Books on Structural and Personal Racism: Favorites I Read in 2018

By Karyn Pomerantz, January 2019

Selected non-fiction books that provide an analysis of racism in US history.

Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi, 2016.

stamped by kendiMy favorite non-fiction history of 2018.  Kendi traces the rise and fall of racist ideology to justify the exploitation of Africans and African Americans.  He rejects the popular belief that racial prejudice creates discrimination and argues that the ruling elites create and promote racist ideas to divide and control the population and maximize earnings.  He condemns the racists who attack black people as biologically and intellectually substandard.  More unusual is his criticism of the assimilationist perspective that accepts black inferiority but attributes it to culture, the environment, poverty, and historical factors.  He calls out famous figures from Lincoln and Garrison for holding these ideas.  Kendi maintains that black people are not deficient or inferior but are targeted by a small ruling class to create wealth.  He calls for unity among all workers and contends that white workers benefit materially and socially from a more equal society. (See a fuller review on this blog at

The Color of Politics: Race and the Mainspring of American Politics by Michael Goldstein, NY Press, 1997.

color of politics by goldsteinGoldstein, a labor historian, argues that racism underlies the political, social, and economic history of the US, describing and countering other explanations.  From colonial times and the growing power of the planters, he notes the initial alliances and relationships among the white indentured servants and free black people. The decision of these planters to enslave Africans, and their creation of white superiority (and use of violence) to separate whites and blacks enabled them to justify slavery and reduce the risk of multiracial rebellion. This divide and conquer strategy by the ruling class dominates the periods of Reconstruction, the rise of unions, the New Deal, electoral politics, and imperialist and world wars. Countering racist oppression are the unions, mostly in the communist led Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), that organized black, white, and immigrant workers together and fought for broad, class based demands.  The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) had a militant multiracial membership with black officials and policies outlawing Klan members and discrimination.  The meatpacking union in Chicago expanded their workplace demands to antiracist community actions, mobilizing 1000s of members to protect black families moving into white neighborhoods. Goldstein shows how racism maintains the rule of a small elite and how mass, antiracist organizations can threaten its power.  While describing the damages caused by capitalism, he never calls for its elimination. However, he concludes by calling for “placing the principle of racial egalitarianism on the top furl of our marching banner.”

From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation by Keenaga Yamahta-Taylor, Haymarket Books, 2016.

from blm to black liberation by taylorWhile Kendi traces the evolution of ideas to justify racism and Goldstein depicts the consequences of multiracial organizing in the labor movement, Taylor offers a strategy for creating an antiracist movement and world.  This book is a must read for anyone trying to understand the structural barriers to equality and the way to break them down.

The early chapters describe the pervasiveness of police brutality, mass incarceration, unrelenting economic exploitation, and the rise of black rebellions against the police murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and so many others.  She acclaims the young Ferguson leaders for their militancy in the face of tanks and gas, and their rejection of cooptation by the Church, Democratic Party, and Al Sharpton (who called for pacifism and tried to kick their speakers off the podium at a march in DC).

Obama doesn’t get off easy either.  Understanding that many defended him because of the vicious racist attacks against his family and people’s baseless hope that he could make a difference, Taylor rightfully censures him for continuing imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, funding Israel, maintaining the Guantanamo Prison and torture, deporting millions, and refusing to pardon Troy Davis who was wrongfully executed.

She demonstrates that racism does not arise from the prejudices of white people or individual politicos.  From Black Lives Matter clearly places racism within the system of capitalism as a source of enormous profits for a corporate elite through cheap or free labor and as an ideological cleaver between groups of workers that Kendi (above) so brilliantly recounts.  After centuries of scapegoating blacks as criminals, low-lifes, crazy, and lazy, the ruling class easily blames black families for their disproportionately high rates of poverty and unemployment, attributing such “failures” to their culture or biology.

Repudiating these theories of personal responsibility, Taylor shows how social and economic policies enforced by employers and the government deny black individuals good housing, education, and jobs.  For example, black GIs after WWII secured only 2% of subsidized housing mortgages that created suburbs for white GIs and urban slums for black GIs.  Home ownership allowed white families to accrue 18 times greater wealth than black families that they passed down to generations while black families experienced poverty. (See Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law for a detailed history of housing discrimination, also reviewed on this blog below and at

The Latinx, black, Native Americans, and Chinese workers responded to these form of oppression with resistance and uprisings, including slave revolts, urban rebellions, boycotts, unionizing, strikes, marches, left wing organizations like the Black Panther Party and the Communist Party, black radical feminism, anti-Vietnam War protests, and voter registration campaigns.  The ruling class responded with cooptation, such as non-discrimination laws, elections, and voting rights.  President Kennedy, threatened by an upsurge in economic demands in Mississippi, secured foundation money to steer Freedom Summer activists away from anti-poverty struggles to voter registration campaigns in 1964.  However, lynchings, the Black Codes that criminalized behaviors such as loitering or disrespect of whites, convict labor, violent policing, and prison served as the means of social control.

Taylor devotes the last chapters to analyzing the rise of Black Lives Matter and how this new activism can develop into a liberation struggle. These chapters are the most controversial and important sections.

She quotes Malcolm X:

“… We have a rotten system.  It’s a system of exploitation…You can’t have capitalism without racism.”

Marx underscored how the rise of capitalism in the US and Europe created different levels of exploitation and schisms among workers.  The planters and business class gave white workers in colonial times a higher economic and social status than enslaved people, a bribe that continues today.  Objectively, black and white workers have much in common; they all labor for wages and have no actual power.

The ideology of white skin privilege implies that white people, especially men, benefit from racism and should sacrifice their somewhat better circumstances to counter it.  Taylor attacks this notion arguing that all workers experience the deleterious effects of capitalism in different degrees, and that these degrees are getting worse for everyone due to falling wages, joblessness, unaffordable housing, and increasing poverty.  While a disproportionate number of black families live under the poverty line, 19 million whites do as well.

Alternatively, Taylor calls for multiracial unity:

“Solidarity… is crucial to workers’ ability to resist the constant degradation of their living standards.  Solidarity is only possible through relentless struggle to win white workers to antiracism… Building the struggles against racism, police violence, poverty… is critical to people’s basic survival… it is also within those struggles for the basic rights of existence that people learn how to struggle, how to strategize and build movements and organizations.”

These struggles must eventually lead to more revolutionary goals and liberate the working class from capitalism and the oppression it unleashes.  It remains to be seen whether the new protest movements can move in this direction.

color of law bookColor of Law by Richard Rothstein and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond address the oppressive nature of housing policy through the legal system and its effects on impoverished people. Rothstein traces government laws that “redlined” real estate to deny housing to black families, forced them into substandard city housing in neighborhoods with poorly resourced schools, and steered 98 percent of the subsidized mortgages to white GIs returning from WWII.  Black residents lived in more environmentally toxic locations and accrued less wealth that home ownership conveys. Segregated housing ensured less contact among workers and more victim blaming.

Morris takes a micro level approach.  He spent over a year living in public and private housing interacting with the residents and landlords.  His reporting reveals the utter disruption and instability caused by rotten conditions, evictions, and the fees landlords charge.  There are many scenes of parents and kids hustling their belongings into trash bags before the movers arrive and frantically trying to find new housing.

