When a New Left Activist Departed Campus for the Factory Floor

After participating in 1960s progressive movements, Jon Melrod took his activism to the factory floor, becoming a militant rank-and-file autoworker. Radicals like him made serious contributions to labor struggle at a time when unions were under attack.

Autoworkers labor on an assembly line in 1986. (J Nettis / ClassicStock / Getty Images)

In the ’60s and ’70s, thousands of student radicals across North America and Western Europe decided to become manual workers to get rooted in the working class and participate in its struggles. Jon Melrod was one of them.

After a period of intense involvement in the student movement against the Vietnam War, and in solidarity with the Black Panthers, Melrod chose to find employment in a factory. He spent thirteen years of his life as an industrial worker, most of them as an employee of American Motors Corporation (AMC) in Wisconsin. His aim was to transform Local 72 of the United Auto Workers (UAW) “into a model of union militancy, rank-and-file democracy, and progressive political action.” During his career as an autoworker, Melrod was one of the leading actors of a caucus of dedicated activists who published the Fighting Times newsletter and organized various actions to improve working conditions, raise the level of political consciousness, and fight against sexism and racism.

Melrod grew up in an all-white, largely Jewish neighborhood in the racially segregated Washington, DC, of the 1950s. After graduating from an uptight boarding school in Vermont, he enrolled at University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he got deeply involved in student politics. He joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1968, when the organization was at its peak.

With the local SDS chapter, he protested the campus institutions that supported the war in Vietnam. He also supported the Black People’s Alliance, a group of black students fighting discrimination, and helped the Black Panther Party spread its ideas. Melrod’s campus activism culminated during the May 1970 national student strike in reaction to Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. Although the strike led to impressive mobilization, it eventually fizzled out.

His diploma in hand, Jon Melrod decided to “leave the ivory tower behind” and move to Milwaukee, where he planned to “sink the deep roots necessary to galvanize the formation of a class-conscious, radical, working-class movement.” Although the decision to enter factory life was very much part of strategic discussions among far-left activists at the time, Melrod recognizes that it was also influenced by revolutionary romanticism: “I approached the new experience with the wide eyes of a youthful romantic joining Marx’s proletariat.”

Union Life

Anxious that he would not fit in because of his student background, Melrod quickly realized that the daily reality of hard work on the assembly line created organic camaraderie with his fellow workers. Nonetheless, throughout his career as a factory worker, he was conscious of the need to build trust and friendship by spending time with his colleagues outside of work, in the places where they hung out and in events organized to strengthen social bonds (and to overcome divisions based on race, sex, and department).

Most of Melrod’s industrial life was spent at AMC plants in Milwaukee and Kenosha. Like other radicals who set their sights on factories with a reputation for militant action, he was enthusiastic about joining a workplace with a long tradition of progressive unionism as well as a recent history of wildcat strikes (“Those stories called out to me like Mecca beckoning the faithful”). By contrast, his shorter stays in nonunion workplaces convinced him that they left little room for political action: “I needed to be in a workplace with a union — even a lousy union — where people had a sense of organization.”

At AMC, Melrod’s preferred vehicle for action was the rank-and-file caucus. Inspired by similar caucuses from the 1930s, the caucus at AMC was made up of a small number of committed activists who were independent from the union, but who were still willing to collaborate with combative elements within the official union structure. They published the Fighting Times newsletter, which mostly agitated on local issues but also touched on broader trends that would impact the workplace, such as automation.

The newsletter eventually reached a readership of 4,500 to 5,000: “By spring 1979, people almost universally accepted Fighting Times as part of the shop’s natural landscape.” The caucus’s general strategy was based on mobilizing people around popular demands that would unite different categories of workers. The initial core group of the caucus was formed during a fight against speedup, but over the years, its members became involved in a wide variety of struggles.

The rank-and-file caucus at AMC advocated for political action that started from the institutional framework of the factory, then aimed to push it further. By using every rule, every legal tool at its disposal, it strove to increase freedom in the daily lives of the workers. At the AMC plants, the working agreement contained detailed clauses governing the relations between workers, the union, and management. Several times Melrod used his knowledge of the working agreement to fight management’s attempts to increase its control on the shop floor. By doing so, he encouraged other workers to know their rights and to challenge management’s authority wherever possible, thus creating a culture of workers’ autonomy.

During his years at AMC, Melrod was involved in a number of wildcat and major strikes. These were, of course, important and powerful moments of collective action. But as we read Melrod’s account, we understand that large strikes were the tip of the iceberg of militant unionism. Short, localized strikes over very specific issues sometimes brought immediate results: a thirty-minute work stoppage forced the company to provide face masks against toxic fumes, for example. Big strikes themselves were often the end result of a long build-up process that included shorter stoppages, slowdowns, diffusion of information, distribution of flyers, T-shirts, and buttons, and more.

The renewal of union life was also an important dimension of the struggle for progressive political action in the workplace. When the members of the caucus became involved in union elections, they presented themselves as slates with clearly defined positions rather than as individuals who relied on their personal network of followers (“Never had Gillette [the incumbent chief steward] faced an election challenge from a coordinated multiracial opposition”). Their bid for a more militant, more transparent, and more inclusive union produced a major increase in voter turnout.

Once elected, the caucus activists made sure the union membership was kept well-informed through monthly reports, democratic assemblies, and regular follow-up of grievances. Melrod also organized a labor school “for motivated rank-and-filers and stewards.” Against the skepticism of longtime unionists, Melrod wagered that “people were hungering for knowledge and would willingly participate.” His intuition proved right.

Beyond the Shop Floor

Melrod does not say much about his involvement within the constellation of far-left groups active at the time. We know that he distributed the Milwaukee Worker, published by the Maoist Revolutionary Union (which later became the Revolutionary Communist Party), but did he take part in the debates on the Left? Throughout the book, as a member of a rank-and-file caucus, he is explicit about his anti-capitalist sympathies, but he frequently reiterates that his politics had to be set aside to focus on factory struggles.

On the other hand, he made constant efforts to place these struggles in the wider context of national and international politics, and to develop links between the union and other social movements. In the early ’80s, however, some caucus members felt that the group had become “too political,” too focused on “outside issues,” underlining the challenges of fighting for improvements within the workplace while at the same time building broader coalitions against systems of oppression.

In the fight against racism, however, Melrod shows that the workplace can be a good starting point to tackle the issue at different levels. The rank-and-file caucus at AMC was committed to “take on racism in whatever form it manifested itself.” Using its newsletter, it regularly denounced supervisors who had discriminatory practices or who used derogatory language. It also confronted union officials who expressed racist attitudes.

The caucus also participated in the struggle against racism outside the workplace, for example by organizing a contingent of workers to join a freedom march against the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. The caucus also joined protesters who demanded a national holiday to honor Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and Local 72 became the first UAW local to negotiate a paid holiday to commemorate King.

Over the years, Melrod and his comrades rose through the ranks of the union leadership, to the extent that the boundary line between the caucus and the official union structure became somewhat blurred. This gave them a significant platform to voice progressive ideas, but it also forced them to deal with the changing power dynamics of the ’80s, when the restructuring of the car industry led to plant closures and massive layoffs.

Melrod’s book offers a detailed account of his life as a factory worker, but it is not solely a historical memoir: it is filled with many examples of tactics and strategies that can still be relevant today. As the United States is currently witnessing a rise in militant unionism, Melrod’s account offers interesting insights for would-be shop-floor activists.