Estar Baur (1920-2017)

Against the Current, No. 192, January/February 2018

Dianne Feeley

A LONGTIME SOCIALIST activist, Estar Baur died less than a year after her lifelong comrade and husband, Erwin. They met at a 1930s Socialist Party dance in Cleveland, where Estar was born and grew up. She quit John Adams High School, where she enjoyed playing the piano and being active in the Young Peoples Socialist League, to run off and live with him.

Erwin was blacklisted in the aftermath of the 1937 Little Steel strike, when the smaller steel companies crushed the union and dismissed union supporters. They were married the following year — but also expelled from the Socialist Party as Trotskyist supporters. Both were founding members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Their daughter Sonia was born in 1939.

During the war the couple moved to Detroit, where Erwin went to work at Budd Wheel Company as a tool-and-die maker. In 1944 their second daughter, Ingrid, was born.

With her children in school, Estar went to work on the Dodge Main assembly line in 1950. The job doesn’t exist anymore, but she described how she put up roof posts for an interior car light in an interview:

“They gave the women those jobs because you had to be fairly agile and very small. It was a very hard job. I had a stool and I did every seventh job. I had an apron with screw in my pocket and a drill that was hung onto the overhead wire.

She described conditions as fairly good, but they deteriorated as production went up. However, workers at Dodge Main had a militant tradition; in fact just before Estar hired in there had been a strike.

“They used to have slowdown strikes. I was involved in one. The line started at the end of the building and went half-way through it, and then it would go down the rafters to the floor below, to the sixth floor. The bosses came around and said to me, ’If you wouldn’t talk so much you could be faster.’”

“So I put a big piece of tape over my mouth and jumped in there with my stool and worked at a very slow pace. I slowed down the whole line. I was getting very near the hole when my co-workers at the back of the line stopped the line, and I didn’t go down the hole. That would have been disastrous! But I was determined!”

During that McCarthyite period, the UAW became increasingly bureaucratic, with little room for the debate and local militancy that characterized the early union. In this new period many of the SWP’s trade union cadre found the party line of building a vanguard party made little sense. Ultimately Erwin and Estar were expelled as followers of Bert Cochran (who subsequently wrote Labor and Communism).

Erwin became part of the core leadership of the new group, the Socialist Union, and their monthly magazine American Socialist. Although willing to help with the new project, Estar grabbed an opportunity.

Organizer and Educator

After seven years in the plant, with her older daughter in college, Estar started college herself. She graduated from Wayne State with a degree in English and history and then studied history and anthropology for her M.A. at the University of Michigan.

She had both a teaching credential and a degree in library science. When she got a job in Highland Park High School, she recognized a teacher who’d been walked out of Dodge Main by fellow workers because he was a Communist; the two organized the union there.

Although always a political person, Estar recalled that until she went to college she saw herself as a housewife and mother. It was only then that she realized she “I have a life.”

Always a voracious reader, in 1973 she became director of the Learning Resources Center of Wayne County Community College.

Both daughters moved to the West Coast: Sonia became a physician, Ingrid a machinist and activist in Washington Women in Trades. Estar decided she had to find a way to move closer. By 1977 she landed a job as director of the Learning Resources Center at Laney College in Oakland, California. Erwin reluctantly retired and joined Estar.

Estar was an active participant of the Faculty for Human Rights in El Salvador and Central America. Retiring in 1982, Estar continued to belong to feminist reading groups and participated in demonstrations in support of labor and socialist causes. Erwin became a member of Solidarity after its founding, and Estar a sympathizer.

Estar built a magnificent garden in back of their home in the Berkeley foothills. Always delighted to discuss political opportunities and encourage young people to become activists, the two were well known in activist circles in the Bay Area.

Ingrid moved to the Bay Area to be closer to her parents in their old age, but she was the one who developed cancer and died in 2005. Although Erwin was happy to stay in their Berkeley home, Estar realized they needed to give it up and move to an independent living facility. Her health quickly deteriorated, however, and they needed to go to an assisted living facility in Alameda.

They continued their activism although at a slower pace, and enjoyed seeing their grandchildren and great-grandchildren who lived in the Bay Area and further north, as well as in Mexico and New Zealand.

Their daughter Sonia organized a celebration for the two on the occasion of Erwin’s 100th birthday and Estar’s 95th.

Erwin suffered from macular degeneration and relied on Estar to read to him during the last few years of their life together. Estar had more physical problems and developed dementia; Erwin’s short-term memory deteriorated. Most of us thought that Estar would die quickly after Erwin’s death last November, but she hung on, although blind and bedridden until July 2017.

The Baurs live on in the memory of those who had the opportunity to work with them over the years.

January-February 2018, ATC 192