“Talking Socialism” on the Job

Garrett Brown

Garrett Brown on a United Farm Workers picket line while at the University of Chicago, 1976.

WITH A NEW generation of socialist activists entering the workforce to build unions and the socialist movement, experiences from 45 years ago may provide lessons about what works and what does not work when talking socialism on the job.

I joined the Young Socialist Alliance in 1971 and the Socialist Workers Party in 1973, resigning from the party in December 1983. I was a student activist in California, Massachusetts, and Illinois, before becoming the labor reporter for The Daily Calumet newspaper in southeast Chicago in 1976.

While a journalist at The Daily Calumet I covered the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) and Ed Sadlowski’s campaign for union president in 1976-77.

I was also a member of the SWP’s national “fraction” or subcommittee of USWA members, and wrote articles about the Steelworkers Fight Back campaign under the pen name of “Michael Gillespie” for the party’s newspaper, The Militant.

Perhaps the most successful party labor work in which I was a participant was during the Steelworkers Fight Back (SFB) campaign in 1976-77. Party members were active participants, in some cases key activists, of the union election campaign run out of southeast Chicago, but involving local campaign committees around the country.

The party adopted a non-sectarian approach to promote and publicize the most radical union election platform since the 1930s, even though it was not a socialist program. [For a fuller discussion of the SFB campaign, see my three-part series at the Stansbury Forum.]

The Militant had extensive coverage of campaign activities and developments, including two issues of the paper with special sections on the SFB campaign, and a stand-alone pamphlet including valuable analysis of the steel industry, USWA, and broader labor movement. Socialist steelworkers were recognized for their commitment to the SFB effort by other steelworkers and at campaign headquarters.

The official tally of the election was that Sadlowski lost the election with 43% of the vote, but there were serious questions about voter fraud, particularly in the Deep South and Canada. But despite the outcome, socialist steelworkers came into contact through the SFB campaign with hundreds of workers seeking radical solutions to problems facing their union and their families.

Turn to Industry

The SWP steel fraction held a national meeting in December 1976 in Chicago with more than 60 USWA members from seven states. National Trade Union Director Frank Lovell said the energetic two-day meeting was “reviving an old tradition in our party,” noting that the last such gathering occurred in Detroit in 1947 among SWP auto workers facing restrictions in union rights under the Taft-Hartley Act.

In addition, women steel workers in the party were active members of the “District 31 Women’s Caucus” in the Chicago-Gary region, working to defend women USWA members against company discrimination as well as sexual harassment and violence on the job. Again, socialist steelworkers were able to present an alternative political perspective to women workers, many of whom were single mothers and women of color.

In 1979, I left journalism to participate in the SWP’s “turn to industry,” moving to Birmingham, Alabama, and helped found the Birmingham branch of the party. In Alabama, I worked as a production worker in two USWA-organized foundries — McWane Cast Iron Pipe and Stockham Valve and Fittings — as well as a non-union steel mini-mill.

I moved to Atlanta, Georgia, in late 1980, and worked in a series of industrial jobs including the Lockheed aircraft plant in Marietta (organized by the International Association of Machinists), the Oxford Chemicals plant (Teamsters), the Arrow Shirt factory warehouse (Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers), and the Empire Manufacturing garment plant (United Garment Workers).

I was part of the fraction of party members in these Alabama and Georgia plants and unions. Our activities were guided by the SWP’s labor policy, whose primary focus was “talking socialism on the job” to gain influence and recruits for the party. Secondly we were to participate in the internal life — up to a certain point — of the unions in order to strengthen the unions’ ability to defend their members.

My experiences working in industry showed that while the party’s labor policy had positive aspects in raising socialist ideas and important local and national issues on the job and in the union, the net result in terms of influence and recruitment was undermined by self-limiting and self-defeating aspects of the party’s approach.

Like all effective organizers, we tried to make friends and personal connections with our co-workers. This was especially the case during the employers’ “probation” period (usually 30-60 days) during which management can legally fire new hires without cause.

