The Limits of White Skin Privilege
Noel Ignatiev, the Sojourner Truth Organization, the Battle Against White Supremacy, and the Path to Interracial Working-Class Solidarity
August 11, 2022
I write this account and political critique with a certain amount of hesitancy. Although the critique of the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO; especially its most dynamic period from 1969-1973), the group most associated with the “white skin privilege” position, and its major proponent Noel Ignatiev (then Ignatin) is highly relevant today, my involvement with Noel and others during this time had many positive aspects. This association played a major role in mine and others’ political development and maturation, helping us to avoid many of the pitfalls of much of the radical movement, especially of the so-called Third Worldist Maoism that so dominated the left during this time.1These groups and their trajectory are described in great informative detail in Max Elbaum’s (2002) Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao, and Che (London: Verso Books) So, I will begin with something of the positive and, in so doing, inject a certain amount of personal history and involvement.
But first, I wish to give a brief outline of the evolution of the New Left which led to tens of thousands of mostly young activists in the U.S. seeing themselves as anti-capitalist revolutionaries, and describe a bit of the context from which STO and the larger Maoist milieu emerged.
Evolution of the New Left: A Thumbnail Outline
The sometimes separate but often conjoined movements for civil rights/Black liberation, against the War in Vietnam, against the oppression of women, for campus activism, and later for the struggle against the special oppression of other non-white groups and for LGBT rights, went through several overlapping stages during the 1960s and early 1970s, all of which contained many positive features.
To be clear, the struggle for civil rights and Black liberation was the driver for all these struggles.2There was also a symbiotic relationship between the African-American freedom movement and labor struggles, both with respect to mainstream union drives (which included, of course, the 1968 Memphis, Tennessee, sanitation workers strike) and the hundreds of Black caucus groups that existed in workplaces around the country, most prominent of which were the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit, Michigan, and which also had an inspirational effect on many white workers. These movements, the so-called New Left, had several key features:
First was an early militancy, a commitment to direct action, inspired and exemplified by the sit-ins at lunch counters at historically Black colleges, beginning in Greensboro, North Carolina, February 1, 1960 and powered by North Carolina A&T students as well as by the more intergenerational Freedom rides. This approach also largely rejected working through the Democratic Party to gain greater influence, certainly as a main strategy. The 1964 University of California Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the initial tocsin for mass movements on majority white college campuses, was begun because of the University of California Berkeley administration’s attempts to remove information and fund-raising tables on campus which were supporting civil rights.
Second was a rejection of the obsessive anti-communism of Cold War liberal organizations (like the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) and the NAACP), the right-wing so-called liberal anti-communists, including those around Dissent magazine and in ostensibly liberal labor unions. This rejection, for example, led the social democratic League for Industrial Democracy to kick the early Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) out of its offices because it would not disassociate itself from Steve Max, later a right-winger and Democratic Party operative, whose father had been a cartoonist for the Communist Party paper The Daily Worker. I, at one point, had a debate with Irving Howe, a mainstay of Dissent, who attacked the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the most racist of terms, calling them “communist dupes.” In any case, most of us had no interest in the CP, whose refusal to support SNCC stigmatized it as a conservative outfit.3Some of this abandonment of militant civil rights activity by the CP during the 1950s is traced in my The Southern Key: Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s (Oxford University Press): 372-380. The 1962 SDS Port Huron Statement was quite explicit on this score in rejecting exclusion, as was SNCC, and eventually SCLC.
Third, the early New Left had an embryonic critique of U.S. foreign policy, starting with the government support of apartheid in South Africa and its opposition to the Cuban Revolution. Of course, there were other more radical groups during this period, especially in the Black movement, including Uhuru, Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), the more nationalist Republic of New Africa (RNA), Robert Williams with his Radio Free Dixie (which was broadcast from Cuba), and others. There were also more radical peripheral remnants of older radical groups from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the CP.
These inchoate radical tendencies, however, were most represented organizationally in SDS and SNCC. Both organizations, in contrast to other more mainstream organizations, had early strong opposition to the war in Vietnam. Members of SNCC were especially prominent, including one of my early heroes and an SNCC field worker, the late Donald Stone, eventually to become one of my close friends in the Black Workers Congress (BWC). Stone was arrested for disrupting the draft and served time in prison, not in Oakland CA, where draft resistance was quite prevalent, and the judiciary there was reputedly liberal, but in Georgia, to me a stunning act of bravery. SDS launched the first major national demonstration against the war in 1965 in DC and was immediately attacked as a subversive organization by Nicholas Katzenbach, then Attorney General in the Johnson administration.
The New Left, it should be underscored, was also part of an international phenomenon, with parallel organizations, especially in the UK and several western European countries.
A second wave of radicalization began with a firmer rejection of U.S. foreign policy and increasing, stronger support for liberation movements in the 3rd World, especially in Vietnam. For SNCC this also meant a growing interaction with Malcolm X, and association with Marxist leaders of these movements abroad. Many of us met with radical students from Vietnam and Africa. A growing number of the early New Left founders began to disassociate themselves from this trend.
