Between Students and Workers

At the height of the 1960s antiwar movement, student radicals held a heated debate about their role in labor struggles. That debate is still relevant today.

A student antiwar protest at the University of Michigan in March 1970. Washington Area Spark / Flickr

In August 1966, delegates from across the United States attended the annual Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) Convention in Clear Lake, Iowa. Located in north-central Iowa and held at a Methodist camp, the organization set about debating its future.

SDS was at a crossroads in 1966. It had evolved into the largest radical student organization in the United States and was going through a major membership and political transformation, according to SDS historian Kirkpatrick Sale.

For attendees, the Clear Lake convention, which featured 350 delegates from 140 chapters, was symbolic. Leadership was now transferred from the organization’s original members to the newer ones; from those born in the left-wing traditions of the coasts to middle-American activists. It was the ascendance of “prairie power.”

The biggest topic at the convention was what direction SDS should take. The small delegation from the Independent Socialist Clubs (ISCs, forerunner of the 1970s International Socialists) made a proposal to the convention.

“The socialist view of the working class as a potentially revolutionary class is based upon the most obvious fact about the working class, that it is socially situated at the heart of modern capitalism’s basic, and in fact defining institution, industry,” wrote Kim Moody, Fred Eppsteiner, and Mike Pflug in “Towards the Working Class: An SDS Convention Position Paper (TTWC).”

It was one of the first attempts to orient the New Left around the rank-and-file struggles of US workers. Stan Wier’s pamphlet “USA: The Labor Revolt” was the road map that many socialists used to understand the burgeoning rank-and-file rebellion that began in the mid-1950s, away from the media spotlight but by the mid-1960s visible for all to see. It was front-page news.

The settings are very different, but are the debates from a half-century ago relevant today?

The year 1966 may best remembered as the year in which during the Meredith March Against Fear in Mississippi, SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Toure) declared, “What we need is black power.” That slogan captured the imagination of a generation of young black revolutionaries frustrated by the broken promises of US liberalism who demanded a radical transformation of society. Many other long-oppressed peoples — women, Chicanos, Native Americans, gays and lesbians — followed.

Moody, Eppsteiner, and Pflug were no less interested in the questions of power and liberation. All three were veterans of the civil rights movement in Baltimore, and active in or around the Baltimore SDS at Johns Hopkins University. Moody was also active in the Baltimore SDS’s community project, U-Join (Union for Jobs and Income Now). Moody and Eppsteiner were members of the ISC while Pfug was a member of News and Letters.

The ISC emerged out of a split in the right wing of the Socialist Party. The political inspiration for the ISC was Hal Draper, a veteran revolutionary socialist and author of the popular pamphlet “The Mind of Clark Kerr.” It was an examination of the president of the University of California system and his ideas for the modern university. It became the bible of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley.

Later Draper also popularized the phrase “socialism from below” in the magazine New Politics, reclaiming the revolutionary democratic spirit of Karl Marx’s belief that socialism could only be achieved through the “self-emancipation of the working class.” “Socialism from below” was a quick and clear phrase to distinguish revolutionary socialist politics from the “socialism from above” of social democracy and Stalinism. In an era when a revolutionary was thought of as a guerrilla fighter with an AK-47 fighting in the jungles of a distant country, support for that kind of “classical” Marxism was going against the current.

The TTWC authors called themselves “radicals who support the concept of Black Power” but looked at the question of power and liberation from a different angle. “We, socialists and radicals, look to the rank-and-file workers as our potential allies,” they declared.

A powerful example of this potential they cited was the machinists’ strike that crippled passenger airline travel across the United States.

For those who have doubts about the willingness of workers to struggle for progressive ends, take a look at the recent airline strike of the International Association of Machinists (IAM). Not only did the strike hold out against the threats of a congressional injunction; but the rank and file had the guts to flatly reject a settlement pushed by President Johnson himself. A interesting political side light is that four IAM locals have recently called for a break with the Democratic Party and the formation of a third party.

Keep in mind that this was a struggle that occurred without the benefit of radical organizers; it was, in many ways, a spontaneous act.

