Against the Current, No. 218, May/
Out of the Imperial Order: Chaos
— The Editors
"Nationtime": The Black Political Convention
— Malik Miah
Rising Up at Amazon
— Dianne Feeley
Book Banning Past and Present
— Harvey J. Graff
Punishing the Criminalized Sector of the Working Class
— James Kilgore
The Invisible Chinese Activists
— Mo Chen
Feminism(s) in Mexico
— Margara Millán
Faiz Ahmed Faiz: The Restless Traveler
— Ali Shehzad Zaidi
The Complete Rosa Luxemburg
— William Smaldone interviews Peter Hudis
- Revolutionary Experiences
Introduction to Revolutionary Experience
— The Editors
On-the-line in Auto -- 1970s-1990
— Elly Leary
Organizing in '70s Wisconsin
— an interview with Jon Melrod
Prison Abolition: A Primer
— Efrén Paredes, Jr.
How Alice Became an Activist
— Adam Schragin
When Radicals Ran the U.S. Congress
— Mark Lause
Dust Bowl Chronicler
— Cassandra Galentine
Surveying Revolutionary Thought
— Herman Pieterson
I GREW UP Jewish in the 1950s Jim Crow south. Like African Americans, Jews lived a completely separate life barred by law (dressed up in the fancy word covenants) from living in certain neighborhoods and social events and organizations. My parents were part of the Jewish ruling class so I spent a lot of time with the maids, spending weekends with them in the “ghetto” and attending Black church when my parents were out of town.
You don’t come away from such a situation unaffected. I brought this sensibility with me to Boston where I went to college and grad school.
By the time I joined the Proletarian Unity League (mid-1970s) — which later merged with other collectives to become Freedom Road Socialist Organization, now Liberation Road — I was a well-seasoned political person.
During the late 1960s, I became a part of Student Health Organization (a spinoff from SDS). From that I became involved in several socialist feminist collectives: one which ended up writing Our Bodies Ourselves and the other dealing with forced sterilization of Black women (the Mississippi Appendectomy, its most famous victim being Fannie Lou Hamer), which was a plague in more than just the south.
From there I was part of forming the first women’s law office/WLC (1971). Oddly, we did mostly labor work: helping caucuses form in unions, writing a Supreme Court brief for the left independent labor federation in Puerto Rico (associated with Lolita LeBron and the Puerto Rican nationalist movement), and immigration issues (especially leftists fleeing from repression in Latin America).
That is what led me to the shops. In addition to the WLC (where I was in charge of political education/study), I was also part of a large (40 people) labor-oriented study group. After two or three years we purposefully broke up to join national formations. Some went to the Revolutionary Union, some to the October League, some the Workers Organizing Committee, and some to PUL. All were in the Maoist orbit.
During this period, about 15 of us took a trip to Philadelphia where the Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC) hosted a meeting to talk about “colonizing.” (If you don’t know, colonizing is distinct from salting. The latter is union sponsored, the former not.)
There I learned three valuable and inter-related insights:
1) Eyes open, mouth shut for the first six months.
2) The first people to join you might be the “loud mouths,” the habitual complainers; one should take time to identify the “natural leaders,” those who hang back waiting to see our seriousness, our patience, our stick-to-itiveness.
3) The kind of results we were looking for take 10 years to build. If you aren’t prepared for that, don’t go. It just wrecks it for those who can make the commitment.
The PWOC men (unfortunately, all) had already entered heavy industry: steel and Budd automotive. Everything they said turned out to be true.
Maoism (or, as it was known in the United States, the New Communist Movement, NCM) differentiated itself from more Trotskyist tendencies by placing more emphasis on the “national question” [the African American movement as a national liberation struggle —ed.] within the social movements, including the labor movement, which was the primary focus.
This was central to our analysis of the development of U.S. capitalism. Roughly speaking, we would say that the class question could not be resolved without simultaneously resolving the national question (See A House Divided. Labor and White Supremacy, PUL 1981).
Within that NCM, PUL was distinguished on several fronts: 1) “Queer” is not a bourgeois deviation (we had queer women leaders from the very start). 2) While other Maoist (and Trotskyist) groups were firmly committed to “no unity with the labor bureaucrats,” we believed that was a tactical question. 3) Among the Maoists we were most known for our anti-sectarian approach and the orientation that there is not one true party. (See Two, Three Many Parties of a New Type? Against the Ultra-Left Line, PUL 1977). 4) We also placed a heavy emphasis on the south.