By the late 1960s, large portions of the radical wings of the student, civil rights/Black liberation, women’s liberation and anti-war movements began to identify with and support (often uncritically) the Chinese Maoist leaders. There was a convergence of factors, the Black Panthers, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, followers of Robert Williams, the later burgeoning African Liberation Support Committee (highly active on many Black college campuses), even Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, an early avowed nationalist, all embraced Maoism, as did tens of thousands of largely white activists in the various wings of SDS, whose periphery included many organizations, among which was the National Guardian newspaper (whose influence is in my opinion somewhat overblown in Elbaum’s account). My transition during this period was rocky, partly spurred by a then-illegal visit to Cuba, and also by my serious interactions with Noel Ignatin and Ted Allen, and my initial in-depth study of Black history, especially Black labor, a topic I have for many decades considered essential for understanding the United States, both its history and present. With Noel, I got my first introduction to the great W.E.B. Du Bois, in an SDS study group in which we read Black Reconstruction.
Many of the original New Left activists fell by the wayside, including virtually all the early members of SDS, few of whom embraced Marxism or revolution. More members of SNCC made this transition (although most did not), including James Foreman (the long-time executive secretary of SNCC, soon to be recruited to the central leadership of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers), Donald Stone, mentioned above, and many others, including my close friend, the late John O’Neal, a co-founder in 1963 of the then-Mississippi-based and SNCC-affiliated Free Southern Theater, later Junebug Productions. O’Neal, a brilliant playwright and actor of world class proportions, comparable in many ways to Dario Fo, went largely unrecognized during his lifetime, and except for a brief one semester residency at Cornell, existing well outside the mainstream of the established cultural world with minimal support.
These developments are important to recognize and should be studied and explored in depth, both because they run counter to the narratives that criticize the radicalization of the civil rights and anti-war movements, but also because they were in my opinion the main drivers of the cultural transformation of America in the 1960s, not the Woodstocks and counterculture, or the more liberal, reformist organizations and figures, so embraced by the mainstream media. This topic itself, in my opinion, is worthy of an in-depth study, removed from the distortive lens of liberal media types.4Even in film, the innovative techniques of the John Watson/Newsreel film Finally Got the News, about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and Norman Fruchter’s film on the SDS-sponsored Newark Community Union Project (where I worked briefly as an organizer) were quickly adopted by more established filmmakers.
The Struggle within SDS
Meanwhile, a struggle was taking place within SDS between the aspiring radicals in SDS and those in the Progressive Labor Party (PL), the latter making rapid recruiting gains in certain parts of the organization. Progressive Labor originated as a 1962 split from the Communist Party, including at least one district leader from upstate New York. One of the key issues in the disputes in SDS was how to fight against white supremacy and racism. PLP to many seemed to minimize and oppose certain anti-racist struggles, with their line that all nationalism was reactionary.
Enter Ted Allen and Noel Ignatin, who along with Noel’s then-wife Hilda Vasquez-Ignatin and Ted’s companion Ester Kusic had been engaged in discussions critical of PL’s approach to anti-racism. The four of them had been members of an earlier putatively left split from the CP, the Provisional Organizing Committee (POC; not to be confused with the more recent term People of Color) most of whose members were Blacks and Puerto Ricans in Lower Harlem and the NYC waterfront.5Information on the seemingly obscure POC can be found in Harry Haywood’s lengthy resignation letter of November 9, 1958 (in author’s possession), and secondarily in Noel Ignatin’s Memoir, published in Theoretical Review, September-October, 1979, issue. Haywood was elected chairman at the first national convention, August 16-17, 1958, and soon quit. Ted Allen was also a POC leader. Noel’s account is largely from his perspective in Philadelphia, where he joined as a teenager.
Much of the verbal descriptions of POC I have had, and the documents I have read, to me appear as from a surrealistic world, and its political stance, seeing rejection of Stalin as a sign of a right-wing deviation, somewhat otherworldly. So, Allen had been expelled in 1962, while Noel and Hilda were not expelled until 1966. The four mentioned above began discussing the issue of bribery of workers in the U.S. (a centerpiece of POC doctrine), how best to fight white supremacy and unify the multi-racial working class, a multi-racialism that existed to a great degree in POC (among its Black, Puerto Rican, and white cadre, and also among the people to whom they organized and appealed). They were also highly critical of the PL line which they saw as an abandonment of this struggle.
Noel and Ted wrote a letter and comments laying out their position in highly articulate Marxist terms, criticizing PL. Their pieces were published first in mimeograph form (where I first encountered them in 1967) and later in more polished formats in numerous venues including by the SDS initiated Radical Education Project (REP). The key takeaway for many of us was the highlighting of the importance of the struggle against white supremacy in unifying workers for broad class struggles.
