James Barron Carey was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in August 1911, one of eleven children. After attending St. Theresa’s parochial school in Philadelphia, Carey went to public high school in Glassboro, New Jersey. Legend has it that while in fifth grade, the young Carey led a class walkout against a teacher who was giving too much homework. True or not, Carey, never one to shun the spotlight or a good story, did not deny the tale.
When Carey graduated from high school in 1929, he entered a world about to be rocked by the Great Depression of the 1930s. He went to work at the Philco Radio Corporation at the age of 18 as a continuity tester. While at Philco, he attended college classes in engineering, business and management at both the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. Greatly influenced by his progressive democratic Catholic upbringing, Carey felt most comfortable on the factory floor, and soon became a leader in the Philco employee’s desire for better working conditions.
In 1933, Carey organized members of the Philco company-led union into a group known as the “Philrod Fishing Club,” supposedly to discuss fishing methods, but actually to form the basis of an independent worker’s union. When Philco management was guilty of employee indiscretions later that year, Carey led 5,000 workers on a strike that was settled within three days. As chairman of the Philco union negotiating committee, James Carey had his first major victory. It would not be his last.
In December 1933, Carey was elected the first President of the newly formed Radio and Allied Trades National Labor Council, which the following year became the National Radio and Allied Trades Council. In 1936, a larger, more far-reaching industrial union, the United Electrical Workers (UE) was formed, and Carey was named its first President. Carey led the UE in its formative years. Under Carey’s leadership, the UE formed an affiliation with the new Congress for Industrial Organizations (CIO). It was here that Carey established alliances with CIO leaders John L. Lewis and Philip Murray.
One of the by-products of organized labor during the Depression and World War II periods was the infiltration of the Communist Party into the affairs of trade unions. The Party felt that through the organization of workers, it could gain entry into American society and eventually influence its political structure. Some Americans had ambiguous allegiances during the Second World War, being against the totalitarianism of Hitler’s fascism while at the same time favoring the dictatorship of the Soviet Union as an ally of the United States. Some, like James Carey, were able to recognize the Communist threat while fighting against fascism. It was this recognition that led to an acrimonious split within the Communist-dominated leadership of the UE, and Jim Carey’s defeat as UE President at the 1941 UE convention.
Undeterred, Carey continued being an active, non-elected UE leader as well as becoming an international labor figure as Secretary-Treasurer of the CIO. Carey spent a great deal of time in the 1940s traveling abroad to represent Philip Murray and the CIO as a member of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). In 1948, Carey helped influence the CIO’s pullout from the Communist dominated WFTU and the formation of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), and organization dedicated to promoting free trade and democratic unionism worldwide. Carey also embraced anti-Communism at home, and led the fight within the UE and its Communist leadership. He formed an internal splinter group, the UE Members for Democratic Action (UEMDA) and pushed for CIO disaffiliation of the UE and the chartering of a new electronic workers union that would be democratic and anti-Communist. The stage was set for the birth of the International Union of Electrical Radio and Machine Workers Union (IUE-CIO).
James B. Carey married the former Margaret McCormick of Chicago in 1938. They had two children: a son James Jr. and a daughter, Patricia Ann. It is a little known fact that the majority of James Carey’s tenure as President of the IUE-CIO was spent under a cloud of serious personal tragedy. In January 1950, eight-year old Patti Carey was struck by an automobile on a suburban Washington, D.C. street, leaving her in a coma for a considerable amount of time. Patti remained quite handicapped and required constant medical attention through the years. Despite this family ordeal, James Carey was able to serve the IUE-CIO and the American labor movement with a firm focus and resolve. He died on September 12, 1973 at the age of 62.