A longer review of The Color of Law is on this blog at 

african am and latinx history by ortizAfrican American and Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz introduces a working class view of US history emphasizing the reciprocal effects of antiracist and anticolonial movements in the Americas, a perspective Ortiz labels emancipatory internationalism.. The Haitian revolution is one example.  Most people are aware of the impact of the Haitian insurrection on enslaved people and the plantation owners in the US.  It inspired slave revolts in the colonies and stoked fear in the planters.  (It also forced the French to sell its Louisiana territory to the US).  The uprisings led by Simon Bolivar throughout South America also encouraged abolitionists in the US as these anti-slavery campaigns also encouraged anti Spanish colonialists in South America.

Ortiz cites Frederick Douglass’ support of international solidarity:

“Neither geographical boundaries, nor national restrictions, ought, or should prevent me from rejoicing over the triumphs of freedom, no matter where or by whom achieved.”

This history demonstrates the reality of unity among workers of different countries bound together in their pursuit of freedom from colonialism and exploitation.

A short list of novels that portray personal experiences of racism.

behold the dreamers bookBehold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbu, 2017, tells the story of a family from Cameroon who moves to NYC, finds jobs, and pays thousands to lawyers to obtain green cards.  Once the financial world tanks, their economic security evaporates.  Mbu draws readers into a suspenseful tale of the effects of finance capitalism on the financiers and the immigrant workers they hire.



jesmyn ward photoJesmyn Ward has written several books about growing up in Mississippi, Salvage the Bones, Men We Reaped, Sing, Unburied, Sing. They portray the effects of poverty, addiction, family ties, and rural life on relationships and survival.  Her characters strive to connect with others, understand family dynamics, and secure a living.  Ward is an incredible, awarded writer who allows readers to enter the heads of her characters and the environment in which they live.

sour heart by zhangSour Heart by Jennifer Zhang is a collection of short stories about people immigrating from China to the United States.  It travels back and forth in time and location through the perspectives of angry young women and their relatives who experience intense poverty and isolation.  The writing is intense and often repetitive but worth reading or listening to the audio version.



year of the runaways bookThe Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota is a harrowing account of 4 people from India who escape to England in hopes of an education and employment.  They live in fear of detection by the immigration police, forced into worse housing and jobs.  It would be hard not to sympathize with any migrant trying to create a better life.  Sahota’s portrayal of their despair and friendships recall Rohinton Mistry’s classic, A Fine Balance.


heart berries bookHeart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot is a memoir of a Native American woman’s experience growing up in an abusive family on a reservation in the Pacific Northwest.  Mailhot has a unique voice; she writes in short sharp, powerful sentences that engages the reader (or listener) anxious to learn how she survives.  (The audiobook is excellent).


james baldwinJames Baldwin (anything) also places the reader in the heads of his characters as they struggle to find love in heterosexual, gay, and biracial relationships, respect, and racialized stigma.  His essays, such as The Fire Next Time, eloquently bares the mechanisms of capitalism and the racism it requires.




by Al Simpson

In this article we’ll discuss one of the largest, best organized and most well-armed labor insurrections in U.S. history: the Battle of Blair Mountain. As you’ll see, brutality, open cynicism, and treachery on the side of the bosses were not in short supply, while workers displayed courage, daring and unity.

The Period Before the Battle of Blair Mountain.

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) called a strike for November 1, 1919 in all the soft (bituminous) coal fields. They had foolishly agreed to a wage agreement to run until the end of World War I, and since the war was over, they sought to capture for themselves some of the industry’s wartime gains. Even though the war was over, the federal government invoked wartime measures that made it a crime to interfere with the production or transportation of necessities. Ignoring a court order not to strike, 400,000 coal workers walked out. The coal operators claimed that Bolshevik leaders had ordered the strike and were financing it, and some of the bosses’ press echoed this lie. After a 5-week strike the miners received a 14% raise, much less than what they wanted.

During and after the 1919 strike, the bituminous coal operators aggressively pursued their aims. They opened non-union mines and employed scabs to run them. They switched production to the scab mines, where wages were lower, and cut the amount of work the union mines would get.

In response to organizing efforts, coal operators used every means to block the union. One of their primary tactics was to fire union sympathizers, blacklist them, and evict them from their homes. Many of the evicted miners’ families went into tent colonies where they got some shelter but hardly any food. These tent colonies would be attacked from time to time by company goons.

The Mine Operators Push Racism

The mine operators tried to foment racism by having segregated quarters for the miners. But the miners worked together and were around each other for many hours almost every day, so racism did not keep them apart. Plus, the living quarters were not that far apart, so there was constant contact of people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. The UMWA fought against racism because of the interracial character of the workforce and because of the constant threat that racism would eat away at the workers’ most important weapon: solidarity. This was unusual as the American Federation of Labor was focused on organizing skilled, white workers in craft unions. But by 1902, the UMWA had 20,000 black members, between ten percent and fifteen percent of the total membership[i].

The Battle of Blair Mountain

The goals of the West Virginia coal miners during 1920-21 were simple. They just wanted to organize a unionand have it recognized by the mine owners. But things went steadily downhill for the UMWA in 1920.

In mid-September, the efforts of coal operators to import strikebreakers caused rioting at Williamson, WV. Federal troops were summoned to protect the scabs and their families as they arrived at the train station and to escort the scabs to work. The presence of federal troops allowed coal operators to reopen several mines with the use of scabs. Coal operators also obtained court injunctions that forbade the UMWA from interfering with mine operations.

By January, 1921, eighty percent of mines had reopened as non-union mines. In these non-union mines, the operators forced all employees to sign yellow-dog contracts as a condition of employment. A yellow-dog contract (also called a yellow-dog clause of a contract, or an ironclad oath) is an agreement between an employer and an employee in which the employee agrees, as a condition of employment, not to be a member of a labor union. In the United States, such contracts were, until the 1930s, widely used by employers to prevent the formation of unions, most often by permitting employers to take legal action against union organizers. In 1932, yellow-dog contracts were outlawed in the United States under the Norris-LaGuardia Act.

At first, the union miners would picket or otherwise disrupt the scab mines – this included industrial sabotage such as dynamiting coal tipples. The coal operators countered by employing armed thugs and private detectives to deter the miners and murder individual militant organizers. With eighty percent of the mines being non-union and with sustained attacks by cops, private detectives and hired thugs, the very existence of the union in West Virginia was imperiled. The union had to make a stand.

In mid-May, 1921 union miners launched a full-scale assault on non-union mines. The battle started on May 12 along the banks of the Tug river with striking miners shooting at the state police, deputies and coal company officials. Union men blew up the company’s power plant. Union snipers also fired at nonunion miners. The employers’ side in the battle included nonunion miners, West Virginia State Police and Kentucky National Guardsmen. The conflict quickly consumed the entire Tug River Valley. Thousands of shots were fired from rifles, pistols, and even machine guns. Bullets flew right through homes as families cowered in fear. Bridges and coal tipples were dynamited. Businesses and schools closed. The “Three Days Battle” was finally ended on May 14 with a truce and the imposition of martial law. From the beginning, the miners perceived the enforcement of martial law as completely one-sided. Hundreds of miners were arrested; the smallest of infractions could mean imprisonment, while those on the side of “law and order” were immune from punishment.

