Coming Home to the Struggle

Against the Current, No. 134, May/June 2008

Wendy Thompson

I BECAME A political activist at the age of 12, when I marched for open housing in Evanston, Illinois. We lived next to the Black community in Evanston; African-American students made up 40% of my grade school. At the local YWCA girls club my sister and I were the only whites. The young Black women I became close to helped me overcome painful shyness. Later my father, a Methodist minister, was arrested trying to integrate churches in Jackson, Mississippi.

I chose to attend the University of Southern California because it was in South Central Los Angeles. I had no idea that after the 1965 Watts Rebellion the administration seriously considered surrounding the campus with a wall. By 1968, with other alienated students, I moved off campus to a house in the community. We painted “Ellis Island” in blue over the porch.

For independent study I rode my bike over to Manuel Arts High School, a school with a 96% Black student body. Students, teachers and parents each had their own activist committee working together to oust the racist principal. Teachers were both Black and white; one leader was a white woman and longtime community resident. This experience filled me with hope.

That year I was active with the Young Democrats, which organized, in alliance with SDS, a Vietnam Teach-in. Through my work in the community I was able to bring a Black Power community activist to campus for an extremely successful event. I also created a major family crisis by telling my parents I was no longer going to hold onto my virginity until marriage.

I participated in the Urban Semester program that studied the city of Los Angeles. They filmed us learning about banks; I was captured on film as yawning. By the end of the program I seemed to be the only one who remained unconvinced that it was possible to “work within the system.”

With the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968 my hopes were dashed. I remember taking the bus after the murder and feeling African Americans were looking at me with hatred in their eyes. Was it still possible to end racism?

That summer I spent working in Chicago and attending the protests at the Democratic Convention. I had been in the Democratic Party and an antiwar activist on campus, but this was my first large antiwar rally. I felt proud to be taking that step and it was a thrill to be together with so many activists. I remember Lincoln Park after dark, with musicians everywhere. Young Blacks and whites were mingling and enjoying each other’s company.

The next day, suddenly, the violent police force reared its ugly head. One of my friends was arrested. We were shocked; then we were angry. That ended my affiliation with the Democratic Party.

I was scheduled to go to France in the fall of 1968 for my junior year abroad. Love the U.S. or leave it? I wanted to leave it. I bought a Socialist Workers Party pamphlet on May 1968 in France and read it cover to cover.

Leaving and Returning

I became a student at L’Universite Aix-Marseille, and although I suffered from cultural isolation, I consciously separated myself from the American students at the l’Institute Americain. I became close to some African students and together we would commensurate about the stand-offish French.

Before I met my political friends, I was a part of a social network of working-class students from Marseille. The men controlled the group in an authoritarian manner. I had done no thinking about the secondary status of women but upon return to the United States, the minute I heard about the women’s movement, I knew I had to join. The ideas of women’s liberation transformed me personally.

As spring approached, I was drawn into the student struggle and became an activist in a “groupscule” of the Partie Socialiste Unifie. If May 1968 was the high point for the revolutionary movement in Paris, May 1969 was the pivotal moment in the south of France. We leafleted factories, supported strikes, and protested the educational structures by disrupting exams. One incident stands out clearly: A busload of workers on their way to a factory saw us with leaflets by the side of the road, they stopped and one of them ran over, took a pile of leaflets, and ran back to the bus.

I’d had the image of U.S. workers in hard hats spitting at antiwar demonstrators, but in France the working class was up in arms too. Nonetheless I resisted socialist ideas because I didn’t think revolution was possible. In the end the actions of students and workers who believed otherwise won me over. However while I was in Europe I didn’t see much of an understanding about racism. I was positive it would not automatically disappear with the revolution as everyone thought.

If my experiences in France took me from feeling that cultural differences were insurmountable to a feeling of oneness with all of humanity, I had to return to the States to find a socialist analysis I agreed with — one impacted by the Civil Rights, Black Power and Women’s Liberation movements. Within a month of my return I joined the International Socialists.

My politics led me to move to Detroit in 1971 to find a job as an autoworker. I became one and retired 33 years later. Living and working in Detroit’s Black community has been an important part of my life. I’ve started a block club in my neighborhood, which is devastated by foreclosures, plant closings and a downsizing of city services.

