Remarks by Staughton Lynd for the Left Forum, March 15, 2008
Youngstown, more than twenty-five years ago, several of us began to
meet once a month at the local union hall for Utility Workers Local 118.
The local had just been through a strike during which the central
labor body provided very little help. I was asked to teach a class and
told attenders that I wished to devote it to the question, What has gone
wrong with the trade unions? Why are we all broken-hearted lovers?
The only evening I remember clearly was a discussion of a new encyclical by the Pope entitled, “On Human Labor.” The Pope said that there were two kinds of work: for money, and for the glory of God. All one long evening the late Bob Schindler, a lineman for Ohio Edison, maintained that when he went up on the pole he did so for the glory of God. It turned out that when Bob and his crew were called out in an ice storm the company expected them to repair the line but to report the need to turn the power back on to headquarters. Rather than leave an elderly woman to suffer through another freezing night Bob’s crew would fully restore electric service, much as unemployed workers did in the 1930s.
At the end of the class we did not want to stop meeting. We adopted the name Workers Solidarity Club of Youngstown. For the next twenty years there was a place where workers in need of help could go on the second Wednesday of every month. During at least two long and bitter strikes the support of the Club ensured the survival of the local unions involved. At the end of every meeting we formed a circle and sang the first and last verses of “Solidarity Forever.”
Over the years several members of the Workers Solidarity Club used their annual vacations to visit revolutionary Nicaragua. There Bob (who didn’t know a word of Spanish) worked as part of an electric maintenance crew in Managua. A young man named Benjamin Linder had been killed in northern Nicaragua working on electrification for villages there. Bob Schindler went back the next year to help to finish the electrification project. Ned Mann, one of Ed Mann’s sons, helped to construct a vent over a particularly smoky furnace at Nicaragua’s only steel mill.
Others from the Club attended a workers’ school south of Mexico City supported by the Frente Auténtico de Trabajo, the network of Mexican independent unions. African American participants experienced another world that, while not free of racial prejudice, was far more hospitable than the United States. So what is solidarity? Most obviously, we find it in the conduct of certain radical martyrs. When the so-called Haymarket Anarchists were being rounded up after the Chicago bombing of May 1886, Albert Parsons made it out of town and took up residence, in disguise, near Milwaukee. His comrades were put on trial for their lives. Parsons returned to Chicago, walked into the courtroom, and was tried, convicted, and hanged with the others.
In Mexico, the painter Frida Kahlo spent her adult life in great physical pain after a near-fatal streetcar accident that crushed her spine and pelvis, leaving her unable to bear children.
She finally had her first Mexican solo show in 1953 and went to the opening on a stretcher. She would lose a leg to gangrene. In June 1954 she had herself pushed in a wheelchair to join a protest againstn the action of the United States in overthrowing the democratically-elected Arbenz government in Guatemala. A few days later she died.
So this is one kind of solidarity. The Left did not invent it. As is stated in the Gospel according to St. John, ch. 15, v. 13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
There is another kind of solidarity: the day-to-day practice of poor and oppressed persons who turn to each other in the belief that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” The anthropologist James C. Scott calls that kind of solidarity the “weapon of the weak.” He describes it well.
On the one hand, Scott rejects the concept of “hegemony” if that is understood to mean that what the peasant or worker ordinarily dares to express is all that the subordinate thinks or feels. At those rare historical moments when the weak openly confront their masters, it is not so much that “a new consciousness, a new anger, a new ideology” has come into being, but rather that what was there all along is fully displayed.
On the other hand, however, Scott insists that the cries of “bread” and “land” so often at the core of peasant resistance arise from “the basic material needs of the peasant household.” More generally, [t]o require of lower-class resistance that it somehow be “principled” or “selfless” is not only utopian and a slander on the moral status of fundamental material needs; it is, more fundamentally, a misconstruction of the basis of class struggle. . . . “Bread-and-butter” issues are the essence of lower-class politics and resistance.