PUL always encouraged comrades to leave bourgeois jobs and go colonize. Like Marxist organizations everywhere, we held that the working class was the engine of social and revolutionary change.
Trotskyist-oriented groups at the time smartly encouraged and got buy-in for comrades to move to the industrial heartland to get jobs in heavy industry. PUL was mainly centered on the coasts where heavy industry was rapidly disappearing. While comrades tried to get jobs in “heavy industry,” many ended up in hospitals, public service (teachers, city and state workers in all categories) given the nature of the coastal economies.
Comrades were encouraged to move south, and a number did (ending up founding, along with others from the Maoist SDS “Revolutionary Youth Movement II” stream, Black Workers For Justice). Even as we were encouraged to get working class jobs, a good number of our comrades devoted their principal activity to building up the Black and Chicano national movements (and, starting in the early 1980s, Central American immigrant communities on the east coast).
Hard Work Finding Work
Getting an industrial job in the Boston area posed problems. Six or seven comrades managed to land jobs at the shipyards — which closed within four years. Boston still had a defense industry: Raytheon and General Electric. GE’s Lynn mammoth factory complex (think Ford Rouge) was crawling with leftists of all stripes. Sometimes relations were friendly, others not.
I was one of about seven people who applied to GM. Our plant, as we later learned from Herman Benson (Association for Union Democracy), was one of the few in the entire UAW that was mob controlled — not by the infamous Winter Hill gang (Whitey Bulger) which had the mothership Local 25 of the IBT, but by the Worcester mob. So hiring generally was a combination of mob, worker family members and company-picked inside application process.
We understood from the beginning that to stand a chance, a resume with factory experience was necessary to make it in GM and other big shops. Many of us started out in the lower rungs of industry (electronic shops making speakers for Bose; 20 people machine shops). I spent a couple of years at a box factory (where I met my husband).
Fortunately, when I applied to GM/Framingham the company was under pressure from EEOC to hire women and “minorities.” Our factory was part of the first post-WWII wave of auto plants relocated from the cities to “greenfield” sites in the countryside to eliminate job applications from African Americans. With no public transportation, 30 miles west of Boston set next to the women’s prison, that enabled GM to hire very few African-Americans and to count men (only) from the Azores as minorities.
GM Framingham was the only auto assembly plant in New England; the Ford plant in Somerville Massachusetts (a contiguous suburb of Boston) had closed in the late 1950s having produced the disastrous Edsel. It was a smallish plant, around 3800 workers on two production shifts (there was also a separate, and smaller, maintenance shift). As GM moved out of the cities, they no longer built the behemoth installations as in Flint.
So what was it like once I got there in 1977? Three things stand out:
The work regime. The assembly line is no joke. When you arrive you see workers moving slowly, like a metronome, deliberately and seamlessly from one car to the other — sometimes chatting with one another, but often not. You say to yourself, I got this.
For the first three weeks you are chasing your ass in a tight 10-foot area, running from car to car trying to finish in the allotted time and space, covered in sweat and bathed in stress, only to dream of that stressful experience at night.
Those behind and in front helped where they could but that metronome pace meant they had no free time themselves. Finally, finally you can stop running and get the job done. In the “good old days,” work time was programmed for 55-57 seconds per minute, but by the end it was 59 seconds a minute.
And then there is the boredom. You need to make peace with the conveyor belt that rules your life. Not all of my comrades were able to do that. They quit. (Clearly the working class folk don’t often have that option.)
You needed to be good at separating mind from body; otherwise you’d go nuts. Learning about the autoworker in Detroit who “went postal” surprised none of us at our factory. Once good enough you could spend time chatting with your co-workers (that is, the person across from you or behind you or ahead of you), or you could go into lala land.
I loved chatting with my co-workers. One favorite topic: “All in the Family,” the TV show. It offered a treasure trove of political topics: racism, sexism, homophobia, patriarchy, abortion, unions, xenophobia, family relations and politics (Archie Bunker’s hatred for FDR was a central feature).
For the lala times I tended to write leaflets and our shop newspaper in my head (or shopping lists). Because of the limited chance to engage with a broad range of people, I worked my way into the category of “nickel man” — five cents more an hour for being an absentee replacement. In that job you went all over the factory to fill in.
Did I mention the 100% injury rate? Repetitive strain injuries were a big thing. No one escapes slashes, burns, factory accidents (getting caught in the moving conveyor; something falling on you). All part of the job.
Between four and five years marked the onset of most physical and mental injury. This was closely linked to political consequences: trying to swim against the tide to create a “bottom-up, democratic and social justice union” was tough going in the best of times.
