Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 24, 2015

When Junius Scales went into industry

Filed under: trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 1:39 am

Today I started reading “A Red Family: Junius, Gladys and Barbara Scales”, a review copy of a book that had been sitting on my shelves for about five years. I wish I had gotten to it sooner since it is a great read, especially for the parts of this essentially oral history that is devoted to Junius who I had the great pleasure to meet and interview a couple of years before his death in 2002. He was a leader of the CPUSA in the south and a scion of a very wealthy North Carolina family and the first CP’er to be convicted on the Smith Act.

What follows below is my write-up on my meeting with Junius long before I began blogging followed by an excerpt from his memoir “Cause at Heart”, which for my money is the best memoir ever written by a radical. It concludes with an excerpt from “A Red Family” that deals with him “going into industry” as we used to put it in the SWP. I imagine that when I went into industry in 1978 if I had anything remotely similar to his experience in a textile company town in 1940, I would have stuck with it. In the back of my mind I knew that the whole thing was a fantasy in contrast to Junius’s transformative experience.

My meeting with Junius Scales:

I had a grand old time yesterday with Junius Scales at his country home up on the side of a mountain near Pine Bush, New York. We sat on the porch while he offered pointed observations about well-known and not so well-know figures on the left.

The question of how people shift to the right after leaving Marxist-Leninist groups has come up on this list time and again. Junius’s trajectory seems far more typical. After leaving the CPUSA in disgust back in the mid 1950s, he has continued to embrace socialist or progressive values which were very much in evidence when he recently spoke at a conference at the University of North Carolina on campus radicalism in the 1940s. He was in the thick of things back then as the leader of a 150 member (!!!) party club there in 1947.

We spoke some about Trotskyism which he never had the pleasure of encountering until he left the CP. When he was a proofreader at the New York Times, he met Dave Weiss who worked in the same department and who was the brother of Murray Weiss, married to Myra Tanner Weiss. These were two SWP leaders in the 1950s. Dave Weiss, a rank-and-filer, eventually became a documentary film-maker of some repute while Murray and Myra were typical party leaders, intolerant to a fault and convinced of their own intellectual and political superiority to everybody else.

At a big cocktail party in the 1950s, Junius was having a pleasant chat with Alger Hiss who spotted Myra Tanner Weiss. Also at the party was a left-wing Labour Party MP who Hiss mischievously decided to introduce to Myra. He brought the two together and within a matter of minutes the two of them were castigating each other loudly and had drawn a circle of onlookers about them, as if a fist-fight was going on. Hiss stood on the sidelines enjoying the spectacle thoroughly.

Junius was pretty close to the Robeson family and is convinced that the psychological collapse of the great man was linked to his bad faith over Stalin. Robeson had enormous affection for the dean of the Yiddish stage in the Soviet Union, Isaac Pfeffer, who Stalin had executed. Robeson found a way to justify this. A lifetime of making excuses must have taken its toll. Junius visited Robeson in the 1950s when the psychosis was in full sway. They sat in the living room chatting pleasantly with Robeson’s wife and children when all of a sudden Robeson himself emerged from the bedroom and confronted the group with a wild, unrecognizing look on his face.

Junius became very close to Earl Browder after Browder was expelled from the CPUSA. He says that despite Browder’s support for a more open and less dogmatic socialism, that he personally was extremely dogmatic in the way he promoted these beliefs. It was impossible to disagree with him.

As we discussed politics and personalities, we watched large birds soaring in the skies above the mountain-tops. Were they hawks, I asked him? If they flap their wings every five minutes or so, they’re hawks. If not, they are buzzards. He had become an expert bird-watcher living in the mountainous wilderness over the past twenty years or so. Black bears were frequent visitors to his property.

My mother sat in the living room reading the Sunday New York Times while Junius and I chatted. When we broke for lunch, my mom announced that she had found an interesting quote. The judge in the Vincent Gigante trial had once presided in a case against the terrorist Jewish Defense League. He told the accused that it was more Jewish to uphold the book rather than the bomb.

I informed my mom that it was a small world, since Gigante had saved Junius’s life when he was at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary doing time for a Smith Act violation. Junius had mentioned to a Mafia prisoner that Daniel Bell’s new (at the time) book “The Decline of Ideology” had a chapter making the case that there was no such thing as organized crime. This chapter was read by all the Mafia prisoners who passed the information on to their lawyers. Gigante, a boss of the Mafia both in prison and outside, felt that a debt was owed to Scales. When a hulking, murderous prisoner threatened to kill Junius, Gigante stepped in and told him to lay off and that was that.

I will take up Junius Scales’ book “Cause at Heart” in a subsequent post.

From “Cause at Heart”:

Suddenly I remembered a bright autumn morning fifteen years before, when I had been a Communist for only a few months. I had been going cheerfully to my job in the tax office in the county courthouse in my native Greensboro, North Carolina, when I looked up at barred windows on the top floor of the white stone building and stopped in my tracks. “My friends and I will go to jail someday,” I had imagined in my idealistic innocence, “because our belief in the socialist world is something that these grim lawyers and smug pillars of society I work among will never tolerate; they will hunt us down and box us in, even though what we advocate they hear preached in church and even mad about in the New Testament.” I had felt a twinge of fear raise gooseflesh on my neck and scalp, even as I felt it then in Memphis, waiting that evening to take my lumps at last, like many another radical “do-gooder” and “bleeding heart.” I had a fleeting moment of self-doubt during which I wondered how I could have allowed my adversaries to entangle something as beautiful as the advocacy of a better world in criminal proceedings; I myself must have botched the job somehow.