Many of us in SDS had been involved in civil rights activity. Virtually all of us saw the importance of the battle against white supremacy. The publications of these short pithy pieces by Allen and Ignatin took SDS by storm. As Ignatin notes in one of his introductions, the major factions within two years all adopted the language of “repudiation of the white skin privilege.”
SDSers from the leadership on down adopted this stance in their battles with PL. Noel and Ted were quickly recruited into the informal leadership of SDS, although neither were students currently or in the recent past. Noel, when I met him at the time, was working at the Linkbelt plant (a major maker of steam shovels) in Chicago, where the SDS national office and many of the top leaders were living. Ted, had various jobs in New York City, including teaching junior high school, and other marginal education jobs (Jeff Perry, Allen’s literary executor and the author of the pathbreaking two volume biography of early Harlem radical Hubert Harrison, can certainly document Ted’s trajectory and employment in greater, more accurate detail, than I).
Beginnings of Sojourner Truth
As the student movement became more radical, tens of thousands of students and others formed collectives around the country, both to study a wide variety of things, most not available in schools, including reading Marx’s Capital and other writings by him and Engels, Lenin’s works, Mao Tsetung, and for many of us, works of Black history, especially that of DuBois, but also to prepare to form eventual revolutionary pre-party organizations. A significant percentage of people in these collectives left campus and took jobs in factories and other workplaces, encouraged not just by ideological commitments, but also by the growing labor upsurge of the time. These included numerous wildcats, growing rank and file opposition, including increasing contract rejections, and, of course, the burgeoning Black Caucus movement, exemplified foremost by the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) in Detroit. The non-PL SDS majority was called the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM). This group split into two, with the minority forming the Weatherman. The Weatherman faction believed that all U.S. workers (non-white as well as white) were bribed by U.S. capitalists, that it was only through terrorist actions that workers in the U.S. would be made to feel the pain of those in the 3rd World. Although the dramatic violent narrative of the Weathermen got all the publicity, the overwhelming majority of us in RYM, now labeled RYM2, rejected what we considered something of a stupid caricature.
In Chicago, there were a number of such RYM collectives, including one centered in the national office of which Noel was a member. I was part of a group at the University of Chicago, where dozens of us in the top leadership of the SDS chapter had been expelled from school in late 1968, as part of a large protest where we seized and held the administration building for a good while. While some of this group went on to form the Weathermen faction, a larger group of us took factory jobs. For me, this was not an especially big deal, I had worked to pay most of my college expenses in a machine shop. Even as a community organizer in Newark, when I needed money, I had worked as an extra loading beer trucks at the Ballantine Brewery there. In January 1969, I had lost my scholarship and needed money to survive, so off I went.
After the split in SDS at the summer (1969) convention, which involved battles between RYM2, PL, and the Weathermen, the various collectives in Chicago fell apart. So parts of each of the groups in Chicago began unified discussions eventually leading to the formation of the Sojourner Truth organization.
The Formation of Sojourner Truth
Noel was clearly the early dominant figure in this group, as the author of the central white skin privilege document, and as a long-time factory worker, who by then had switched his employment to being a tool maker at the Chicago Tractor Works International Harvester Company plant; he had also been the main driver of a large SDS mobilization outside the plant to support workers who allegedly were fighting to keep the plant from closing.
So, the remnants of the three RYM2 collectives in Chicago got together. Noel, whose networking capacities were great, brought into the discussions, Lynn French, then labor minister for the Black Panther Party (BPP) Chicago chapter, and two other leftists with loose affiliations with the BPP, as well as Don Hammerquist and Carole Travis, both of whom had recently left the CP over its support for the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Hammerquist had been a rising star in the CP, on its central committee, and some believed was being groomed to be the chairperson of the CP to succeed the then chair Gus Hall (Staudenmaier 2012:32). Carole Travis, then Hammerquist’s wife also had deep roots in the party and was the daughter of Bob Travis, the legendary leader of the Flint GM auto sit-down strike of 1936-1937.
STO, as distinguished from other New Communist Movement groups, had many important features. The first was a rejection of Stalin and Stalinism, largely the instigation of Hammerquist. While Noel was the most colorful leader of STO, putting forth the most important, unifying line about the centrality of the fight against white supremacy, Hammerquist was more widely read than the rest of us in the history of the Soviet Union and much of the contemporary debates in Marxist theory. While virtually all the new communist movement neo-Maoist groups, following Mao, either gave positive evaluations or were at best ambivalent about Stalin and his role in the Soviet Party, Hammerquist convinced most of us from the beginning that this was not the case. Stalin was a quite terrible and murderous deviation from Lenin and the founding Bolsheviks. He had executed almost all the old Bolsheviks. Even the 1934 central committee members, elected with Stalin’s blessing, had virtually all been executed by 1938. I immersed myself in histories of this period, being especially convinced by Roy Medvedev’s Let History Judge. I, too, rejected the role of Stalin, while not yet falling completely out of the Maoist orbit.