Those around you wanted to see if you “had what it took” (able to stay on the job after five years) before they stepped forward — even if they believed in the righteousness of our cause. Who wants to be left holding the bag?
Swimming Like a Fish
Talking union politics. The second major issue to deal with was how to discuss “politics” and our vision for the future. Being a “greenfield” plant, workers came from the countryside (as in family farms) and small mill towns in central Massachusetts and Rhode Island that had long since lost their small mills.
Many were Vietnam Vets; nearly everyone was white (3% African American, no Latinos, 3% women), all of whom had less than five years seniority.)
.The other shaping dynamic was the consequences of “ultra-left” errors of the October League (they hadn’t graduated to the CPML yet). In 1976 a group of them began leafletting outside the plant — selling newspapers and screaming at the workers to “abandon your sellout leadership.” At the time, there were OL comrades working there: two from the working class and two “declassed intellectuals.”
Finally the “men” had had enough: about a dozen of them went outside armed with lead pipes and other heavy metal instruments and had it out. The brawl and the resentment of the left “telling us what to do and that we were stupid” was still talked about 10 years later.
After that, only the two OL working-class comrades (women) were left employed and what a miserable time they had: reviled by the “commie hating vets” and being women to boot.
So when I arrived six months later (the first from PUL), I knew a couple of things: swim like a fish in the sea (my favorite Mao dictum); start where people are at; eyes open, mouth shut while you assess the situation; figure out how to bring up the necessity for a rank-and-file driven union (at that point the union hadn’t called meeting in three years) and, most of all, how to talk about socialism in an anti-communist haven while still being true to your beliefs.
In the beginning I started simple. I asked one of the elders (son of a coal miner) on my line/workgroup: “Last place I worked we had a union, when are the union meetings here? My policy is always to try to make the best of a bad situation.” I then spoke to my committeeman (steward in the UAW system). The snort reply told me all I needed to know.
As luck would have it, the International union had mandated some membership education. I was invited to attend one of these “sessions” — filling the woman quota no doubt. Mostly it was geared toward members getting involved in the Democratic Party. But it did have a segment where we had to write and give a three-minute speech on a political topic.
I decided to make mine on the “woman question” since everyone considered we were taking men’s jobs (I mean these guys told you that from night to morning). Rather than a Lenin-type harangue/stump speech, I chose “It takes two to pull the plow.” So I got noticed and not necessarily in the best way.
Some months later a few Trotskyists got hired and immediately started a petition to have union meetings. While the petition caused them all kinds of personal grief (and they were gone in several months), it did allow the opening to talk about that. A few more comrades had managed to get hired and by now some “natural leaders” had been identified.
Also, local elections were coming up, a perfect excuse for a union meeting: find out the rules of the road. One of our comrades ran for alternate committeeman (a sub).
An African American ran for the Executive Board. He worked overnight so it was hard to know him, but he was the son of autoworkers from the midwest and progressive. Later on, he became the titular head of our caucus.
A few others ran for the Joint Council (the body that OK’d the Executive Board decisions). This was treading new ground. I ran for the Joint Council on a ticket with the elder. This being a mob shop, he was pulled aside (at gunpoint I presume, firearms were fairly plentiful; I had a gun aimed at my head during this time as well) and told they would “let” him win if he ditched the “commie.”
Bless him, he stood his ground even though he was as conservative as the day is long. And that is when we learned about the second set of ballots, to be pulled out when necessary. The old-timers kept telling me about them, but I had considered that more legend than reality.
Fortunately/unfortunately, a little later (1979) I turned up pregnant. There was no maternity leave. By this time, more women were hired, thanks to EEOC mandates for government contracts. There were at least five of us who were pregnant.
I had read in the newspaper about a Massachusetts Supreme Court decision requiring contracts that had medical leave clauses to include pregnancy. What a boon. I contacted all the women, showed them the article and asked if they would join me in meeting with the union to have them lobby for us. Two others agreed.
The Local leaders were bullshit, but the UAW International leaders knew they had to do something (I also reminded them I could go to the EEOC). The union said they would take up the issue and, long story short, we got pregnancy leave for women throughout GM!
Returning to the shop after having the baby, the next big fight was a national one against reopening the contract and giving breaks for the automakers (1980-early 1982).
Fighting Concessions, Building a Caucus
One of the great benefits of being in a national political organization is that you know what’s going on around the country and, somewhat, the world. We found out about a national organization, Locals Opposed to Concessions (LOC).
