the arguments and the songs

I miss California far less than I’d expected to when I moved back here, after 10 years in San Francisco; but that still doesn’t mean I don’t miss  Julia every single day, or wish Ericka were closer. And I’m further reminded of the latter when Ericka writes something like this.

Her column “Red Diaper Dharma” gives memoir back its good name, combining truth, vivid language and smart analysis in a way that — as Jonathan Franzen said of The Great Gatsby, doesn’t have to show off but “goes down like whipped cream.” This particular essay struck me for its evocation of an era and sensibility that’s so often left unnamed (and certainly never was in my right-wing Republican household):

My family were union leaders and leaders in the community. For them, this wasn’t an idle spouting of opinions. My great uncle took these arguments, honed at family parties, into union negotiations that went all night. My great aunt took hers to meetings, rallies, demonstrations. You cannot make social change and revolution if you doubt your position — at least in public.

The argument goes on. But after a while, we segue into the singing, and even here, it’s political — we sing strike songs and Spanish Civil War songs and old Negro spirituals used to communicate in slave days. “We are not free until we are all free.” The arguments and the songs all tell us this.

I told Ericka that the piece’s dialogue reminded me of the great John Sayles story later turned into a play, “At the Anarchists’ Convention.” But I asked her about her grandfather, and she told me that he was this great man, an organizer for the needle trades (part his oral history is below), who’s often overlooked when people write about his wife, the great writer and Ericka’s grandmother. I’ll think of him now the next time I write about the garment folks I’m covering in the District.

The ILWU consistently took positions that were left of where other unions stood. I think the Communist clubs made a difference here. The presence of Communists helped put Local 6 miles ahead of the rest of the labor movement in things like opening up to Black members even before World War II. But we also had to think about our limits. For example, had a Communist club come to a meeting and said, “We want an endorsement of the Soviet Union,” we would have had our ass ripped off.

I joined the Local 6 Publicity Committee, helped with a big organizing drive at the Lathrop army depot near Stockton in the late 1930s, spoke out at union meetings all the time and got the reputation of being a red-hot. During the major 1938 warehouse lockout in San Francisco I was down at the union hall and out on the picket lines every chance I got. Several CP people felt I ought to bid for leadership. The guys in the ice houses were pressuring me to run too. So in 1939 I ran for business agent and got elected. I took office in 1940.

The first arbitration I had was against the Paris Beauty Supply Company of San Francisco. We’d dispatched a young Black woman and a young Black guy to the place. The employer was a southerner. He didn’t want to keep them. His excuse was, “I’ve got nothing against Black folks. Why, if I could afford to build them separate toilets, I’d be glad to have them working here.”

The local put on a lot of pressure against that sort of thing in 1939-1940 and the Communists made an extra effort issue of it. You can point to many things about the Communist movement that aren’t so honorable, but its early insistence on racial equality and its idea that Blacks and Whites should unite was one of the most honorable things it did.

And if you ask me (though no one did), he was quite the looker, too.


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