Second, in part a consequence of the above, was an intellectual opening in STO, both by our rejection of Stalin, but also marked by our reading, at Hammerquist’s instigation, of pieces by Antonio Gramsci, especially his work on the nature of trade unionism under capitalism, published in English first in New Left Review, then republished by STO as a pamphlet, Soviets in Italy.
Hammerquist also brought with him a critique of the Communist Party’s so-called anti-monopoly coalition, where the party put forth a line, similar to the original People’s (or Democratic) Front, a coalition which included so-called “progressive,” anti-monopoly capitalists, justifying support of the Democratic Party. This critique resonated with the critique that most of us already had of the CP. Noel and Ted Allen argued that PL’s line was actually similar to the CP’s, branding both as right-wing formations. We also tied this to a critique of the Chinese international position, the “United Front Against Imperialism,” which included at times support from the Chinese for the Shah of Iran, against whom some of our comrades were risking their lives to oppose.
Our group, thus, had an openness to other tendencies. In contrast to Maoist groups which tended to view deviants, especially Trotskyists, as counter revolutionists, we engaged a wide variety of others. This even included the Sparticist League, with whom we co-sponsored a large meeting at which Noel debated their leader Jim Robertson on the nature of the Soviet Union. It also led to Noel’s early contacts with C.L.R. James’ former Trotskyist tendency Facing Reality, as well as ongoing relations with the League, BPP, and others, leaving a theoretical openness for political and intellectual exploration, virtually unheard of in other groups. In addition, we had contacts with a vast potpourri of people, both former colleagues of some of the leaders, and numerous others with whom Noel made contact. I thus met Harry Haywood (with whom I had lengthy conversations and became friends), leaders of the RNA, the 1973 Detroit Chrysler sitdown leaders Shorter and Carter, woodcutter unionists in Mississippi, activist truckers in the Fraternal Association of Steel Haulers, various strikers, and on and on. In the CP, Hammerquist had been close to Angela Davis and Charlene Mitchell with whom some of us met. Len Decaux, who had been a close friend of Carole’s father, also met with our group.
Though Noel and Ted had moved far away from the POC Stalinist positions, what they kept from this period was an unwillingness to let go of the Black Belt Nation thesis of the CP associated with Harry Haywood, with whom they remained friends, and with whom I too was befriended.6The Black Belt Nation thesis was put forth in the 1928 and 1930 resolutions of the Communist International. It stated that African-Americans in the U.S. constituted an oppressed nation, rooted in the majority Black cotton growing counties of the South. This area had a right to separate from the U.S. and form an independent nation state. Harry Haywood, at one time on the U.S. CP Politburo, was its most prominent proponent.
With this belabored, although highly abbreviated background, I now turn to the two central positions of STO: The white skin privilege line and the building of independent workers’ organizations at the point of production.
The Fight Against White Supremacy and the White Skin Privilege Line
The main components of this line, for most of us were the following: First, the secret to capitalist rule was the division of the working class along racial lines, both ideologically, but also by giving special privileges to whites, the counterpart to the special oppression of Blacks and other non-whites. Thus, the fight against white supremacy had to be the centerpiece of revolutionary strategy in the U.S. This was distinguished from the then-approach of the CP, the PL, and the RU/RCP, which put forth a “Black and white, unite and fight” line which minimized the special oppression and unique demands of African-Americans and other non-whites.
Black workers in practice and as a matter of theory were the most advanced segment of the U.S. working class.7My own research of the 1930s and 1940s confirmed this to be the case in numerous instances, despite the erroneous beliefs that the opposite was true, by virtually all liberal mainstream labor leaders at the time. In good part, this status was a result of their lesser likelihood to be contaminated by racism and anti-immigrant ideology. The position of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was also seemingly based on this belief. As my close friend Mike Hamlin, who was chair of both the League and the later BWC, used to say, they were not nationalists, but Black workers were the only ones presently acting like the proletariat.
How exactly to go about carrying on this program was not initially clear. Noel himself had very little concrete to say about this question to the eventual dismay of many of us, a reason that a good number of us became increasingly critical of his formulations. Yet, this question was also highly entwined with the question of how to organize at the workplace.
Noel, as mentioned previously, when he was prominent in SDS was not a student, but a factory worker. When STO began, he worked briefly as a tool and die maker for IH Tractor works until it shut down, eventually getting a job at U.S. Steel in Gary where he remained for many years. He was never with me at IH Melrose Park Works as some have suggested. Noel always developed lots of contacts, but never, as far as I know, ever organized by himself or with others, any type of activist group where he worked. This, I would suggest, fits in with his vision as an observer, not a transformer of working class life, brilliantly laid out in his posthumous bio, which I will suggest in what follows, is consistent both with his view of “white skin privilege” and of how he thought workers might organize in a radical way.