Once we passed probation, the primary activity was conducting “socialist propaganda” in the form of selling The Militant, inviting coworkers to the weekly socialist forum at the party’s bookstore, and campaigning for socialist candidates running for elected office. We would deliberately plan to spend lunch and break periods with different groups of co-workers to carry on political discussions with as many people on the job as possible.

As socialists on the job we talked up national issues, like halting U.S. intervention in Central America and participating in labor solidarity actions, as well as local issues like protests against the series of murders of Black children in Atlanta.

Defending Rights

Our union activities included encouraging co-workers to attend the regular meetings of the local union, speaking at the union meetings about local and national issues, as well as filing grievances with the local union against employer discrimination on the job, or health and safety hazards. At the same time, we sold The Militant in the union halls’ parking lots and circulated flyers about upcoming party activities at union meetings.

Responding to employer reprisals for these activities also became a significant part of our work. This included filing union grievances against disciplinary warning letters and firings at the plant level, up to public campaigns at a national level. One dramatic example was when 15 members of the SWP branch in Atlanta (including me) were fired all at once in December 1980, following an intensive investigation of “suspected” SWP members by the Defense Intelligence Agency in cooperation with company security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

At Oxford Chemicals, health and safety issues came to the fore after a series of uncontrolled exposures to chlorine and other toxic substances. Our fraction of party members circulated and filed a union grievance on the issue in June 1981, resulting in improved evacuation plans and first-aid protocols.

In September 1981, I met with a Federal OSHA compliance officer conducting an on-site inspection following worker complaints. Socialist workers regularly spoke up during the newly organized company safety trainings following the OSHA inspection.

A measure of respect and support we enjoyed at the plant was that one of the many union grievances filed after the firing of two socialists (me and the party’s gubernatorial candidate) at Oxford Chemicals in 1982 was co-signed by 37 workers, two-thirds of the plant’s workforce.

The amalgamated Teamsters local union representing workers at Oxford Chemicals not only undertook grievances explicitly highlighting the employer’s political bias and retaliation, but also used local union resources to take cases to final-step arbitration and won the grievances.

A publicly circulated petition to reinstate us was signed by Mayor Andrew Young, State Senator Julian Bond, then City Councilman, but later Congressman John Lewis, as well as leaders of the Atlanta NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference. These various efforts generated increased publicity for the party, but, alas, did not result in our reinstatement.

Socialists were able to raise broader issues of national and world politics in union halls as well. The local Teamsters president agreed to charter a bus to take members from Atlanta to Washington, DC, for the AFL-CIO’s September 1981 “Solidarity Day” demonstration for labor unity and in honor of the Solidarity union in Poland.

The union president asked me, representing the organizers of the bus, to give a slide show to the next union meeting after the event, even though the Teamsters were outside the AFL-CIO at that time. The Teamsters local also authorized official contingents, again organized by our fraction and co-workers, in marches in Atlanta protesting the series of killings of Black children, and other civil rights issue.

Problems of Party Policy

It was a fact that the SWP’s “socialist propaganda” on the job struck a chord with many workers during this time, and gained the party visibility in the workplace and union hall. However, in my view, the labor policy and internal life of the Socialist Workers Party in this period ultimately undermined our influence on the job.

The party had a blanket policy that members should not run for the unions’ grievance committee, or contract bargaining committee, or the health and safety committee. The goal was to prevent personal careerism of individual members, and to prevent the party from being put in any compromising position as part of a union bureaucracy implementing policies we did not control or support.

This was a different approach than during the 1930s when SWP leaders like Farrell Dobbs and others held union positions leading the heroic Minneapolis Teamsters strikes and organizing drives. It also differed from when SWP members took local leadership positions in the United Auto Workers in the 1940s.

Clearly, holding union office is not the goal of socialist activism on the job — building a stronger union better able to defend its members and organize for fundamental social change are the key goals. But socialists in union positions can play an important part of this effort in the right circumstances.

The party’s policy, in my experience, undercut the members’ credibility and influence on the job. The fact that we would not consider running for union office — even when asked and urged to do so by co-workers — gave the impression that we were all talk, and not courageous enough to “put our money where our mouths were.”

