The Movement, the Plants, the Party

Against the Current, No. 217, March/April 2022

Dianne Feeley

Dianne Feeley in the late 1990s

IN 1967, WHEN I was invited to join the Socialist Workers Party’s youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance, I didn’t hesitate. I was ready to join an activist political organization. I’d already worked as a teacher in African-American schools in Harlem, set up a Headstart program with the Child Development Group of Mississippi and been arrested in anti-Vietnam War direct actions.

The SWP group was an interesting mix of older trade unionists who had cut their teeth in an earlier radicalization and younger members who were based on campus. One older comrade was a child during the Paterson, New Jersey Silk Strike where she heard Elizabeth Gurley Flynn speak. During World War II she led the seamen’s party fraction.

Three were painters active in Painters Local #4, whose leader, Dow Wilson, had recently been assassinated rooting out the mob. A couple active in the antiwar coalition were both trade unionists — he was a longshoreman, she a member of the clerical workers union. Most had weathered the Cold War. They had a wealth of socialist experience and were eager to discuss a variety of issues with younger members.

A younger woman was a librarian who would go on to help organize a union at her workplace; a comrade who just transferred into the branch was a teamster. (He later left to come out as gay and organized the successful gay bar boycott of the anti-union Coors corporation.)

Such experienced comrades might have been valuable mentors for labor activism. Yet in the SWP/YSA, few younger members were encouraged to find working-class jobs. Instead, we were to stay on college campuses where we could continue to organize antiwar actions including leafleting military bases, organizing mass demonstrations, and kicking ROTC and other military research programs off campus.

We also built labor contingents, women’s contingents, and African-American and Chicano contingents to the big antiwar actions. In Fall 1968, I was the office manager for the GI-Civilian March for Peace, which was led by active-duty GIs.

I began graduate school at San Francisco State the previous spring, but my assigned purpose was to help build a YSA presence. That semester ended with a sit-in at the Administration Building where we contacted Columbia University strikers and felt very much a part of a worldwide movement of youth.
Eventually the administration called the police; after much discussion we voted to leave rather than face arrest. However, the police were eager to try out their paraphernalia and started to attack us. Fortunately night classes were letting out, so the crowd interfered with their plan.

That fall the Black Student Union with other Third World organizations raised 15 demands, challenged the administration to a debate and when administrators stupidly walked out, the strike was on. Over the course of a five-month strike, white activists coordinated with the Third World Strike Committee to build support for their demands.

We had community groups, parents and unions joining our picket lines and rallies. We had a mutual-aid pact with striking oil workers in Richmond: we would go to their picket lines while they came to ours. Over the course of the strike, about 850 of us were arrested but we won several demands, most importantly, a School of Ethnic Studies, which exists today.

Feminist Upsurge

By the late ’60s the new feminist movement took off through consciousness-raising groups and conferences. Comrades eagerly participated in discussions about sexism and how that related to class and race. We began studying not only with Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State but devouring Simone Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

Although the term “intersectional” hadn’t been invited yet, we discussed how the relationship of racial and sexual oppression was braided into capitalism’s class structure. I particularly remember the intense discussion at one of the SWP’s Friday Night Forums where we analyzed Kate Millet’s just released Sexual Politics.

When Betty Friedan called for women “to get out of the kitchen and into the streets” to celebrate the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage (August 26, 1970), we were active in building coalitional demonstrations around the demands of “Free 24-hour childcare,” Equal Pay for Equal Work” and “Free Abortion on Demand.”

During this period, I was asked by the party to join the National Organization for Women, where I organized on reproductive rights, the Equal Rights Amendment and put together a series of classes. NY NOW would have 20-30 new people show up at a monthly meeting, so it was important to incorporate them into one of NOW’s standing committees. Otherwise, they would disappear. (Similar to what DSA chapters face today.)

A Late Turn to Industry

Summarizing this 10-year period, I’d describe the YSA/SWP as a Trotskyist organization that combined socialist propaganda (literature sales, running for public office, holding forums) with mass work.

But as the ’70s rolled along, especially with U.S. troops pulling out of Vietnam and the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing abortion with the Roe v. Wade decision, our two biggest nationally-coordinated campaigns drew to a close. The SWP leadership then projected building community-centered branches. Too localized but requiring long-term commitments, they quickly fizzled.

When I had attended my first SWP convention, I sat in on the labor fraction meeting. Although there were interesting reports about the comrades’ work in auto, steel and the teachers’ unions, there was no orientation for newer members. Yet this would have been the ideal opportunity to organize younger comrades to move into these jobs and to be mentored by comrades already rooted there.

Certainly, there was coverage in the party paper, The Militant, about labor struggles. By the mid-’70s these included coal miner strikes and campaigns for more democratic unions — where we had comrades — in rail and steel. Throughout, SWPers carried out strike support work and paid attention to winning working people, and where possible their unions, to join in antiwar, women’s rights and Black demonstrations — but it wasn’t until 1977 that the SWP made its turn.

