Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 11, 2015

Pat Grogan, the SWP and the Hoboken waterfront

Filed under: obituary,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

Ever since the Militant went online, I’ve made a point of skimming through it looking for obits. I have zero interest in the group’s politics but have remained curious about what happened to people I knew in the sixties, especially since our generation is increasingly vulnerable to the sorts of geriatric illnesses that take you down for good. Of course, the law of diminishing returns applies here since the group has shrunk to such an alarming degree. Even when it was larger, it was likely that the people I really cared about would never get an obit since they had become unpersons like Peter Camejo. The only way an ex-member could rate an obit was if they were number one not an “enemy” of the party, and number two someone who had contributed time and money to keep the sect-cult afloat.

Pat Grogan was one of those people.

Her obit was typical. Stripped of anything that might have touched on her personality, it was a virtual CV of her deeds on behalf of the party, making sure to emphasize her commitment to the “turn”. It makes perfect sense for the SWP to publish such a bloodless summary of a person’s life since they expect robotic behavior from the few people still ready to be moved about like a piece on a chessboard.

The heading says it all: “Pat Grogan: 45 years in building communist party”. You get a sense of how much the group has shrunk from this:

A nearly five-decade builder of the communist movement, Grogan died in San Diego Dec. 1 after a battle with cancer. Fifty people attended the celebration, organized by party supporters in the Los Angeles area, drawing participants from Seattle, San Francisco and San Diego.

I imagine that half the attendees were ex-members. If so, it means that an event that had been announced weeks ago in the Militant drew only a couple of dozen members.

Not that it makes much of a difference, but the paper got her early history wrong:

Pat met Young Socialist Alliance members selling the Militant newspaper when she was a 21-year-old student at Columbia University. She joined the YSA and soon after the SWP, and never looked back,” Sandler said. He pointed participants to attractive displays reflecting different events in Grogan’s political life and the nearly 30 messages sent to the meeting from around the world.

In fact, she was a Barnard student. Columbia University did not become co-educational until 1983. I have a pretty good recollection of the period since I was a member of the YSA when she joined and became friendly with Pat almost immediately. What I am going to recount now is my own memory of Pat that is obviously coming from a different angle than the SWP’s. Her story about joining the party was an exceptional one and deserves to be told.

Pat was the daughter of John J. Grogan, the former mayor of Hoboken and before that president of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America. The IUMSWA was a typical craft union that included the Brooklyn Navy Yard within its bargaining control. After WWII ended, the shipbuilding industry collapsed thus taking away the power base of bureaucrats like Grogan. Here’s a photo of him and union members protesting the lack of government funding for new shipbuilding projects:

Screen shot 2015-01-11 at 2.17.07 PM

In a September 17, 1968 NY Times obituary for John J. Grogan, there’s an excerpt from a speech he gave to the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists in 1951: “We’ve adopted new tactics against the Communists. Now we treat them rough, and we don’t seem to have so many problems with them.”

I know for a fact that Pat regarded his death that month as an outcome of her joining the Trotskyist movement because she told me so at the time. Pat was distraught about losing her father but nothing would have stopped her from joining, not even a call from Jay Lovestone. Over a beer she told me that her dad had pulled out all the stops to prevent her from becoming a commie, including recruiting a classic “god that failed” labor official to the cause.

Pat threw herself into party activities with a vengeance after joining. I remember how she and the two other Barnard students who were comrades (Cindy Jacquith and Paula Reimers) had their hands filled with trying to connect the antiwar movement we were building with the student strike. Believe me, it was a tough time to be a Trot when SDS was the only show in town—with Mark Rudd marching at the head of the parade.

I lost touch with Pat after moving up to Boston in late 1969 but was always happy to see her at national gatherings. She was a tall woman, maybe 5’10”, and big-boned. She had a great sense of humor and was sharp as a tack. It is sad that her talents went wasted in a group that hardly knew how to use them.

This was not my last encounter with the Grogan brand name. In 1975 I returned to NY from Houston, Texas in order to work with a team of programmers automating the Militant subscriptions and Pathfinder’s finances. After starting a job at Salomon Brothers, I found an apartment in Hoboken in a new high-rise called Grogan Towers. Guess who it was named after.