It was 7:28. As I walked past the apparently empty FBI car at the next intersection, I was overwhelmed with the helplessness of my situation. I was like an animal surrounded by hunters and with no bushes to hide in. Inside the peaceful lower-middle-class houses around me, people were finishing dinner, washing dishes, reading the paper, watching TV. Meanwhile, ahead of me, the gathering FBI cars were making their own traffic jam in the otherwise deserted, rainswept streets.

From “A Red Family”:

But when I got back to North Carolina I was really a “professional revolutionary” and completely committed. I had no intention of going back to college. I went to see my mother, and she was very distressed.

I went to live in the mill village in High Point and boarded with one of the families I had met with Bart [CP organizer for North Carolina] I liked them tremendously and lived with the man, his wife, and three daughters in a miserable three-room company house.

You could tell if the stars were out at night by looking through the cracks in the wall. In the wintertime, a thread would stand almost horizontal from the breezes through the cracks. There was no water inside and a cold-water faucet out back. Twenty-five feet back of the house was a little outhouse. When you got off, the seat flew up, and an automatic flush business occurred.

The entire family slept in the same bedroom. There were beds jammed into this one room: the mother and father the older daughter in one, and the two youngest daughters shared the other. The living room was mostly for ornament. It was a wasted room, because in the wintertime the only room heated was the kitchen. ‘The kitchen was the social room, and both stoves were needed to keep it warm it didn’t stay warm for too long because the house wasn’t insulated. But that’s where the whole family lived during the entire winter. And all the houses in the village were about the same.

They were a lovely family. The husband and wife were about thirteen years older than I. She was always very motherly to me, and he was like a big brother. He was quite sophisticated, a worldly sort of guy, and she was a woman of wonderful courage and drive, very strong and yet very tender. And their kids were absolutely delightful. I got a tremendous case on the older daughter. I didn’t know her age at the time, and I assumed she was at least seventeen, because she sure looked it. I swear, it absolutely frightened me when, after we’d been going together pretty steady for about six months I discovered that she was only fourteen. I was twenty at the time. Her mother told me, and I nearly died. Then she had her fifteenth birthday and I felt a little bit better.

I even liked their dog. Through this family I got to know most of their relatives, and it was a big family on both sides. I must have stayed there for three or four months, and it was darn cold when I left. The mother didn’t think I was going to survive the winter in that living room, so she switched me over to her sister’s house.

Like many people’s, the sister’s marriage had broken up, and I lived there with her mother and son for what seemed like years. In spite of everything I survived the first winter there. I had so many covers on that if Ir tried to raise my feet upright I’d have broken my toes off. I had two sets of overalls: I’d work in one and sleep in the other. There’d be frost in the house sometimes, and I’d make a mad dash for the kitchen in the morning. They kept the stove going. And the lady of the house had the most marvelous breakfasts. Country food. Sunday morning would usually be pork chops and hominy grits, eggs, and biscuits.

I got a job in the Burlington mill in walking distance of the village. I worked the night shift at Hillcrest and devoted all my days to Party activity. I just got wedded to life there. I got to know practically everyone In the plant where I worked. I just loved the people there. Burlington was pretty hopeless for a union. They had about  eighty mills, and if anyone tried to organize a Burlington mill, they just closed the mill down and transferred operations to another. They’d leave four or five hundred people out of work and desperate, and then blacklist them. You couldn’t get a job anywhere. So we had no intention of organizing at Hillcrest. I just had to get a job someplace, and that was fine.

I made thirteen bucks a week, the minimum wage, thirty-two cents an hour, and had money to spare. I was in awfully good physical shape, but it was fantastically hard work. And what amazed me was that guys my age working there had faces like they were thirty-five or older. I’d find out some of them were younger than I. They were used to hard work, and they were wiry, but they absolutely couldn’t take the pace.

Burlington was the most rationalized of all the mills down there. They knew how to take every last drop of energy out of you on an eight-hour shift. To survive I rationalized my job, too, and it didn’t crush me. It’s true I wouldn’t have a dry seam in my clothes when I’d come out of the place. You’d have to take salt pills all night to keep from sweating yourself into heat prostration. It was about ninety degrees most of the time and very humid because of the rayon yarn.

These working-class guys my age would be old men by the time they made forty, if they made it, and they were just drained most of the time. The women had it even worse. A girl who started at nineteen was an old woman by twenty-nine. Usually the height of the machine was such that the women would have to sort of stoop their shoulders forward and poke their abdomens out, and the same was true in the cotton mills. The spinners had the same business: a pooched-out abdomen and slumped shoulders. It was the most frightful thing, and they all looked really old by the time they were thirty.

This place was organized by time-study experts. The speedup was incredible. One girl was twenty-five, and when I think back, she looked more like she was thirty-five. She was the star operator. She could do almost twice as much work as anybody else, their “show” operator. My God, she’d go around like she had six hands. It was just dizzying to watch her. Then one day she went stark-raving mad right at her machine, and it took five people to haul her out screaming and kicking. And she never came back. She ended up in a mental institution.

Even though I was working in another plant, I joined the cotton mill union so I could edit the monthly union paper and attend all the meetings. The chairman used to make me his parliamentarian, and I used to help smooth the meetings out. And I was always willing to do any kind of leg work.

