Voices from the Rank and File: Remembering Marty Glaberman and Stan Weir

I have been asked to say a few words about Marty Glaber­man and Stan Weir. It may be that the request is prompted in part by recent events on the West Coast water­front. I have fol­lowed those events with inter­est, but I am not there and I have not had an oppor­tu­nity to talk with par­tic­i­pants. Accord­ingly, please con­sider my remarks about my departed friends and com­rades on their own mer­its, such as they may be, and accept my assur­ance that no implicit mes­sage about cur­rent events is intended.

An Injury to One Is an Injury to All
Before con­sid­er­ing them indi­vid­u­ally, let’s take a look at their joint sig­nif­i­cance.

The Indus­trial Work­ers of the World (IWW) was cre­ated in 1905 in the belief that indus­trial union­ism, could it come into being, would tend to be rev­o­lu­tion­ary.1 The labor rad­i­cals who cre­ated the IWW, like Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, and Bill Hay­wood, believed that the great obsta­cle to labor rad­i­cal­ism was the craft basis of trade unions. At that time a work­place such as a steel mill was orga­nized into sep­a­rate crafts, each with its own col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing con­tract. Typ­i­cally these con­tracts had dif­fer­ent expi­ra­tion dates. As it appeared to a Debs, Jones, or Hay­wood, the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor (AF of L) amounted to the Amer­i­can Sep­a­ra­tion of Labor. Once work­ers were brought together on an indus­trial rather than craft or trade basis, a labor move­ment would emerge in which sol­i­dar­ity – the prin­ci­ple that “an injury to one is an injury to all” – would pre­vail.

Debs could offer an espe­cially poignant ver­sion of this the­sis. He had been inducted into the Broth­er­hood of Loco­mo­tive Fire­men and labored to “build it up.“ Expe­ri­ence taught him that he must bring all rail­road work­ers into a broader coali­tion, the Amer­i­can Rail­way Union.

The dif­fi­culty that young rad­i­cals like Glaber­man and Weir were obliged to con­front in the years dur­ing and after World War II was that, yes, indus­trial unions in steel, auto, pack­ing­house, elec­tri­cal man­u­fac­ture, and many other sec­tors of the econ­omy had come into being, and fed­er­ated in the Con­gress of Indus­trial Orga­ni­za­tions (CIO), but these new unions were not much more rad­i­cal than the old unions of the AF of L.

One might have expected the IWW to come for­ward with a com­pre­hen­sive cri­tique of CIO union­ism. This did not occur. And so indi­vid­ual “organic intel­lec­tu­als,” like Marty and Stan, stepped into the gap and tried to explain what had gone wrong.

Off the top, it seems, it was nec­es­sary to con­sider the last phase of Eugene Debs’ self-edu­ca­tion. In 1895 he led the Amer­i­can Rail­way Union into bat­tle against the great rail­road cor­po­ra­tions of that day in the Pull­man Strike, only to have the United States gov­ern­ment send troops to Chicago. Debs was impris­oned and the ARU defeated. Behind bars, it seems, Debs con­cluded that it was also nec­es­sary to be a social­ist.

Marty and Stan were both social­ists, indeed were both Trot­sky­ists, but they belonged to dif­fer­ent streams of Trot­sky­ist self-activ­ity. Marty adhered to the extra­or­di­nary group that called itself “Fac­ing Real­ity,” made up of fol­low­ers of CLR James who included, beside Marty, James and Grace Lee Boggs and Raya Dunayevskaya. Stan was a fol­lower of Max Shacht­man, who led a par­tic­u­lar clump of Trot­sky­ists into oppo­si­tion not only against the Com­mu­nist Party but also against ortho­dox Trot­sky­ism. One of the sor­rows of my life is that, some­how, dur­ing the entire quar­ter-cen­tury that I knew both Marty and Stan, I was never able to bring them together in the same room.

Marty Glaber­man
In 1952 the Fac­ing Real­ity group pub­lished a pam­phlet called “Punch­ing Out,” writ­ten by Marty Glaber­man.2

The pam­phlet began with the unusual sen­tence: “Not long ago two men in a Detroit auto plant were dis­cussing their stew­ard.” The stew­ard Marty had in mind was named Johnny Zupan. Pre­vi­ously a mil­i­tant rank and filer, Zupan, when elected as a stew­ard, had dis­ap­pointed his fel­low work­ers. His behav­ior raised the ques­tions: “Why does a worker, when he is elected to union office, turn against his own kind? How does an ordi­nary rank and file worker become a pork-chop­per, a pie-card, a bureau­crat?”

