By Jon Melrod (PM Press, 2022)
This year, young militants have sent shock waves through the labor landscape by unionizing under the nose of corporate America, at brand-name juggernauts from Starbucks to Amazon to Chipotle and beyond. If you’ve been reading Democratic Left, you know that DSA believes that if we’re going to build the power to challenge capital, we can’t do it without an organized and politicized working class who can walk off the job to cut off the nozzle of corporate profits and who wield that power to make transformative political demands. But how do we get there, when the U.S. labor movement is not only notoriously weak but has been split from the Left for decades?
Young workers in 2022 aren’t the first to grapple with this question – and to land on the strategy of taking on rank-and-file jobs themselves with the goal of integrating socialist politics and the working class. The last wave of socialists to do so grew out of the militant student movements of the 1960s. By the 1970s, some 10,000 committed leftists, largely coming out of the fractured Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), had “gone into industry,” as they called it. Jon Melrod was one of these workers. He spent a grueling – and life-affirming – 13 years in factory jobs around Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and has since spent his life as a lawyer defending refugees and a fighter for indigenous rights in the Philippines. His new book, Fighting Times: Organizing on the Front Lines of the Class War, tells his story in page-turning prose.
Melrod was a member, steward, and eventually executive board member of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 72, which was at the time the oldest local in the UAW. Local 72, representing workers at American Motor Corporation (AMC) in Kenosha, Wisconsin, had a history of sit-down strikes predating the Flint sit-down strikes at General Motors in the 1930s. The book takes its name from Fighting Times, the rank-and-file caucus that Melrod and his fellow militants formed in the local and from their newsletter of the same name.
Here are a few takeaways on what student and factory life were like, and what lessons socialists in labor can draw from the book.
It was physical, it was dangerous, it could get violent
At a non-union tannery, Melrod was forced to descend into a giant vat coated in the toxic solvent trichloroethylene and to clean it without any protective equipment. This combination of macho culture and lack of protections – “ventilators are for senoritas,” the supervisor tells him – wasn’t just unjust in the abstract; Melrod was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, very likely due to exposure to industrial toxins.
Beyond the risks of the work itself, Melrod and fellow militants faced the ever-present threat of violence from coworkers and bosses alike. Memorably, a group of anti-communist workers cornered him and said they’d push him down a staircase if he kept selling the Milwaukee Worker newsletter – a potent threat, because they’d done exactly that to another militant and broken his neck.
For anyone who’s ever worked in organized labor, the ubiquitous presence of alcohol will come as no shock. The book expertly conveys the lived sense of how alcohol was interwoven into every aspect of union and working-class life.Many workers were alcoholics and drank on the job. At some moribund union meetings, before the rank-and-file caucus reformed them, workers in the orbit of corrupt elected union officials would show up just to drink unlimited beer for a dollar. Inside the reform caucuses, Melrod and his comrades partied every weekend long into the night. Clearly, much of the high-stakes work of organizing accomplished by the Fighting Times caucus was done by workers as exhausted and hungover as they were committed. The book doesn’t offer an explicit analysis of why the culture of drinking was inescapable, but Melrod has reflected elsewhere on how workers’ dependence on alcohol was bound up in the alienation brought on by their jobs and class position.
Solidarity is real and energizing
When they got it right, Melrod and his comrades lived the exhilarating feeling of solidarity. The book captures labor organizing in all of its intense emotions – the soaring highs of holding a picket line together or marching as one; the crushing resignation of deciding that it’s most strategic to back off a particular fight; the sobering revelation that the impersonal might of international capital can upend workers’ lives in an instant. Mostly, the book is a romp. Melrod sets the tone from the start: “I must be honest: we had a blast – a total blast. There is little that rivals the spiritual high of joining with coworkers to take on a pompous, autocratic boss who needs a slapdown, or walking off the assembly line to launch a wildcat strike.”
The book’s most affecting moment occurs when Melrod experiences union solidarity for the first time. As a young radical, he at first assumes that most white workers are stubborn reactionaries. But when the young Melrod attends a meeting of the United Steelworkers, hoping to get them to endorse the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott, the workers defy his expectations. He hears people address each other as “brother” for the first time, and, to his amazement, the steelworkers not only endorse the boycott but decide to turn out for a picket at a grocery store to support the farmworkers. Then, as one, they rise and sing “Solidarity Forever.” In this moment, Melrod felt “real camaraderie” – and it’s a potent force throughout the book, as it is in the world of labor.
Acknowledge race and gender, and build solidarity across them
Class-forward politics is often accused of ignoring or downplaying the very real forces of racism and sexism. Fighting Times demonstrates that any class project, from a brief shop floor struggle to a movement to win socialism, must tackle race and gender, because our opponents are experts at using them to divide us.
Fight white supremacy
Members joined the struggles and actions of Black and indigenous people, notably bussing to Tupelo, Mississippi to march against the Ku Klux Klan and the police. Many of these workers were Vietnam veterans of color, and their consciousness of the interlocking systems of racism and empire that had sent them abroad was hard-earned and palpable. At AMC, Local 72 fought for and won a paid holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. – the first local to do so – before it became a federal holiday in 1983.
