If you lived in Chicago over the last two decades and came anywhere near labor circles — or just about any struggle for social justice at all — chances are you met James Thindwa, who passed this month after a long illness. And if you were a senior fighting for decent living conditions, a striking worker needing support, or a charter school teacher needing a union anywhere in the United States, you benefited from James’s hard work.
The young Zimbabwean freedom fighter who came to the United States in the 1970s touched countless people with both his effective organizing and unmatched spirit over the last four decades. James’s life partner and comrade, Martha Biondi, has written a beautiful tribute. What follows here is a sketch of a man’s life lived fully in the struggle at a time when the odds were usually long and the successes few — and the victories therefore all the more sweet.
The longtime executive director of Chicago Jobs with Justice and a later an organizer with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), James was a friend to many. While I had the good fortune to occasionally see James in purely social settings, I knew him best as a collaborator in labor activism.
Certainly there was talk of personal matters: inquiries about the well-being of mutual friends, James’s accomplished musicianship, and reminiscences about southwestern Ohio, where we’d both once lived around the same time — me as a local, James as an immigrant student and a militant anti-apartheid activist. But the countless hours I spent talking with James were less conversations than a single organizing meeting stretching more than a decade.
Would this or that contract get voted down? What where the chances of a strike? Could we get a resolution through a union executive board to send some badly needed funds for a labor solidarity effort? Would the reformers really win the upcoming union election?
A call to James when he was on a long drive or in an airport with time on his hands was always an opportunity to assess the state of the struggle and figure out just what was needed to take the fight forward, no matter how modest. I worked as labor journalist in Chicago during most of James’s time on the local scene, and his input was always invaluable.
James’s articles available on the website of In These Times magazine, where he was a board member, provide a sense of his direct and efficient style of argumentation. Looking back over his writing, I recalled the many discussions of issues where we’d agreed (the disaster created by the Obama administration’s sabotage of the health care “public option”) and where we didn’t (James’s critique of an effort to build a third party to the left of the Democrats). But it would never occur to James to refuse to work with those on the Left who differed with him, even on key political questions.
While his writing was sharp, James was at his most effective on the ground — in a meeting, on a picket line, speaking at a protest. For James, a big turnout for a meeting wasn’t only an opportunity to rally support, but also to educate and challenge. And he brought that same energy to countless smaller-than-hoped-for organizing meetings, using the time to brainstorm and strategize with other activists.
At Chicago Jobs with Justice, James routinely worked late into the evenings at his small office in a nearly century-old Chicago union hall, creating an impromptu meeting space for activists when no rooms (or the funds to pay for them) were available. Fortunately, we have a wonderful video profile by PBS journalist Bill Moyers that shows James in action — including James’s indispensable role in the victorious 2009 factory occupation at Republic Windows and Doors, an action that compelled Bank of America to extend an emergency loan to what eventually became a worker-owned factory.
More than a few Chicago politicians angling for labor support recognized James’s influence and took note. After organizing what turned out to be a smallish and rather forlorn protest outside a long-closed factory to protest a planned Walmart store on the site back in 2004, James got an earful from a clout-heavy Democratic machine hack who wanted to use the occasion to make a speech for his US Senate primary campaign. But James had already promised the slot to a rival who’d actually showed up to picket lines in the past — an obscure Illinois state senator named Barack Obama.
But ingratiating himself with big names never interested James in the slightest. His attention went elsewhere — to the oppressed and workers taking on the boss. When about one hundred nonunion Mexican immigrant workers won a two-week strike at the Cygnus soap factory in 2007, James answered my email announcing the victory not with a cheer, but with the five most urgent words he could think of: “Are they still needing donations?” James knew that the workers — almost all of them temps — had missed a couple of weeks pay and were still hurting despite their remarkable win.
But for all his modesty, James’s impact was considerable and continues to ripple across Chicago and beyond. His organizing during the tough times of the Great Recession in Chicago helped to lay the groundwork for a revival of left-wing labor activism, most visibly in the Chicago Teachers Union strikes — first in the public schools and later the charter schools where James was among the first union staff organizers. James’s work in Chicago led to an important organizing job working on charter schools across the country for the AFT. And many of the political issues James championed, once seen as outliers, have become part of regular discussion in City Council, where six democratic socialists now hold office.
All these contributions were considerable enough. But James gave us even more — an optimism that suffused all his organizing work. His outlook wasn’t based on feel-good slogans or a denial of the challenges ahead. It was the product of a worldview — and a fighting spirit — rooted in the long struggle for justice and the liberation of working people, whether in Southern Africa or Chicago’s South Side. James was a citizen of the world — and those who shared a corner of that world with him are much better for it.