After every union meeting on Saturday night, there’d be a big social gath-ering. In these days, you worked a half-day on Saturday, and that afternoon all the men in the village would go to the barbershop. This was the only bath you could take during the whole week, so we all lined up and tackled their six stall showers. They gave you a little bar of Lifebuoy soap and a towel for quarter.

Meanwhile, back in the houses, the women moved into the kitchens. No man could go into the kitchen because all the women, from infant to grandma, would be bathing. Every house had a huge corrugated iron tub, and hot water would be heated in everything that could hold it. Everybody would use this big tub. They couldn’t go dumping it out, and you couldn’t give everybody a new tub of water. So you’d just add water to it, and it’d get pretty raunchy by the time the last one got their turn. But, one way or an-other, everybody would go to the union meeting all sweet and clean.

Saturday night was always a light dinner, and about half the village would show up at the union meeting. The meeting would begin about seven o’clock, and we’d usually try to get the business over by eight-thirty. There would be very wide participation, and if it was near strike time, there’d usually be some pretty fancy oratory, mostly delivered by women. They were much more , verbal than the men, generally, and God, they were effective. I’d love to have been able to record some of those speeches.

As soon as the gavel pounded, the meeting adjourned, and a little string band would strike up, usually of union talent, with a couple of banjos, guitars, and a fiddle or two. The chairs would disappear like magic, and the whole huge hall became a dance floor. For a nominal fee, anybody could come to these marvelous dances, and we had our committee to keep things orderly and throw out the drunks.

I didn’t know how to square dance worth a hoot, and some of these real tough textile women took me in hand. I swear to God, there was one woman there who was a little five-by-five but strong as an ox, and every time I’d find myself in the wrong place, she would absolutely pick me up and put me where I belonged. I had to learn in a hurry in self-defense. She’d have killed me or at least taken my arm out of the socket. I got to be a real good square dancer and used to enjoy it immensely.

I think the social part of the evening was actually more important than the meetings, because those square dances were just unforgettable, and probably did more than anything to solidify the union. Everybody from toddlers on up would take part. The old folks would sit and watch the young’uns and relive their youth, and the little squirts would be dancing with each other just so they wouldn’t get trampled. The young squirts were dancing for real. The older folks up to forty or fifty were just having a marvelous time, and, of course, the teenagers were romancing like crazy. It was an extremely wholesome and delightful business. Some of my student friends from Chapel Hill would come over, and they absolutely got hooked. They’d be back every time they could.

These textile workers were about one generation, if that much, off the farm, and they had come to the city because life on the farm got tough. They had all of the country ways. One of the problems in the mill village was to try and stop people from keeping hogs in their small yards. Much of their charm and lingo was strictly farm and country. Yet they had acquired new ways, and many of them had been proletarianized by a lifetime in the mills.

The trade-union movement had really created a social revolution in the South, and I saw it in this mill village. This had been a place where the fore-man reigned supreme. It was a company town with a company store and a company church. The company paid the minister, and the minister preached that the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] was the antichrist. And if anybody fell afoul of the company, his credit was stopped at the company store. The company owned all the houses in the village. And if someone re-ally fell afoul, he could be evicted from his company house. So they lived under a real reign of terror.

Well, the organizing drive was undertaken with great risk and difficulty, and a lot of people joined together and pulled a strike. The strike staggered the company, and they put on a lot of police pressure. It was a tremendously educational thing for the people there, who thought if they stayed on the good side of the foreman they would make out pretty well.

The village split down the middle on whether or not to go to church. The union people didn’t want to hear the company say that the CIO was the agent of the devil, so a great many of them quit going.

The WPA at the time had some educational programs going, so the union (and the Party had considerable influence in the union) began encouraging and organizing adult-education classes on everything you can think of. People who had never finished sixth grade were enrolling and just getting the biggest joy out of it. Some learned things like typing and were able to get part-time jobs. It gave everyone a tremendous sense of self-confidence, and they were able to hold their heads up. It was a true social revolution, and most of these people became missionaries for unionism. It’s true that it lost most of its momentum after a while, but at that time it was a tremendously exciting thing to participate in. The union became the social center of the whole village.

Of course, it’s easy to remember the pleasant events and forget the horrors of poverty. One Saturday, I’d just gotten paid and had so much money I didn’t know what to do. I decided I’d take the three kids in the family to the movies. Well, next door was a family named Tysinger, and Ot and Mary Tysinger were probably in their late thirties and had nine children. They both worked in the mill. But Mary had been sick and hadn’t been able to work,which meant that Ot’s salary—he’d been working there for twenty years, since his teens, and was making fifteen dollars a week—had to support the family of eleven. The entire family was surviving on fifteen dollars a week.

When the kids, naturally excited, announced that Junius was taking them Iii the movies, I saw these nine Tysinger kids next door looking at me with big sad and dejected eyes. So we got hold of the Tysinger kids. I think the bus fare was a nickel each way, and the kids could get in for a dime at the movie, so I spent quite a bit. But it was the first time any of these Tysinger kids—and the oldest was twelve—had seen a movie. So I got to see the horror of living on this kind of a wage in a textile village. The oldest Tysinger child, Carrie, was a lovely little girl, but she was skinny, and her color was bad. She had a kidney ailment, and the doctor said she should have a lot of fresh vegetables, and this and that and the other, you know, an elaborate diet, which on Ot’s fifteen dollars a week was about as feasible as a snowball in hell. They ate white beans, the staple. They had biscuits sometimes, corn bread, cabbage, and fatback, but that was about it. If they had anything else, they considered it a gala occasion. And for Carrie’s kidney ailment, this was not the thing.

