Herb March: a Legend Deserved

A Great Vision:  A Militant Family’s Journey through the 20th Century.
By Richard March.  Hardball Press.  2017.


In their son Richard, Herb and Jane March have the biographer they deserve.  He describes “a boyhood fascination with family stories”.  It serves him well in telling his parents’ story.  They lived exemplary public lives and, as it turns out, private ones as well.  In the late 1930s, Herb became a legend in his own time as the key organizer in the CIO’s Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC) drive to unionize Chicago’s meatpacking houses, made infamous by Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle.

Jane was active in the neighborhood, did most of the childrearing in the family, and was a strong support for her husband.  They exemplified the best of a generation of radicals that came of age in the Great Depression, many of whom were members of the Communist Party USA (CP); that was his parent’s political home.  Here’s how Richard describes them:

My parents, never doctrinaire Marxists, didn’t believe in violent revolution.  Complex ideological polemics bored them. They had a red-bound set of the works of Lenin, but the books never looked worn from wear.  Non-sectarian, they worked as progressives with whomever they shared a particular goal.  In their formative years they were appalled by the extremes of wealth and poverty they saw about them and became determined to do something about it. Pa devoted his life to union organizing and Mom was a community activist…[T]here were energetic members of his union who subscribed to various schools of radical thought, Socialists, anarcho-syndicalists, Trotskyists and Communists…there were devout Catholics, black preachers and politically conservative workers who were staunch unionists as well.  They could argue about their differences, but facing their class enemies, the bosses, they all needed to stick together.

In this lively and instructive book, Richard March does several things, and he’s probably the only person who could have brought them together.

+ He tells his family story: the Croatian and Eastern European Jewish contexts of his mother and father, his growing up as a “red diaper baby”, and his participation in the culture of the CP left.

+ In some detail, he recounts his father’s union organizing, as well as his mother’s neighborhood and other activist work. By all accounts, Herb was the key organizer in the stockyards, excelling at the one-to-one relational work of organizing as well as at moving a crowd with his public speaking. Shortly after the CIO organizing drive began, Saul Alinsky arrived in the neighborhood and soon thereafter, along with Catholic lay leader and well regarded neighborhood leader Joe Meegan, became the key organizer of Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC).  The troubles, turmoil and victories of that late 1930s effort are all in this book.

+ Finally, Richard’s ethnographer ear and eye keep him close to the ground. His running political commentary goes throughout the text, but it stays close to the story rather than entering into abstract ideological disputes. (I will note an exception later.)

Early Years:  Jane

Jane’s extended family had several radical members.  Three of her brothers went to the Soviet Union in 1931, and remained.  Their encounters with Stalin’s repression are told here, as well as the hopeful times on a collective farm when utopian dreams looked like they had met reality.  The family was rich with discussion and debate. Jane was a highly talented woman who today would probably have continued her education, then might have become a major leader in a union or community organization.  In those days, even in an organization that talked about “the women question”, her role was surprisingly traditional.

At the same time they were radicals, most of the family remained devout Catholics. That caused tensions that are captured in March’s story.  For example, when Jane’s brother John died, “the priest at Assumption Church refused to conduct his funeral mass because of his family’s communist associations.  Finally he relented. John had never foresworn his religion.  [The priest was] “emphatically reminded of John’s late father’s importance to the congregation as a vestryman.”

Herb’s Early Years

At 16, Herb dropped out of college to devote full time to the CP youth wing, the Young Communist League (YCL). Its program, he recalled in an oral history “was for young people to become active in unions, to bore from within, as it was called, to make the labor movement, which was staid and conservative, more progressive, and also to organize the unorganized.”

Herb hitch-hiked, rode freight trains, slept in cheap hotels and sometimes in jail.  In various places he sought work so he could implement the “bore from within” strategy.  He also got involved in issues of racial justice.  YCL’s focus was young workers, but in a factory that didn’t make sense, so he organized all workers.  It was his first run-in with Party higher-ups.  “There were many people,” he says, “who thought I was out of control.”

The Communist Party

Herb’s non-sectarian spirit is best expressed in this comment he made to his son about an internal split in the early period of the CP:  “I couldn’t quite understand why they were so vicious with one another.”

Ultimately, Richard tells us, Herb “was persecuted and pushed out of the union by anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s, as well as the Communist Party’s own nonsensical policies.”  “Nonsensical”?  Some better word is needed to describe the dictates that came down from party headquarters that told Herb how he should conduct his union affairs.  When these orders didn’t make sense, Herb didn’t follow them.  Sometimes he argued with higher ups. Because of the respect with which he was held by thousands of workers, they sometimes backed down.  Other times he ignored them.  Other times he went along—as in the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the no-strike pledge but, in the case of the latter, found ways to fight for workers’ rights anyway.

“Pa expressed annoyance at the ‘grandstand quarterbacks’ of the Communist Party who ‘didn’t know a packinghouse from a pickle but wanted to dictate his organizing strategy.” After the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the CIO no longer was a CP priority, “and Herb was ordered to abandon the PWOC and work with the AFL…Disenchanted with the Party leaders and busy with union work, he ignored them.”

In 1955, Herb was expelled from the CP.  The charge:  “white chauvinist”.  He believed that the two top positions of the Chicago area Packinghouse Workers Union District Council should be occupied by a black and a white.  The Party wanted him to support a second black, a woman; he refused.

The Theodore Draper Versus “History From Below” Debate

There exists in the literature on the American Communist Party many, many debates, often esoteric, often with little relevance to the world in which we now live.  But one of those debates is both important and lively.  To sum it up in a few words does it a disservice, but I will try:  Draper is focused on the top-down, orders from Moscow, obedient—if not automaton—rank-and-file membership point of view.  The “new historians” look at history through the eyes and experiences of everyday people, and the activists, leaders and organizers who work closely with them.  They focus on the dedication, talent and creativity of the Communists (and other leftists) who were among those instrumental in building the CIO.  It is impossible to make sense of Herb March in Draper’s framework.  It is impossible to understand what happened to Herb March without his framework.