We had many ideas about how the union should be run, changes that needed to be made, but we were not willing to fight for them as committee members or union officers.

Another aspect that is key to gaining influence and recruitment is how party members related to their co-workers. Effective organizing is a skill that has to be learned and honed over time, learning from mistakes, and with large grain of humility.

Successful organizers listen more than they talk, build friendships and bonds from common experiences and interests, and gain respect and credibility as workers who always pull their weight on the job and defend peers against supervisors and managers.

Many left groups in this period gave workers the impression that they knew all the questions, had all the answers, and the workers just needed to do as instructed. We Trotskyists were tagged by many with having an extra dose of this arrogance.

We knew we were right about Stalin (and Stalinists) as the gravedigger of the revolution and betrayer of socialist ideals. We knew our theory of permanent revolution was the best analysis of how revolutionary upsurges succeed or fail, and we had all the answers of what to do next.

As a result, some of the SWP members’ discourse on the job often came across as pedantic and patronizing — which was the case in many internal party discussions as well. At Oxford Chemicals, I remember one co-worker telling me — after a lunch break with another co-worker who was a National Committee member of the party — that he was not sure how much more of the “daily profundities” he could take.

“Jack in the Box”

Related to this was the “jack-in-the-box” effect when party members passed through their industrial probation period on the job.

Fraction members were expected to immediately launch into full-on socialist proselytizing right after passing probation. This left many co-workers bewildered and amused that party members who had been quiet as church mice during probation, suddenly became irrepressible orators and aggressive salespeople.

The party’s labor policy prompted “job jumping” by members from one workplace to another. It takes a certain amount of time and jobs to get into plants which are considered “strategic” for building union power and party influence.

But the party leadership changed the priorities frequently, meaning members who had just arrived at a plant would be directed to quit in order to work elsewhere.

Clearly the goal is not be “permanently embedded” in any particular workplace, but the net effect was that many members were never in a workplace long enough to develop any social base or contacts that would lead to party influence and recruitment.

The employers’ firings, and the party’s response, also had adverse effect on organizing for socialism on the job. After our firing at Lockheed Marietta, obviously we could not list Lockheed as a previous employer. But “falsification of job application” is a firing offense, and such terminations are legal and final.

The party correctly mounted a very public defense of those fired at Lockheed. But party leaders insisted over the next three years, at several points of possible publicity in the lawsuit against the firings and during local election campaigns, that fired members “come out” at their new jobs as one of the fired Lockheed workers.

Naturally, our then-employer was happy to fire us again for falsification of job application, and rid themselves of bothersome employees. In the end, I was fired from four jobs in three years in Atlanta, and I had to move out of the city because I could not get hired or hold the job if I did.

Unsurprisingly, these firings had a chilling effect on workers in the plants where we worked. No one wanted to lose their job or have more problems with the foreman for being seen as a supporter of socialists.

Cadres and Workers

Finally, the character of the party’s internal life made it almost impossible to keep the half-dozen or so workers we recruited on the job in Birmingham and Atlanta.

As a self-designated revolutionary vanguard party, the Socialist Workers Party was a cadre organization which expected members to be professional revolutionaries. Members were “on duty” on a 24/7/365 basis, and the norm was that someone who, for example, would be away for the weekend would need to get a “leave of absence” from the party.

In the main, party members worked 40-hour-plus industrial jobs during the week; had fraction or committee meetings once or twice during the week; were expected to attend the weekly socialist forum events at the party bookstore on Friday or Saturday evenings; spend several hours every Saturday selling The Militant or collecting signatures for ballot status for socialist candidates; and spend multiple hours every Sunday in party branch meetings.

Then on Sunday night, party members prepared to spend the next week just like we did the past week. Members were also expected to make a weekly financial “sustainer” (contribution) to the local party branch.

The handful of workers we were able to recruit often had spouses and children, responsibility for child or elder care, and previous roles in their community and its organizations, not to mention hobbies or interests of their own. The party norm was simply impossible for these recruits.

