By Prof. ROLAND G. SIMBULAN
A book review essay of Fighting Times: Organizing on the Front Lines of the Class War by Jonathan Melrod*
The title of the book may sound very, very ideological, but the book really is not. Rather than ideological, it is grassroots. I must confess that I am used to reviewing academic and theoretical works, which this book is also not.
But I am glad that I was asked to review it. For this is a very unique book that is a deeply personal narrative of a front-liner on the shop floor of America’s automobile industries waging a David vs. Goliath fight against the inherent abuses of the capitalist system. Because of his union organizing, the author was actually terminated several times, and betrayed by turncoats in union ranks, harassed by management bosses and supervisors, and experienced intense surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Jonathan Melrod’s employment history is a six-word story: HIRED, TIRED, FIRED, REHIRED, FIRED, and REHIRED again. This is because Melrod knows how to STAND UP to big corporate interests. Though there is a saying that, “it’s a recession when your neighbour loses his job, and it’s a depression when you lose your own,” Melrod was never tired of fighting back for his and other workers’ democratic and labor rights. Melrod experienced being literally dragged out from the factory assembly line to be fired for fighting for better working conditions and defending the rights of workers. That is perhaps why they titled their labor newsletter, Fighting Times, which also became the title of Melrod’s book.
Raising working class consciousness, organizing and labor stoppage/slowdowns against management so-called productivity “speed ups” that tried to extract more capitalist profits/stolen surplus value became the weapon of Melrod and his worker comrades in labor caucuses that they organized. But, I have always wondered: If a train station is where the train stops, and a bus station is where the bus stops, WHAT IS A WORK STATION?
Melrod and his labor caucus comrades also made it stop.
Melrod’s book – with all its 28 chapters – blends his personal history with important lessons in building a multi-racial, multi-gender working class solidarity on the shop floor, in the streets, and within the legal system.
We Filipinos, can relate with Melrod’s book on many fronts:
FIRST, Filipino farmworkers in America especially those with Obreros Unidos where the author became a driver- organizer. Today, as a result of neoliberal globalization, underpaid Filipino immigrant workers – both documented and undocumented – are fully exploited as they struggle against racism and violations of their economic rights.
SECOND, the Philippine economy is deeply intertwined with the operations of American monopoly capital through U.S. transnational corporations as represented by the powerful American Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines extracting surplus labor on Filipinos as they do on American workers.
THIRD, like the American working class, in the Philippines, the continuing struggle of our factory workers and public and private sector employees, as well as our own farmers for better working conditions and decent, LIVING WAGES. In a recent survey of wages (Dec. 2022), the daily nominal minimum wage rate in the Philippines is only one-third of the Family living wage for a family of five. Thus, Philippine wages are aptly described by KMU Chair Bong Labog as “LIBING” in Tagalog (meaning funeral) wages, not “living wages.”
Much has been written in recent years about welfare-state capitalism, the so-called “maturity and benevolence” of transnational corporations in their home countries, leading to the atrophy of working class movements in America, Europe and Japan. But through his forward looking experiences as a labor front-liner on the shop floor, the author tells a story that everything is not alright and that the capitalist assembly lines are not democratic, but highly exploitative, but can be challenged for the better and that the working class can shape the future against capitalist greed, a greed that is inherent and endemic in capitalism. This optimistic excitement has been contagious, being carried all throughout this book by Melrod as he shares his trials and tribulations in democratizing relations at the workplace.
From the same U.S. generation of those who joined the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Weather Underground radicals during the American War in Vietnam, the author’s political steadfastness and rebel heart (that will make your own heart pound as it did mine) led him to work with the Black Panther Party as a distributor of their newsletters and pamphlets, and also to work with farmworkers where he was exposed to the conditions of migrant Filipinos and Mexicans in plantations. These farmworkers were most vulnerable and had no protection until they organized and forced to go on strike as exemplified by the strike of 35,000 Filipino and Mexican farmworkers in 1965.