One day, these God-awful screams came from the Tysingers’ outhouse, and I ran over to find that Carrie’s guts had collapsed, and she had eight inches of intestines hanging out of her. I pushed them in with the handle of a hearth broom. This was the horror this poor kid lived with. Later I heard she was married and had moved away, but it was just nip and tuck whether she would grow up or not. And I bet you anything that by the time she was thirty she was a physical wreck, if she even lived that long. You’d see kids with rickets from undernourishment, bowed legs toddling around.

What poverty and those incredible wages did to these people was horrible. And, yet, the mill owner was always putting on the dog, as we would say, flashing his money, and you’d read about all his doings, all about his family, in the society section of the High Point Enterprise, and here were these poor people, and it was all wrung out of them.

If anyone could doubt the existence of the class struggle, you surely couldn’t while living in a mill village. It was unforgettable, especially when somebody stopped being a case and became a person. They weren’t welfare cases: they were people you lived with and loved and spent your time with. It just increased my dedication and determination to do anything and everything I could to change this kind of thing.

The union grew and prospered and in the winter of ’41 I was named chair-man of the organizing committee of the Textile Workers’ local. Actually, we had one little foothold of organized workers in a sea of unorganized workers. And seamless hosiery, men’s socks and cheap women’s hose, was one of the largest industries at the time. I began to collect names and contacts in various hosiery mills to see if we couldn’t eventually stage a drive to organize some of those unorganized workers. I was planning to leave Hillcrest to get a job in a hosiery mill.

I was going with a girl at the time, a southern Jewish girl, a sophomore at Chapel Hill, and began courting her pretty seriously. In June of ’41, the day after the invasion of the Soviet Union, we got married.

Back at Hillcrest, the company had gotten on to me and had discovered I was a union bug. The day after my wedding weekend, they fired me. I got a job in an unorganized cotton mill, and we got a two-room apartment nearby the village. It had a toilet outside in the hall, and the walls were painted a shit brindle, the most horrible color I have ever seen. But we were happy, and I was working day and night building up my contacts among seamless hosiery workers in about thirty different textile mills. I had a little file case of names on three-by-five cards, which I kept hidden in the chimney.

It was an easy walk to the Pickett Cotton Mill, but it was a killer of a job. I lasted about three months and learned to do most of the jobs there. They fired me for union activity.

Then, with elaborate phony references, I got a job at Thomas’s Hosiery Mill, a long bus ride away. And, of course, working in a seamless hosiery plant made it that much easier to make contacts. There were about eighty mills in the vicinity of High Point and something like five thousand seam-less hosiery workers. Anybody with twenty thousand dollars’ capital could go into business and get a couple of knitting machines.

The American Federation of Hosiery Workers had been eyeing this area because it was such a wide-open shop and ripe to be organized. The wages were so terribly low and the working conditions awful. But It was tough to organize because the companies were blacklisting right and left. They soon found out that I had made contact with all the best and likeliest union people. So in the fall of ’41, our union and the American Federation of Hosiery Workers decided on a joint organizing drive.

A busload of hosiery workers came in from Roanoake, Virginia, and the president and several vice presidents of the national union and a whole crew of organizers came down. We had a big meeting in the High Point union hall officially launched the drive. I was to quit my mill job the next day and join the union payroll as an assistant chief organizer.

The meeting adjourned Sunday afternoon in early December, and as we got downstairs, somebody told us Pearl Harbor had been bombed. And that watt the end of the hosiery drive because, within forty-eight hours, the government had frozen all the raw rayon and silk. By the end of the week, practically all the seamless hosiery workers were heading for Norfolk, Virginia, and Wilmington, North Carolina, to get jobs in shipbuilding and other port-related industries. It was a major exodus, and one hosiery mill after another dosed down. The industry just melted away, and all my contacts and my little card  file just went to pot. It didn’t take me more than twenty-four hours to realize that all my organizing plans had gone down the drain, and the following day I volunteered to enlist in the army.

April 15, 2015

Adalen 31

Filed under: Film,Sweden,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 4:48 pm

After a number of false starts, I was finally able to upload Bo Widerberg’s “Adalen 31” to Youtube, a film that I saw when it came out in 1969 and that has lingered in my memory all these years. The title is a reference to a general strike in the Adalen district by paper mill workers in 1931 that led to the first in a series of Social Democratic governments that for many people defined the word socialism. What I took away from the film, besides its stunning artistic power, was the idea that there was a dialectical relationship between revolutionary struggle and reform. If not for the four men and one young girl who were shot down in the village of Lunde on May 14, 1931, it is altogether possible that the modern Scandinavian welfare state never would have been born.

Yesterday I watched the film for the first time in 46 years and realize now why it has stuck with me. Despite the languid and pastoral quality of the first two-thirds of the film, which typified Widerberg’s “Elvira Madigan” made two years earlier, the final third is a powerful recreation of the armed attack on a demonstration that resonated with the struggles taking place around the world in 1969. And it will resonate now with people watching it for the first time who have the Marikana massacre fresh in their mind, or any other military attack on protesters in the Middle East and North Africa.

The film opens in the house of Harald Andersson, a man who has been out on strike for a number of months. He has three sons, the eldest of whom is named Kjell and is in his late teens. Kjell plays trumpet in the trade union marching band but probably prefers playing jazz.