Marty insisted that the answer was not per­sonal. The answer he offered had to do with the con­tent of the col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing con­tract that the stew­ard admin­is­tered. To be sure, ordi­nar­ily (in those days) the con­tract con­tained sub­stan­tial ben­e­fits. But the typ­i­cal CIO con­tract also con­tained a quid pro quo: a clause pro­hibit­ing slow­downs and strikes until the expi­ra­tion of the agree­ment. The stew­ard, oblig­ated to enforce all aspects of the con­tract, nec­es­sar­ily became a cop for the boss.

In later writ­ing and talks, Marty fur­ther explained his advo­cacy of shopfloor direct action. In 1980 he pub­lished a book enti­tled Wartime Strikes: The Strug­gle Against the No-Strike Pledge in the UAW Dur­ing World War II. At the begin­ning of the war, the UAW bureau­cracy, like that of most other unions, had com­mit­ted itself not to strike for the dura­tion. Prices, how­ever, rose steadily, and the rank and file brought to the national union con­ven­tion a demand to aban­don the no-strike pledge. The union hier­ar­chy sought to side­step that pres­sure by arrang­ing to mail to each mem­ber of the union a form ask­ing recip­i­ents to say whether they wished the pledge to con­tinue. Marty con­ceded that most of those who returned a form voted Yes. But, Marty coun­tered, records demon­strated that more than half of the work­ers in Detroit auto­mo­tive plants had taken part in wild­cat strikes! Action together with one’s fel­low work­ers was a bet­ter indi­ca­tor of what work­ers really felt than forms filled out by each indi­vid­ual in the pri­vacy of his home.

Marty believed strongly that, as Marx set forth in his The­ses on Feuer­bach, action pre­cedes and super­sedes the­ory. A favorite anec­dote imag­ined a worker at his machine. He observes a group of fel­low work­ers com­ing down the aisle. There are too many of them to be going to the store­room for mate­rial. It is too early for them to be going to lunch. So the worker turns off his machine and joins the oth­ers head­ing for the park­ing lot. Once there, he turns to a fel­low worker and asks: “What the hell is this all about?”

Sim­i­larly Marty dis­puted the idea that work­ers must be con­verted to social­ism before a social­ist rev­o­lu­tion is pos­si­ble. Rather, he thought, they become social­ists in the process of mak­ing a rev­o­lu­tion. In Rus­sia, for exam­ple, work­ers who abused their wives, were fre­quently drunk, were anti-Semitic and often illit­er­ate, nev­er­the­less became rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies as they com­bated the pow­ers that be.

I do not agree with every­thing Marty Glaber­man asserted in “Punch­ing Out.” He describes the Lit­tle Steel Strike of 1937 as a loss, indeed as a cat­a­stro­phe. How­ever, about the time I encoun­tered “Punch­ing Out” I had the oppor­tu­nity to inter­view John Sar­gent, first pres­i­dent of the 18,000 mem­ber CIO local union at Inland Steel. John insisted that the set­tle­ment of the Lit­tle Steel Strike was “a vic­tory of great pro­por­tions.”3 He explained that the strike set­tle­ment directed a com­pany to bar­gain col­lec­tively with any group of its work­ers, whether or not they were a major­ity. As a result there was nego­ti­a­tion of indi­vid­ual issues but, because the Steel­work­ers were not yet an exclu­sive col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tive and there was no con­tract with a no-strike clause, work­ers could back up their demands with direct action.

At a forum I helped to arrange on labor his­tory from the view­point of the rank and file, Sar­gent main­tained:

With­out a con­tract we secured for our­selves work­ing con­di­tions and wages that we do not have today [1970], and that were bet­ter by far than what we do have today in the mill. For exam­ple as a result of the enthu­si­asm of the peo­ple in the mill you had a series of strikes, wild­cats, shut-downs, slow-downs, any­thing work­ing peo­ple could think of to secure for them­selves what they decided they had to have.

Nick Migas, an open hearth griev­ance man at Inland Steel in the late 1930s, described an inci­dent when the com­pany “increased the ton­nage on the fur­naces with­out increas­ing the rate.” Pro­duc­tion slowed down and by the next morn­ing the com­pany had to shut off two fur­naces. By that evening six fur­naces were down. “They set­tled that griev­ance in a hurry. Nobody told any­body to strike. There was just that close rela­tion­ship, work­ing with the peo­ple, where they knew what was nec­es­sary.”4

Aside from such dif­fer­ences about par­tic­u­lar episodes of labor his­tory, Marty Glaber­man and John Sar­gent saw things in the same way. Why was it that the CIO union move­ment, the watch­dog of the work­ing class, had become a dog that “don’t bark no more”? The answer lay in the prac­tice of giv­ing up, or “waiv­ing,” the right to strike, or more broadly, the right to take direct action on the shopfloor when, where, for how long, and in what­ever man­ner, rank-and-file work­ers desire.