The bosses committed some of the most heinous violence. On August 1, 1921 Sidney Hatfield traveled to McDowell County to stand trial on the charge of dynamiting a coal tipple. Along with him traveled a good friend, Ed Chambers, and their wives. As they walked up the courthouse stairs, unarmed and flanked by their wives, a group of Baldwin-Felts agents standing at the top of the stairs opened fire. Hatfield was killed instantly. Chambers was bullet-riddled and rolled to the bottom of the stairs. Despite Sally Chambers’ protests, one of the agents ran down the stairs and shot Chambers once more in the back of the head at point blank range. Word of the murders spread through the mountains. The miners were angry at the way Hatfield and Chambers had been killed, the moreso because it appeared that the murderers would face no punishment. They began to pour out of the mountains and take up arms. Miners along the Little Coal River were among the first to militarize and began actions such as patrolling the area. Sheriff Don Chafin sent Logan County troopers to the Little Coal River area, where armed miners captured the troopers, disarmed them and sent them fleeing. Thousands of miners embarked on the now famous Miners’ March through Logan County.

On August 7, 1921, Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney, who were leaders of District 17 of the UMWA, which encompasses much of southern West Virginia, presented the miner’s demand for union recognition and collective bargaining rights to Governor Ephraim Morgan. Morgan summarily rejected the demands. When rank-and-file miners heard about this, they became more restless and began to talk of a march on Mingo, in southern West Virginia, to free imprisoned miners, end martial law, and organize the county. But directly in the way stood Blair Mountain, Logan County, and anti-union sheriff Don Chafin.

According to historian Clayton Laurie, President Warren Harding now felt compelled to send federal troops, having concluded that Governor Morgan and county officials were themselves part of the problem. As the reader has already seen, the governor and the local officials were inflexible in denying even the smallest union demands. In addition, they forced the union to use violent methods because the authorities and the company agents would respond to union activity with violence.

At a rally on the same day, August 7, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones called on the miners not to march into Logan and Mingo counties. where she feared that the lightly armed union forces were no match for heavily armed Logan County deputies. Nonetheless, armed union men began gathering at Lens Creek Mountain on August 20. Four days later an estimated 13,000 had gathered and began marching towards Logan County. Impatient to get to the staging area for the fight, miners near St. Albans, commandeered a Chesapeake and Ohio freight train, renamed by the miners the Blue Steel Special, to meet up with the advanced column of marchers. Meanwhile, the anti-union sheriff Don Chafin had begun to set up defenses on Blair Mountain. He was supported financially by the Logan County Coal Operators Association as he created the country’s largest private armed force of nearly 2,000. Since the anti-union forces had set up operations near the top of the mountain, they had a strategic advantage. The first skirmishes occurred on the morning of August 25, while the bulk of the miners were still 15 miles away.

Whenever there was a cease fire, a decision by the miners to return home, or a truce, Chafin’s men would launch an attack on the miners or commit atrocities, thus restarting the fighting.

On August 8th, President Warren Harding threatened to send in federal troops and Army Martin MB-1 bombers. After a long meeting, the miners were convinced to return home. But there was a lot more fighting to come. Within hours of the decision, there were reports that Chafin’s men had shot union sympathizers in the town of Sharples, just north of Blair Mountain—and that families had been caught in crossfire during the skirmishes. This infuriated the miners and they turned back toward Blair Mountain, many traveling in commandeered trains. On August 24, the main body of coal miners headed towards Blair Mountain. They weren’t too particular of how they got there, as Lon Savage wrote in Thunder In the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920-21:

They commandeered every form of transportation: automobiles, trucks, teams of horses and mules and trains….Near Charleston WV, they halted a truck with a piano in the back, set the piano out on the road and loaded it with miners and forced the driver to take them to Blair…Black miners pushed into Jim Crow restaurants and demanded food, and it was served.

Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney, leaders of UMWA district 17, made a last-minute attempt to call off the march after meeting with the War Department’s General Harry Bandholtz, who warned that any violence would prove disastrous for the union. The proposed ceasefire they negotiated collapsed when two miners died in a skirmish with Chafin’s forces. By August 28, some 10,000 union men had massed near the border of Logan County and began trading gunfire with company supporters. To distinguish one another in the dense forests, many of the miners tied red handkerchiefs around their necks. They soon became known as the “Red Neck Army.”

By August 29, the battle was fully engaged. Chafin’s men, though outnumbered, had the advantage of higher positions and better weaponry. Private planes were hired to drop homemade bombs on the miners. Teargas and pipe bombs loaded with nuts and bolts for shrapnel were dropped, but inflicted few casualties. At least one of the bombs did not explode and was recovered by the miners and was used months later during treason and murder trials that were held in the aftermath of the rebellion. On orders from General Billy Mitchell, army bombers from Maryland were also used for aerial surveillance.

Miners display a bosses’ bomb

The heaviest fighting in the Battle of Blair Mountain began on August 31, when a group of around 75 miners ran into some of Chafin’s so-called “Logan Defenders” on a wooded ridge. Each side asked the other for a password and received the wrong answer, prompting a shootout that killed three deputies and one miner. That same day, the main army of miners started a two-pronged assault on Chafin’s trenches and breastworks, earthworks thrown up to breast height to provide protection to defenders firing over them from a standing position. Scores of union men streamed up the mountainside, but despite their superior numbers, they were repeatedly driven back by the defenders, who riddled them with machine gun fire from the high ground. The miners made more progress when the battle was renewed on September 1. That morning, a detachment of union men assaulted a spot called Craddock Fork with a Gatling gun liberated from a coal company store. Logan forces fought back with a machine gun, but after three hours of heavy fire, their machine gun jammed. The miners surged forward and briefly broke the defensive line, only to be repulsed by a fusillade of bullets from a second machine gun nest located further up the ridge.

The Importance of Racial and Ethnic Solidarity

The union understood the importance of diversity in leadership of the struggle. Black miners served in a wide range of union political positions, which cemented strikers’ solidarity. This does not mean that black miners did not still face significant discrimination, but there was a large amount of progress as many racial lines were crossed. One of the earliest committees formed to prepare for the Miners’ March had three officers: one black, one white, and one Italian immigrant. Throughout the campaign black miners served as commanders and logistics officers, and an armed black miner even led a group of white miners during the heavy fighting at Blair Mountain.

The UMWA was also able to assimilate many different immigrant groups to a substantial degree. They were offered positions of authority and respect as union officers. In this way and more, the miners wove the interests and concerns of immigrant families into their struggles.

Women were fundamental in demanding change in coalfields society. They wrote militant songs for the movement, prepared and sustained families during long and brutal strikes, served as prominent union activists, and in some cases fought alongside men. They also helped keep the scabs out. In the tent cities, women kept pots and pans on the floor to deflect bullets.

The Fight Continues

Intermittent gun battles continued for a week, with the miners at one time nearly breaking through to the town of Logan and their target destinations, the non-unionized counties to the south, Logan and Mingo. Up to 30 deaths were reported by Chafin’s side and 50–100 on the union miners’ side, with hundreds more injured or wounded.

By September 2nd, federal troops arrived. Realizing that the miners would lose if the battle continued against the military, Bill Blizzard passed the word for the miners to start heading home the following day. Miners fearing jail and confiscation of their guns found clever ways to hide rifles and handguns in the woods before leaving Logan County. Nearly one million rounds had been fired.

After the battle, 985 miners were indicted for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory to murder and treason against the State of West Virginia. Though some were acquitted by sympathetic juries, others were imprisoned for years. The last was paroled in 1925. At Bill Blizzard’s trial, the unexploded bomb was used as evidence of the government and companies’ brutality, and he was acquitted. The strike-related trials bankrupted the UMWA in southern West Virginia. Membership plummeted from 50,000 to 10,000 over several years. It took until 1935 for the rest of the mines in southern West Virginia to become unionized.