When you compare the SWP’s move to those of other socialist organizations, the SWP’s decision came quite late as the ’70s wave of labor action was declining. But based on the successes of getting comrades into steel and rail, the leadership issued an all-out call two years later to go into an expanding number of industries: airlines, auto, textiles, mines.

This became known as “the turn within the turn.” Comrades who had jobs in public sector unions were urged to leave for a more industrial union. Even comrade teachers, social workers, librarians, and state office workers who held office in their unions were urged to resign to become miners or railroad workers.

For a two-year period, I was a member of the SWP’s National Committee and was able to see the top leadership team up close. At one plenum they called on the youth group to abandon the campus, saying that the campus radicalization had dissipated.

Since I’d recently run as the SWP candidate for governor of New York State and spent time campaigning on campuses, I knew that couldn’t be true. In fact, on campus I could sell 100 copies of The Militant within a couple of hours. Campus anti-apartheid divestment campaigns were in full swing.

The SWP leadership said we needed now to get industrial jobs because a pre-revolutionary situation was developing. I was willing to accept that premise and conclude that maybe it was necessary to leave campus because we couldn’t carry out both labor and campus work. However, I was disturbed by the leadership’s motivation.

Before we heard the report, other National Committee members told me it wouldn’t work in their branches but after the report, when I encouraged them to speak, most told me they’d been convinced. How could they have been convinced by such a misleading analysis?

I thought that members were duty bound to raise questions. I spoke against the motivation of the proposal and therefore voted against it despite supporting implanting ourselves in key industries. Henceforth I was viewed with suspicion. Subsequently I realized that’s what had happened to the “Proletarian Orientation Tendency,” who had proposed a more modest turn a few years earlier.

Working in Auto

Although I had a bout with breast cancer and was almost 40, I applied for a job at the Metuchen, New Jersey Ford plant about 50 miles from New York City. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to pass the physical, but I did.

I worked second shift. It was a 10-hour day, and eight hours every other Saturday. Although most of the workers lived in New Jersey, I was able to arrange a ride — the round trip ate up another four hours of my day — with Haitian coworkers who lived in Brooklyn.

My first job was a Charlie Chaplin experience. I had to tear off two different sizes of butcher paper lined with masking tape and wrap them around parts of the car’s body before it was painted.

If I didn’t stand in the right spot as I ripped the paper, the tape would slide off. I’d lose my rhythm and be chasing after the car as it traveled down the line, 57 cars an hour. I’d also have to be prepared to replace the rolls without missing a car.

Later I had a job where the line varied between automatic and standard motors. With automatics I had more work, so if there were too many in a row it was hard to keep up. When I asked around, I learned there had been a 1949 strike over just this issue. The grievance was settled with management agreeing that if a job was overloaded, they would slow the line or provide a worker with extra help.

Of course, I had to show I couldn’t do the job. This is difficult because one’s instinct is to work faster. I had to maintain the same pace and as the automatics kept coming, I’d have to let one or more go. The “pick-up” guy would then run to my station and help me through the patch of automatics.

I tried to organize others on the line to join me in keeping the same pace, but not all were affected by the difference in motors, and others were too intimidated. Nonetheless they encouraged me to call the committeeman and eventually management came and watched as I let motors go. I won the right to additional help but was disappointed I couldn’t organize others.

The SWP fraction — at one point 23 of us in a plant of about 2000 — wasn’t interested in my problem or how I won. We did not study the contract as a baseline to better the conditions we faced. Initially I’d supported the idea that we should be “talking socialism” with coworkers, assuming that would come out of organizing around the situations we faced.

We did attend union meetings but our leadership mostly commented on larger political events, not about shop-floor conditions. Nor were we to consider running for any union position. All that was “reformism.” Our job was to interest coworkers in socialist ideas and sell copies of The Militant.

There were a group of Maoists working in the plant when we arrived. They had a small caucus and put out leaflets about shop-floor issues. They attended union meetings and put the bureaucrats on the spot. I admired their energy and would have liked to talk with them, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to do that and, unfortunately, never did.

Equal Rights and Civil Rights

Because the UAW supported the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, this was a campaign that SWPers were able to build through the local’s Women’s Committee. Women were 10-15% of the work force and recent new hires. Most were single Black mothers who worked the second shift. They’d nap a few hours, then get their children fed and off to school in the morning. Some were fortunate to have family members to help, but most struggled through the week on little sleep.

Our committee set up a table at the plant gate and talked to coworkers about the importance of the ERA. We even organized a union bus to an ERA rally in Richmond, Virginia in support of its passage.