We started with an analysis of trade unions under capitalism, beginning with Gramsci’s insights about unions being organizations of class compromise, playing as Marx argued (especially in the Communist Manifesto and in Wage Labor and Capital) many positive roles for workers, but being unsuitable for playing a revolutionary role in leading workers as a class in more radical directions. Gramsci analyzed the role of unions and the need to transcend them with new organizations, during the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1918, and the failed revolutionary upsurge of 1919 in Italy. We saw similar aspects in France in 1968, and Italy in 1969, as radical, perhaps semi-revolutionary, struggles were undermined by Communist-led union leaderships who used the struggles as bargaining chips for trade union demands but undermined the broader demands and struggles for power of millions of workers.
We thus argued for, and proposed the setting up of, independent workplace organizations in unionized and non-unionized places. These organizations were to be independent, supported and run by workers themselves, and to put out in-plant informational and agitational papers, in good part written by in-plant workers.
We drew first on the tradition of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) but were critical that they did not put the fight against white supremacy explicitly in the forefront, although they did challenge discrimination militantly when it interfered with their solidaristic organizing. I, too, read everything I could by and about the IWW. Some of the Wobs from the old days were still around in Chicago at this time, in their seventies and eighties, in their headquarters on Halsted, just north of Fullerton, with an old luncheonette below their offices, where some of them hung out, within a short walking distance from where I lived for a few years. While the IWW at times formed stable workplace organizations, like the longshore union in Philadelphia led by Black radical Ben Fletcher, their main thrust was syndicalist, the building of so-called revolutionary unions which conflated the goals of trade union struggles and revolutionary projects, usually leading to the rapid disintegration of their trade union organizations.
Not finding the STO analysis very complete, I began what was to become a lifelong endeavor, studying previous left-wing and more mainstream organizing, beginning with William Z. Foster, who along with Eugene Debs, had been the premier radical labor organizer in the U.S.
Although we had a certain amount of initial unity about organizing, we had disagreements fairly early.8 There is one book on STO, Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969-1986 (AK Press) by Michael Staudenmaier. Although it has a certain amount of useful information, my feeling is that it fails to understand the political differences in the organization, in good part perhaps because of the author’s own self-stated anarchist beliefs. First was the question of how to organize. Many of us were critical that no clear strategy was presented. When one of our members asked about how we could locate and link up with the most advanced workers, as did the Bolsheviks, Noel’s reply was, “Raise the Red Flag, and see who salutes.” One of my favorite nonsensical sectarian lines.
Most important were our disagreements about the role of unions, whether they should be arenas of struggle. Should workers in non-unionized plants be trying to organize a union? Should those in unionized workplaces be using the union as an arena of struggle to organize and fight against white supremacy? Should we be using union positions to aid in doing this?
Both the initial STO workplace documents (“The Call to Organize” and “Organization at the Workplace”) argued that established unions were too collaborationist to serve their function in defense of workers’ immediate interests, that they needed to be replaced by new types of organizations (the traditional syndicalist argument). Further, they argued that traditional unions were the main bulwark of white supremacy, and racist ideology among white workers. Many of us disagreed with these latter two assertions.
It was around these disagreements that over a third of us left in 1973; virtually all of us who split were heavily involved in workplace organizing. Staudenmeier does mention that after 1973, the organization moved its emphasis from workplace organizing to other arenas, never suspecting that the split and the labor-oriented personnel leaving were the reason for this. Much of the struggle in STO developed over my work at International Harvester and was initially discussed in a series of position papers I wrote either by myself or with others and in the replies to those papers. So, I want to provide some background here.
The West Side Branch and IHC
In contrast to other branches in STO, virtually all our members were involved in workplace organizing. We recruited several workers and had a large interracial periphery of workers around us, engaging in various types of activity.
At the IH Melrose Park Works, we began putting out a paper called, The Workers’ Voice. The Melrose Park plant was organized in 1946 by the UAW, although the IH chain at that time was mostly organized by the Communist-led Farm Equipment Workers union (FE), which in 1955 merged into the UAW. Though the plant had an early history of militancy, like virtually all IHC and other farm and construction equipment factories, there had not been any work stoppages that I knew of since the early to mid-1950s.
We initially gathered a small group of workers in the plant and began putting out a weekly mimeographed newspaper. We had help also from an unrelated leftist worker, who was affiliated with a Maoist group and was the steward in a frame finishing department, and acted rather independently.
Two workers were recruited to STO and we established a periphery of workers from the plant and elsewhere who participated in study groups, and eventually in a workers’ center in a storefront we rented in Maywood, a multi-racial working class community not far from the IHC Melrose Park plant (incidentally Maywood being the home to Chicago Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton, who got his start as the chair of the youth branch of the NAACP there and even worked at the Melrose Park plant for a brief period; home also to John Prine, the singing mailman, and many others).