Our small band of leftists easily recruited a number of other workers to help distribute their literature. This group became the nexus of our future caucus. Workers were thrilled that we took the effort to keep everyone informed about industry-wide resistance.
The Local union leadership strongly backed the International on concessions and kept everyone completely in the dark. A past Local President, Owen Bieber, was regional director and within a year was the International President (he was as stupid as a pet rock). That put lots of pressure on the Local to deliver the vote.
One of the many things we learned from LOC was that poll watchers to oversee the contract vote count at each local were imperative. We had two high seniority people agree to do the job. Yet the final reported vote tally did not match the one they meticulously counted.
It was at this point we took some folks to Labor Notes and connected with like-minded autoworkers from all over.
Building a caucus, our third major activity: through the anti-concession work we developed a team in which all departments were represented. We mapped the shop line by line, department by department — who worked where and where we thought they stood on union issues. Our strength was on the night shift.
We then formed our coalition, STAND UP (an acronym that none of us can remember what it stood for since it was forgotten within the hour). Over the succeeding years, our caucus became the home of what few women and Black workers were in the plant, the handful of colonizers from different left organizations (fortunately not enough of us to cause infighting), working class leftists, but also a number of religious/evangelical men who were appalled by the corruption and dishonesty.
We developed a five-point platform (unusual since everything had been personality-driven prior). STAND UP assessed that the first job was to clean up the elections in our local. We put out a flyer inviting everyone to a “between shift meeting” (there was one hour between shifts) to call for fair and open elections in our local. We had no idea what would happen.
The response was overwhelming. At least 500 workers showed up. It was sheer pandemonium — in a good way. We then recruited a slate to run for the election commission. Such an election hadn’t been held for many years: lackeys were appointed to help count.
That election had the biggest voter turnout in the history of the local (even when the first was canceled because of a snowstorm). And you guessed it, because there were no challengers (observers in UAW parlance) allowed, we didn’t win all the seats.
This ushered in the production of a shop newsletter called News and Views. Because of consolidations within the auto industry, we always focused our lead story on an industry analysis. (Several of us subscribed to Automotive News.)
We called different locals around the country (as rank and filers) to ask about production figures, so we could chart the whipsaw. But of course what everyone really wanted to read were the small boxes on shop gossip and the corruption of our local officials.
We started handing out these papers (which we produced on a mimeo machine) at the gate. The harassment and intimidation from the union apparachnicki was so great we changed course. We had a crew that came in early (all three shifts) and placed copies on each workbench.
It turned out to be one of the best organizing moves we ever made. There was no gauntlet of union officials to intimidate you from taking the paper. Before we put out any edition, we had a team of readers — mostly honest centrists — look over the paper and give us feedback. Rarely were we asked to change things, even as these middle folks said we were sure to get blowback.
We even had a program where some of us would read the newsletter to the half dozen or so we knew could not read. (I know how busy you are, let me read this to you while you work and we can chat about it).
Corruption and Intimidation
The paper was a giant success. But as the next local election rolled around, the stakes got higher and the intimidation more dangerous. Several of our key players told me they had to quit the caucus because their wives couldn’t take the threats to them and the kids anymore. My own husband received those calls.
I for one ended up having a group of informal “body guards” who made sure the walk around the plant and to the car was uneventful (I know the other women in our caucus had likewise).
Meanwhile, we were laid off for about nine months and when we got back there was only one shift (roughly 1900 production workers). This decimated our ranks as many of our team did not make the seniority cut when one shift was called back. That left me the de facto lead organizer of the caucus.
Even with some people on the election committee, they weren’t able to stop the second set of ballots from turning up as our election committee reported to us. So while we could win a few seats here and there, we were never able to win a working majority. It would have been close anyway.
We tried going to the NLRB (who told us the fastest we could get something done was two years down the road). The Association for Union Democracy came from New York to help us. The local threatened to sue us.
We knew we couldn’t foot the bill for all this by ourselves, and in one edition of News and Views, we announced we would be doing a fund collection. Again we had no idea what would happen. The money poured in. Our “collectors” — those with off-line job categories that allowed them both free time and plantwide mobility — were crying, they were so happy and astonished.
It was not unheard of for someone to drop by our workbench or give a known caucus member $100 bill; most people contributed $2-20.
A highwater mark was in 1986 when we ran a slate on a political platform (unheard of) for the UAW National Convention. Folks were highly energized in the shop. In another case of backroom ballots, only one of us made it. Frankly, the obvious loss demoralized a lot of people.