Before I worked at Ford in Metuchen, I’d written about why socialists should support the ERA and debated the well-known right-winger Phyllis Schlafly, as well as a Communist Party member (they later changed their position). But then I’d been focused on what the ERA would mean for women.

Now I was talking to mostly male coworkers about why they should support the ERA. These discussions deepened my understanding of how the patriarchal system functions: men as well as women are forced into gender roles. For them, it is that of “breadwinner.” They are supposed to risk their health and even their lives to “bring home the bacon” for their families. Men aren’t supposed to be emotional, and given the lengthening of the workday, often miss day-to-day parenting.

I consider the work SWP members carried out in the local’s committees our best work. In fact, the most intense experience I had was a weekend bus ride that the region’s Civil Rights Committee took to North Carolina after five civil rights leaders, members of the Communist Workers Party, were killed by the KKK.

A majority on our bus were Black workers who grew up in the South. They told stories of why and when they, and other members of their families, came North. To add to the tension, on the way home the bus was tracked by right wingers on CBs. We did not feel safe in stopping for dinner until we were over the border.

Another time the UAW Region held a conference where Tony Mazzocchi, a leader of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, spoke about the need of the working class to have our own party. I and other SWP autoworkers in attendance hoped within a decade we’d have a full-blown Labor Party. Over the years Mazzocchi tried to assemble one, but unions were too tied to the Democrats to make a break.

Occasionally there was a broad action that the SWP supported and that fraction would encourage coworkers to attend. In our work to shut down nuclear power plants, I remember inviting coworkers to attend a mass picket at the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant. But it was unrealistic to get workers from New Jersey to travel on a Sunday to Long Island for a demonstration.

Failing to Lead

In 1980, the local learned that the other Ford plant in New Jersey was shutting down and some of the Mahwah workers would transfer to our plant. But our newly elected local union leadership opposed the transfer. They said that our temporary workers — mostly Blacks, women and youth — would be laid off and replaced by old white men who should retire.

Suddenly everyone was asking questions about what should be done. I said we as the union should fight for a reduction of hours. Why should we be working 50 and 58 hours a week while others had no work? What about reducing the hours of the work week to 30 or 35?

But when we got to the SWP fraction meeting, the chair said we should avoid being drawn into the discussion. Our task was to sell The Militant.

That seemed crazy to me: workers were asking for our advice! That’s the whole point of Trotsky’s transitional program! It proposes radical solutions to everyday problems and opens the door to an alternative.

Another comrade raised the idea that we should demand that the UAW hold a meeting with all autoworkers in our region and discuss the situation. Comrades challenged him: “What could we say?”

Why not challenge the right of corporations to close a plant? What about advocating the right to a job and cutting the work week? Even if such a meeting would never be called, workers would be discussing alternatives to corporate decisions and union acquiescence.

Most of the comrades angrily dismissed the proposal, calling those who embraced suggestions “reformists.” I left the meeting shaken by the heat of the discussion, but determined to continue conversations with coworkers.

At the following fraction meeting, the chair proposed that we demand our local call a special meeting! One comrade dared to ask how that differed from the proposal shot down the previous week. I realized that when the national leadership heard a report, they decided it was necessary to offer a response. But they couldn’t use the ideas members suggested — proposals came from the party leadership, not the ranks.

Of course the moment quickly passed. The local was placed in receivership, its leadership removed from office. The regional director chaired the next union meeting and while questions could be raised, no motions would be entertained.

Temps were laid off and the Mahwah workers — who turned out to be mostly African Americans who had built a militant United Black Brothers caucus in their local — transferred in. They were great to work with!

Summing Up

I am no longer convinced that for the SWP leadership, the turn to industry had much to do with deepening the party’s working-class roots. If my hunch is correct, then what was the turn about?

I believe it was the result of disorientation once the big campaigns that had built the SWP of the 1960s were over and there was nothing of scale to replace them. It was a challenging period, where the radicalization wasn’t growing like wildfire and where the populist outpouring that produced the Iranian Revolution was being hijacked by religious fundamentalists. Instead of having the confidence to open a discussion about this complex reality and how to adjust to this new period, the SWP leadership tightened up.

Industrialization was not intended to build rank-and-file democracy on the shop floor or in the party. Instead, it became a test. If a member wasn’t willing to find a job in an industry the party prioritized, then they weren’t “cadre,” and there wasn’t a place for them. Or as one comrade, who had known me for years, remarked at my trial — for “freelancing in the women’s movement” — that if I’d been with Che in the mountains, he would have known what to do with me. The thought that someone I knew regarded me as an enemy to be liquidated chilled me!

What had happened to the rebellious youth who had joined the YSA/SWP?

I suspect it’s a case of the frog being boiled in water. The process of transforming a relatively healthy organization into one with a membership that doesn’t ask questions took place over a period of time and around different issues.