Oppose the culture of sexual harassment
Sexual harassment often has racial undertones. The Fighting Times newsletter damned racist or harassing bosses as “Scabs of the Month,” setting their repugnant words and actions in print. This had a double effect: First, it built trust with women, including women of color, who otherwise felt too vulnerable or humiliated to come forward with complaints. Second, it often worked to stop or lessen supervisors’ egregious behavior. Women in Local 72 increasingly ran for shop steward, and, once in office, they could raise issues like the shortage of women’s bathrooms or the need for menstrual products.
Tread carefully with union officialdom, but don’t write it off
Melrod offers several variations on this theme. The first: It’s possible for militants to ally with elected union leaders tactically, even if those leaders will never share a socialist vision. When Melrod was a relatively new auto worker in Milwaukee’s Local 75, he and his comrades protested a speed-up with handmade “Fight Speed-Up” T-shirts, and the boss threatened to fire anyone seen in one of the shirts. Melrod expected the local’s elected leadership to roll over rather than join the fight, but the vice president and head steward approached him to buy a T-shirt, and other stewards followed suit.
The lesson applies in a second, different sense: To make their unions more adversarial and democratic, militants can’t stay in the minority. When they’re strong enough and conditions are right, they need to contest for office and lead the unions themselves.The Fighting Times caucus members did exactly that, keeping their scrappy reform-caucus practice and politics while moving up the ladder of union leadership, eventually landing seats on the executive board. Along the way, they used the union’s resources to bolster their militant fights and power.
Militants in labor must constantly navigate an inherent tension. On the one hand, we need to be democratic and confrontational, avoiding the conservatizing tendency of union bureaucracy. On the other hand, we can only challenge capital with our own working-class institutions – and that means unions, with all of their pitfalls.
Unfortunately, Melrod and his comrades ascended to top leadership just as the U.S. auto industry took a deep downturn. The best they could do was stave off the worst of concessions in their 1985 contract, as their formerly ironclad protections took a debilitating blow; not long after, Melrod left factories for good. It’s an object lesson in the ups and downs of capital that can change labor’s leverage in an instant – a reality that even the most militant union can’t change without being tied to a broader politics. This brings us to the book’s final, and most urgent, lesson.
Start with shop floor fights to build trust, but don’t stop there
Capital never stops, and with its massive resources, it has many ways to win. Perhaps the most critical takeaway from Fighting Times is that building a conscious, fighting, working-class movement takes deep integration into shop floor struggles and a politics that transcends the workplace in theory and in practice.
Melrod admits to getting it wrong early on. As a green worker at Local 72, he runs for steward without integrating himself into struggles at the plant, instead spending his time handing out the Milwaukee Worker newsletter at the gates. To his surprise, he receives a mere three votes for steward. In this way, he learns that socialists who take rank-and-file jobs won’t win trust, or elections, just by virtue of having correct politics; that takes the slow work of building relationships and credibility as a union militant.
As a self-professed communist in the post-McCarthy era, Melrod needed an answer to workers who were skeptical of his politics, and to red-baiting bosses and workers alike. The book is replete with instances of Melrod speaking to workers in their own language, not the language of an egghead student or dogmatic revolutionary, to meet them where they were at and connect the political struggle to their own lives.
Above all, Melrod – and the radicals who left campus and entered the factories – strove to build a class-conscious movement that could fundamentally alter how society works, with the ultimate goal of socialism. This theory of change stands in contrast to an orientation that’s content to win gains and protections for workers but doesn’t harbor any radical political ambitions.
And sometimes, the caucus’s fights went far afield, linking the economic struggle to a broad vision of the international working class. In a concrete act of internationalism, Melrod and fellow militants traveled to France to meet the auto workers at Renault, the French manufacturer that had bought out AMC, and to strategize together, along with representatives from Turkey, Morocco, and Colombia. In this way, the workers encountered the might of international capital, and they learned that they were part of a global working class whose interests were intrinsically linked. Thanks to this international solidarity, they were able to prepare for the inevitable attempts at cutbacks that Renault would soon bring to the plant in Wisconsin.
With actions like this, Melrod and his comrades “sought to elevate the consciousness of caucus members and to get them to consider themselves not only union militants but also class-conscious radicals, part of a broader struggle beyond Kenosha.” In this triumphant book, he shares this fighting political and economic orientation with a new generation, to equip us for the existential struggles ahead.
Unlike many workers, Melrod had the choice to leave the factory floor. After the gutting of AMC’s worker protections in 1985, and with the future of the U.S. auto industry in doubt, he decided he’d accomplished most of what he’d hoped to. And, at thirty-five, he was still young enough to start something new. So he trained as a lawyer and opened a practice for asylum and refugee law.
Now, as young people are once again turning to industry, socialists taking rank-and-file jobs will find an enthusiastic supporter in Melrod. Though the book doesn’t touch on it, he’s met with members of YDSA and workers unionizing at Starbucks. Moreover, DSA chapters looking to place workers into strategic industries have an opportunity to learn from our own members who were part of SDS and took shop-floor jobs in the 1970s. Your chapter probably has a few of these militants, and their stories are no doubt as high-octane as Melrod’s. Try asking them for their stories and their strategies, because the fight to rebuild labor is just beginning, and we need all the insight and power we can get.