Stan Weir
Stan Weir was a sailor, truck dri­ver, auto­mo­bile worker and long­shore­man. He never com­pleted the book he had hoped to write on the cul­ture of West Coast dock work­ers before con­tainer­iza­tion. But he left a col­lec­tion of shorter pieces edited by Norm Dia­mond and George Lip­sitz, a long inter­view with my wife and myself enti­tled “The Infor­mal Work Group,” and an essay he wrote for a book I edited called “Unions with Lead­ers Who Stay on the Job.”5

As a mer­chant sea­man dur­ing World War II Stan encoun­tered two old Wob­blies, Blackie and Chips, who con­ducted for­mal classes on ship­board in which the two passed on the lore of the 1934 San Fran­cisco gen­eral strike.

[T]hey pumped all this his­tory into me. And then they would quiz me. “What hap­pened on such-and-such a date?” “What’s Bloody Thurs­day?” “What were the big demands?” “What was the 1934 award?” “Why were we able to win vic­to­ries before get­ting a col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing con­tract?”6

There came times when “Red” Weir acted as spokesper­son for a crew of sailors who refused to go to sea until their pro­vi­sions, mat­tresses, and other mate­rial con­di­tions of employ­ment were improved.7 Stan told me that as he wrote about this story for my book, tears were pour­ing down his face.

At the end of the war, Max Shacht­man encour­aged Stan to get a job as an auto worker, and he joined an assem­bly line in Oak­land. On the street car to work one morn­ing, he stum­bled into the Oak­land gen­eral strike of 1946. The women who worked at two local depart­ment stores were on strike. Police­men were pro­tect­ing “a string of trucks… Some truck dri­ver or some bus dri­ver or street car con­duc­tor asked some police­man about the trucks (this is now part of the mythol­ogy) and the police­man told him, ‘This is a scab truck­ing firm com­ing in from LA to take stuff to Kahn’s and Hast­ings’.’” And the truck dri­ver, or bus dri­ver, or street car con­duc­tor, didn’t start up his vehi­cle again. Pas­sen­gers like Stan climbed out. The gen­eral strike had begun.

Picket line at Kahn’s depart­ment store in Oak­land, Novem­ber 1946 – the month before the gen­eral strike.

No one had called it. No one knew what to do and there were no lead­ers. Pretty soon some store­keep­ers were told to close and drug stores were told to stay open. “Bars could stay open if they didn’t serve hard liquor, and they had to put their juke­boxes out on the side­walk. Peo­ple were lit­er­ally danc­ing in the streets in antic­i­pa­tion of some kind of new day… It lasted fifty-four hours.”

“It was that vision and the expe­ri­ences in that strike,” Stan wrote, “that I expe­ri­enced and which my wife saw, the vision in actual life of peo­ple deter­min­ing their own des­tinies that sus­tains one and makes one stand fast for a long, long time.”8

Years later, in an episode that should be of inter­est to all rad­i­cals, Stan Weir describes how he ceased to be an “orga­nizer” and became a worker, and at the same time, more him­self.9 Under pres­sure from McCarthy­ism his Left polit­i­cal group “dis­in­te­grated… con­sid­er­ably.” Stan got a job at Gen­eral Motors not as a polit­i­cal assign­ment but because he needed a job.

“A whole new world opened up to me. I began to see that to approach any sit­u­a­tion like this with a whole set of pre­con­ceived slo­gans was way off the beam.” Stan was work­ing swing shift, and when his shift punched out at mid­night they would go to the home of one of his friends from work for food. “And the pol­i­tics that I injected into that group? I didn’t even have to try. It came in the nat­u­ral course of life.”

Like Marty Glaber­man a foe of union bureau­cra­ti­za­tion, Stan believed that union mem­bers should con­duct their busi­ness on the shop floor, not in an office away from the plant. It was his obser­va­tion that in every work­place there is a de facto deci­sion-mak­ing struc­ture, which he called the “infor­mal work group.” In the same way that street-cor­ner com­mit­tees formed dur­ing the Oak­land gen­eral strike, and admin­is­tered their com­mon affairs quite hand­ily, he thought that infor­mal work groups should net­work with each other and build up a struc­ture of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. At an inter­na­tional con­fer­ence of dock work­ers in Den­mark he learned that there was such a net­work in Spain, called “La Coor­di­nadora,” went to Spain and, like Lin­coln Stef­fens, came home with the feel­ing that he had been into the future and it worked.

