks in this way, but others had overdrawn hundreds. Hayes was among the worst offenders, with the House Ethics Committee reporting that he wrote 716 bad checks in a 39-month period. The news broke in March, in the last week of the primary campaign. Hayes said it wasn't much of an issue, since he had not broken the law or cost the taxpayers any money. "I want it clearly understood: I'm not a criminal, and I don't want to be treated like this," he said. Hayes' main opponent, Chicago alderman and former Black Panther Bobby Rush, had been arguing that Hayes had not achieved any significant legislative victories while in Congress and used the banking scandal to further support the argument. "Charlie Hayes' record in Congress is like his record of 700 overdrawn checks: insufficient ideas, insufficient commitment, insufficient action, insufficient funds," he said.

Other factors put Hayes' chances for re-nomination in jeopardy, namely a redrawing of congressional lines to change his constituency. However, the bounced checks received the bulk of the blame for his defeat. Even then, it was a fairly close contest. Rush received 42 percent of the vote, or 51,145 ballots, while Hayes came away with 39 percent, a total of 47,151 votes. Rush went on to win the general election, and has won every House contest in his district between 1992 and 2008. In 1993, the Justice Department cleared Hayes of any criminal wrongdoing in the banking scandal.

Hayes returned to work in labor and community matters in Chicago. He died of lung cancer in April of 1997. Two years later, the Charles A. Hayes Investment Center, a nonprofit technology center for underprivileged Chicago residents, opened in a building formerly used by the United Packinghouse Workers of America.

Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Black Americans in Congress at, "Packer Union Leader Uses Fifth Eight Times" in the Chicago Tribune on May 7 1959, "Reds Run Union" in the Miami News on May 8 1959, "Hayes Asked To Quit AFL Post; Refuses" in the Chicago Tribune on May 20 1959, "Black Labor Group To Aid McGovern" in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Aug. 8 1972, "Union Urges Labor Dept. Rights Probe" in the Washington Afro-American on Feb. 13 1973, "Hayes Wins In Chicago" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Jul. 27 1983, "Chicago Primary Winner Tries To Ease Bitterness" in the Palm Beach Post on Jul. 28 1983, "Hayes Wins Special Election" in the Free Lance-Star on Aug. 24 1983, "Hayes Goes To Congress" in the Afro-American on Oct. 1 1983, "SCLC Head Arrested In Embassy Protest" in the Tuscaloosa News on Nov. 27 1984, "Two Congressmen Arrested In Protest Against South Africa" in the Ocala Star-Banner on Dec. 1 1984, "Arrests Continue In South African Protest" in The Telegraph on Dec. 1 1984, "Congressman Who Wrote Bad Checks Faces Voters Today" in The Dispatch on Mar. 16 1992, "Illinois Democrats Boot 5 Congress Incumbents" in the Pittsburgh Press on May. 18 1992, "Charles Hayes, 79, Former Chicago Lawmaker" in the New York Times on Apr. 13 1997, "Former U.S. Congressman Charles Hayes Dies at 79" in Jet on Apr. 28 1997

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