Strikes are Never Completely Lost

Strikes are never completely lost because of the organizational techniques the workers learn and the bonds they form. They learn how to run a strike – what works and what doesn’t and crucially, the workers also learn about who they can trust and whom they can’t. These techniques, bonds and lessons would serve the miners well in the years to come.

The Big Picture:

The UMWA has been attacked and bankrupted several times, so this was nothing new. It was just another phase in their struggle. It reflects what the bosses can get away with in different historical periods. The story of the Battle of Blair Mountain, shows the desperate lengths that the bosses and their government will go to preserve profits and stop workers from organizing. The miners countered this with their most powerful weapon, solidarity across racial and ethnic barriers.

Observe that the miners were subject to arrest for just about anything they did, but the persons on the bosses’ side could do anything they wanted to, including murder, with impunity. Why did all levels of government back the coal operators and never the miners? Why is this? Let’s get further insight into what was going on.

The State

People talk about the state, but it isn’t well defined. We are not talking about the states that comprise the United States. What we mean here is a collection of institutions and agencies that enforce the rule of the ruling class, the capitalists, over the working class. The job of the state is to maintain profits, markets, access to raw materials and to prevent rebellion by workers. Ultimately, the capitalists stay in power using force, via the military, the police and many other agencies. Periodic voting only allows us to choose which representatives of the state we wish to empower.

We should keep in mind that we are supposedly guaranteed certain rights such as freedom of speech and assembly, no arbitrary searches without a warrant, due process of law and so on. But nowhere are American workers guaranteed the right to survival; that is, a job, income, food, shelter or health care. Whatever we have above the minimum that must be given in order to keep the working class in minimal working condition has been won through struggle, strikes or other mass actions. Even then, it will be taken back as soon as possible, by busting unions, raising prices, raising taxes or by other means.

The cops are the first line of defense for the capitalist rulers. Yes, they solve crimes, but their primary function is to protect the bosses. What you see on television are shows that depict the cops as heroes, regular men and women, and hints that they are part of the working class. But if the cops are so wonderful, then why do so many people hate and fear them? Why do the cops kill so many people, especially people of color, and always seem to get away with it? These are good questions. The answer is that the cops are NOT part of the working class. They are part of the state apparatus that oppresses the working class. Cops are professional strike breakers and racist murderers.

Let’s get back to the question of why the cops and other persons who represent the capitalists can get away with anything. Notice that in all the crimes described in the Battle of Blair Mountain, the bosses’ side used of the weapons of war including conventional bombs, chlorine gas bombs, machine guns, and so on, but there was never any thought of punishing any state actors, no matter what their crimes. This is endemic to class society. Their behavior today is no different; only the details have changed.

Today, we must continue to remember the lessons of Blair Mountain. Our strength comes from the unity of all workers, no what their national origin or color of their skin. The agents of the state – the politicians, federal or local police, armed forces and courts – will always oppose the workers when bosses’ profits are threatened. Whether a particular struggle is won or lost, we are ahead when we learn to rely on ourselves and understand how the system works.


List of Refences

  1. Vendées : It is also remembered as the place where the peasants revolted against the Revolutionary government in 1793, A guerrilla war, known as the Revolt in the Vendée, led at the outset by peasants who were chosen in each locale, cost more than 240,000 lives before it ended in 1796 (190,000 Vendeans who were republicans or royalists and 50,000 non-Vendean republican soldiers; according to the Jacques Hussenet and Centre Vendéen de Recherche Historique’s book “Détruisez la Vendéee.
  2. Sociallist Worker:
  3. West Virginia History:
  4. Military History Battle of Blair Mountain:
  5. The West Virginia Encyclopedia, Ephraim Franklin Morgan.
  6. Wikipedia Battle of Blair Mountain:
  7. com Battle of Blair Mountain:
  8. IWW Environment Unionism Caucus:
  9. Ayers, Rothrock and King 2007
  10. Ever heard of the Battle of Blair Mountain? Federal troops were called against 13,000 miners.
  11. Role of Women from the Register Herald newspaper, Beckley, West Virginia

Al Simpson is a mathematician who lives in the United States


A communist worker describes the struggle to build militancy and overcome racism in trade unions in the 1950s-60s

By Wally Linder     

In the 1950s, in order to move the working class to the left, the US Communist Party’s (CP) policy of industrial concentration aimed to build a mass base especially in the basic industries, those areas which held the lifeblood of the country in their hands: auto, steel, electrical, railroad and so on. So in that summer of 1953, I sought a job in auto plants, in GM Tarrytown, N.Y. and Ford in New Jersey but without success, but I soon was hired on the Baltimore & Ohio where I would spend the next decade. I later discovered that the CP had a railroad section comprising 65 members in 13 party clubs on 13 different roads in various crafts. Metropolitan New York’s 90,000 railroad workers comprised the second largest rail center in the US, next to Chicago’s. As it turned out, it became among the most rewarding and exciting decades of my seventy adult years, when I started “workin’ on the railroad.”


I joined the country’s largest railroad union (the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks & Freight Handlers) totaling a quarter million members. Our work was essentially to unload freight from trucks and trailers backed up to railroad piers on Manhattan’s West Side waterfront and then load the freight into railroad cars resting on barges (called “floats”) tied to the piers. Tugboats then towed these barges laden with perhaps a dozen fully-loaded freight cars across the Hudson River to Jersey City freight yards, where they were coupled together into trains hundreds of cars long to be moved westward to their destinations. Similarly, we would unload the freight cars towed over from Jersey containing eastbound freight and load that into trucks and trailers, manned by Teamsters, who would then deliver the freight to Metropolitan NYC destinations.

Our role as CP members was to organize mass, militant, rank-and-file struggles, possibly become local leaders, but we were instructed not tell anyone we were communists “because that would isolate us from the [brainwashed] workers.” It was past the era of mass, open communist organizing of the 1920s and 1930s, and heavily into the Cold War period in which the CP had beat a hasty retreat from its leadership days. (I started on the railroad during the Korean War, at the height of McCarthyism.) In all my years on the railroad I never once directly told a co-worker that I was a communist, although I later learned that the company knew, the union officials knew and so did the mass of workers!

Our party club among the B&O freight handlers started slowly, becoming involved in very low-level struggles. My first challenge to the bosses occurred when I was part of a gang unloading a refrigerator car. We were forced to work ankle deep in melted ice water without protective boots (which we knew to be a rule violation). I discussed it with the rest of the gang and we told the foreman we would refuse to work without boots. I was immediately summoned before the station agent who told me I “couldn’t refuse to work. That was insubordination.” I told him the company was being “insubordinate” in not issuing us boots. Did he want us to get sick and not report to work? He smiled and told the foreman to give us boots.

This story spread around the 26th St. Freight Station. (The B&O freight operation comprised Piers 20-23, 39-40, 63-66 and the 26th St. Station, involving about 1,000 workers.) Because of that incident, workers on my shift (7 PM to 4 AM) began approaching me with grievances. We had no steward; the local’s leadership was centered downtown at Piers 20-23. My co-workers petitioned the union to appoint me a steward on that shift. This was at the end of my first year on the B&O.