Crucially, for Scott forms of resistance that are individual and unobtrusive are not only what a Marxist might expect from petty commodity producers and rural laborers, but have certain advantages. Unlike hierarchical formal organizations, there is no center, no leadership, no identifiable structure that can be co-opted or neutralized. What is lacking in terms of centralization may be compensated for by flexibility and persistence. These forms of resistance will win no set-piece battles, but they are admirably adapted to long-run campaigns of attrition.
Moreover, while the forms of resistance Scott studies may be individual, “this is not to say that they are uncoordinated. . . . [A] concept of coordination derived from formal and bureaucratic settings is of little assistance in understanding actions in small communities with dense informal networks and rich, historically deep, cultures of resistance to outside claims.”
Scott studies peasants. Where do we find in the activity of industrial workers a comparable practice of the idea that an injury to one is an injury to all?
The most striking form of solidarity I have encountered during thirty years in Youngstown as a lawyer for rank-and-file workers, and as a labor historian, is the conduct of some workers during layoffs.
Labor historians are in general agreement that the signature accomplishment of CIO industrial unionism is the seniority system. The need for institutionalized seniority must have seemed obvious in the 1930s. In Youngstown, it was still the practice then for workers to assemble at the mill gate in the morning and to be individually called to work by the foreman much as in a longshore “shape-up.” Quid pro quos for steady work including giving the foreman free meals at the worker’s home, or worse.
But during layoffs, the mechanical application of seniority puts the most recently-hired workers on the street with nothing while older workers not only keep their full-time jobs but may continue to work overtime. Precisely in shops where the spirit of solidarity is strongest workers may simply refuse to follow collectively bargained seniority language and instead divide work equally among all members of the “family at work,” regardless of date of hire.
It happened among Illinois coal miners during the 1920s, among countless industrial workers in the early 1930s, and continues sporadically today. In the Youngstown Legal Services office where I worked in the 1980s, when President Reagan cut our budget by 20 per cent the lawyers all reduced their work week by one day (while leaving untouched the weekly salary of non-lawyers who were underpaid to begin with). Alice and I experienced the same thing with an independent union of visiting nurses that we helped to organize. Perhaps the clearest description of the process that I know is in the following account by Mia Giunta, an organizer for the United Electrical Workers, about a plant called F-Dyne Electric in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
There were layoffs in 1978, 1979, right after the contract was signed.
Under the contract, the layoffs went according to seniority. We felt terrible, thinking of some of the workers who would be put out on the street. There was a Portuguese woman named Albertina who had little children. She was crying but she said, “It’s OK. It’s all right.” The other women said, “That’s unfair.”
The workers took up a collection for her. I felt very guilty, and tried to talk to Albertina to make sure that she and the kids would be all right. We just didn’t want to see her go.
When the next bunch of layoffs came along, somebody suggested, “We’ll all work a few hours less each week. That way everybody can stay. Everybody will have health insurance.” And . . . that became the tradition in that factory.
The contract was never amended. Every time there was a layoff, we would sign a side agreement that everyone would agree to cut back.
So what should solidarity mean for us, practically and politically, right now? I suspect that I would agree with most of the programmatic demands any of us on the Left might wish to propose. Where we may differ is whether the trade union movement of the United States, in any of its present incarnations, can be expected to do very much about solidarity.
Take the issue of immigration. Labor historians like to dump on Samuel Gompers for supporting the exclusion of Chinese laborers in the late 19th century. But the best of modern unionists do exactly the same thing. All of us admire the Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez. But Chavez would call the Immigration and Naturalization Service and ask it to apprehend and deport undocumented immigrants from Mexico. Similarly, Tom Leedham, the presidential candidate of the longest-lived and most attractive rank-and-file movement in the United States, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, criticized his opponent James Hoffa, Jr. for not doing enough to keep Mexican truck drivers out of the country.
