Friday Sep 20

EXCERPT FROM Living and Dying on the Factory Floor: From the Outside In and the Inside Out: Left-Wing Intellectuals in the Workplace

During the decade I was away from academia (1973–1983) I was a member of four different radical left organizations: New American Movement (NAM), Sojourner Truth Organization (STO), Midwest Action League (MAL), and News and Letters Committees (N&L). Most U.S. revolutionary organizations during that period were spin-offs of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and they all shared the belief that a worldwide revolutionary movement would result in some form of socialism. But we were deeply divided over how that would happen and what that socialism would look like.

Some looked to other nations—the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, North Korea, or Albania—as models for their groups. Some were even funded by China or the Soviets. Many sent members to work in factories. The organizations I belonged to were different.

New American Movement (NAM) was organized as a coalition of independent chapters, each with its own ideas about the nature of a new society and how to get there. STO had distinct politics that attracted me. I was working in NAM’s national office in Chicago when I convinced STO to become a chapter of NAM. Later, when they left NAM, I left with them. What attracted me to STO were a number of specific ideas that were developed into pamphlets and were discussed internally in study groups. The pamphlets are archived at the site

Briefly, STO believed that the Soviet Union and China were state capitalist nations. They were not socialist. We also had a strong critique of the Stalinist authoritarian party structure that many of the left groups were emulating. Second, we did not believe that U.S. trade unions offered a path to a new society. Their adherence to U.S. labor law, with workers’ movements tied to contracts with corporations, actually held these movements back. Third, STO contended that the system of white supremacy needed to be challenged in order for the working class to unite and overthrow capitalism. At the heart of white supremacy was the fact that a segment of the working class was defined as “white” and given certain privileges that separated them from and gave them advantages over workers who were not allowed “into the club.” We saw it as strategically important that “white” workers “actively and militantly reject their partial, selfish, and counterfeit interests.” All of STO’s political work was framed in these terms.

During the time I was in STO there was an emphasis on political work with those in the factories. It was believed that people who made useful goods could most clearly see the class exploitation inherent in capitalism and their own potential to construct a new society based on the motto: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” Members of many of the revolutionary left organizations were getting jobs in factories, and STO was no exception. STO’s approach to this work was unique in that it was based on its views of unions and white supremacy and was inspired specifically by the example of black workers who were forming mass worker organizations at the workplace that were independent of unions.

In 1978, after two years in STO, a number of us decided to leave the organization and form the Midwest Action League (MAL). Among the internal decisions and actions of STO that led to the split was a decision at a national meeting to de-emphasize factory work. By the time we had the strike at Chicago Shortening, I was part of MAL. However, we were unable to hold MAL together for long, and I eventually joined another organization called News and Letters (N&L).

News and Letters had very similar politics to STO but came from different origins. In the 1940s, the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) debated the nature of the Soviet Union. A small group within the party known as the Johnson-Forest Tendency did a detailed analysis of the Soviet system and declared it to be state capitalist rather than socialist. In 1950, they split from the SWP and formed their own organization. Johnson’s real name was C.L.R. James, an Afro-Trinidadian historian. Freddie Forest wrote most of her life under the name of Raya Dunayevskaya. She was born in what is now the Ukraine and was a little girl when counterrevolutionaries drove her family into exile in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. She settled in the U.S. but for a time was a part of Trotsky’s inner circle during his exile in Mexico. James and Dunayevskaya broke over philosophical differences that had an impact on what a revolutionary organization should be doing. At that point Raya formed News and Letters to try to put her ideas into practice.

Both Raya and C.L.R. James have extensive writings. Raya’s work can be found in her books but also in an archive archive/dunayevskaya. C.L.R. James had a considerable influence on STO. During the time I was working in factories, I moved from an organization influenced by James to one founded by Dunayevskaya. But this had no influence on how I pursued my work in the factories. Their formulations about the significance of work within the factory system, the role of trade unions, the revolutionary potential of black mass movements, and the nature of white supremacy were quite similar.

The politics of STO, MAL, and N&L shaped how I approached my work in the factories and how I related to other workers. But I was not “sent into” the factories by any of these organizations nor were there any organizational goals for me being there.

Outside In and Inside Out

During my years living and working in manufacturing, I often felt that I was experiencing the conditions and interacting with the other workers from the outside looking in. But at the same time, due to my work in the factories and my associations with the other workers there, I was also inside looking out. It was a strange feeling, and it had a great impact on how I saw what was going on.

Even though most of my fellow workers had no idea that I had a college education and had been a university professor, that is what I was (and am). That meant that if a strike got crushed or I had an industrial accident I was likely to end up on my feet, as I eventually did. I often wonder what happened to Lawrence, Oscears, Mr. Clean, Amado, Grumpy, the racist preacher, Ervin, and the other young guys I knew at Chicago Shortening, Solo Cup, Thrall Car, and Foseco. Did they get other jobs? Did any end up with cancer, emphysema, or other disabilities due to the toxic work environment? And if so, did they get decent health care? And what about their children? How are they doing?

Inequality of opportunity based on race and education is what made me an “outsider” in my own head and at times to other workers. I too was extended privileges based on the color of my skin. I knew it and so did everybody I worked with. I also had the advantage of education that most people did not know about. But the advantages extended to me because I was white and my educational opportunities kept me from making lasting friendships with the other workers. At the same time, I was able to use my life experience and my knowledge of history and the economy to better understand what was happening on the job and see possibilities to change society and the world. I did my best to share such insights—not simply through locker room discussions or leftie newspapers and leaflets but through my actions on the job. And when I did share my thoughts and ideas on the job I was on the inside with my fellow workers looking out.