Relating to the labor movement almost exclusively as outside supporters had its limits, according to the ISC authors:

We believe that supporting strikes and organizing workers for independent unions or even existing unions is good, but it is not enough. Furthermore, there is a sort of hierarchy of value in these activities. Working on a union staff may provide good experience for a student or ex-student, but it cannot be a place from which political work can be done.

They wanted to make clear to the delegates that they weren’t denigrating union organizing, “but that you cannot do serious radical political work from that position.”

To engage in that “serious radical political work,” the authors argued, required the students to undertake a serious shift: “SDS, as an organization, and SDS members should orient towards the working class as the decisive social sector in bringing about the transformation of American society.”

The setting was very different in 1966 for debating a rank-and-file perspective than today. Unions were major institutions — “big labor,” as it was called then — in US economic and political life. The rank-and-file rebellion among restless workers around the country was causing major political concern and a crisis for the entrenched leaders of the US trade unions.

The front cover of Life magazine captured the setting well with the headline “Strike Fever,” showing picture of a striker voting no with two thumbs and a sidebar detailing “Labor Leaders in Dilemma” and “Rampant New Militancy.”

Despite the favorable circumstances, TTWC co-author Kim Moody told me recently, “Our position paper received little attention as the main underlying business was the transition from the ‘old guard’ leadership to the new ‘generation’ that was flooding SDS. We had hoped to influence some of the younger people entering SDS.”

“Toward the Working Class” appeared in New Left Notes in the September 9, 1966 issue — after the convention. The proposal lost out to Carl Davidson’s proposal for a new student syndicalist movement that emphasized SDS’s focus primarily on the campuses.

In hindsight, it was probably wrong to expect SDS to completely reorient itself in such a short period of time. There was still plenty of reason for a student movement to grow, especially with the burgeoning antiwar movement on the campuses that SDS was in the thick of.

Yet one cannot help but look back and feel that there was a lost opportunity here. When the various communist and socialist organizations that emerged from the New Left several years later, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, made a turn towards organizing in the industrial working class, was it too late?

Reviving the Debate

During the last four decades, the gut-wrenching changes to the industrial working class significantly weakened, if not destroyed, the once-mighty industrial unions in many parts of the US industrial economy. The Left that attempted to build in the industrial unions remained marginalized.

However, one of the legacies of the political work of the International Socialists was a reform movement within the Teamsters in the 1970s. Teamsters for Democratic Union (TDU) played a major role in the election of the Teamsters’ first reform president in 1991, the UPS strike of 1997, and the recent near-defeat of incumbent Teamster general president James P. Hoffa.

Today, once again, a new generation of radicals is discussing the question of oppression, power, and radical change. How do we have a similar debate today that SDS had in 1966 but with a broader audience?

Today the modern industrial economy revolves around the logistics industry. As Kim Moody wrote last year:

85 percent of the nearly three-and-a-half million workers employed in logistics in the United States are located in large metropolitan areas — inadvertently recreating huge concentrations of workers in many of those areas that were supposed to be “emptied” of industrial workers. There are about sixty such “clusters” in the United States, but it is the major sites in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York-New Jersey, each of which employs at least one hundred thousand workers and others such as UPS’s Louisville “Worldport” and FedEx’s Memphis cluster that exemplify the trend.

If Amazon makes good on its promise by 2018, it will add another one hundred thousand workers to its US workforce, bringing the total number to over two hundred thousand. It will be one of the largest employers in the United States and one of the largest nonunion employers.

A new generation of socialist activists has to learn how to organize these workplaces.

That generation is starting to get organized. A new left is emerging in the United States. The millions who participated in the huge demonstrations that greeted Trump’s first weeks in office is the most visible and spectacular sign of this. So is the rapid growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), along with widespread interest in general socialist ideas, history, and organizations. Radicals who are energized by all of this should take a page from Moody, Eppsteiner, and Pflug’s book and guide that energy towards the working class.

We shouldn’t underestimate the obstacles we face, of course. The task is daunting: to create a new socialist movement and a new industrial union movement virtually from scratch. We need to begin campaigns advocating socialist ideas and organizing in the logistics industry in select cities.