I was fortunate that early on, I met an older (ha! early forties) worker who had been at the plant for twenty years, was extremely knowledgeable and well-read, and had been a member of the Young Communist League, but like many other Black workers had quit because of the YCL’s lack of commitment to militant civil rights activity. Jesse Gipson became both my close friend and closest collaborator in the plant. We recruited a circle around us and began to put out the weekly in-plant paper in secret. Since it contained, among other things, lots of in-plant news and exposés, it was eagerly awaited each week. We also set up an extensive in-plant distribution network, where eight to ten of us (mostly younger workers) dropped off bundles of the mimeographed papers at people’s homes the night before.
After a number of months of putting out the paper, it was decided that three of us would distribute the paper openly in the cafeteria before work. We were quickly taken by company guards and immediately discharged. We appealed the case through both the union grievance procedure and the National Labor Relations Board, but remained fired for six months. I worked in the steel mills for a number of months, taking several other workers in our periphery with me: Jim Harvey, a self-proclaimed atheistic, communist southern Appalachian from coal country who I had met at a previous job working as a teamster, and Barry, a former Black Panther member with whom I was close friends. In the steel mills, we put out a newsletter and gave material to the STO paper, but didn’t get too far in organizing at the mill.
The three of us who had been fired from Harvester were eventually brought back to work through our NLRB appeal. I went to the main tractor line that had been brought over from Tractor Works. Many of the workers from Tractor Works, perhaps the most radical of the IHC locals, the first local organized by the CP-led FE, came over from the plant. A number of these workers ended up on the assembly line in Melrose Park.
After a few months, Eddie, our steward, quit, and appeared the next day as a foreman. Workers on the line were furious. A group of workers, mostly from Tractor Works, mostly Black, some Polish, approached me. I had, of course, become somewhat infamous in the plant due to my discharge and reinstatement. They told me they wanted me to run for steward. I demurred, saying I was new, did not know everyone very well, etc., etc. The group said, you run, we’ll get you elected. The two leaders of this grouping, two Black workers from Tractor Works with almost twenty years’ service, took me aside and said, we know where you are coming from and we want someone who will fight for us and is not looking to join management.
So, I brought this proposition to STO as a whole. A debate took place in STO, in which I argued, fully supported by my branch, that I should accept this offer. Ignatin and Hammerquist opposed this, but we ended up agreeing that I should give it a try.
True to their word, my supporters got me overwhelmingly elected as the steward on the main assembly line. While the assembly line workers were perhaps half African American, many of the whites were Polish. I ended up learning a good bit of speaking Polish. When I asked one of my Polish supporters what he said about me, he told me that he said that he may be a communist, but he’ll fight for you.
So, with my initial handful of supporters on the line, we proceeded to organize the whole assembly line. Together, we picked twenty or so others, from various sections of the line, key subassembly areas, and the repair floor. We then met as a group several times at the union hall, planning, and reporting back how far we had gotten, where people were at in each section.
One of our biggest issues was the heat. When it was over ninety degrees outside, it was usually ten to fifteen degrees warmer on the line, and the pace never slowed. People would sometimes pass out and be taken to the infirmary, given water and salt pills, and then be sent back to work. So, on the first really hot day, we stopped work, demanding passes to leave. One hundred percent of the workers stopped. There was this one older worker who had always defended the company, attacked the union, and wouldn’t even talk to me. He came up to his foreman demanding a pass. With me standing nearby, he screamed at his foreman, “Get your hand in shape MF, I hope it’s ninety-five tomorrow.”
Our activities on the line inspired other workers around the plant to act more militantly and played some role in expanding our group. We engaged in numerous activities in the plant and through the union, much of which I was, along with others, later to call civil rights unionism.
Our group turned out in large numbers for the union Fair Practice Committee’s first meeting. One of our members, Murray “the Watchdog” Dillard was elected president. Murray was a former union executive board member, incredibly dynamic, charismatic speaker, radicalized by the civil rights movement, eventually becoming heavily involved in the Black Workers Congress. I was elected Secretary Treasurer, while Jesse and I were selected as the local delegates to the UAW regional Fair Practices Committee.
One of our early campaigns was the defense of a union member, C.B. Dennis, who was not a member of our group. C.B. with his family had moved into an all-white neighborhood in the racist community of Melrose Park, a mile or so from the plant. Their house had been firebombed by racists several times.
After meeting with C.B., we brought several hundred workers to the next union meeting, calling for attendance through the WV. We voted overwhelmingly to defend C.B.’s house under the leadership of the FP committee. For the next six months, we had an interracial guard of ten to twelve workers outside the house, always during the evening hours and overnight, sometimes round the clock. C.B. had no trouble after that. The racists lost their appetite when they realized they were dealing with a large union local.
We also engaged in a major regional campaign in defense of my alternate steward Bennie Lenard. Lenard was involved in an auto accident with a white woman near the plant. The Melrose Park police arrived and nearly beat him to death. He was hospitalized for a month, and faced a wide variety of charges. We again mobilized through the union under the auspices of the Fair Practices Committee. Several of us spoke at UAW locals around the region, raising money and publicizing the case. In one of our shrewder moves, we voted that the local should pay the whole executive board and shop committee lost time to attend the first day of the trial (for which we had a demo of several hundred from the plant and surrounding community). All those getting lost time showed up! And, we publicized their attendance widely in the Chicago area media.