Because of my own dual status I tried to be careful not to initiate actions that would put others in jeopardy. But at the same time, I also tried my best to be supportive of those who were willing to take risks and to reinforce and expand on the best of the ideas and visions to come from people when they are in a struggle. All factory workers lived with very visible dualities that were often contradictory. Racism, nationalism, and selfish individualism all coexisted with class solidarity. A meek acceptance of feelings of powerlessness coexisted with militant class struggle. The grim reality of day-to-day life at places like Chicago Shortening coexisted with murky visions of what an alternative reality might look like.

John Logan expressed a different vision of life when he said that if he had known what would happen when we started the action at Chicago Shortening he would still have done it because “these are the proudest days of my life.” Lawrence expressed a pathway to a new society when he joked, “There ain’t no justice . . . just us.” And the struggle brought out the best in Charles. He put aside alcohol and drugs and made common cause with everyone on the line—Mexicans, white boys, even a Nazi! And when we stood on the railroad tracks and he stepped forward he was able to articulate a class-based vision and determination in universal terms:

For us this is about how we are goin’ to feed our babies, man. That’s something worth fighting for. Movin’ us out of here ain’t goin’ to be easy.

This statement galvanized all of us, including the locomotive engineer who was standing on the other side of our picket line and refused to cross it, eventually telling our boss to: “Go fuck yourself.”

Charles’s words and his actions that day were an inspiration to me, and they still are. Despite the ultimate outcome, the militant stance and the idea that “feeding our babies is worth fighting for” was about much more. He was talking about both class and racial exploitation and oppression and declaring that we will stand together and fight for a different kind of world. Charles’s words and our stand on the tracks are the way I will always remember him. And it is the place I come back to whenever I reflect on my time living and working on the factory floor.

As I remembered my experiences of forty years ago and wrote about them, I also realized how much all of this affected me emotionally. As I wrote about certain episodes I sometimes found myself in tears. I had a particularly difficult time talking to others about my interactions with Charles without breaking down. Charles’s death traumatized me. I was not really a close friend of his. At times he was hard to even like. But Charles’s life mattered. It mattered not only because he was black or because he was working class, but because he was a young man who had a family. “Feeding our babies,” as he put it, was very real to him. He had two sons and a wife. I saw them on the picket line and at his funeral. There is a tendency to forget individual people when we put them into categories. Politicians and activists refer to the “black community,” “the working class,” “the middle class,” or the “American people” as if the people within are all the same. An individual’s racial or class assignment is important politically because it frames his or her experiences in terms of similarities to others and forms the basis for social movements. But it is important to understand that each individual within these broad classifications lives an individual life and has very specific needs, hopes, and dreams.

The dualities of being simultaneously black, working class, and a specific individual contains a certain tension that Marx called the “social individual.” That tension can at times cause one to withdraw into an isolated world of drugs and alcohol. But at other times it can cause the same individual to step forward and declare that “movin’ us out of here ain’t goin’ to be easy.” My experiences on the factory floor gave me a concrete appreciation for the social and individual dimensions of society and the tension between them. The relationship between the social and the individual is what moves people to action. I discussed earlier what I learned concretely about race and class. I also gained some insight into the importance of the individual lives of other workers.

Charles represented for me something bigger than himself. I stated that my motives for all of my political activism generally and my work on the factory floor specifically could be sum- marized in Marx’s vision of a “society in which the full and free development of every individual was its ruling principle.” Charles had a desire to engage in such self-development. He told me this after his accident when he thought he had lost his ability to draw. He told me this the evening in the library of one of my comrades when he said that he wished that one day “I could read all these fucking books.” He told me this when he stood up to the company, police, and railroad and declared that he was ready to fight to feed his babies.

The individuals who make up the working class around the world are thwarted in these hopes and dreams every day. And they will be until we are able to band together and create a new society. Charles’s death represented to me a terrible setback and the realization of how far we are from the vision of society where the full and free development of all is its ruling principle.

One might ask from the vantage point of 2019 whether our efforts some forty years ago made any difference. It is an impossible question to answer in these terms. My factory work certainly had an impact on me and the way I have lived the rest of my life.

I gained insights into how labor in a capitalist society is reduced to a commodity and see clearly the potential of a society where labor is a meaningful creative activity, rather than a commodity to be exploited. I gained insights into the nature of social class and its relation to race in today’s world. I gained a greater sensitivity to the importance of individuals who make up those categories. I learned lessons about how people can change their outlook— change their very nature—in the course of a social struggle. I also learned firsthand about the usefulness and limitations of legal avenues to social change and the proper conduct of intellectuals and the organized left in changing society. Many of these insights were derived from the process of labor as I lived it day by day. Others came from specific experiences such as the Chicago Shortening strike, the effort to form a union at Solo Cup, and the shop floor actions at Foseco. Many of these insights came from the words and actions of individual workers as we worked side by side day in and day out.

It is true that the factory system in the U.S. today is only a shell of what it was in the 1970s. Factory work has been scattered hither and yon around the world. And there is no new society as we envisioned it. Sadly, the condition of the working class in the U.S. and around the world is actually worse than forty years ago. As a result, some may conclude that all of the insights that I gained were for naught. But I find it difficult to believe that I was the only one who was deeply touched by what I experienced. And if that is the case, they too gained insights from these experiences that could be passed along. As I write this, I am seventy-nine years old and will likely never know whether these insights have been passed along to a new generation of workers and radicals who can build on the collective insights of my generation and keep the struggle for a new society alive. But that is my hope, and that is why I think our efforts were worthwhile.

David Ranney is professor emeritus in the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Factory Floor is available from his publisers at

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