Last year I went out to Hoboken with my Istanbul in-laws to do some sightseeing. Grogan Towers was gone, its place taken by a newer generation high-rise. My first residence in Hoboken was back in 1966 when the town had not begun to be gentrified. It was the Hoboken of John G. Grogan, Frank Sinatra and Marlin Brando, not that of hedge fund managers, brick-wall exposed restaurants and boutiques.

The 60s have definitively passed from the scene. Like the 30s, this was one of those periods when the magnitude of events could change one’s life. Pat and I joined a movement because of a war. The commies that her dad and Jay Lovestone would persecute joined a movement because the capitalist system was failing to provide livelihoods to millions of people. Now as we move deeper into the 21st century, the same circumstances will likely drive a new generation into making the sorts of choices we made, with the added dimension of environmental crisis.

What will happen to the people living along the Hudson River in Hoboken when the next Hurricane Sandy hits? The global warming that has threatened the survival of people living on Pacific Ocean island nations will pose the same dangers to city dwellers as ClimateProgress reported on October 24, 2013:

But Hoboken residents and city officials are less eager to talk about one annoying detail: Much of the rapidly gentrifying old industrial port city, where apartment prices can rival those found across the Hudson in Manhattan, is built on a swamp.

For Jon Miller, an ocean engineering professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, the fact that the floodwaters essentially made an island out of the city is not at all surprising.

“Historically, the area of land we now call Hoboken was an island.” said Miller. “All those new apartment buildings on the west side of town are built on marshland. Superstorm Sandy just returned the city to its natural state – a thin strip of land between a river and a tidal marshland.”

Even Mayor Dawn Zimmer, always eager to advertise the city’s nightlife, shopping and restaurants, referred to the city as a bathtub in a New York Times’ article in the days following the storm. While reluctant to voice a position on the causes of climate change, calling the issue “politically charged,” she has been resolute as to the need for Hoboken to prepare for rising waters.

Politically charged. Words to live by.

3 Comments »

  1. A nice tribute to Pat. I didn’t know her well but especially after the SWP went into its death-spiral in the early ’80s I though she was too good to be a Barnesite hack, which is basically what she was, for all her basic kindness and decency. She was also an excellent orator, able to communicate socialist concepts in easily comprehensiible language. What a shame.

    Comment by John B. — January 12, 2015 @ 1:00 am

  2. I agree, a very nice and thoughtful tribute. Actually, IUMSWA was in fact an industrial, not a craft union. It was CIO, not AFL until the merger in 1955. It did in fact wage battle with the AFL “Metal Trades Council” in seeking to represent shipyard workers in the runnup to WWII and then during the war. I think what you probably meant to say it is that IUMSWA was a typical “business union” with a class collaborationist leadership. It was always on the right-wing of the CIO from day one. During my last years in the SWP I was a member of it at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The local in Hoboken still existed then and it was our only ‘sister’ local I knew about in the NY area. In 1988 it merged with the IAM.

    Comment by David Walters — January 12, 2015 @ 3:58 pm

  3. Thanks for the correction. Here is some more info:

    The emergence of the IUMSWA marked a new departure in the nature of shipyard unionism. Like most of the new unions formed in the early thirties, the IUMSWA eschewed organization along craft lines, which would have created a separate union for each of the shipyard trades, and instead adopted the strategy of industrial unionism, by which all workers, irrespective of their particular trade or level of skill, were brought together into a single organization. In keeping with this “one union, one yard” plan of organization, the IUMSWA affiliated with the Committee for Industrial Organization (later the Congress of Industrial Organizations) in 1935. With the added strength provided by the CIO movement and the benefits of federally-supervised collective bargaining provided by the Wagner Act, the IUMSWA’s bold organizing drives brought membership to well over 100,000 by 1940.

    http://digital.lib.umd.edu/archivesum/actions.DisplayEADDoc.do?source=MdU.ead.histms.0038.xml

    Comment by louisproyect — January 12, 2015 @ 4:03 pm


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