A lot has been published both by way of books and newspapers, about the small bands of American radicals who formed the Weather Underground cells using extra-legal means like the generation of Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Jeff Jones and others because of their spectacular guerrilla attacks against the Pentagon and the other symbols of the U.S. Establishment. This was the young American generation inspired by Vietnam’s liberation struggle led by Ho Chi Minh and by the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevarra’s clarion call “to create, two, three, many Vietnams” against U.S. Imperialism.
On the other hand, Melrod was one of the thousands of anti-Vietnam War student activists of the 60s and 70s (whom we now refer to as part of the “Woodstock Generation”) who believed that they could best fight and change the capitalist system in the very heart of the imperial America by working in factories and organizing workers for social change. These 60s-era student radicals who left their campuses headed for factories, mines, mills and battered neighbourhoods. They worked in coal mines, in the postal service and like Melrod, some worked in the automobile industries of America to learn from the workers while bringing the message of social change to the places where common people lived and worked. It was a group of white redneck workers who told Melrod that they would be “better dead than Red” that challenged him to join them in the factories towards transformative changes in workers’ consciousness. Fighting capitalism towards a new socialist order means using its material realities and creating alternative services like those initiated by the Black Panther Party of the 60s when they built medical and educational services and community control over the police and local governments.
Less has been written about the student radicals like Melrod, who left the campus in 1973 for the factory as in his case, immersing himself for 13 years with the day to day struggles of Milwaukee’s working class, fighting for better working conditions, for racial and gender equality, and social justice in the factory workplace. This very unique personal and political history makes very engaging reading. Melrod’s approach is really very grassroots. While we see activists and organizers today using Twitter, FB, Zoom and other forms of social media, Melrod then had to go door to door in dormitories, or house to house knocking on doors, to distribute leaflets and newsletters in the streets and outside factory gates to explain the issues to people, and convince workers to join a meeting, a work stoppage or rally. It reminded me of the need to go “back to the basics” for personal interactions for solid organizing by way of listening and learning from the people.
I must however say that for a book that is essentially about the grassroots struggle of the American working class to control and shape society, there is remarkably little explicit coverage of American politics and the weakening of the American political system brought about by the Watergate scandal, US President Nixon’s resignation and the crisis of the U.S. military-industrial complex after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. At no time was the U.S. political system incredibly weak and could not sustain its war in Vietnam, even forcing it to establish diplomatic ties in 1972 with its historical arch enemy, the People’s Republic of China(PRC). Also, I was looking for connections and links of the industrial-technological infrastructure of the American motor/automobile industry where Melrod was organizing, with the killing war machine that the U.S. was testing in Vietnam in the 60s up to the mid-70s. Perhaps, the author, who admits to being a 60s radical transformed into revolutionary, has reserved that for another story, or for another book.
Meantime, Melrod has written the best book that I have read on shop-floor struggles against Capital. But the struggle that he has written is not just for the democratization of the workplace; it is also about labor union democracy, against labor racketeers/bureaucrats who connive with management to sell out the rank and file. Melrod shows that the unions, the organization of workers, are also their training ground for teaching them about the broader class struggle and for the transformation of society . As the book progressed to its conclusion, I was swept by Melrod’s statement that, “Dissent has to be the lifeblood of the union movement. Without it, it gets stale.”