Sanitary and health conditions on the railroads were abominable. One example: the “bathroom” on the end of one pier consisted of an iron bar on the edge of the pier. One would drop one’s pants, sit on the bar and crap into the Hudson River. We had no locker rooms and very few lunchrooms. This was true of most railroads in the NYC area. So our party railroad section proposed the idea of starting a movement to get a law passed in the two state legislatures guaranteeing minimum sanitation and health facilities on all roads in the area.

Alongside this was what came to be known as the weekly pay campaign. Railroad workers were paid three times a month, every ten days. While seemingly meaningless to workers paid every week or every two weeks, it wreaked havoc on railroad workers. Some pay periods would include six working days, some seven and others eight. It made it very difficult to budget one’s pay, especially when rent time rolled around. Railroad workers were always bitching about being paid so irregularly. So we seized on this apparently universal complaint, which cut across all road and craft lines — there were 23 different craft unions on the railroads at that time — in an attempt to organize a movement which would build rank-and-file unity among the tens of thousands of rail workers in the area.

Joined together as the Campaign for Weekly Pay and Health & Safety, it caught on among thousands of workers. Of course, the union leaders weren’t blind to this development. Finding it difficult to veto something that would guarantee a flush toilet on a railroad pier (among other things) — and not wanting it to be a rank-and-file development — they took it over as their own. As it turned out, both state legislatures passed laws essentially granting our demands and forcing the railroads to institute minimum health conditions, lunchrooms and pay us regularly, every week.

Fighting Racism in the Union

Rail workers were very pleased at the outcome, and knew who the organizers were, despite the leaderships’ claim that they had done it. We had taken some issues that really got under every worker’s skin and combined them into a mass campaign which had involved thousands of workers throughout the area. Simultaneously we had exposed the railroad bosses, putting them a bit on the defensive when they were in the midst of a defamatory campaign of their own, painting workers as “featherbedders,” in an attempt to lay off hundreds of thousands. It also involved the unity of black and white workers on the railroads, historically a racist industry in which the bosses restricted certain crafts as “white only.” In fact, at that time there were still several craft unions that barred black members altogether!

It was our CP section that had previously broken the lily-white craft of brakemen on the Pennsylvania RR. The PRR had never hired a black worker as a brakeman — a generally higher-paid, operating craft job — in its first 120 years. When we saw a Pennsy ad for brakemen, we sent down two black comrades, who were not hired. Then we sent two white comrades the same day, who were hired. The black comrades took their case to the State Commission Against Discrimination and the white comrades who were hired testified on their behalf. The Commission ruled that the Pennsy had discriminated and ordered them to hire the two black comrades. Within the year the PRR hired 200 black brakemen for the first time in its history.

This racism was prevalent throughout the industry. While there were many black freight handlers and some clerks, most had been hired for the first time during World War II when there was a labor shortage. Our union constitution barred black members, so the black workers were placed in “auxiliaries.” They took their case for “first-class citizenship” to court and won a ruling awarding them full membership. The international “asked” them if they wanted to join the all-white locals or have their own locals. With good grounds for suspicion of the white locals’ leadership, they opted for their own all-black locals. So it was that 150 such locals were created around the country.

This was the situation we faced in 1953 among the B&O freight handlers in NYC where among the 1,000 workers, 600 were in the black local and 400 in the white local. We worked on the same platforms in the same gangs under the same foremen, under the same union contract, but were in separate locals. Most workers, white and black, saw this as a disadvantage, if not wrong, and favored one multi-racial local. But few were active in the union. No one organized for it. It enabled the company, obviously, to play off white against black. Merging these two locals, with a multi-racial leadership, became a top priority for our party club, which had members in both locals. (As the civil rights movement grew nation-wide in the late 1950s, a small number of young, newly-hired black workers chose to join the previously all-white local, and were admitted, thus breaking its lily-white character. But the main job remained: to merge the two locals.)

As a steward I had developed ties among some other stewards, both black and white, among whom I raised the idea of both black and white stewards representing any worker who the company brought up on disciplinary charges. This meant that black and white stewards would be representing both black workers and white workers for the first time in the union’s history. Based on painstaking studies of previous cases, and our newfound unity, we began to win virtually every case.

We demanded that the foreman present the company’s case first (this was in front of the railroad station agent who was judge, jury and executioner.) Then we, both black and white, would cross-examine the (usually) white foreman. This hadn’t happened before either. Usually we would so wipe the floor with him, exposing all sorts of lies and contradictions in his story, that the boss was forced to end the hearing before the defendant worker ever “took the stand.” Workers were winning thousands of dollars in back pay. In addition, we would bring up five or ten workers to testify in the hearing, on company time. This also got under the bosses’ skins (and ate into their profits). Soon the number of hearings dropped to a trickle.

This result had a marked effect on the rank-and-file, especially on the black local’s leadership. For the first time they saw white stewards who they could trust. And the fact that we were winning cases led to white workers increasingly supporting the idea of one multi-racial local with a multi-racial leadership.

Rank-and-File, Anti-racist Slate

At that point I tried to develop a rank-and-file slate in the predominantly white local, running on a platform of rank-and-file militancy and multi-racial unity. I approached one worker who seemed somewhat active in the local and critical of the current leadership. His first question took me unawares: “I hear that you’re supposed to be a communist.” I managed to squirm out of the conversation without ever answering it directly. In effect, I “ran like a thief.” But it was the first inkling I had that I was known to be in the CP. As I learned later, the FBI had told the railroad who told the union leaders who told the workers.

So all along workers figured I was a communist, but never really baited me about it (probably because I did a good job as a steward). We decided that I should run against a weak union officer. The local’s vice-president was an assistant foreman (they, and foremen, were allowed in the union) and a blowhard at that, generally disliked by the rank-and-file. I was elected easily. Now the present leadership had to contend with a rank-and-file-supported officer who they knew to be a communist.

I didn’t confront them frontally but rather made suggestions that contained elements of unity. I proposed we have a local paper and that all the officers write for it. They agreed, never realizing what a weapon for class-consciousness such a paper could and would become, eventually helping to turn them out of office. Some examples:

During national negotiations, workers were very dissatisfied with the demands and with the long, drawn-out course they were taking. (RR labor negotiations sometimes went on for two to three years!) The question became how to point out the international’s inadequacy in the local paper without confronting them directly. We felt we didn’t have enough strength at that point from preventing them from abolishing the paper. So we made a series of contract proposals and won a vote at a union meeting to send them to the international. Of course, we expected an answer, one that we figured would be very wishy-washy at best. It was. Then we proceeded to print both letters in the Local’s paper — ours and their answer. The contrast was self-evident, without any comment from the editor.

At another point, the railroad began a speed-up campaign. They sent “efficiency men” from Baltimore to monitor our every move and tried to order us around. We took the position that the contract said we only took orders from the foremen. This frustrated them since they were forced to issue orders through the foremen. The latter didn’t like that either, which tended to drive a wedge between them and these “outside” bosses.

Then we printed a cartoon (drawn by my nephew Alec) depicting three men in suits and ties sitting on a platform wall watching one freight handler pushing a hand truck and entitled it “Efficiency.” This drove the railroad wild. They sent a vice-president up from Baltimore to meet with the Local Chairman and the Grievance Committee (which I was on) to tell us if these “disparaging” descriptions of the railroad continued, it would lead to shippers dropping the B&O’s business and this in turn would lead to layoffs. “Do you want to lose your jobs? The railroad is already losing money.” “How much?” we asked. “$31 million last year,” was the reply. “O.K.,” we said. “We’re making $68.84 a week. You’re losing $31 million a year. Let’s change places. You take our job and make $68 bucks a week. We’ll take yours and lose the $31 million.”

