How a Wisconsin Autoworker Dodged Death Threats to Grow a Fighting, Multiracial Union
Jon Melrod was part of a wave of student radicals who took jobs in factories in the 1970s. He spoke to Jacobin about life in working-class Wisconsin, becoming a workplace leader, and how to merge shop-floor fights with a broader left politics.
- Interview by
- Ella Teevan
Knife fights. Brawls with the union president in the men’s bathroom. Sleepless nights up meeting, printing flyers, and sometimes shutting down the bar. The life of a militant worker in the factories of the 1970s was intense, exhilarating, and often dangerous — not just for the obvious reasons. Just ask student-radical-turned-factory-worker Jon Melrod, author of the new book Fighting Times: Organizing on the Front Lines of the Class War. He talked his way out of a life-and-death moment with a gun-toting Nazi coworker and survived an armed encounter with the FBI, but exposure to industrial chemicals left him with a cancer that he wasn’t sure he would beat. Factory work itself was grueling: heavy, repetitive physical labor on the line at automakers like American Motors Corporation (AMC). And there was the mundane but ever-present threat of being fired on the whim of an anti-union boss — a blow from which working-class people aren’t guaranteed to recover.
What moved Melrod, and tens of thousands of other 1960s student radicals, to leave behind the campus and “go into industry,” as they called it? In Fighting Times, Melrod documents his thirteen years in factories, most notably as a member of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 72 and its reform caucus, also called Fighting Times. He and his fellow militants saw building adversarial, democratic, multiracial unions as the cornerstone of creating a broader left political movement, whose goals extended far beyond the shop floor. Jacobin contributor Ella Teevan sat down with Melrod to talk about life in Milwaukee’s working class, and what lessons socialists in labor organizing today can draw from the experience of the 1970s.
What inspired you to write the book? You’ve had a storied career and life on the Left — as a militant student in the ’60s, a lawyer defending refugees, and a fighter for indigenous rights in the Philippines. Why focus on your time as a rank-and-file worker, and why now?
In 2004, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and I was given only six months to a year at most to live. My kids were seven and ten, and to them it was this incredible question: “Dad, why would you go to college and then go to work in factories that are now killing you?” To them, it was very scary, and they just couldn’t understand it. I said, “I think if they’re ever going to understand it, and their children are going to understand it, I need to create an understanding of why I did what I did — or why groups of us did what we did in the ’60s and ’70s.” So I started writing, and I didn’t really look at it like it would be a book. I just looked at it like it was something I would leave behind for my children and grandchildren.
But the longer I lived, the more I kept writing, and it morphed. As I wrote it, two things occurred to me. One was, there really wasn’t a history written from that period that was written in a way that was exciting, that was almost like a novel, and that taught lessons, but taught them in the actual context of learning them and organizing to do so. Young people were getting active again. It had been really discouraging for many, many years, watching the dissipation of the movement and the real doldrums. And I said, maybe I can write something that will play a role for the next generation.
The other reason was just that they’ve really written the reality of the ’60s and ’70s out of history. You know about the Weathermen; you know about Patty Hearst — these kinds of things. You don’t know about the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) II of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which immediately turned after the breakup of SDS to the working class and in support of the Black Panther Party and the black liberation movement. What happened to those people? Because at least ten thousand of them that we know went into organizing in the working class — working-class communities and industry. I felt that that part of history needed to be recorded. I really respect and admire what’s going on now, and it’s pretty exciting, but there was a mass revolutionary movement among young people at that time.
You talk a lot about how explicitly political a rank-and-file caucus like Fighting Times is. You got branded as a “commie” by AMC and also the UAW international, but you insisted that the caucus was open to people with any politics. At the same time, you wanted to use the caucus to develop a broader political knowledge and working-class consciousness among people at Local 72. How did that play out? And do you have any lessons for how organizers in reform caucuses today should approach the question?
You hit on the critical question for everybody who goes into the working class: Are you just there to build a militant trade union? That’s always, by nature under capitalism, going to be limited to you win something, they’ll take it back — it’s a back-and-forth struggle that never alleviates the oppression of women, the oppression of blacks, the day-to-day indignity of going to work on assembly lines, the treatment you receive. Not that it’s bad to do that, but we saw our goals, having come from the background we came from, as a much bigger political task: an attempt to create a new social order that wasn’t based on capitalist exploitation.
