Socialism and singlejacking

Submitted by martin on 23 December, 2018 - 2:57 Author: Martin Thomas
Stan Weir

A review of Stan Weir's writings, 'Singlejack Solidarity'.

"The term singlejack... On-the-job organisers for the Western Federation of Miners and the Industrial Workers of the World... used it to describe that method of organising where dedicated advocates are developed one at a time on a highly personalised basis..."

The leading Minneapolis Trotskyist Ray Dunne was a prime example. An IWW shop steward met Dunne, aged 15, in a lumberjack camp. He identified Dunne as willing to stand up against the boss, and also thoughtful.

The IWWer (according to a later interview by Dunne with Harry Ring) had a stock of books as well as being a trade unionist, and he targeted Dunne with discussion and books.

The crucial book was Darwin's Origin of Species. Although Dunne had had only two years' formal school, he worked his way through the book, and it changed his life, sending him on to read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and others.

Dunne remained a low-paid manual worker, but he became, as a left-wing literary critic who met him in the great 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters' strike put it, "devoted to the values of culture, and determined that the working man should share them".

He rarely held high union office. He was more like "Marx's revolutionary old mole", well-known but working in the background through quiet argument, analysis, and one-by-one persuasion.

The lumberjack camps, where workers were thrown together 24 hours a day, were an important place for the IWW's singlejacking. But it was not all in the workplace. The IWW's staple activity, as much as on-the-job organising, was selling its paper Solidarity, holding street meetings, and fighting free-speech campaigns when those meetings were banned. Within that activity, too, it developed agitators, organisers, and educators by "singlejacking".

A later Marxist, Stan Weir (1921-2001), named the publishing house he established in his older years Singlejack Books. The explanation at the head of this article was printed in all its books. And the book of Weir's writings published after his death is called Singlejack Solidarity.

A brilliant chapter covers a dispute in which Weir was active as a seafarer in 1943. He describes a union veteran setting out rules when doing "singlejack" work to educate Weir and other youngsters as trade-unionists.

"Learn your trade. Work good and work hard". Work safely. "Never, but never, walk away from a beef". Be polite, but never chummy, with the ship's officers (the management). Equally, "don't go putting out on the open table any of the personal private things you were told in confidence by a ship's officer".

Weir stresses that workers being able to talk with each other is vital for building solidarity and trade-unionism, let alone socialism. Often that is done in breaks, and may even be impossible while on-task.

More and more employers (I think) have reorganised work-breaks so that each individual or small group gets their breaks at a different time. It should be a trade-union priority to block that.

Elsewhere, maybe because of the increasing atomisation of life under neoliberalism, workers have come to socialise less in their breaks even though no employer's rule blocks them. They use their breaks instead for computer games, shopping, or the like. Some more sociable workers combat that by such things as regularly baking snacks for their whole workgroup; and socialists should follow their lead.

Weir was in the Workers Party and ISL of Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, and others from 1944 to 1958, and he was the original of the character "Joe Link" in Harvey Swados's novel about that Third Camp Trotskyist group.

When the group is withering in the late 1950s, a character who has dropped out of activity goes to visit "Joe" in California. Like Weir in real life, "Joe" is in hard manual work (car factories, then a house-painter).

"Joe... said, without looking up, 'Well, I'm not quitting. I've signed up for the duration'.

"Out of politeness, Sy asked tiredly, 'How are things with your branch?'

"Joe glanced up and grinned his old grin. 'Schlecht', he said honestly...

"'I've been trying to hold the branch together. They're all busy buying tract houses and appliances. The automatic dishwasher is the big thing this season. I can understand it... Meanwhile the literature distribution is falling off.

"'They're starting to say to me, 'Look, Joe, you keep the bundle orders of New Labor [fictional equivalent of the real-life ISL Labor Action] in your house, not in mine, it makes a mess'... I make the comrades uncomfortable — they're getting ahead in the world, and just because I'm not they think I'm looking down my nose at them...