The guy went nuts, saying, “Do you realize that $16 million of that $31 million is going to Chase Manhattan Bank as interest on ‘our’ debt?” Oh, we figured, so that’s where it’s going. In the next local paper we printed a report of the meeting, with the headline, “Chase Manhattan Made $16 Million in Interest Profit Off Our Labor!”

In this way we were able to “report” events without putting ourselves in a position of bringing down the full wrath of the international on our heads too soon. When the paper came out every month, and was distributed through the stewards on all the piers, work virtually ceased on the platforms as everyone, black and white, stopped to read the paper. We had a lot of cartoons and “personals” in the paper as well. The workers loved the paper and wrote to it and for it.

This was not lost on the leadership of the black local, who were somewhat nationalist but didn’t know what to think about what we were doing. We approached them and asked if they wanted to write various columns for the paper. They agreed. We proposed in our (mostly white) local that the paper become a joint effort of the two locals. The black local voted the same. So the move for merger into one multi-racial local got a big boost as the paper became the one voice of the two locals. In this way the paper was building both class-consciousness and anti-racist, multi-racial unity.

Challenging the White Local’s Leadership

By this time we figured we had built up enough strength, through the winning of hearings, grievances and the influence of the paper, to not only challenge the established local leadership, which was generally opposed to any militancy, but to beat them handily. We organized a slate for four of the top positions — president, vice-president, treasurer and recording secretary. I was nominated for president. (We didn’t feel quite strong enough to run someone for Local Chairman, the head of the Grievance Committee, and the most powerful position in the local.)

We ran a real campaign, giving out leaflets, putting up posters with our pictures at all piers, and we held lunch-hour meetings with all shifts at all piers. This bewildered the incumbent leadership. They had been in office a long time and had never been challenged at all, much less by such a “high-powered” campaign. The only card they had to play was red-baiting. But since our base worked at all piers, they were able to deflect this attack based on the militant work I had done over the years. However, the worker on our slate running for vice-president did approach me and said, “I hear you’re supposed to be a communist. But don’t tell me, I don’t want to know!” My reaction was “Whew, another obstacle overcome!” The leadership of the black local watched this contest from a distance, but many black workers openly campaigned for us among their white co-workers, especially because they knew we stood for a merger of the two locals on a multi-racial basis. The election took place at the union hall and we won by an overwhelming 2 to 1 margin.

Organizing A Strike

In January of ’61 our biggest struggle in 10 years on the railroad erupted. The railroads owned the tugboats that towed the “floats” carrying the freight cars back and forth across the Hudson between Manhattan and Jersey City. In a money-saving effort, they dieselized the tugboats. This operation now required fewer workers to man the tugs. They wanted to lay off two-thirds of the 660 tugboat workers. The latter were members of the Seafarers International Union (SIU), ruled by Paul Hall, among the most right-wing of all the union leaders in the U.S. Negotiations had been dragging on for 14 months past the contract expiration date. Finally the railroads were set to lay off the workers, who were now in position to legally strike.

Traditionally, railroad workers always respected the picket lines of other crafts. But this strike, more than any other, absolutely depended on the solidarity of the freight handlers and the Teamsters. (The latter was not a rail union.) The railroads figured they could circumvent the strikers by having the freight handlers load and unload the freight in and out of trucks and trailers and the Teamsters would then haul the freight back and forth through the tunnels under the Hudson River and over the bridges to and from the yards in Jersey. This was a strike not only against the B&O but also on all the other large roads in NYC, the NY Central and the Pennsylvania being the two biggest, richer than the B&O.

Our own union negotiations were dragging on at the same time. We in the CP saw this as an opportunity to not only organize a general strike of all the railroads in the NY Metropolitan area, but an action that would unite all railroad workers across all craft and color lines. It had never happened before. We pointed out to our locals (and to those on the NY Central where party members were also among the leadership) that if we allowed the railroads to pick off the tugboat workers, small though their number, we would be next in their “featherbedding” campaign. We campaigned up and down the waterfront, held union meetings, and called for respect for the tugboat picket lines, if and when they occurred. Most workers agreed, although many were worried; they had never been in an all-out strike on the railroad before and were also nervous about how long such a strike would last, how many paychecks they might miss. The railroads seemed like an all-powerful force to them. Who were we to oppose them in such a high-stakes battle?

We had several things going for us. All the work we had done for eight years had been embedded in the consciousness of hundreds and even thousands of workers. In our own locals, especially, the monthly newsletter had constantly embedded class-conscious ideas in the minds of the workers. Secondly, railroad workers were covered under separate laws. The railroad unemployment insurance law, under which railroad workers collected benefits, stipulated that, in the event of a legal strike, railroad workers are eligible for unemployment insurance benefits from the FIRST day of the strike. Rail strikes were few and far between. The last big one in 1946 was broken by President Truman in four days when he moved to draft all the workers into the army and then court-martial them if they refused to work! (Again this showed the potential power of this basic industry.) The bosses felt they had had little to worry about because of that threatened law. However, it gave us a little edge: we respect the tugboat workers’ picket lines and receive $51 a week, a little more than half our regular net pay.

Finally, the most important factor in our favor was something that might seem intangible and hard to estimate. It was the feeling of power that could develop when the workers saw they had actually shut down these powerful corporations for whom many had worked all their lives and hated their guts. This was something we did not understand completely going into the strike but were to come to realize as it occurred, as will be seen.

On the morning of the first day, B&O freight handlers showed up at the first shifts, 5:01 and 6:00 A.M., but there were no pickets. So they went to work. The striking tugboat workers appeared around 7:30 A.M., about two to a pier, since there were so few of them and they had hundreds of stations in the NY area to cover.

As soon as we saw them start walking with their picket signs, we ran up on the platforms and the “floats” and yelled to the early shifts, “There’s pickets out there! We’ve got to walk!” Most workers didn’t hesitate. They fairly ran off the platforms, happy to be sticking their fingers up at the billion-dollar company. The pickets were amazed and delighted. As the rest of the shifts began arriving hourly, they saw the freight handlers gathered in front of the pier and realized the strike was on. Not one single worker crossed the line. This was true up and down the entire waterfront on all the railroad piers. The railroad end of the strike was complete. Within 24 hours we had shut down the entire rail freight operation in the biggest city in the country. We were amazed ourselves.

Next came the Teamsters. Freight had already been collecting on the platforms. The Teamsters who drove the trucks and trailers (and could drive them through the tunnels and over the bridges to circumvent the tugboat operation) did not work for the railroads. They were employed by freight forwarding companies who operated as middlemen between the railroads and the consignees. These freight forwarding companies would solicit the business of, say, General Electric or all the small garment manufacturers in the garment center, to ship their freight and truck it to the railroad piers, getting paid for by those outfits. Then the railroads would charge these freight forwarders to ship their freight by rail, employing us to do that loading and unloading.

One of the big freight forwarders who operated via the B&O was ABC Freight Forwarding (“ABC” = Arthur Brown Co). Herein lies a tale of real class-consciousness. The B&O freight handlers never saw the president of the railroad in Baltimore, a two billion-dollar outfit. But every day they did see Arthur Brown being chauffeured to work in his Rolls Royce, which was parked near the platform on which many of us worked. The railroad workers concluded that Brown was really the power behind the throne, that he told the railroad what to do, this richest of the rich in his Rolls Royce. We told workers that Brown was really small potatoes, his $25 million company really being subordinate to the railroad. But they were hard to convince.