The primary drama in the film revolves around Kjell’s romance with the daughter of one of the paper mill owners, a blonde girl named Hedvig who is troubled by the bitter strike but not to the extent of breaking with her father.

Widerberg is obviously interested in tensions between the personal and political since another story line involves Harald giving first aid to a wounded scab worker in his home. When he is confronted by his fellow trade unionists, he makes the case that violence undermines their cause and insists that negotiation was the only way forward.

When the army is brought in to defend the scabs’ barracks, the union organizes a march on their stronghold with the marching band in the front ranks playing the Internationale. In an interview with the NY Times’s Mel Gussow in October 1969, Widerberg revealed that 3,000 extras were used in the scene and that he developed the action just two hours before shooting began.

Despite the absence of the word Communist throughout the film, there is little doubt as to the affiliations of the leadership of the strike and many of the rank-and-file workers. Axel Nordström, who served 2 ½ years of hard labor for his role as a strike organizer, was a Communist member of Parliament from 1937 to 1940. In an article on the Adalen general strike that appeared in the Swedish section of Alan Woods’s International Marxist Tendency (http://www.marxist.se/artikel/adalen-31-det-vi-aldrig-far-glomma), there’s a report on the killings that day from Harry Nordlander, a member of the Communist youth group in Adalen:

As we approached the ferry pier near the meadow, where we said that we would turn, a soldier on horseback charged us. The rider shouted something and then fired his gun over his shoulder, probably frightened by a banner that fluttered. Some of the marchers saw bullet holes in the banner. Then we heard clearly a loud command: Fire! The bullets began to whistle through the air. They did not come from the front, but from the side a few yards from the lead.

Then we saw how one of the musicians rushed forward in the hail of bullets and blew “cease fire” [recreated by Kjell in the scene]. The guns fell silent. It was the young Communist Vera who showed courage and presence of mind to stop the killing. But there were already five comrades dead or dying and several more wounded. One of those killed was a young girl who stood in the garden at the side of the road. Her name was Eira Söderberg and was a member of our youth club in Svanö.

 The best account of the Adalen struggles can be found on the Global Nonviolent Action Database located at Swarthmore University. Interestingly enough, Axel Nordström is cited in this article as being opposed to violence against scabs—this despite the fact that the CP’s were aligned with the Kremlin’s ultraleft turn at the time:

In the fall of 1930, the management of a sawmill in Lunde in the Ådalen Valley announced wage cuts for all workers. In response the laborers began a strike.

The workers continued their strike through the fall, shutting down the mill. The director of the Lunde mill also had investments in two pulp mills in nearby towns. In January 1931 the laborers in these two mills began a sympathy strike. Meanwhile workers and management held ongoing negotiations.

Axel Nordström, a communist leader, was one of the leaders of the strike campaign and the workers also had ties to LO.

On May 12, when management called in outside strikebreakers to commence work in the three mills, the strike leaders immediately put up fliers against the strikebreakers. These fliers also called for further protests, work stoppages in other industries, mass demonstrations, and a meeting scheduled for the next day.

The county government ordered police to protect the strikebreakers and sent several officers to the meeting. At the meeting Axel Nordström called for demonstrations, but did not condone violence against the strikebreakers. The strikers decided to march and demonstrate at one of the mills where workers were holding a sympathy strike. Once at the mill another leader spoke and a band played the workers’ theme song. The demonstrators there decided to get rid of the strikebreakers.

Police asked Nordström to prevent the protesters from hurting the strikebreakers, but he was no longer in control of the situation. Demonstrators pulled strikebreakers from the mill, and inflicted some minor injuries. The strikers then chose to hold another meeting the next day and follow it with a march to the mill in Lunde where the strike had begun. They continued protests that day, throwing stones at the strikebreakers’ barracks and knocking out electricity for the city of Lunde.

Bo Widerberg is pretty much a forgotten figure today with very poor representation on the usual sources. None of his films are available on Netflix or Amazon, and in the well-stocked Columbia film library you can only locate “Elvira Madigan”. Despite the fact that his films are now in the public domain, the only one that could be seen previously on Youtube was “Joe Hill”, a 1971 film about the martyred IWW member who was born Joel Emanuel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden.

Widerberg died on May Day 1997, a symbolic date for the radical filmmaker who was born into a working-class family in Malmo sixty-six years earlier. He started off as a film critic professionally, creating controversy with his 1962 book “The Vision of Swedish Cinema” that took aim at Ingmar Bergman and his followers for being “preoccupied with problems that didn’t interest me and my generation of comrades.” He found that the Sweden Bergman represented was “not contemporary at all”.

Clearly Widerberg was tuned into the Marxist detective novel authors that I wrote about for CounterPunch back in September 2014. Fortunately his 1976 “Man on the Roof” that was based on the Martin Beck novel co-authored by Marxist husband and wife writing team Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall can be seen with English subtitles at Daily Motion, something that I hope to see along with “Joe Hill” the first chance I get.

November 20, 2013

Kshama Sawant at protest of machinists of Boeing, 18 November 2013

Filed under: trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 12:15 am

January 1, 2013

Jewish leftist chicken farmers of the Catskills

Filed under: african-american,revolutionary organizing,trade unions — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

A couple of months ago I was exchanging email with Yevgeniy Fiks, the Russian conceptual artist who emigrated to the U.S. in 1994, and Allen Young, the veteran leftist who lived in the next village from me in the 1950s. Yevgeniy’s latest show was titled Homosexuality Is Stalin’s Atom Bomb to Destroy America, a subject that was right up Allen’s alley. As the closeted son of Communist parents, he knew firsthand what it meant to be up against the “red scare” and “pink scare” simultaneously.