I feel lucky I’ve had one well-paid job in my life, one in which I could support my son, and where I was engaged over the years in various shop-floor struggles. At the same time, I am disappointed that the democratic transformation of the UAW I had hoped for, and worked for, did not happen.

The Hope of Revolution

When I first hired in, as one of a handful of women, there was militancy in the workplace and a self-confident rank-and-file. Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) was still around, and had a presence in my plant. I participated in two successful wildcat strikes and helped build a group that could get 20 young Black and white workers to turn out to our meetings. We put out a regular newsletter, got committeepeople elected, and won some democratic reforms in the local.

As I was filled with hope that the revolutionary movement I’d seen in France would be spreading worldwide, the revolution overthrowing fascism in Portugal (April 1974) especially caught my attention. I returned to France and visited Portugal in 1975 and ‘76. A small working-class community called Marinha Grande especially impressed me because revolutionary workers there had essentially taken control of the factories. The mayor’s house had been turned into a child care center.

I could go to the entrance of a factory, ask for the leader of the workers’ committee and be taken on a tour of the factory. The boss would be very accommodating; I saw supervisors looking down and shuffling their feet; in some factories there was no manager and the workers’ representative had taken over.

When I returned home I put out a leaflet describing my experience and mentioning that workers’ control was, in fact, socialism. This created an uproar. In my conversations afterwards with fellow workers I felt I would have to write a 400-page book and hold many meetings to explain my viewpoint. The experience convinced me that it was not possible to engage in “revolutionary agitation on a mass basis” at that time — and even less since!

The Long Haul

Things changed for the worse after the Oil Crisis and “stagflation” of 1975. In the face of the economic downturn and a growing bureaucratization within the UAW, the rank-and-file movement atrophied. Our inability to build a democratic union hamstrung us from resisting the employers’ attacks. Those who opposed the concessions of the 1979-81 period were painted as crazy radicals and hopeless dreamers. The corporations restructured and thousands lost their jobs as plants closed or downsized.

Although the rank-and-file movement did not triumph, much less the revolutionary movement, the women’s movement impacted the industry and the union. Many women got auto jobs. We had an active women’s committee. I went on to be the first woman elected to many positions within my local union, retiring from the position of Local President in 2005.

By the late 1970s those of us within the IS could see that capital was restablizing itself. At that point many decided they’d rather go off “do their own thing” but the rest of us felt we had to try to figure out how to be revolutionaries in a decidedly non-revolutionary period, and prepare for a future upsurge. Certainly the problems of war, racism and inequality were deepening with the rise of a neoliberal agenda and the globalization of capital. The left was shrinking as the problems grew ever more complex; attacks on the working class became more vicious.

I’ve been fortunate to have at least a network of autoworkers with whom I could collaborate with over the years, both nationally and internationally. In the 1980s Trans International Exchange (TIE) brought together European, Brazilian, Mexican, South Korean and U.S. autoworkers in order to discuss how to overcome the employers’ tactics of whipsawing and outsourcing. But it’s difficult to sustain these ties in the face of the daily grind, and particularly when an undemocratic and repressive union leadership sees its job as collaborating with management to maintain the company’s profitability.

With our high hopes in the 1970s we did not anticipate the role that technological advances would play in strengthening corporate power. Today the tasks are so daunting that we are hard pressed to win even reforms, much less contemplate the revolutionary changes that are needed. Even scarier is the thought that we may be running out of time as issues like global warming are added to the mix.

As young people get jobs, more workers will be knowledgeable about computers and able to communicate with others over email, blogs or web sites. This powerful new method of communication cannot substitute for shop-floor organizing and face-to-face meetings. But certainly technology isn’t just a tool in the hands of the corporation; it’s a tool in our hands as well.

If the last 30 years have been a disappointment for my generation, at least there are more of us around to pass on some of the lessons to the next generation. Although I am concerned about how easily the ruling class uses racism and xenophobia, I have been fortunate to live in a racially mixed environment and to see that unity can be achieved when fighting around common goals.

Even though I am retired from work, I am still active in putting out a newsletter and have been able to play a role in the recent American Axle strike. The picket lines over the last couple of months have brought skilled trades and production workers together, and the same is true racially. The discussions out in front of the plant gates give me hope that this is building up our strength for the struggles ahead. I’m glad I decided to return to the belly of the monster.

ATC 134, May-June 2008

1 comment

  1. I’m glad you’re around to pass on lessons and inspiration to us younger folks!

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