Photograph Source: Striking teamsters battling police on the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 1934 – Public Domain
All leftwing groups are divided by factions. Not right away but before long. The seeds of division are usually sowed early. Think of the French, Russian and American revolutionaries. Maybe rightwing groups are also riven by factions. My own experience is with left groups in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980. Jon Melrod, a lawyer who lives in northern California, has just written and published a memoir titled Fighting Times (PM Press) which focuses on his life as a union organizer in the midwest mostly in the 1980s.
More recently, Melrod has been a lawyer for people messed up by the police. The murder, in 2013, by a Sonoma County sheriff of a 13-year-old Latino named Andy Lopez—who was carrying a toy gun—was the catalyst that brought Melrod back to the courtroom after a long absence. He has also helped political asylum seekers.
Like me, Melrod belonged to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the organization that opposed the war in Vietnam, and that came apart in 1969, with one faction going into factories to organize workers, and the other faction going underground to make bombs, or to lend support to the bomb makers. For a time, I supported the bomb makers, who were known as the Weather Underground. I used to say “I’m married to the underground.”
My wife, who had also been in SDS, was underground in the underground. That is, she was there, but not widely known. If I could go back in time, I’m not sure what I would do: perhaps avoid all the factions and do what I knew best how to do: write. In the Weather Underground, factions multiplied year after year. I did write about life underground, but I romanticized it. That was a big mistake. If I could rewrite what I have written I would do so.
In 1969, Jon Melrod and I were in opposing camps. We might have traded punches. I remember SDS members battling PL members, broken glass and bloody noses.
Today, Melrod and I are on the same side of history, two aging radicals with memories. Reading Melrod’s book, Fighting Times, I came to appreciate his drive and dedication to the working class which nearly cost him his life. Jobs in toxic environments led to pancreatic cancer. He beat it, but it was a big struggle that took all his grit and gumption, plus chemotherapy, radiation, herbs, diet and exercise.
Born into a middle class family, Melrod attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a hotbed of radicalism, where he opposed ROTC and the war in Vietnam and supported the Black Panthers, and the Black student strike of 1969. Then he dove into the working class in places like Racine, Wisconsin, and joined the United Auto Workers (UAW).
In Fighting Times, Melrod describes the jobs he held, the workers he encountered, some of whom were anti-Semitic, racist, sexist and anti-communist. Melrod took shit from no one. He handed out leaflets, spoke at meetings and talked to everyone. Also, he was one of the editors of the newsletter “Fighting Times,” published by Local 72 of the UAW and that targeted scabs and finks and corrupt union leaders. Not all white workers were racists and sexists, he learned.
He and two other members of the editorial board of “Fighting Times” were sued for libel and defamation of character. The dominant courtroom issue was freedom of speech in the workplace. While the judge was biased in favor of the company, the members of the jury, who were mostly working class, were on the side of Melrod and his comrades and voted to acquit.
After that verdict, Melrod continued to organize for his UAW local. Then, following a drastic reduction in the workforce, he stepped back from union activity, attended Hastings Law School in San Francisco and graduated with a JD.
Anyone who wants to become a union organizer would learn from his book. To place a preorder for Fighting Times from PM Press, or to read excerpts before the book is released: www.jonathanmelrod.com
Reading Melrod’s memoir, reminded me that as a teenager I read all the books I could get my hands on that were by and about American labor leaders: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Joe Hill, Eugene Victor Debs, Mother Bloor and Sacco and Vanzietti, two Italian anarchists who were framed for murder and executed. When I lived in England in the 1960s I saw English class society in ways that I never saw American class society, which often hides behind the veneer of the middle class. The English were and still are intensely class conscious. I remember that at many meetings no matter what the topic, someone would stand up and ask in a working class accent, “What about the workers?” Many of those same people supported the crown and royalty. Contradictions are everywhere.
I wonder now why in the late 1960s I didn’t aspire to be like Joe Hill and Debs, who was a hero to my maternal, socialist grandfather Aaron. Part of the answer is the War in Vietnam and the movements of national liberation that were taking place around the world and that seemed to promise a planet without imperialism. That turned out to be a pipe dream. The other answer has to do with my marriage and my attempts to save it which went nowhere.
These days, I’ve often noticed—I’m not the only one—that Americans have a difficult time talking around class and ethnicity at the same time, though they are inextricably connected. Throw in gender and sex and Americans are often at a total loss. Melrod’s Fighting Times shows that unions can effectively rally workers against corporations, workers of all stripes, whether they’re men or women, Black, brown or white, native born or refugees born beyond US borders. Solidarity is difficult to achieve, but it’s well worth fighting for as Jon Melrod’s moving memoir makes abundantly clear.
Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.