In trying to provide Yevgeniy with some background information on Allen’s past, I sent him a copy of the obit that Allen wrote for his mom that included this item:

An active member of the American Labor Party of New York State in the 1940s and 1950s, she helped organize a successful civil rights campaign in the 1950s to improve the conditions of migrant African-American laundry workers in Woodridge.

Allen wrote back letting me know that a woman named Beryl Rubens had worked closely with Rae Young and the other activists in the community. Furthermore, she was living on the upper west side and still going strong. I followed up with a phone call and made a date to interview her on December 5th.

The Glen Wild chicken farmers who provided the backbone of the organizing drive were Communists. They were also deeply principled and fearless. They stuck their necks out in a time when CP’ers were losing their jobs or facing prison terms for their beliefs.

In my comic book memoir I try to pay homage to these dedicated souls whose example should serve us well in a period of deepening reaction. In many ways, the struggle to organize a trade union at a steam laundry in my little village in the Catskills was like the one depicted in Herert Biberman’s “Salt of the Earth” inasmuch as it combined class and racial dimensions.

If I ever get around to writing a novel about life in the Borscht Belt in the 1950s, such heroes and heroines will play a central role.

September 8, 2012

Detropia

Filed under: Film,financial crisis,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 7:35 pm

If you are under the impression that there’s nothing more to be said about the demise of the auto industry and its terrible impact on working people after Michael Moore, you owe it to yourself to see “Detropia”, a documentary that opened yesterday at the IFC Center in New York (screening information for other cities is here). Dispensing with Moore’s by now narcissistic intrusion into the narrative, “Detropia” allows Detroit’s African-Americans to tell their own stories. Thankfully, it is also free of Moore’s mawkish Capraesque pieties about “turning things around” by getting Obama elected. Among the lessons we learn from “Detropia” is that General Motors has used taxpayer money courtesy of Obama’s “rescue” of the auto industry to set up shop in China to build the Volt, their new electric car.

Oddly enough, the Ford Foundation funded the film, something I would liken to the German high command furnishing the sealed train that returned Lenin to Russia in 1917. Apparently the liberal program administrators there hoped that the film would raise awareness about Detroit’s phoenix-like return to prosperity, embodied in the closing moments of the film by a couple of white out-of-towners who came there in search of a cheap loft. If so, their money was wasted since the ineluctable message of the film is that capitalism has destroyed the city that once symbolized its rise under the rubric of Fordism, the very engine of growth that made the Ford Foundation possible.

Serving as a Greek chorus on the city’s decline is a cross-section of the Black community, including Tommy Stevens, the owner of a blues bar who is a retired schoolteacher, a young blogger named Crystal Starr, and local auto union president George McGregor.

We meet Starr walking through the ruins of an old building taking pictures with her cell phone. She muses as she walks, “Who lived here?” “Where did they go?” “What the fuck happened”? Those, of course, are the same exact questions that any sensible person would ask who remembers Detroit from the 1950s as the steam engine that was propelling America into a glorious future.

The press notes provide some quantitative answers:

  • In 1930, Detroit was the fastest growing city in the world. (The Guardian)
  • Detroit’s population shrank by more than 25% in the last decade. The city’s population has fallen from over 1.85 million in 1950 to 713,777 in 2010; a drop of almost 240,000 residents in ten years. That’s 100,000 more than Katrina-ravaged New Orleans lost. (The New York Times)
  • Detroit has about 40,000 abandoned homes and 100,000 vacant residential lots. (The New York Times)
  • The average price for a home in Detroit $7,100, down from $73,000 three years earlier. (The Wall Street Journal)

As a UAW official, George McGregor has his own set of answers, revolving mostly around the greed of some of the major automobile companies and their suppliers, including American Axle Company that used to be one of the city’s main employers. Axel has left Detroit except for one plant whose workers have been presented with an ultimatum. Workers have to sign a contract based on wage cuts of up to 25% or else. When we see them at a meeting voicing opposition to the contract and a willingness to fight, we probably anticipate what happens next: American Axle shuts down the plant and moves production to Mexico.

One of the points made unintentionally by the film is that working-class weakness is tied directly to the disappearance of jobs. Classical Marxism has always been premised on the idea that struggles at the point of production will escalate until the workers realize that their only option is to seize the means of production and produce for their own benefit rather than that of the bosses.

In the 1930s, when Detroit was the fastest growing city in the U.S., a militant trade union movement found itself on a collision course with the Henry Fords of the world. Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler had no other option except to produce cars within our nation’s borders and workers could use their collective strength to force retreats. Ultimately, a reformist leadership of the UAW struck a Grand Bargain with the bosses that made business unionism acceptable and a good life for the workers the norm.