The first night of that convention, our delegate (the Black activist mentioned above) excitedly called and told us there was an entire region of the UAW represented at the convention in a new caucus with the same platform as we had. It was called New Directions. Upon his return we folded into New Directions and became part of their first national convention the following year. One of us got placed on the NDM National Executive Board.
So when the first NDM convention was called, seven of us went. This was a big step forward. It showed our rank-and-file members that they weren’t, as our local and regional leaders often accused us, crazy leftists and “no one else in the world thinks like you.”
Our final push was in local elections in 1988. Same story: a second set of ballots. But this time an enterprising supporter (not identified as a leader in the caucus) went to the local printshop and got a copy of the union requisition: It clearly showed twice as many ballots ordered and printed as there were union members in the shop.
Around this time GM announced the plant would close down for good in a year. The game was lost, but many lessons learned.
Drawing the Lessons
The caucus was a united front of democratically minded people who hated corruption, dishonesty, favoritism, and lack of resistance to management attacks.
Because it was essentially an all-white shop, race played a very minor role. It was easy to keep us together. We learned several key lessons:
No lecturing — even nicely. Your job is to find out what is on people’s minds and what they are looking for. Today we call that active listening; at that time it was filed under the topic, “meet people where they are at not where you wish them to be.”
Give everyone a little something to do. Even though leaders and leftists know we can do many tasks simultaneously, we consciously chose not to. There was a psychological element to this: If you were the martyr whom everyone admired then they could not see themselves being a leader.
Equality of opinions before the group votes on what to do.
No one wants an armchair critic. Put your money where your mouth is and run for office if you have a better idea.
Better make it fun. The caucus could not be only all about business. Even outside the caucus you needed to be a fun co-worker. I arranged all the in-shop parties for my line and department.
Because there were women in our leadership, we had to be sure the wives and family members did not see us a threat to their home life. One good way was to do out-of-shop activities which included family members.
Key theoretical conclusions that came from our experience:
1) The “Leninist” formula that unions are simply conveyor belts to the party is incorrect. Like all mass organizations, unions do and must have a life of their own. A good bottom up, mass organization needs to be a place where individuals can grow. It should become a “training ground” and a model for when we are in charge. Should we be mindful and look for possible recruits? Of course, but not at the expense of the mass organization.
2) Communist leadership of the unions was another “Leninist” favorite that was not entirely correct. Yes, of course we seek to have unions be instruments of working class power and engines of social justice. But communists cannot be the only leaders, nor should leaders we develop be under our ironclad control.
By the time PUL had merged with others to become Freedom Road, we developed that insight into a theoretical construct — leadership development unionism — akin to the Trotskyist notion of rank and file unionism. We haven’t done a good job unless we can replace and replicate ourselves from among the natural leaders.
Given our understanding of racial capitalism, folks of color and women were given a lot of attention. Certainly, through the sweep of history, they proved to be the most ardent and patient fighters of oppression.
3) From the People to the People, and the practice of democratic centralism: Both constructs are about the relationship between leaders and the base. This whole area was a big one, especially for me. It is clear now to us all who have made the journey from the 1960s and are still in Liberation Road, that our practice of democratic centralism in those days was flawed.
We seemed to put all the emphasis on centralism and too little on democracy. This flaw was widespread throughout Maoism in the 1970 and ’80s (I can remember gay comrades who were in either the RU or OL coming crying about being forced into heterosexual marriage or being purged. It was heartbreaking).
Likewise, the popularization of this principle in Maoism — From the People to the People — was turned on its head: In practice it became “to the people and then wait for heavy pushback.” Furthermore, the UAW, since the Communist Party had been very influential in its formation, had this flawed concept built into its organizational structure. Everything flowed downhill until the bottom revolted.
How could we ever hope to build a caucus within the UAW or recruit to our organization if this was our model of accountability, and solidarity and organization? By the early 1990s, we came to a more nuanced view of democratic centralism as the two-way street between leaders and the base, each having rights and responsibilities.
4) The complete intractability of white supremacy, even in the blue north. Naively, I thought if we just went into the shops and patiently explained the nature of the system of institutional racism, as well as individual prejudice, and how it was used to keep the working class divided and out of power — voila! — things would right themselves. Believe me, this was cause for much mirth among comrades and friends over the years.
In that final local election in 1988, we ran our leading caucus member, who was Black and with tons of seniority, for President again with a platform. He ran against a drunk and a crook who had been there for a number of terms. One friend came up to me the day before the election. She was actually crying when she told me, “I know Chuck is a drunk and crook and that Howie is a upstanding guy, but I just can’t vote for a Black person.”