Here are relevant issues that continue to challenge us in today’s “Fighting Times”:
While the push for the democratization of the workplace and unions has empowered workers to organize, neoliberal globalization of labor has undermined the strength of organized workers, segmenting regular workers from migrant/immigrant workers, a contingent vulnerable to economic security and social risks. Globalization has ushered in a period of rapid and heartless deindustrialization, labor migration, and a borderless economy- where it can exploit cheaper labor. Meanwhile, manufacturing jobs have been cut in the face of overwhelming restructuring of jobs, occupations and labor processes due to industrial technologies, AI, robots and automation. Industrial economies and states have surrendered their regulatory powers to corporate profits and to the nameless and faceless forces of the market, the supposed mechanism for growth and prosperity. There may be temporary jobs that many new migrants and immigrants from foreign lands dream about but most of the jobs are for low pay, offering a minimum wage has lost its value due to inflation and taxes. If this is not bad enough, many of the new jobs are temporary, which curtails job security, and discourages or prevents workers from joining unions. This is why labor issues must be unified with social issue towards social movement unionism whose broadened issues would inevitably include gender equality, women and LGBT rights, and climate change as corporations must now be monitored against emissions that also damage workers’ health. This is also an argument for stronger international solidarity among labor movements of the world.
These notwithstanding, the strengths of the book far outweigh its weaknesses and omissions and should be essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the day to day shop-floor struggles of the American working class especially the rank and file workers, and in particular the stark realities of militant unionism that confront the capitalist system. Melrod’s union story shows that the McCarthyite theme of “communist subversion” hurled against genuine independent unions and social movements is a continuing one. Often it is revived like a vintage record in the U.S., here in the Philippines and other parts of the world by states and capitalists. It is a continuing scarecrow but can be challenged by an awakened people uplifted by worker solidarity. For even when he is confronted by what he refers to as “Redneck white workers” and tagged as a “Jewish Commie”, Melrod gives them a sympathetic attitude of not condemning them, but understanding their natural desire to feed their families. This does not distract his focus on putting up a united front in fighting the company’s “speed up” policy to squeeze all workers of their labor for more profits. The victory against the company’s speedup policy not only gave space to dignify labor, but also created new jobs, forcing management to employ more workers. Truly, the labor movement’s emphasis on social justice and class solidarity cuts across ethnic, racial, social and gender divides in such an immigrant nation like the United States.
Memoirs like this which engage you in a political conversation, are still the best way that can tell your personal story, within the context of your times. As the book progressed, I was swept by his militant optimism and realized that what he has written is a fighting MANUAL for labor organizing. It is an organizer’s manual for those who want to change society. This book will certainly arm the consciousness and inspire a new generation of labor organizers and workers of the skills and attitude to challenge the odds. Certainly, the author is to be commended for his dedication to build a class-conscious workers movement from bottom up. To organize communities and workers, you have to listen to them and harness their class solidarity. Melrod did just that. The author has certainly shown that there is power in collective solidarity and action, as shown by recent collective actions and strikes by the rank and file workers of AMAZON, Starbucks and Higher Education teachers, researchers and employees in the state of California. Finally, Melrod puts his faith in working class consciousness even in the face of crises, but the yardstick here is always working class solidarity. Certainly, this is a superb book, written in simple, down to earth language. I am glad that Jon Melrod has written this book where he writes from the authority of personal experience the human dilemmas of being a worker and labor organizer.
Thanks to the efforts of Jon Melrod and other labor organizers before him, unions are now a part of American economic life. And as I said earlier, Melrod is not a theoretician. But his book is now an indispensable chapter in the literature on the history of the American working class movement.
In the final analysis, as Jonathan Melrod instructs, the strength of organized labor depends on its ability to articulate and promote with wisdom, initiative and creativity, the interests of workers as a whole.
This article was read by Prof. Roland Simbulan at the book launching of the Philippine edition of Fighting Times, held on January 8, 2023 at Quezon City. The activity was sponsored by Balai Obrero Foundation.
The author was a faculty of University of the Philippines (U.P.) for 38 years. He was Chairman of the Department of Social Sciences, Vice Chancellor for Planning and Development, and represented full time professors of the UP system at its Board of Regents (BOR). Prof. Roland has written books on Philippine Foreign Policy and colonialism and imperialism in the Philippines and Asia-Pacific. He is currently the Vice Chairman of Center for People’s Empowerment in Governance (CenPeg) and Chairman of the Philippines Anti-Imperialist Studies.