What I think it comes down to is this: Unionism in the United States has been built on short-term, material, individual self-interest. You cannot create that kind of movement and expect it to produce members who will take risks on behalf of workers who speak a different language, may be a different color, likely as not profess a different religion, and compete for the same jobs. You cannot paste the solidarity vision of One Big Union on a classically Social Democratic union structure.
We also face some urgent internal housekeeping. Somehow we must re-create a movement in which blacks and whites are, as we used to sing, together. Despite much awkwardness and insensitivity, SNCC created a movement in the first half of the 1960s in which leadership was firmly in the hands of African Americans, but in which whites such as Jane Stembridge, Bob Zellner, Howard Zinn, Betty Garman, Casey Hayden, Jack Minnis, and myself, were able to play a part. We are not going to change this society in fundamental ways until we once again create a movement that can include all oppressed aand radicalized persons. The difficulty goes beyond race. In the late 1960s we forgot what it means for comrades to create a movement together. I have a clear and distinct memory of a member of the SDS national leadership, at a public meeting in Chicago, calling for “icing” and “offing” — that is, killing — political opponents. Finally, I want to call on all persons on the Left to repudiate a false patriotism. There is a belief that the United States is a city on the hill, with a mission to the rest of the world. Some folks consider that the American psyche is so firmly committed to this idea that we dare not challenge it and must work within that metaphor.
I disagree. I think we in the United States belong, not on a hill, but on our knees, seeking forgiveness for what we did to African American slaves and Native Americans, and what we continue to do to other indigenous peoples — Iraqis and Colombians, for example — right now.
Solidarity stands opposed to every form of narrow collective self-interest and to all varieties of parochialism. As I was growing up here in New York the Communist Party was promoting a synthetic homage to the so-called tradition of Jefferson, who never freed his slaves, and Jackson, who sent the Cherokee Indians on the Trail of Tears. We have not wholly freed ourselves from this bogus ideology.
However, there is another tradition in the United States, articulated by a series of working-class intellectuals, that says, My country is the world.
Tom Paine began it, writing in The Rights of Man in the 1790s, “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.”
William Lloyd Garrison placed on the masthead of his newspaper The Liberator, when it first appeared in 1831 and thereafter, “Our country is the world, our countrymen are mankind.”
Frederick Douglass, fugitive slave, shipbuilding craftsman, and abolitionist editor, travelled to Great Britain in 1847 and for the first time experienced the possibility of a world with far less racism than the United States. On his return to this country he said: “I have no love for America as such; I have no patriotism; I have no country.”
I mentioned Albert Parsons. Before he was sentenced to death, he spoke to the jury and the court room for parts of two days. Hoarse and exhausted, but “opening his arms wide,” he declared: “The world is my country, all mankind my countrymen.”
And finally we come back, as we cannot come back too often, to Debs. The speech that earned him his years in federal prison and brought on his premature death was given in Canton, Ohio. Debs said there: “When I say I am opposed to war I mean ruling class war, for the ruling class is the only class that makes war . . . . I would be shot for treason before I would enter such a war . . . . I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth; I am a citizen of the world.”
The day after tomorrow will be March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. In Mexico they celebrate the “San Patricios,” the St. Patricks. When the United States launched its imperialist war on Mexico in 1846, many newly-arrived and impoverished immigrants from Ireland were recruited. Approximately six hundred of them deserted and fought with the Mexican army. In a battle on the outskirts of Mexico City, 35 died, 85 were captured, and another 85 retreated with the remnants of the Mexican army. Those who had deserted before the war were branded with a capital “D” on the cheek. The rest were hanged. Today, every first Sunday of the month in Mexico City the St. Patrick Battalion Pipe Band plays in the soldiers’ honor. The battalion’s name is written in gold letters in the chamber of the Mexican House of Representatives.
For the sake of friends from the FBI who may be among us, let me make it clear that I do not encourage members of the United States military to open fire on their fellow soldiers.
But in this time of imperialist arrogance and incipient fascism, the bravery and political clarity of the St. Patricks serve to remind us of what may be required of us by the idea of solidarity.