Comrade and Friend: Bob Strowiss 1919-1999

Edmund Kovacs

BOB STROWISS, A member of the Los Angeles branch of Solidarity and a lifelong revolutionary, died January 4 after a long struggle with heart disease and diabetes.

Bob and I joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1947 in Los Angeles. He was part of the World War II generation that grew up during the Great Depression of the Thirties and then was drafted into military service during the war.

Bob served as radar operator on the USS Hanna in the Pacific and he would recount how he observed the incoming shells on the radar screen heading straight for him deep in the bowels of the ship, only to veer off at the last possible split second—if they missed.

The returning GIs engaged in militant trade union battles upon rejoining the civilian labor force, seeking to increase the living standards that had eroded during the wage freeze of the war years. The SWP grew rapidly during the post-war upsurge, with six party branches in the area and sizable trade union fractions in the UAW, the USWA, ILGWU and other unions, as well as an influential delegation in the local CIO Council that was dominated by the Communist Party.

On a number of issues, such as organizing mass picket lines to confront Gerald L.K. Smith, a rightist demagogue, or independent political action by running trade unionists in local elections in working-class communities on a labor party platform, the Trotskyists were able to swing the council in their direction, despite the fierce opposition of the CPers who were oriented to running Henry Wallace on an Independent Progressive Party ticket to prolong the era of coexistence of the wartime alliance with Stalin.

Bob was part of the SWP fraction in Local 2058 of the USWA, where the number of SWPers and CPers were about equal. Especially after the Khrushchev revelations in 1956, the SWP made deep inroads into the Stalinist ranks and recruited a number of leading local CP trade unionists. These included a leading African-American CP unionist, Eleanor Brody. (Another woman, a leader in the CP Teamster fraction, was also recruited but withdrew after CP leader Dorothy Healey’s goon squad beat her black and blue, literally.)

Sally Forrester, whom Bob married in 1959, came from this milieu but unfortunately died of cancer not too long after.

The militants of Local 2058 soon made the national headlines: To protest Eisenhower’s imposition of the Taft-Hartley Law on the USWA they organized a car caravan that confronted him at his vacation retreat in La Quinta, California. The President, guarded by a mobilization of state troopers and the National Guard, refused to see them, claiming that he represented the American people as a whole, while the Steelworkers chorused: “We are the American people!”

We can best judge the temper and steadfastness of these steel worker militants by noting that last December, after Jack Shepherd, the leader of the SWP steel fraction, died at age 80, sixty retired steel workers, organized as “Steelworkers Old- timers,” met at a restaurant and paid fitting tribute to the past battles that they had fought led by Jack—a remarkable occasion, considering that the steel plants in the area had closed two decades previous.

Also noteworthy is that the fact that they were all people of color, overwhelmingly Chicanos, who had gained equal status in the plants through the fraction work. In the primarily anglo Local 2058, our fraction helped the Chicano and Black workers gain Welder and Crane Operator status, i.e. the more skilled jobs.

Bob Strowiss was already too ill to attend this memorial but I reported the meeting to him in great detail.

The postwar upsurge diminished as concessions were granted and the assault on radicals intensified. The witch hunt was started by Truman through the institution of loyalty oaths and security screenings, whereby radicals were summarily dismissed from almost any job. Bob Strowiss as well as the leadership of Local 2058 were summoned before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1962.

Bob openly refused to sign his Personal Security Questionnaire (PSQ), complete with loyalty oath, while other workers stalled as the union fought the PSQ requirement step by step. Ultimately the attempt to force everyone to sign PSQs was abandoned. Bob became the sacrificial lamb, being fired from his job while the rest were able to save theirs for a decade or so—until all the steel plants in the L.A. area closed down in the seventies, foreshadowing the deindustrialization of the ’80s and ’90s.

Two Fighters

In 1962 Bob married Alma Thomas, a young woman activist in the SWP, a union that was to last until 1995 when she died after a protracted struggle against cancer that lasted fifteen years but that never kept her from movement activities.

Bob’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland, Alma came from a bible-belt background of Methodist farmers and miners from Cornwall, Britain, who had settled in the American Midwest in the 1850s. Her father, a small-town Baptist minister, was fired because of homosexual tendencies and eventually became an atheist and a socialist and recommended that she join the SWP.

Like other radicals who had been witch-hunted from one job to another, Bob and Alma had to go into business for themselves, buying a small printshop in Maywood from Art Kunkin, who later made his mark in local history as the editor of the L.A. Free Press. Bob and Alma ran their little job shop very modestly and did most of the printing for the burgeoning antiwar movement.

Alma had attended Manual Arts High School, at the time made up largely of students of Mexican descent. She learned Spanish and became interested in Mexican culture, attending Cal State LA even while working in the printshop; studying under Professor Timothy Harding and eventually earning dual degrees in Spanish and Latin American Studies.

Bob had been active in the support of the civil rights struggle in the ’50s. Now, with Alma’s activities on the Eastside, besides their support of the antiwar actions of the ’60s, Bob and Alma plunged into support for the human rights struggles in Latin America and especially in Mexico, helping to arrange several very successful tours for Rosario Ybarra de Piedra, the Mexican human rights activist and PRT candidate for president of Mexico and spokesperson for the Zapatistas in Chiapas.

Bob and Alma also spent many years supporting the Peace and Freedom Party in California on all levels of its activities, from serving on the Central Committee at times to being local candidates. They fought to keep it alive as an anticapitalist and socialist party to give voters in California a chance for an alternative.

People in the various coalitions they worked in appreciated their long years of movement activity. They both did the necessary tasks of printing, mailing, collecting finances, keeping books, renting and setting up halls, collecting admissions, keeping lists, contacting people—all in a quiet, unassuming yet efficient way.

Whether it was in the Labor Party Advocates, the Labor Party, or at the Southern California Labor Library, Bob did his part in whatever way he could.

After the purges in the SWP in the early eighties, Bob and Alma both joined the Fourth Internationalist Tendency, leaving FIT soon after Solidarity was formed. They kept the finances, published a city letter, did the mailing, kept the lists, collected admissions and exhorted comrades to act responsibly. And Bob, after Alma’s death in 1995, continued his Latin American solidarity activities.

As is the custom in Latin America, Alma was counted a resounding “presente!” after her death in the first large public meeting of the coalition she worked in. Similarly, Rosario Ybarra’s most recent meeting at Loyola Law School on January 23, organized by the Chiapas 98 coalition, was dedicated to Bob Strowiss’ memory.

We in Solidarity can do no better than repeat this revolutionary tradition and count them PRESENT in our meetings a well, for they were the salt of the earth, the kind of people that are at the core of every social change.

ATC 80, May-June 1999