The emergence of powerful competitors in Japan, Korea and Europe made that Grand Bargain not worth the paper it was written on. Unfortunately for the working class, the UAW still acts as if it is still in place. But even if it didn’t, there is some question about its capacity to push back the bosses on their heels. In the late 70s, when the American Trotskyist movement embarked on its ill-fated “turn to industry”, it assumed that we would be reenacting the 1930s with the working class at “center stage”. As it turned out—in the words of Peter Camejo in 1983—the opposite was true:

If any class has stood in the center of U.S. politics in the last ten years, it has been the bourgeoisie. Following its sharp divisions during the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal, it has been able to reunify itself (a unity which may be once again coming into question), and go on the offensive. The industrial working class — along with the oppressed nationalities, white-collar workers, women and students — responded to the attacks in disarray and disunity. No leadership arose in these defensive struggles to promote an effective united response, nor has there yet been any nationwide class struggle political alternative to challenge the complete dominance of the bourgeoisie in electoral politics.

As the economic crisis has grown, generating an increasing number of unemployed and worsening conditions both on the job and in life in general, there has been a reaction reaching into the industrial unions. The capitalists, forced by their drive to maintain their profits under increasingly difficult economic conditions, have begun testing and challenging the power of the industrial unions. The results at this stage are a stand-off. While the ruling class has made some important gains and has forced a series of concessions, they have not been able in open struggle to destroy any major industrial union. All their victories, at least in terms of the relationship of forces, can be rapidly put in question by the first generalized upsurge of the industrial workers.

The only modification I would make to Peter’s words, with the benefit of nearly 30 years of hindsight is to change “The results at this stage are a stand-off” to “The results at this stage are a blitzkrieg victory of the ruling class.”

It would be too much to expect co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who worked together on the excellent “Jesus Camp”, to tackle the problems facing the working class, who in the final analysis is the only force capable of changing Detroit, America and the planet, and put forth any kind of strategy for social change. If they did, you can bet that the Ford Foundation would have opened the trap door beneath them.

Despite the lack of an answer to Detroit’s problems, the filmmakers have performed a major service to the left and to the socially aware film audience (my readers, in other words) by putting the challenge on the front burner. This is a film that is must-viewing for anybody who is unhappy with the mounting class divisions in the U.S. today.

As blues bar owner Tommy Stevens put it, America is facing a situation in which the ruling class has more wealth than at any time in our history while the middle class (in other words, the Fordist working class of the 50s and 60s) is rapidly disappearing. Those left at the bottom will only have a single recourse, and that is to overthrow the capitalist system. Those are his words, not mine.

July 10, 2012

IAM/NUHW alliance—Carl Finamore Labor Notes interview with the principals

Filed under: trade unions — louisproyect @ 7:43 pm

http://labornotes.org/blogs/2012/07/nuhw-machinists-alliance-whats-game-plan

August 13, 2011

Turkish workers victorious in Ireland

Filed under: trade unions,Turkey — louisproyect @ 12:53 pm

March 16, 2011

Schoolteachers and the class struggle

Filed under: trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 7:17 pm

Back in the late 70s, the Socialist Workers Party in the United States began a “turn to industry” that identified a number of sectors to be “colonized”. At one time or another, this included steel, rail, auto, coal, meatpacking, and garment. It pressured “petty bourgeois” elements like me to “make the turn” in order to save my soul. Despite all the usually overblown projections about what could be done in a given factory, the real goal was to “proletarianize” the membership and protect the revolutionary party against ideological deviations. Party leader Jack Barnes referred to those who questioned the turn as “Marielitos”.

As a computer programmer, I felt particularly vulnerable to charges of being “petty bourgeois” since I had worked at banks and insurance companies since the age of 23. But I was not the only one feeling the pressure. All sorts of trade union activists in the party had come under scrutiny because they were in the wrong industry, or—for that matter— not in industry at all. If you were a social worker, a librarian or a school teacher in New York City, you were instructed to leave your job and join a “fraction” in an auto plant in New Jersey. After Ray Markey, who had become a highly respected activist in the librarian’s union, refused to quit his job, he became viewed as just another petty-bourgeois element.

Of course, the entire basis of colonizing (love that word—what an unconscious adaptation to alien class influences) steel and all the rest was a schematic expectation that a new working-class radicalization would be a repeat of the 1930s. The SWP brass, particularly Farrell Dobbs who was an important leader of the Teamsters Union in the late 1930s, assumed that the blue collar workers in the UAW, USW et al would become the vanguard of resistance to attacks on labor.

Surprise, surprise. The crucible of struggle has been in exactly those trade unions that were dismissed as “petty bourgeois” by the SWP leaders, testifying once again to the folly of looking at the class struggle through the lenses of the past. In particular, the public school teachers of the U.S. have become targeted especially by both the Republican ultraright and their pals in the Obama administration with their devotion to charter schools. If you were expecting a repeat of Flint 1938, naturally you would miss a Madison 2011 with schoolteachers on the front lines.

Here are some recent dispatches from the public schools battleground.

The most egregious case of teacher hatred can be found in New Jersey with Republican Governor Chris Christie earning a love poem from the execrable Matt Bai in the February 27th NY Times Magazine section. Bai, an Obama supporter of the highest magnitude, has apparently found a new best friend. He told his readers:

And with political consensus building toward some kind of public-school reform, teachers’ unions in particular have lost credibility with the public. Forty-­six percent of voters in a poll conducted by Stanford and the Associated Press last September said teachers’ unions deserved either “a great deal” or “a lot” of blame for the problems of public schools.

And so, when the union draws a hard line against changes to its pay and benefit structure, you can see why it might strike some sizable segment of voters as being a little anachronistic, like mimeographing homework assignments or sharpening a pencil by hand. In a Pew Research Center poll this month, 47 percent of respondents said their states should cut pension plans for government employees, which made it the most popular option on the table.