I came out of the most political part of the student movement, where our lives were completely entwined with being on strike for the black students, being on strike to support the teaching assistants — completely in an insurrection after the Kent State shootings. It was just as violent as any urban insurrection. Our conscious thinking was that there were two sides to the struggle: one is the economic and one is the political. You can’t have one without the other.
You have to be rooted in the economic struggle. But that alone doesn’t teach you why that’s connected to a systemic problem, which is the ups and downs of capitalism, which you really felt in the auto industry. One year you were working twelve hours a day overtime; next year you were working every other week because there wasn’t enough to keep you going. Well, you’re doomed to that system unless you’re willing to fight to change something broader than just your wages, hours, and working conditions.
Can you give an example of what navigating the economic and political struggle looked like in practice?
At the beginning, I was a bit overexuberant to bring outside political issues to the plant. I hadn’t really integrated myself with people or established myself as a fighter on the shop floor, but I was out selling the Milwaukee Worker newsletter in front of the gate, a paper that talked a lot about political struggles.
A month or two after I got off probation, when I was in the union, I was standing in the punch-out line with a big stack of Milwaukee Workers, and some reactionary workers — they were all Korean War vets, so they were a legacy of the McCarthy period — started yelling at me: “We’re gonna kick your ass. If we catch you with those newspapers, we’re gonna throw you down the stairs like we did Roy Webb.” Roy Webb had been a Communist Party steward who had passed a petition in the ’50s against the Korean War, and they had broken his neck, so it was a real threat.
And this really big black guy, who I call still to this day every month or so, Jimmy Graham — just back from Vietnam, about 6’5”, in perfect shape, had just been in the jungle for two years — stepped out of line and said, “I just fought a war in Vietnam. I don’t know why I was there. I was fighting a fucking rich man’s war. I come back here, and I’m a second-class citizen. And you’re gonna treat my brother like he’s got no rights to free speech? No. Not till you go through me.”
That was inspiring, because a lot of Vietnam vets of color had that attitude. They were the first to come around to the struggle, both political and economic, because they didn’t want to take any more shit. They had already done it in Vietnam. They had a white second lieutenant treating them like a bunch of slaves in the South, sending them out into the jungle to be killed.
So, after that incident, I said to myself, you really have to be rooted in what the concerns are of people every day.
I want to ask you more about the role of race and gender. You always brought an anti-racist and anti-sexist practice to your organizing, and you hammer home over and over that the boss used racism and sexism to divide workers, and that to win, you couldn’t fall for their divisive tactics. But you also have this memorable story of working with people who espoused racist beliefs, like the person who was buried with his Local 72 pin and his Ku Klux Klan (KKK) paraphernalia. Why did you decide it was necessary to work with people like this? And what would you say to organizers navigating this tension today?
You know, that’s a hard question for people. In a way, when Hillary Clinton coined the phrase “basket of deplorables,” she was talking about a lot of people who are in the working class. The best example is the person you mention, Rich Hughes, because Rich and I used to argue in the shop so much about racism. I’d say, “Rich, how can you be one of the most militant union chief stewards, willing to sit people down, walk them out, defend everybody in your department, and half your damn department is black?” He was from the South, and his parents were hillbillies all the way. His mother, Irene Hughes, worked in my department, and every time I’d walk by, she’d have a jar full of white lightning alcohol, and she’d say, “Jon, take a sip.” And one time I smelled the bottle, and I said, “This is way too strong for me.” But all day she’d be drinking it. They lived in a town called Zion, Illinois, that was a KKK town.
I’d say, “Rich, you just can’t have those beliefs.” He’d say, “Oh, Jon, you don’t understand. The KKK are just good old boys, the ones that stop the bad things in town.” And I’d say, “No, they’re not, Rich. They’re the ones that shoot black people that are trying to register to vote.”
In some ways, you had to agree to disagree, but you never stopped talking about it. He wrote for the Fighting Times newsletter, and he knew everything we stood for. He knew when we went to Mississippi to march against the KKK, because we put it out on a flyer to eight thousand people in the plant. But he only changed through the experience of the unity in the shop.
I want to switch gears and ask about the role of alcohol. It seemed ubiquitous in most of the places you were, and I think it still is ubiquitous in organized labor. One of the most affecting stories in the book is when you’re at the bar, and the Nazi comes in, and he has a gun to you, and you get him so drunk that he says he loves you and that you’re union brothers. How did alcohol factor into your organizing and the lives of these workers?