When some of the workers pointed out that the Teamsters were scheduled to start taking out their trucks and trailers at 8:00 A.M., we acted quickly. (There were no pickets in front of the ABC platforms, only at the railroad piers across the street.) We told one of the two pickets in front of Pier 63 to come with us across the street on 24th St. to the ABC platform, explaining to them that if this freight went out, it could be trucked to Jersey and circumvent the strike. The tugboat strikers, seeing what we had done for them so far, figured we knew what we were doing, so one of them set up his one-man picket “line” outside the ABC platform. A few hundred railroad workers who had been gathering in front of Pier 63 followed us and stood across the street from the platform, watching. It was like street theater.

We yelled to the Teamsters on the platform getting ready to take their trucks out that there was a picket out front. These were workers who we knew quite well, having worked alongside them loading and unloading trucks for years. They immediately called a meeting on the platform right under their bosses’ noses and discussed the situation, with the railroad workers watching from across the street. They took a vote and decided unanimously to respect the lone picket. To a man they walked off the platform, their ABC trucks loaded but with no one to drive them. It had taken five minutes to shut down this million-dollar outfit, Rolls Royce boss and all. The railroad workers cheered. In that moment, they realized more than ever before the collective strength of united workers. Our unity was sky-high. This was to be, we thought, the final nail in the coffin for the divided freight-handler locals, the final step on the road to one united multi-racial local.

Broadening the Strike

Having drawn the Teamsters into the strike, the shutdown was complete. But the railroads were not through. The NY Central bosses figured another way to circumvent the tugboat operation: bring freight trains over railroad trestles across the Hudson way upstate, pull them down the east side of the river into the Mott Haven yards north of Grand Central Station in central Manhattan. They began hauling scab freight into and out of Manhattan. But again we had an answer, based on workers’ solidarity and the militant leadership of party members.

One of our 13 party clubs was among the electricians on the NY Central. There were 1,000 workers in that IBEW local, the largest railroad electricians’ local in the country. Our members were part of that local’s leadership and active among the rank-and-file. The local president knew he was working with communists and respected them (although he was never recruited). He also respected the idea of union solidarity. Our party members raised the fact in the local that scab freight was being hauled over NY Central tracks into Mott Haven in the Bronx and even into Grand Central Station. They said that if pickets showed up in front of Grand Central Station on 42nd Street, the electricians should respect the picket line. The electrician’s president agreed.

Our electricians’ party club relayed this information to the freight-handler clubs on the B&O and the NY Central and again we directed some tugboat pickets across town to Grand Central Station. As soon as two of them appeared, the NY Central electricians shut all the electric power on that road and walked out. The Central (the country’s second largest railroad) was shut tight. But this didn’t just affect freight. All the commuter trains from Westchester and in Fairfield County in Connecticut, which carried 90,000 commuters a day into and out of NYC, couldn’t operate either. In a matter of days the NY Central was shut down as far west as Cleveland.

It was then that all hell broke loose. All the daily papers in NYC (and there were about ten of them then) began screaming for our scalps. We were “holding the city for ransom. Soon starvation would set in. There would be no fuel,” and so on. The editorials were calling for Kennedy (who had just been installed in the White House) to pass a law (a la Truman), call out the troops and break the strike.

But the walkout was gathering momentum. Many workers around the city realized the power of solidarity, even the potential of a general strike. We received tremendous support. So Kennedy, probably not wanting to have one of his first acts in office labeling him a strikebreaker, was not quick to break the strike frontally. He sent his Secy. of Labor, Arthur Goldberg — the lawyer who was the architect of the expulsion of the communist-led unions from the CIO in 1948 and later became a Supreme Court justice — into NYC to “mediate” the strike. He proposed that the workers return to work, that the railroads not lay off anyone at this time and that negotiations resume. Both sides accepted this and, after ten days, the strike was over.

As it turned out some time later, the SIU agreed to the layoff of “only” half (not two-thirds) of the tugboat workers, who each received $10,000 severance pay. While not a real victory, they ended up with more than they would have without this solid strike.

The fight for Job Security

Following the tugboat workers’ strike to save their jobs, we were now confronted directly with our own job security struggle on the B&O. Our progress towards uniting the black local with the mostly white local was advancing. We didn’t realize how threatened the railroad felt about dealing one united, multi-racial local with a multi-racial leadership, and communists involved to boot. It could set an example for the 150 segregated locals nationwide. The company was developing a plan to contract out all our work to the freight forwarders who were the middlemen between the shippers and the railroad. This would lay us all off permanently, thereby wiping out both our locals completely! We later found out that they were fed up with what they called “that element in New York.” Meanwhile, the national union negotiations were dragging on.

We wanted any new national contract to include situations like ours. There were already established agreements to protect workers laid off due to railroad mergers or to one company absorbing another, but they didn’t include specifically the threat of contracting work out to freight forwarders. The protected workers were either offered comparable jobs elsewhere or $10,000 severance pay (now worth upwards of $100,000). Such coverage would make it much more expensive for the railroad to get rid of us.

The union’s international convention was approaching, slated for Los Angeles in June 1963. We figured there is where we could make our last stand. Our city-wide struggles and the tugboat strike had put us in touch with other locals on the NY Central and Pennsylvania, facing the same mass layoffs. Our local’s leadership called together rank-and-file leaders from six locals, all of whom would be delegates to this convention. All six submitted identical resolutions to the convention dealing with the threat to our jobs. We planned to make a floor fight on this issue. We figured that most of the 1,300 delegates would be in the hip pocket of the international’s machine. Were we surprised!

When our resolution came up on the first day of the convention, all six delegates in our caucus took the floor to speak for it. The bureaucrats were somewhat taken aback at this. Their Resolutions Committee had recommended rejection since they were not about to add such a demand into their national contract negotiations.

A couple of hacks spoke against us. Then the chair called for a voice vote. The international president — who had been in office since 1928! — was half blind and couldn’t see to count a hand vote, therefore the voice vote. We had expected this and had prepared some friends and spouses attending as guests in the balcony to yell like hell with us on the floor when the voice vote came up. We hadn’t counted on the fact that there were many locals facing their own job security problems and would vote with us on general principle (and probably were affected by our impassioned speeches).

Our resolution clearly carried on the voice vote. The president was flabbergasted. He called for a second vote (amid cries of “No! No!”), figuring the machine would get the hint and yell louder the second time. But the fact that the first vote was being arbitrarily over-ridden this seemed to anger a lot of delegates,. So the second vote produced an even larger margin favoring our resolution.

At that point the chair “entertained a motion” to send the resolution back to committee, to be brought up later in the week. That passed and we knew what that meant: they’d bring out their big guns, buy off a number of delegates and squash it the next time around — which is what happened. This whole fight had tied up the convention for nearly half a day. Afterwards many delegates, including a number of black delegates, came up to us and thanked us for raising this issue on the convention floor.

The Jobless Fight Back — From City Hall to the White House

Our struggle at the International convention for job security won a lot of support, but it was an uphill battle. In the summer of 1963, all our jobs on the B&O were contracted out without even a whimper from the international, but we refused to take this lying down. Our campaign touched big shots from New York City’s mayor to Kennedy’s Secretary of Labor to rail baron Cyrus Eaton and his buddy Nikita Khrushchev.

