Pearl River There was a time in the late 1960s, when there was a lot of talk among many of us, who were hoping and wishing for change in America, about whether we could make it happen by working on the inside. We were radicals of a sort, so when these late-night discussions took place, we weren’t talking about going to work for the government or big business and naively believing we could get to the top and have change trickle down. We were debating going in at the bottom, on the factory floor or whatever workplace would hire us on, and moving workers to demand change not only in the workplace, but through our collective action and constant conversation to demand change in their communities about race, war, and more. Radicals had made that play in the 30s and helped organize and ignite the great surge of labor unrest to help create the labor movement that changed the country then. Why not now, many thought and argued?
I’d worked in the oil fields both offshore in Louisiana and on the red dirt in Oklahoma, along with odd jobs in a lot of other places. When I dropped out of college to organize against the war, I worked at a coffee plant for months. In all of those places, I had had those conversations, and had been surprised at how much co-workers agreed with commonsense positions about change. Nonetheless, I couldn’t see a way to get to mass organization from there, so I ended up on another path as an organizer.
All of which made me interested in talking to Jon Melrod, who did choose that path, leaving the University of Wisconsin at Madison and hiring on at a number of miserable workplaces in the Milwaukee area until he managed to find a job with American Motors there and later in Kenosha. In many of these jobs, certainly in the auto industry, there were unions, particularly the UAW, so he was also an example at the time of what used to be called “burrowing from within”. He ended up spending about fifteen years on the tools and pushing this envelope. We talked about his experiences on Wade’s World which he had written about in an action-packed set of stories in a new book, Fighting Times: Organizing on the Front Lines of the Class War.
There’s a lot of talk in organizing about “salts” like those who triggered the Starbucks campaign or “roots” as some of the folks call themselves who have hired on at Amazon to organize on the inside. Jon was clear that he wasn’t a salt. He went in to work and to push the company, the union, and his co-workers to demand change. He was an agitator more than an organizer. His seven victories with the NLRB, when he was fired for such activity, are great stories in themselves. He and his co-workers organized caucuses, put out newsletters, and continually stirred it up. He was eventually elected as a steward and then chief steward of his 800-worker department, so whatever they were doing worked. At least it worked until the plant shutdown, and he ended up on the west coast in law school and over the last decades a lawyer representing political refugees among others.
Jon wrote the book for his children, but for the rest of us, it’s a report on paths not taken and the struggle and sacrifices made by many then – and now – to make change from the bottom up where a concrete foundation for the future has to be cemented.