We engaged in numerous other struggles in the plant, some involving racial issues, including a successful fight to protect a newly hired young Black female worker, and a campaign to impeach our racist local president, which for several months brought over five hundred workers to the monthly union meetings. And much more. We simultaneously engaged in numerous issues with broad appeal, including getting rid of the company doctor who headed what we called “the butcher shop.” We sold three thousand buttons for this campaign in the plant and got the local to agree that it would be the top demand in our upcoming negotiations.
Polish workers were also taken advantage of in certain ways. Often Polish foremen tried to undermine their support for the union. When I would go in with a Polish worker on a grievance, they always insisted, although I knew a bit of Polish, that Polish management only speak English, so that nothing was said that I, their steward, did not understand. The pace of the line was sometimes set by two high seniority Black workers from Tractor Works, who loaded the frames for the tractors (bull dozers and loaders) on at the beginning of the line and did the initial preparation. For months, time study people attempted to speed up their operation. The foreman in their section was the young son of the company comptroller, clearly being groomed for higher things. One day he totally lost it in failing to speed up the operation. With me standing there, he told these workers that if they didn’t speed up the operation, he would get two “dumb Pollacks” to do the job. Within hours we had a leaflet out in the plant, saying that ethnic slander and racism had no place in the plant, demanding that the foreman be fired. Polish workers in the plant, fully supported by everyone else, were outraged. We never saw this foreman again.
We engaged in numerous other activities. One of the hardest nuts to crack, of course, was skilled trades. When I arrived at the plant in 1970, the several hundred tradesmen (electricians, plumbers and pipefitters, tool makers, etc.) were all white. Although there were several radicals among them, including two active in our group, most were not so. In some of the trades there were active cliques of right-wingers. In the mid-1970s, big government contracting companies were hit with suits threatening to lose their contracts if they did not institute affirmative action programs for the trades (requiring 50/50 hiring until certain benchmarks were met). I spent a lot of time arguing with many young white workers who thought that this was reverse discrimination against them. I told them that if there were any equitable system, none of them would be accepted since they had had numerous previous opportunities to get ahead. That many of the Black workers in the plant had not had such opportunities and were much smarter than them. Not sure if I ever convinced anyone, but the argument I believed to be correct. Many of the Black workers in our Workers Voice group might have gone on to professional, even academic, routes if they had had the chance. One case was my close friend, the late Jim West, who got accepted into the millwright apprentice program. As part of his training, he was sent to take math classes at a local college. He placed out of all the initial classes and started with advanced calculus. When we talked about this, he told me that he had always loved math, but growing up on 39th Street on Chicago’s Southside he had few opportunities to do this. So, now he was getting paid to fulfill his dreams.
Finally, one small example of how things might change. One sign that people are at times open to change came from a series of incidents among the electricians. In our plant of three to four thousand, there were several hundred skilled tradesmen, initially when I arrived in the plant, virtually all white. The most conservative were the electricians, in whose department, there were even some John Birchers and KKK types, none of which existed among white workers on the line. Entrance into most of the skilled trades at the time was discriminatory and utterly racist. But in the mid 1970s, major corporations were hit with Title 7 suits, threatened with the loss of their government contracts if they did not integrate their trades.
A younger Black worker, who I knew well, passed the electrician apprenticeship test with flying colors. Initially, the older white electricians gave him a hard time. But, he was smart, a quick learner, and a hard worker, so they eventually lightened up and accepted him. About a year in, their steward became a foreman. The electricians were pissed, one of their own, who knew all their tricks and secrets. So, in response, perhaps even out of spite, they elected this young Black worker as their new steward. And, he was a very good, aggressive steward, taking up everyone’s grievances. So, one day, while pursuing a grievance, the company fired him. It was near the end of the shift and all the electricians walked out. Now skilled electricians are a very entitled group. A bunch of us, including the union leaders met with them after the shift at the union hall. The electricians told everyone in no uncertain terms that there would be a picket line in front of all the gates in the morning which they expected everyone to respect. As one of their leaders said, “Nobody fucks with OUR steward.” The wildcat began the next morning and THEIR steward was back to work by the afternoon.
Most of the above described activities and much more took place after our group left STO. I do not pretend that we changed the world, but only that some of the things we did (and we, and I, in retrospect, certainly made many mistakes) provide an inkling for some of the ways forward.
The Failures of the STO and the White Skin Privilege Line
In the period before we left, the top leadership, especially Noel, became more attached to a spontaneous organizing position, which had a number of sources. Now, there had always been something of an anarchist, syndicalist strain in the New Left, and among certain of those who went on to work and perhaps organize at “the point of production.” Numerous articles and pamphlets made this case. They argued that mass unions were obsolete. That they did not represent the interests or activities of workers. That new, embryonic “dual” workers organizations were being formed spontaneously by workers themselves. And, that these new organizations were potentially revolutionary, paving the way to a new society.