Stan Weir, it should be empha­sized, was a work­ing-class intel­lec­tual in the lit­eral mean­ing of the words: he was born into the work­ing class and became a reader and writer. He was com­fort­able with other work­ers. When for a spell of a few years he taught in a work­ers’ edu­ca­tion pro­gram at a Mid­west­ern uni­ver­sity he often began a class with the ques­tion, “What’s the fun­ni­est thing that ever hap­pened where you work?” He liked to tell the story of how he helped to cause – but did not “orga­nize” – a wild­cat action on the shop floor. He was work­ing in a shop where the work­ers were forever hav­ing to get new gloves, which they were required to pay for them­selves. Grip­ing arose as to why the com­pany didn’t pay for the gloves, but no one could think of way to bring this about. It was gen­er­ally rec­og­nized that, under the col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment, man­age­ment was obliged to pay for “tools.” Stan said, “Well, gloves are tools, aren’t they?” and went about his busi­ness. There was a sit-in the next day.10

Organic Intel­lec­tu­als
I first heard the term “organic intel­lec­tual” from Stan Weir. But what does it mean? Marty Glaber­man was born into a mid­dle-class fam­ily and, in the term pop­u­lar at the time, became a “col­o­nizer” in a Detroit auto­mo­bile plant. He wrote good poetry and liked to watch movies. Stan Weir grew up with no father and a mother who did dress­mak­ing and worked at the Post Office. He loved to dance to the “big bands” of his ado­les­cence and would tele­phone me long dis­tance from Cal­i­for­nia to tell me a new joke. They both devoted their lives to the idea of a bet­ter world and, in the words of Stephen Spender’s poem, “left the vivid air signed with their honor.”

1. See the Man­i­festo of Jan­u­ary 2-4, 1905, sum­mon­ing work­ers to a found­ing con­ven­tion in June, reprinted in Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthol­ogy, ed. Joyce L. Korn­bluh, new edi­tion (Oak­land, CA: PM Press, 2011), pp. 7-9, and Debs’ speech in Chicago on Novem­ber 25, 1905, avail­able in Amer­i­can Labor Strug­gles and Law His­to­ries, ed. Ken­neth M. Case­beer (Durham, NC: Car­olina Aca­d­e­mic Press, 2011), pp. 91-99.

2. Mar­tin Glaber­man, Punch­ing Out & Other Writ­ings, ed. and intro­duced by Staughton Lynd (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2002), pp. 2-23.

3. John Sar­gent, “Your Dog Don’t Bark No More,” in Rank and File: Per­sonal His­to­ries by Work­ing-Class Orga­niz­ers, ed. Alice & Staughton Lynd, expanded edi­tion (Chicago: Hay­mar­ket Books, 2011), pp. 105-110.

4. Nick Migas, “How the Inter­na­tional Took Over,” in Rank and File, p. 168.

5. Sin­gle­jack Sol­i­dar­ity, ed. by George Lipz­itz with a Fore­word by Norm Dia­mond (Min­neapolis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 2004); Stan Weir, “The Infor­mal Work Group,” in Rank and File, pp. 179-200; Stan Weir, “Unions with Lead­ers Who Stay on the Job,” in “We Are All Lead­ers”: The Alter­na­tive Union­ism of the Early 1930s, ed. Staughton Lynd (Urbana and Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois Press, 1996), pp. 294-334.

6. Rank and File, p. 183; “We Are All Lead­ers,” pp. 310-315.

7. “We Are All Lead­ers,” pp. 296-307.

8. Rank and File, pp. 193-195; “We Are All Lead­ers,” pp. 326-330. Stan Weir is thought to have been the model for the char­ac­ter Joe Link in Har­vey Swa­dos’ novel, Stand­ing Fast.

9. Rank and File, pp. 196-197.

10. Rank and File, pp. 192-193.

Author of the article

is a historian, and has been an activist since his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and the movement against the Vietnam War. Some of his writings are collected in From Here to There, and with Alice Lynd he is the editor of books including Rank and File and The New Rank and File. An expanded edition of Rank and File, including eight favorite interviews from The New Rank and File, has just been released by Haymarket Books, and his latest book Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change is forthcoming this year from PM Press.

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