"'But I don't care how many black years we've got ahead, I'm not giving up. Maybe it is a question of personality'."

In 1958 the ISL's leadership dissolved it into the Socialist Party. Weir's writings about this from much later suggest he was shocked ("I would have found it hard to believe that [Shachtman] already had plans to dissolve the ISL") - but had progressively felt "let down" by the ISL.

"The capable people who had built the Workers Party's auto fraction in the industrial Midwest had become UAW [union] staffers... We were no more than a holding operation".

One of the items in the volume is a pamphlet on rank-and-file worker rebellions written in 1966 for the revived third-camp socialist group founded by Hal Draper in 1963, called ISC then IS. Dan LaBotz tells us that Weir remained in the IS after Draper quit in 1971.

Evidently Weir quit at some point, perhaps in the late 1970s when pressure from the SWP-UK and disappointments in trade-union work triggered splits in the IS which broke it into six or seven fragments.

In the late 1960s Weir became a professor at the University of Illinois: most of his writing is from that later part of his life, though much of it about the earlier part. In articles of the late 1980s and early 1990s he started to criticise what he called "the vanguard party" concept. That argument reads to me like rationalising his own drift by way of constructing a caricature of that concept he would never have held to in his WP/ISL or IS days.

"The most damaging part of the baggage that comes with the vanguard party idea is that the party you are a member of should and will itself become the state". Stalinists thought that, but never Trotskyists.

Weir also claims that the WP during World War Two was too hyper-active to integrate workers with more life-burdens than the core members (mostly young ex-students now working in heavy industry), and that WP branches didn't do enough listening to those workers about workplace issues alongside talking to them about the Russian revolution and Marxism.

He may have a valid point - but he made the criticism in 1994, fifty years after the event, and did not claim to have made it when he was himself a manual worker in the WP/ISL and could have improved the imbalance if it existed.

Perhaps because of Weir's later drift, there is actually nothing in the book about "singlejack" political work, or even "singlejack" work in which a trade-unionist in large-scale industry educates a socialist from another background, say a student, about workplace activity.

It should be possible to add a few precepts for political work to the ones about unionist-to-unionist "singlejacking" which Weir got in his 1943 seafarer dispute. Some of them can be got by reading about Ray Dunne.

Dunne made his business to get to know other workers - "probably four or five hundred workers in Minneapolis knew Ray personally", records Bryan Palmer. He was "deliberate, sober, unobtrusive, known as a respectful listener".

But "they had always known him as a Red". He could have achieved that only by always listening for the elements of class-consciousness or socialist feeling in what other workers said, and working to develop those elements and to wither the elements of bigotry, prejudice, and timidity.

Probably he continued the methods of the IWWer who educated him in the lumberjack camp, "appearing to be a literature agent", always reading himself, being seen to read, having papers or pamphlets or books to offer.

He would have looked out for the quieter workers, maybe quiet because more thoughtful. He would have understood that the breadth of ideas, knowledge, and life-experience even in the most unpromising workplaces is usually much greater than appears at first sight.

Even mass organisations rely on "singlejacking" as one of the pillars of their building; relatively small socialist movements, even more so. There are traditions and experiences for us to learn from.


Submitted by Steve Diamond (not verified) on Wed, 09/01/2019 - 20:31

It is not quite correct to say, simply, that Stan (a mentor and friend of mine for many years) became a professor at the University of Illinois. In fact, he became a labor educator, an academic staff position (not the same as a tenure stream professor) whereby he was supposed to, and did, train rank and file and labor union staff in organizing, grievance handling and collective bargaining methods. In that position Stan put to work his own unique "informal work group" method of organizing among what was then - in an area of the country that was industrialized and not yet the rust belt - heavily unionized. He helped, in one case, train a group of militant auto workers who engaged in a sit down strike, unheard of since the 30s.

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