Stan Weir: An enthusiast for the rank-and-file

Submitted by Matthew on 1 March, 2013 - 5:52

Stan Weir (1921-2001) was a Third Camp socialist, trade union militant and intellectual at the forefront of the post-Second World War US labour movement.

Weir graduated from high school in 1940 and, because of his school’s participation in an experimental curriculum, was eligible for a place at the University of California. Neither Stan nor his classmates were told of this, however. The omission was no accident. As his former principal explained, kids from his school were needed as mechanics and factory workers, not college graduates.

After learning this lesson in the politics of the American class system, Weir managed to take up his place at university, though many of his friends were not so lucky.

When the Second World War broke out, Weir enlisted as a naval reserve cadet in the Merchant Marine. On board, Weir encountered members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) who taught him the lessons of the 1934 San Francisco general strike. He recalled:

“[T]hey pumped all this history into me. And then they would quiz me. ‘What happened on such-and-such a date?’ ‘What’s Bloody Thursday?’ ‘What were the big demands?’ ‘What was the 1934 award?’ ‘Why were we able to win victories before getting a collective bargaining contract?’”

Weir had been on course to become an officer but his experiences with the deckhands encouraged him to subvert the ship’s hierarchy. He abandoned the officer’s mess to eat with the seamen. Membership of the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific followed, introducing him to the organised left and a whole array of radical activists and ideas in foreign ports.

In 1944, Weir joined the Workers’ Party led by Max Shachtman. As the US group Solidarity wrote: “Throughout this period, Stan maintained his independence within the left. His membership in the Workers’ Party and Independent Socialist League from 1944 through the 1950s involved him in probably the least dogmatic and most democratic left organisation of the time.”

After the war, Shachtman persuaded Weir to get a job in the auto industry in Oakland.

Weir stumbled into the October 1946 Oakland general strike, sparked by police breaking the picket lines of women strikers at two department stores. Soon 130,000 workers were on strike, bringing the city to halt.

Weir wrote that: “Bars could stay open if they didn’t serve hard liquor, and they had to put their jukeboxes out on the sidewalk. People were literally dancing in the streets in anticipation of some kind of new day… It lasted fifty-four hours. It was that vision and the experiences in that strike that I experienced and which my wife saw, the vision in actual life of people determining their own destinies that sustains one and makes one stand fast for a long, long time.”

Weir was a life-long enthusiast of rank-and-file union organisation. Just like street-corner committees during the Oakland general strike, Weir argued that workplaces have their own de facto decision-making structures, or “informal work groups”. The task was to link these together to build a structure of workplace-based representation.

Weir further hardened against bureaucratic officialdom when, following the Workers’ Party line, he campaigned for Walter Reuther during his first outing in the elections for the United Automobile Worker presidency. By the time re-election came around, Weir had been disillusioned by Reuther’s refusal to back workers on basic issues such as assembly line speed, and began to develop an analysis of the structural bureaucratic pressures on union officials.

After the Independent Socialist League dissolved in 1958, Weir worked at the waterfront in San Francisco, involving himself in a rank-and-file struggle against the leadership of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU). His experience as a workplace organiser led to a job at the University of Illinois in 1968, teaching union officials.

In the late 1970s, Weir founded Singlejack Books, whose motto was “Writings about work by the people who do it.” Norman Diamond, President of Pacific Northwest Labor College wrote that: “The intention was not only to share work experience and make workers and workplaces visible in a culture that ignores them. It was also to encourage the self-reliance of worker-intellectuals and the development of people able to speak out and stand up for themselves and their class.”

Such a project, enriched by a lifetime experience of rank-and-file organising, working-class self-education and immersion in the most intellectually open and exciting currents of American Trotskyism, leaves a lasting legacy to the working-class socialist movement.

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