That, combined with the second set of ballots, doomed us. We got one person on the Executive Board and several Joint Council members — no threat to the establishment. And so it goes.
The lesson I learned from this has stayed with me: Exit polls and pre-election surveys are rife with liars. It is no stretch to think that many people would never admit to a pollster that they voted for Trump. Who wants to admit they are down with white rule?
1) Timidity on recruiting explicitly to socialism, much less recruiting to PUL/Freedom Road. Anti-communism hung over our heads like a sword waiting to behead us. Today the local union meetings in navy blue Massachusetts are filled with MAGA hats.
The shenanigans of the OL certainly did not help matters. So we chose to gently talk about socialism without necessarily labeling it such: more emphasis on the principles than the labels. It was not unusual for some co-workers to sidle up and ask, “Are you a communist?”
After a few tries, I had it figured out. You should not be defensive, but proud of who you are.
Most of all, don’t launch into long explanations (think Trotsky and Lenin, who were admittedly talking to crowds or workers who were unable to read). Rather than talk about socialist principles and rhetoric (workers are the vanguard) and things like the Three Worlds Theory (a topic which I barely understood, could not see its relevance to my work, despite it being central to my pal Max Elbaum’s great book, Revolution in the Air), we concentrated on the basics.
My standard simple answer to “are you a communist” was something like: “If you mean that workers should have control of their work; the bosses have way more money and power than they are entitled to; it isn’t right to treat people differently because of their skin color, their gender or where they come from, then yes.”
By 12-plus years in, I remember a bunch of guys from the brawl with the OL coming up and saying, “We need to apologize for everything about that fight out front.” I reminded them that I wasn’t even hired yet. “No matter,” they replied. “You were right all along.”
Nonetheless, I would say that we were overly timid. By the end, several of our caucus members joked: “So when did you plan on talking about socialism?”
2) We barely engaged in the wider Boston area labor movement. Being stuck 30 miles west of Boston in the middle of nowhere, it was easy — we bathed ourselves in this cocoon. But bad on us because we did not expose our caucus folk to issues, fights and struggles, as they should have been; we denied them the opportunity to offer their insights.
3) Although we let our views be known, we could avoid the contentious “super-seniority” (affirmative action to protect recently hired women workers, for example, from layoffs) debate, or the hiring of the local working class especially if the new immigrants of color were moving to the community (which comrades in Lynn did a most fabulous job of addressing). Hiring at our plant had ended five or six years before.
A Changing World
Let me be clear. The caucus at GM was probably the most important political experience of my life. It helped me think carefully about the relationship between theory and practice; the nature of organization, and the steps necessary to upend racial capitalism in the United States.
It was also a place where I grew from a shy and not necessarily assertive person, to a woman able to talk in large crowds, stand up to intense pressure even when it had deeply violent under-and-overtones, and to become a leader who looks to and was able to develop other leaders. (Since retiring I’ve been busy mentoring.)
Furthermore, the caucus became my social system: that was who I hung out with, who I went shopping with, whose children my kids played with, who I retired with (we chose Naples because of Victor Reuther). In short — a home.
And most importantly, it made me acknowledge and be unafraid to admit that I was not only a socialist but belonged to a political group with national and international comrades from whom I get ideas and support, and access to things the rank and file are eager to be part of.
This especially played out in my next UAW job, with clerical and technical workers at a local university (now the largest UAW local in my area as the result of de-industrialization). Bringing my skills from GM and leadership in New Directions, I quickly became an elected officer. (I refused a recall to a small GM parts depot to continue work in this shop.)
While the regional UAW harped on my communist roots, I could easy bring up ideas and connections in Executive Board meetings. I was always being asked: how did you think of that? I could tell them I learned it at Framingham or truthfully say, “You don’t think I dreamed this up by myself. I have a group of friends all over Massachusetts, the U.S. and the world, and we constantly talk about work and politics and how to solve problems like this.”
None ever blinked. It was an admission that I was in a political organization. It wasn’t an evil cabal; it was a source for moving forward. I realized then that it gave me more than I gave.
Since our time of “colonizing,” the whole labor world has changed. There was no dilemma then about getting a job as an international staffer, organizer, educator, and having the ability to bring our politics to a much wider audience. It was the rank-and-file route or nothing.
Furthermore, working-class jobs — even in places like hospital kitchens — paid enough to survive on. Those days, too, are long gone.
May-June 2022, ATC 218