by Carol Caref, 11-4-2020
In A Life of Labor and Love, Wally Linder reminds us of the power of a united working class to fight the capitalist bosses and of the special people that make up our class. He interweaves the political and the personal as he chronicles his 89 years of life. He shares the joys and the tragedies, and we get a glimpse of the heart and soul of this ordinary but extraordinary man.
Born in 1930, Wally grew up as a New York working class kid who loved baseball and was curious about the world. At 19, he participated in a strike at City College against two racist, anti-Semitic professors. At 23, he supported the Rosenbergs, two communists who were falsely accused of giving atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. He later helped “shut down the waterfront” by organizing teamsters and railroad workers to respect tugboat workers’ very sparse picket lines (600 workers had to cover hundreds of stations). We learn not only about these militant actions but also about the people in Wally’s life: his friends, his children and grandchildren, and the three wives/partners he has outlived.
In the early 1960s, the railroad workers unions were still racially segregated, but Wally had been working to bring the two unions together since he first became a steward in the late 1950s. Wally was a Communist Party (CP) member when he started working on the railroad but would soon join a dissident group—which later became Progressive Labor Party (PLP)— organized around militancy and open advocacy of communism. PLP’s approach was in contrast to that of the CP, which, in response to the McCarthy witch hunts, hid its politics and blended in with activist liberals.
As a member of the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks and Freight Handlers, the first thing Wally did was to develop relationships among stewards from both the two racially divided unions. This laid the basis for suggesting that both black and white stewards could represent any worker brought up on disciplinary charges. Their unity allowed for a stronger defense for every worker, and as the union kept winning cases, the bosses stopped disciplining so many workers. These victories built support for the idea of one local with multi-racial leadership. Later, Wally organized a local union newspaper, which continued to build black-white unity.
The CP’s position had been that members should tell no one that they were communists. Wally discovered, however, that all the workers knew that he and his 65 other comrades working on the railroad were CP members. The FBI told the union leaders, and the union leaders told the workers. In 1963, when the railroad laid off all its unionized workers, Wally, now a member of PLP, organized a multi-racial Railroad Workers Unemployment Council. He inspired many with his fighting spirit, his anti-racism, and his communist politics, which he no longer kept “secret.”
Throughout the book, we meet the people Wally loved. We learn about his first wife, Esther, the mother of his two children, Anita and Andrew. Like many women, Esther was Wally’s rock. When he feared getting fired for his railroad organizing and not having a job, Esther said, “So, you’ll get another one.” Esther was friends with Stokely Carmichael, loved to dance and go camping, and was a mother figure to many. She was also an active member of PLP and was out with a group of her comrades selling the Party’s newspaper, Challenge, when she was tragically struck by a car and killed in 1983.
Wally’s good friend Gus is someone else we meet in this book. Gus worked at a wholesale shoe market but was so much more than what some might assume from his occupation. Gus was an accomplished cook, carpenter, gardener, fisherman, creator of ceramics and stained glass, voracious reader, world traveler, and a loving husband and father. Wally’s several stories about Gus are a delight to read and help us remember that people are so much more interesting than the stereotypes we might develop of them.
Wally has led an amazing life and continues to do so! We learn many details about this fascinating person, the historical periods he’s lived through and helped influence, the people in his life who have loved and been loved by him, and the joys and tragedies of his 89 years of life. This book is highly recommended, especially for those participating in today’s anti- racist movements and for those wanting to learn about what it means to be a communist.
See also “I’ve Been Workin on the Railroad” by Wally Linder on the Blog at
Email Wally if you want a copy of his memoir: firstname.lastname@example.org