Steve Kindred, Irrepressible Radical

Steve Kindred (1944–2014).

Steve Kindred, an irrepressible American radical — student and anti-war activist, socialist, and labor organizer — died of cancer on December 9, 2013 in New York City at the age of sixty-nine.

A legendary figure among Teamster activists, Kindred had worked in various states as a freight driver, car hauler, and limousine driver, helped to establish several Teamsters for a Democratic Union chapters, led wildcat strikes, and counseled reformers who ran for union office.

Kindred was born on May 14, 1944, in Waverly, Iowa, and grew up in that state. He was the son of Arthur Kindred, a Methodist minister, and Carol Hunt Kindred, the church’s musician who visited the congregation’s poor, sick, and elderly, and raised three boys. Steve’s brother Mike told the 150 friends and family members who attended the memorial on February 8 at CUNY’s Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies that Arthur Kindred’s support for the civil rights movement and opposition to the war against Vietnam strongly influenced his sons. The family’s Methodist missionary visitors who had served in other countries around the world widened the children’s horizons. Their mother’s work among the poor served as a model for the concern and kindness toward the less fortunate that came to form part of the core of Steve’s character.

He went off in 1962 to study at the University of Chicago, where he soon moved into the activist circles opposing the Vietnam War. Kindred became involved in the fight against the university’s complicity in the Vietnam War (student lists and rankings were provided to the Selective Service Board). In the spring of 1966, Steve was among the students who occupied the university administration buildings while professors like Jesse Lemisch and Staughton Lynd taught alternative readings of American history to the occupiers. Steve ended up suspended from the university.

Steve became active in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In 1966 his father convinced the board of the Methodist camp at Clear Lake, Iowa, to allow the SDS convention to be held on its grounds. In Chicago, Steve had become persona non grata to Mayor Richard J. Daley’s police department, and was constantly harassed by them.

After the SDS Convention of 1969, where sectarian infighting spelled the end of that organization, Steve and other members of the University of Chicago student movement joined the newly-formed International Socialists (IS), an organization that Steve felt best embodied his belief that socialism had to be built from below by ordinary working people. Led intellectually by Hal Draper, the IS defined itself as a group of democratic, revolutionary, and international socialists, coming out of the “Third Camp” socialist tradition that opposed both capitalism and the bureaucratic Communism of the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba.

Based initially in Berkeley and New York City, by 1970 the group had decided that its members would move to Midwestern cities and seek jobs in industry. The IS believed that socialists working in industry could help to build rank-and-file caucuses that would either force labor union officials to fight the employers or push them aside. Out of these caucuses, the IS was convinced that it would be possible to recruit working-class activists to socialism and to begin to build a small revolutionary socialist party in the United States.

Steve, who was then living in Los Angeles, worked with other IS members there to create a student-worker alliance with its newspaper The Picketline. When in 1970 the Teamsters went on strike, principally over higher wages, Steve and his friends recruited students to support the strike and won new friends among the Teamsters with whom they struggled.

At that time, Steve met and worked with Curly Best, a Teamster who had founded the “500 at 50” club, fighting for $500 a month pension at fifty years of age for retiring Teamsters. When in July 1971, a group of rank-and-file Teamsters met in Toledo to create the Teamster Union Rank and File (TURF), Steve became an aide to Best, one of the group’s principal leaders and the editor of its newspaper. Steve had a gift for listening to workers, talking with them, and convincing them to become active in the rank-and-file movement. TURF did not survive very long, but by the mid-1970s, the IS had several members active in forming rank-and-file groups in several Teamster locals.

Steve played a key role in the mid-1970s, traveling throughout the Midwest and meeting with local Teamster activists, convincing them to join the national contract campaign called Teamsters for a Decent Contract and Teamsters for a Democratic Union after 1976. During the late 1970s, Steve worked in Detroit with Teamster activists on local union election campaigns and helped car haulers organize a massive wildcat strike in Ohio.

When in 1986 the IS merged with two other socialist organizations to form Solidarity, it was Kindred who made the motion to name the group Solidarity after the Polish workers movement Solidarność that had challenged the Polish Communist government through mass union organization and strikes.

After the mid-1980s, Steve married Ellen Goldensohn and moved to Manhattan, becoming involved in support for Teamster warehouse workers. He was active in the TDU-supported Ron Carey for Teamster President campaigns in 1991 and 1996 and for a while in the 1990s worked as a union official in a local that had been thrown into trusteeship because of previous union corruption. In 2008–2009, Steve was very involved in the support committee for the Stella D’Oro Biscuit Company workers in New York.

I had first met Steve in 1971 in California, then again in Chicago. In the late 1970s we worked together in Detroit and Cleveland on both IS and Teamster organizing. We became friends over long discussions of socialism and labor organizing, Steve always discoursing on the strategy and tactics of some organizing campaign or strike.

From the time he joined the Anti–Vietnam War Movement in the 1960s, through SDS, the IS, and TDU, Steve remained committed to the idea that society must be changed from the bottom up. He believed that every human being was an interesting and in their way an important person, treated all with dignity, could be counted on the side of the underdog. Steve remained true to that compass, never fooled by the idea that there was a shortcut on the path to a better society.

Socialism would have to come from below, from the grassroots, from the rank and file, from the ordinary people whom Steve helped, trusted, loved, and respected.