They had to choose to either have sharp and growing conflicts within their families; or have a sort of second-class membership where other party members viewed them as not making the grade because of their absences. Almost all the workers I helped recruit were gone within a year of their joining.

Drawing Conclusions

Garrett Brown accepting an award from the USWA for health and safety work in 2015.

In December 1983, I left the Socialist Workers Party and never worked as an industrial worker again. However, I have had an ongoing 35-year career since then as an occupational health and safety professional working to protect workers as a field compliance officer for California’s OSHA agency.

I have also worked as the volunteer coordinator of an international non-governmental organization providing training and technical assistance on workplace safety with worker and community groups throughout the Global South.

I was not part of the massive purge of opposition members of the SWP in 1983, as the internal disputes were not known in the party’s branch in Atlanta where I lived at the time.

In resigning, I did not reject socialism — quite the contrary — but rather I concluded the SWP’s leadership policies would never create a social base among working people necessary to actually lead revolutionary change.

Also I believed the party’s analysis of the political moment was fatally flawed — the leadership declared the working class to be moving toward victory in the 1980s. This was at a time when strikes were totally defeated (PATCO air traffic controllers, Arizona copper miners, Greyhound bus drivers, Eastern airlines mechanics) and with millions of workers casting their votes for Ronald Reagan to become president.

An organization that cannot tell victory from defeat will never win the confidence and loyalty of working people, nor does it deserve to.

But my five years in industry taught me that with careful planning, a sense of humor and patience, socialist workers can become a pole of attraction in any workplace. Socialist activists were often seen as very capable people who had information and perspectives that co-workers had not heard before.

Socialists had explanations for why exploitation, poverty, and discrimination existed in capitalist societies. And socialists had a plan for addressing the root causes of these problems.

The willingness of socialists to stand up for themselves and co-workers around issues of injustice, discrimination, health and safety, and other working conditions, frequently won them respect and support from their peers.

What’s needed beyond “talking socialism on the job” is a sensible labor policy and approach, an attitude of humility and respect for fellow workers, and the commitment to learn from mistakes while always taking the initiative to organize the working class majority for a just, sustainable society worth living in.

January-February 2024, ATC 228


  1. Thank you Garrett for that sharp, honest and very humane analysis of the challenges of organising. Many great lessons there. I have met several people who did the same kind of work here in the UK. Little wonder some were burnt out totally in their older years and gave up hope. Others, who seemed to have a similar approach to Garrett, went on to nourish other campaigns for justice and peace and bring their experience to help younger activists. I was very touched to see the photo of the young Garret in the seventies, and to see him again decades later, still getting stuck in and loyal to his ideals. We have tried to look at how “hope” can be nourished in our film “The Old Oak”. (UK) It’s fragile, multi-layered, creative, empathetic, and takes intelligence to untangle complexity; and it also takes the graft, something Garrett and many people I have had the luck to meet over the years, have demonstrated in their lives. Gracias Compa. Much respect.

  2. You rock, Garrett! This is a thoughtful useful piece and I thank you for sharing your perspective. Hope it helps our next generation.

  3. Garrett- Thanks for this brief but profound summary of your industrial, political and ideological experiences from the 70’s to today. These resonated with experiences i also went through during that time. I became aware of your recent work with Health, Safety and the Environment through your work on the statewide California agreement to strengthen workers’ role in safety accountability after the 2012 Chevron fire in Richmond.
    Paul- Thanks for your work with Ken Loach! love the films. they’re wonderful and now that Ive seen a trailer for The Old Oak, I can hardly wait to see that film. Vivian Price CSU Dominguez Hills

  4. Dear Garrett, Many thanks for this autobiographical activism article. The late 1970’s and early 1980’s within organisations connected to the Fourth International were, unfortunately, characterised by efforts to make a very bad strategy effective – “turn to industry”. Negative results were both organisational and personal. We cannot change unfortunate history, or alter bad history, but we can learn from mistakes. It is good to see that you appear to have found a much better way to be an effective trade union socialist after 1983. Parallels with my experience in Ireland!

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