It was really bad. I eventually had to stop alcohol altogether, because I became dependent. When I started on my first day on the job, they assigned me to a guy who was an alcoholic named Bill. He lived in a room above the bar across the street. He got up in the morning, and he drank orange juice and vodka and ate a hard-boiled egg out of the big jar of eggs that they have at every working-class bar in Milwaukee. He’d work till lunch, start crashing, wait for that 12:00, run to the bar, and he’d have his own spot with a pint and maybe a hamburger, drink it, finish at 3:30, drink till 7:00, go to bed. That’s the life of an alienated worker, and it’s so destructive.
I’m glad that pot has taken over, because, at least with pot, you don’t drive drunk, which we all did. And you don’t wake up hungover all the time. I mean, it is part of the social fabric. I don’t want to make it sound like every worker is a drunk, but it really is part of the social fabric after union meetings and whatnot.
Unfortunately, we didn’t understand it was a problem, and I wish we had. There was a great guy in my department who was always drunk, and he was always getting in trouble. The union was so strong that they never let anyone get fired. One day, he didn’t come to work, and his girlfriend told me that they had drunk till 2:00 in the morning, and on his way home, he ran his van into a tree, and he was a vegetable now. And he remained a vegetable forever — drooling, you know? And it’s because I should have brought the alcohol and drug counselor in. I shouldn’t have covered his ass, because the union was strong enough to do it. We should look at people with more humanity, in a sense, and try to realize that part of a union, or part of collectivity, is helping people — it’s not to encourage them to drink until they’re blind drunk.
What was it like to do all this — at the plant, but also nationally and even internationally — at a time when there was no internet? You have a story of getting a letter back after six months, in broken English, from comrades in France at Renault, and it led to you visiting France with a delegation of caucus members and confronting Renault’s top executives, almost by accident. You were also publishing print newsletters, stamping buttons, and silk-screening shirts by hand.
We used to put out a twelve-page newsletter, so we got a legal-size piece of paper, somehow we learned how to create columns, and we had to fold four thousand booklets of three sheets. One thing it made you do was rely on people. We used to have twenty or twenty-five people in various groups folding newsletters. And then we had to hand them out to twelve or fifteen plant gates on two shifts. We never brought in outsiders, because we would have been branded as not being from the shop.
It also forced us to teach people how to write, if people wanted to contribute. There were so many black people from the South as part of that last migration stream North that just didn’t have an education. We might sit down, and they might dictate a letter, and we would print it. So it forced you into a much more one-on-one or one-with-other-people organizing situation.
Let’s turn to some implications for organizing today. A lot of socialists today are taking rank-and-file union jobs, like at United Parcel Service (UPS), or are taking jobs with the intention of unionizing, like at Amazon or Starbucks. Why was this strategic in the ’70s, and is it still strategic now? If so, where and how?
I think what’s important is that it was strategic in the ’30s. In the ’30s, there were many, many organizers, similarly, who came from the intellectual class or socialist backgrounds, who went in to become organizers. It’s not something new. In the ’60s and ’70s, we looked around, and the union movement obviously had a lot of power, and it had also become pretty moribund and lifeless. After the breakup of SDS in June of 1969, we eventually formed Mother Jones Revolutionary League, and that was based on RYM II political ideology. And it wasn’t even a question; it was in the original charter that we would leave the campus to go into working-class communities and into the army to organize (because it was during the war). It just never occurred to those of us in the core activist cadre to do anything else.
I didn’t care if I had to go to work in a foundry or a tannery if that’s what it meant to organize the working class. I think that may be a little bit different today, particularly with people who want to get jobs as union staff. I don’t fault anyone for going on staff, and it’s certainly a better thing than not doing it. But you don’t understand the life of being in the working class if you’re not in it. You don’t understand the drudgery. You don’t understand why the boss is your enemy. To be a rep for a union at Amazon, you’d never understand what it’s like to have cameras on you, to have the boss have such unlimited power over you. And I think you’ve got to be willing to do that if you’re serious about bringing about change.
Of course, there are nurses and Amazon and Starbucks, which are all great. And I’ve got to hand it to the Starbucks people, who I work with a lot. They’ve just set a wonderful example of creating a movement. The way they explain it to me, what I call “class-conscious,” they call “intersectional” — it involves all the issues. I think there’s a lot of similarity. There are generational differences, but I think what they’re doing is great. They’re not just trade unionists; they’re building a movement to change the world.