Some of these claims were made in articles published in the REP-initiated journal Radical America. One such widely read piece was by Bill Watson, “Counter-Planning on the Shop Floor.” It made the apocryphal claim that in one auto plant, workers dissatisfied with the inefficient design of an engine, facing a management deaf to their suggestions for improving it, organized plant-wide to sabotage its production, secondarily getting more paid free time for leisure and “fun” activities. These activities showed the obsolescence of unions, and an emerging dual power in the plant.
This argument was also, starting much earlier, pushed by the CLR James-led, Facing Reality group, which had split from the Trotskyist movement in 1940 and 1947. They too rejected unions as organizations which no longer represented the interests and needs of the workers. Those who ran for union office, even stewards, became entrapped in pro-company bureaucracies, effectively abandoning the needs, desires, and struggles of workers. This position was laid out in a variety of pieces by James, but also in a widely distributed piece by James-follower, Martin Glaberman. That piece was called, Punching Out, originally published in 1952 and later republished several times as a pamphlet by STO. On the back of one of James’ major (co-authored) theoretical works called, Facing Reality, (from which his later group took its name) was the following blurb, entitled “The New Society:”
in one department at a certain plant in the U.S. there is a worker who is physically incapable of carrying out his duties… The workers in that department have organized their work so that for the last ten years he has had practically nothing to do… That is the socialist society… Workers tell such episodes by the dozens.
For me, this represented an abandonment, especially by James, of his brilliant, complex analysis in Black Jacobins. These noble activities and sentiments by ordinary workers were, of course, to be noted, even applauded, just as the electricians at International Harvester were to be recognized for their militant support of their Black steward. At best, however, they were the beginning, not the end product of class solidarity, a solidarity that still had a long way to go, especially in achieving the broader solidarity needed for sustained struggle.
Noel, following the later James, preached on the essential goodness and class instincts that workers had spontaneously at the workplace. And it was these instincts and activities which grew from them that needed to be supported, but mostly observed. This is certainly not the place for a lengthy digression, discussing the evolution of James’ thought (exemplified among other places in his “Every Cook can Govern.”). Although it might be mentioned as an aside that this evolution by James was the exact opposite of that attributed to him by Cedric Robinson. Both James and Ignatin embraced the inherent goodness and class solidaristic instincts of white as well as Black and other non-white workers at work.
This tendency is illustrated in numerous ways, even in the period before our group left STO, but certainly to become more accentuated later. So, in a mimeographed version of a speech that Noel had given in November, 1972, at Portland State University, Noel gave several examples of white workers coming to the assistance of Black workers who were protesting the failure of the company to give a Black worker an upgraded job to which he had been entitled. In both instances, the claim was that the solidaristic job actions by the workers forced the company to back down. These same white workers, however, off the job, engaged in racist activity in their neighborhoods. Thus, there was a civil war going on in the minds of white workers. Noel’s role in all these struggles was that of an observer. The reprinting of Noel’s talk was rejected for publication by the majority of us in STO. We argued that Noel’s position was passive and provided no program or strategy for actually organizing workers in a solidaristic manner to fight white supremacy. That such actions as Noel described only got one so far, providing little role for anti-racist, radical leadership and little direction for engaging with unions and other organizations to carry out the struggle.
Noel’s role as an observer, and a rejection of the union as one arena of struggle, is illustrated sharply in his posthumously published memoir, Acceptable Men, about his life working for many years in the steel mills. Noel’s role and his exceptional skills as an observer and writer about working class life make his memoir an important and informative read (as I state in my cover blurb). But, one can also see clearly that he is largely an observer, not an activist.
This belief in the essential spontaneous goodness of workers is, of course, a noble belief. Yet, strangely, it made Noel’s version of the “white skin privilege” position relatively passive. Rather than being a moralistic assertion about which he was most often accused, it was, in the end, an abandonment of the willingness to carry on the necessary struggle, in practice and organizing, necessary to win and develop the solidarity necessary to achieve broader class aims.
I was also friends with Noel on Facebook in more recent years. During a time when Black customers and innocent bystanders were at times harassed and profiled by whites, Noel argued that this reporting was sensationalistic and bore little relation to reality; it was a miniscule, unrepresentative part of reality. He argued that where he was living in South Carolina, the norm was for Blacks and whites, in restaurants and elsewhere, to treat each other with courtesy and respect, thus minimizing something that was clearly part of the “problem.”
So, the question again remains: how best should white supremacy and racial and gender oppression be fought and defeated? How best to rally broad sectors of the population who, while suffering numerous other ills, are not themselves directly victimized by these factors? And, ultimately, how to rally all to challenge and overthrow the system which benefits at the extreme end only a small group of the exploiting few? I plan to address these questions in greater detail in a future installment.