The Times followed up this labor-hating item on March 9th with special pleading on behalf of the lily-white hedge fund managers in Bronxville who were trying to find ways to kick the teachers in the teeth. Titled Even a Wealthy Suburb Faces Pressure to Curb School Taxes, we encounter a truly odious fellow named Peter P. Pulkkinen, a 40-year-old investment banker with children in the first and third grades. In order to cut costs, he would “attack ‘structural’ expenses like tenure, the accumulation of unused sick days and the rising amount the school board pays for pensions and health insurance.”

But the main weapon has been the charter schools, a type of institution that draws from both public funding and donations from multimillionaires who see this non-union bastion as a market-based solution for a deeply entrenched social problem.

Last Sunday night, “Sixty Minutes”, a kind of harbinger for informed liberal opinion in the U.S., featured an episode on one charter school in New York titled Katie Couric on paying teachers $125,000 a year. The emphasis in charter schools is to reward good teachers and to fire bad ones, just as is the case supposedly in the private sector.

The charter school under examination in this episode is named appropriately enough as The Equity Project (TEP). It was launched by a former teacher named Zeke Vanderhoek who is a Yale graduate—no surprise there. The school has a 3-member board of trustees, one of who is Peter Cove who is described as “one of the nation’s leading advocates for private solutions to welfare dependency, ex-offender reentry initiatives and for meeting the needs of underserved, marginalized populations.” Cove is also CEO of America Works in 1984, a corporation seeking to “link private-sector investment and employment with welfare reform.”

(For a thorough debunking of Zeke Vanderhoek’s project, read this: http://normsnotes2.blogspot.com/2011/03/relentless-self-promotion-of-zeke.html.)

In order to launch TEP, Vanderhoek drew upon funds he had accumulated from a company he started called Manhattan GMAT that provided instructions in how to pass a standardized test that will get you into business school. This makes perfect sense in a way since Mayor Bloomberg has become associated with the need for standardized testing, another specious way to improve primary schools that goes hand-in-hand with union-busting.

All you ever need to know about standardized testing can be found in a Monthly Review article by Dan DiMaggio, who put some time in at a place similar to Manhattan GMAT. This is what he observed:

Test scoring is a huge business, dominated by a few multinational corporations, which arrange the work in order to extract maximum profit. I was shocked when I found out that Pearson, the first company I worked for, also owned the Financial Times, The Economist, Penguin Books, and leading textbook publisher Prentice Hall. The CEO of Pearson, Marjorie Scardino, ranked seventeenth on the Forbes list of the one hundred most powerful women in the world in 2007.

Test-scoring companies make their money by hiring a temporary workforce each spring, people willing to work for low wages (generally $11 to $13 an hour), no benefits, and no hope of long-term employment—not exactly the most attractive conditions for trained and licensed educators. So all it takes to become a test scorer is a bachelor’s degree, a lack of a steady job, and a willingness to throw independent thinking out the window and follow the absurd and ever-changing guidelines set by the test-scoring companies. Some of us scorers are retired teachers, but most are former office workers, former security guards, or former holders of any of the diverse array of jobs previously done by the currently unemployed. When I began working in test scoring three years ago, my first “team leader” was qualified to supervise, not because of his credentials in the field of education, but because he had been a low-level manager at a local Target.

In other words, just as we are dealing with all along the line, is an attempt to cut labor costs. This is what this is about. A god-damned rich bastard like Peter P. Pulkkinen refusing to pay $100 more per year in property taxes while he is making millions of dollars at Deutsche Bank. Or Michael Bloomberg, Chris Christie and Scott Walker trying to do to teachers what Reagan did to airline controllers. And all of it goes back to the 1930s when the auto companies were determined to make a profit over the maimed bodies of assembly line workers who could not even afford a modest bungalow.

Returning to the Socialist Workers Party, that has always had a tendency—even when Leon Trotsky was advising it (maybe I should say because)—to demonize the “petty bourgeoisie”, even the auto workers were fair game at one point.

In the 1950s, a group around Bert Cochran decided that a less sectarian approach was needed and split with the party in order to launch the Socialist Union. One of their activists was Sol Dollinger, who had been married to Genora Dollinger—the leader of the woman’s auxiliary in the great Flint sit-down strike. When the Cochranites left, the SWP leaders dubbed them as embourgeoisified workers who had gotten tainted by prosperity.

Sol Dollinger had this to say about that charge:

Three decades later, I am amused by the explanations made by Frank Lovell [SWP trade union leader] that you heard as a new member of the SWP. He contended that the members of the auto faction had become embourgeoisified by high wages in the industry. My position as a Chevrolet worker is not much different than other autoworker members of the party. We rented in Flint and when I quit after seven years my wages were under five thousand dollars a year. When Genora’s father died of a heart attack in front of the Buick gate where he worked as a janitor, he left his four children $700 each. Genora rushed out to make a down payment on a house with a $3800 dollar mortgage with monthly payments of $35.

At any rate, the goal is clear today. We have to everything in our power to make sure that the clock is not turned back to that time when auto workers did not have a pot to piss in. Thank goodness the school teachers, the librarians, and the social workers have the backbone to take on the bourgeoisie in the decisive early stages of the battle.

March 12, 2011

Stephen King: pro-union

Filed under: trade unions — louisproyect @ 4:52 pm

February 22, 2011

Wisconsin!

Filed under: financial crisis,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 7:53 pm
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