I was now part of the newly-organized Progressive Labor Movement (PLM) and intent on keeping many of these laid-off rail workers together to reap some benefits from our decade of struggle. We discussed the idea of a Railroad Workers Unemployment Council to sue the railroad for severance pay (which the union had refused to negotiate), and charge the union with collusion as well, for failing to represent us. Our actions would involve demonstrations and picket lines exposing everyone we perceived to be our enemies or who stood by and did nothing.

The idea caught on. Over 200 former B&O workers — black and white — agreed to join. We formed an official organization, with regular meetings, dues, officers, a newsletter and so on and discussed all our plans and activities at each meeting. We elected two black and two white workers from our rank-and-file to comprise our four leading officers with myself as president and hired lawyer Conrad Lynn to bring suit against the B&O for severance pay and charge the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks and Freight Handlers with collusion. After years of trying to merge the separate black and white locals — the International had 150 of these segregated units — we finally had our multi-racial, merged “union.”

Our first demonstration was directed against the Chesapeake & Ohio RR (C&O), which had bought out the B&O. It turned out that the C&O was headed by none other than Khrushchev’s buddy in the U.S., Cyrus Eaton, who had become the darling of the Communist Party for his championing trade with the Soviets (from which he expected to make a pile). We figured to add a little political spice to the situation. We sent out press releases and about 100 of us picketed the C&O building in lower Manhattan with signs such as “Cyrus Fired Us” and “Khrushchev’s Buddy Is No Friend of the Workers.” (My sister took pictures.)

Our plan was to march from the C&O building to City Hall and picket the Mayor (Wagner, at the time), demanding the city do something about the firing of 1,000 black and white workers. This, remember, was a time of heightened civil rights action; the famous March on Washington led by Martin Luther King had just taken place, in which our Council had also marched with our signs.

In 1963, workers’ picket lines like these were not particularly common. When City Hall got wind of our plan to picket them, they tried to head us off at the pass. The Deputy Mayor called my house and told my wife to tell me we didn’t have to picket; they would meet with us; “tell him to call it off.” “Too late,” she gleefully told him, “they’re already on their way.” As we circled City Hall, the Deputy Mayor emerged to “greet us,” saying he would meet with our committee on behalf of the Mayor. The TV, press and radio were going crazy around us. “Who the hell were these workers?” We went inside and met with this hack for half an hour. He “pledged” the Mayor would “see what he could do.” Our Council members were hip enough to know that this meant zilch, but were happy that we at least made them uncomfortable and publicized our cause.

That night interviews with me ran on seven TV and radio stations and we were in all the papers the next day. I linked the government with the railroad and Eaton with the sellouts in Moscow as one big bunch not interested in helping workers at all.

Attacking the System

Our next action was outside Grand Central Station a couple of weeks later. Our press releases brought out NBC hotshot Gabe Pressman to interview us. I began explaining our grievance and in between each sentence brought up the relation to the government allowing this to happen, that a government representing the bosses was no damn good as far as we were concerned, and that we needed to destroy that kind of system and get a workers’ system.” Suffice it to say, we didn’t get one second on that night’s TV news. Maybe we learned a lesson about not depending on the bosses’ media.

Shortly afterwards the Council organized a demonstration at the White House which taught us another lesson: as all-powerful as the government and rulers might seem, they are scared as hell of workers. Since our severance-pay suit legally involved regulations related to the Interstate Commerce Commission, we decided we should picket the Federal government in an attempt to draw attention to its role in our being denied justice. In the fall, we mobilized 80 of our members to drive to Washington in a 20-car motorcade to picket the White House.

As we started marching with our highly charged political signs directed at Kennedy, we discovered he was at his “compound” in Hyannis, Mass. This incensed a lot of these unemployed workers. With no particular goal in mind, I said, “Well, the Labor Department is walking distance from here, why don’t we go over and picket there as well.” Everyone agreed, so in a Saturday-deserted Washington, we trooped a few blocks and “set up shop” again. Barely 20 minutes had elapsed when an official-looking guy appears and asks us what we wanted. We asked him who he was and he says, “Under Secretary of Labor.” This surprised us a little but we proceeded to relate our case. He then said, “Wait here; I’ll be right back.”

Five minutes later he returns and, to our amazement, says, “Secy. of Labor Wirtz will see a five-person committee.” We couldn’t believe our ears. But the “best” was yet to come. The Under-Secretary escorts us upstairs and ushers us into Wirtz’s office, a huge conference room with a score of empty chairs around a long conference table, filled with a lot of notebooks and half-filled water glasses. Obviously some meeting had been going on.

Kennedy’s man Wirtz then explained that the national railroad labor negotiations were taking place (to which we had originally directed our convention resolutions) and when he “heard about our plight” he had asked the union representatives of the 23 railroad crafts and the representatives of the nations’ railroads to retire to adjacent rooms while he talked to us! We couldn’t believe it. Here were 80 rank-and-filers who had come to march at the White House and by sheer accident had picketed the Labor Department, and now were holding up the national negotiations because somehow we might have represented some hitch in the plans they were cooking up. Imagine if we had had the strength to organize 5,000 railroad workers to picket the place, or, better yet, invade it!

Although, after explaining our case for about half an hour and getting the usual reply of “I’ll see what I can do,” our Council members were happy to feel that our trip to D.C. had gotten what they interpreted to be a little recognition. And a few months later, when Kennedy was assassinated, most of our members’ reaction was, “So what. He didn’t do anything for us.”

It was during some of these picketing actions that fall that an article appeared, written by the nationally syndicated anti-labor columnist Victor Riesel, in the now-defunct N.Y. Journal-American (a Hearst paper) that “exposed” PLM as an agent of China and Che Guevara, out to start guerrilla warfare in the U.S. Among other “examples” cited was the “fact” that ten years ago I had been sent to “infiltrate” the railroad and was a threat to the national security in this industry vital to the country’s “defense.” Most of the Council members had seen the article and rather than cowed by it were incensed. I had already told them about PLM, had shown them PL Magazine (Challenge hadn’t started yet), some with articles about our struggles. Their immediate reaction was to go picket the Journal-American, but that never came off. Some of them began to think that maybe capitalism wasn’t the best system after all.

Final Lessons

The following year our suit finally went before a millionaire judge. (It was in the course of this trial that word came out inadvertently from one of the company lawyers that the railroad had moved to contract out its N.Y. freight operation because of “that element in N.Y.” It was from this that we concluded that they just didn’t want to deal with a multi-racial union led by communists.) The judge actually questioned the union lawyers about why the union hadn’t even raised our case with management as we had demanded — we were also charging the union with collusion in not negotiating protection for us. The union lawyers were flustered and couldn’t drum up too much of an excuse. This exchange led many of us to think we might actually win something from this judge. But those hopes were soon dashed when his decision came down that, “unfortunately,” the company was within its rights to do what it did, without compensation. “Better luck next time.”

This was probably the final blow to our Council which gradually dissolved after that, our demand (which had been holding us together) having been defeated. Most of the workers had found other jobs, at GM in Tarrytown, Ford in Jersey, the Transit Authority, Otis Elevator and so on. But it left the door open for me to point about how rotten this system was, and that we needed “a worker’s system.”

Wally Linder is a life-long industrial worker, a former member of the Communist Party USA and a founding member of the Progressive Labor Party