Once we had discussed and debated political questions, but by the early 1980s those discussions had pretty much disappeared. When I’d query comrades, I found they frequently begged off, saying they didn’t know enough to comment. Another time I praised the work of the International Socialists, who built an effective unemployed committee. Comrades were scandalized that I could find the work of other radicals important — as if we were the center of the world!

My deviance was marked, my influence diminished and I was expelled. That happened to others as well. Still more quietly withdrew, whether remaining socialists, becoming active in their union in a way they couldn’t as members, or developing more of their personal life. We were all viewed as people who had betrayed the movement.

Those who stayed adjusted to the leadership’s zigs and zags. They put their faith in “the party,” and I suspect that any doubt might threaten the meaning of their life’s work.

A Postscript

More than a decade later, I moved to Detroit to help in the founding of a new socialist group, Solidarity. Eventually I got a job at an axle plant where another member worked and where I spent the final 10 years of my work life.

We thought about political ideas we could raise at work, whether from mulling over the day’s news or from a struggle in the plants. Often I had about 10-15 seconds to make my comment — then it was my job to listen. Once, when I posted an article about spousal abuse in the women’s locker room, a janitor stopped at my workstation within a half hour to reveal years before she’d been abused. We became a team, alert to other women who might need help.

With another member of Solidarity, I organized support for the long Detroit newspaper strike and initiated a number of campaigns, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. Through the Women’s Committee, I organized a campaign to commit the union to raise childcare in our next contract.

A group of us visited day care centers and surveyed the membership. I learned about the problems parents and grandparents faced daily. One young woman couldn’t drop her child off until the center opened at 6 am. She then drove above the speed limit to work, punching in just minutes before the line started at 6:30. A number of workers had disabled children they had to pick up shortly after work so last-minute overtime left them scrambling. Unfortunately, union negotiators quickly dropped the childcare demand.

For the 2003 contract, the national UAW leadership was prepared to settle for two-tier wages “to keep plants open.” Given this, Administration Caucus members blocked any attempt to get a motion passed for the local to order “No Two-Tier” buttons. I put out a leaflet calling for button contributions and suddenly found coworkers handing me one dollar and five-dollar bills. We made 2,000 buttons and got approximately 50 people in the various plants and shifts to distribute them.

At the beginning, a few workers said “Two-tier doesn’t affect me.” Others saw the injustice of working next to someone who didn’t have our wages or benefits. One of my coworkers remarked, “Voting for two-tier allows target practice on your back. They’ll fire you and hire two for the price of one.”

In the end, while our local voted against the two-tier contract, it passed in the other locals. We learned that the UAW leadership encouraged the rumor that our local would arrogantly vote two-tier down because we weren’t in danger of having our plant closed and didn’t care about those in danger. While the union’s song is “Solidarity Forever,” the leadership badmouthed us to win a wretched contract.

Some people tell me I “sacrificed” my life by industrializing. While I reject the SWP’s sectarian approach, I think it is necessary for socialists to root ourselves in working-class jobs, building caucuses and organizations that can provide the experience and skills we need to advance class consciousness.

My life has been enriched by these experiences. Because I worked in plants with a substantial African-American work force, I see how systematic racism functions on the job and follows us home. When I worked at the Ford plant, I said I could identify, blindfolded, whether a worker was Black or white if they just told me where they lived. Whites mostly lived in the suburbs, Blacks in Newark and Haitians in Brooklyn. Our neighborhoods are markedly different.

UAW retirees remain active in our union. This fall I leafleted, called, emailed and texted UAW members, urging a vote for directly electing our top UAW officers rather than continuing to use the delegate system corrupted by the Administration Caucus.

We won that referendum — now we move forward to further democratizing our union. That means not only building accountability in our finances but also in how we negotiate contracts. The UAW tradition is that the membership is kept in the dark until the contract is ready. Other unions have open negotiations and report-backs so if there is the need to go on strike, the membership is prepared.

But beyond fighting to end two-tier wages and benefits, and beyond launching organizing drives in unorganized plants, it’s necessary to have a larger picture of the industry in which we work. The restructuring of the auto industry has led to a massive decline in the work force, which will accelerate as corporations produce electric vehicles (EV). What’s our plan to build a sustainable and safe industry? How can we blunt the corporate drive to pit workers in one plant against another? Why are we driven to depend on overtime?

Hopefully in opening this discussion, we can challenge a market-driven system that has brought us to an environmental crisis. The reality is that EVs may reduce reliance on fossil fuels, but they still require a huge infrastructure that includes mining, parking spaces, refueling stations and more. That requires more energy than the world can afford.

Instead we could produce the buses, trains, trolleys and trucks we need for a free, high-quality and safe mass transit system that replaces the individual car. I’d like to see the new UAW organize restructuring committees to consider how we can contribute to environmental sustainability.

March-April 2022, ATC 217