Richard is closer to the bottom-up historians.  But the rich detail he provides of his father’s story makes clear that such a sharp polarization of views obscures as well as clarifies.  Herb March was a dedicated Communist who generally followed the Party line.  He also was a small “d” democrat who argued with Party higher-ups when their dictates made no sense in his local context, and who bucked them when he couldn’t persuade them they were wrong.

You cannot appreciate the intricacies of this argument without getting into the detail.  Richard takes us there.

The Packinghouse Workers Union

In his telling of his dad’s union organizing work, Richard captures the detail that is essential for an organizer to know if s/he is to succeed.  Along with the “big issues” of wages, hours and benefits, there are the insults and dangers that are pushed in a worker’s face everyday.  These, in fact, are as likely to provide an organizer with a “handle” as the big issues that initially seem to rank-and-filers beyond change.

Pa explained that among the “many, many things wrong” was the autocratic power of the foreman in each department…The “drive” system was used to push personnel to work ever harder and faster.  Workers were verbally abused and threatened with layoff if they didn’t pick up the pace.  There was no protection, no seniority.  Workers were hired and fired at will.  To avoid layoffs, they frequently had to bribe the foreman…Another common practice [was for] the foreman directing them to punch out on the time clock and then require them to do unpaid work for another fifteen minutes or so.

Richard introduces instructive reminiscences from his father; this is just one example:

One of the secrets of successful organizing is to anticipate that management is going to react, and to be prepared to meet their response with your own counterpunch…[Herb then describes how he implemented that idea and got a victory.]  That victory resulted in people in the plant signing up left and right.  In a couple of months Armour Soap Works was 100% union.

Richard observes, “The union’s protection of workers’ jobs was a powerful inducement to join.  Heretofore they had been completely at the mercy of the bosses whims.”  He tells other stories of how the union fought big and little campaigns and won.  As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details”.  Richard gets deeply into them.

The organizing drive in The Yards was as close to class war as any struggle of the 1930s.  Herb was shot at twice, and wounded.  The next day, he was back organizing.  In a nice, and important, family touch, Richard adds, “Mom’s stories of those times had a darker, dramatic tone describing the experience of living in fear… ‘I don’t think he [Herb] ever understood just how scared I was in those days’.  Mom told me she could never have survived that period had it not been for the tight support network of her family and their many comrades.”

In no small measure, the justice commitment to African-Americans and women in the United Packinghouse Workers Union (UPWA) owes itself to the role played by Herb March.  While Richard’s pride in his father (and mother) are clear, I think he could brag a little more!  This story of Addie Wyatt is illustrative:

Addie Wyatt was one African-American woman who came to recognize how the UPWA’s exceptional brand of interracial organization offered black women an opportunity to become leaders of fellow workers. Hired in the early 1940s as a typist by Armour and Company in Chicago, management placed her in the canning department instead. She was furious until she discovered that she earned more money canning stew than typists earned in the front office…It was the union that had successfully bargained for higher wages, and Wyatt recalled that “being a young worker I didn’t know what the union was, but whatever it was, it made a difference in wages, and that was all right with me.”

As African-American women learned to believe in the UPWA’s willingness and ability to support them, they deepened their union commitments. Such was the case with Addie Wyatt. Soon after she was hired, Wyatt filed her first grievance. The company had replaced her with a newly hired white woman and moved Wyatt to a less desirable job in another department. She complained to her steward, another black woman, who took up the issue first with the foreman. When the steward did not get a satisfactory response from the foreman, they both went to the plant superintendent. Wyatt got her job back. “This was a moving experience to me,” Wyatt recalled, “but I still didn’t understand the power and strength and support of the union.” Six months later, Wyatt had the opportunity to experience the union’s support firsthand. Pregnant and afraid to tell anyone because she thought she would be laid off, she discovered that not only could she take a one-year leave of absence, returning to work when her baby was three months old, but that “the union made this possible.”

These experiences motivated Wyatt to attend local union meetings, where she was deeply impressed with their interracial quality and with workers’ determination to “band together” to “overcome the problems that separated and divided us.” “And I,” Wyatt remembered, “wanted to be a part of it.” Further inspired, Wyatt embarked on a path of union activism and leadership. In 1952, she became vice president and, soon thereafter, president of her local union. In 1954, the UPWA hired her as an international representative. She became active in the civil rights and women’s movements, was labor advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., and was a founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW). (“African-American Women and the Struggle for Equality in the Meatpacking Industry, 1940-1960.  Bruce Fehn.  Journal of Women’s History, Vol 10, #1, Spring, 1998, pp 45-69.  Johns Hopkins University Press.

The Taft-Hartley “Non-Communist Affidavit”

As the Cold War unfolded, anti-Communism grew.  A conservative Congress passed, over President Harry Truman’s veto, the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act that required union officials to sign an affidavit swearing they weren’t members of the Communist Party.

John L. Lewis, addressing a national convention of labor leaders, called on them to unite against Taft-Hartley, calling it a first step toward American fascism:

The Taft-Hartley statute is the first ugly, savage thrust of Fascism in America. It came into being through an alliance between industrialists and the Republican majority in Congress, aided and abetted by those Democratic legislators who still believe in the institution of human slavery. It was bought and paid for by campaign contributions from the industrial and business interests of this country, and the Republican Party and the Democratic minority made good by forging these legislative shackles for you and the men and the women who pay you to intelligently represent them.

Expulsion from the CIO was the fate of most of the Communist-led unions.  But union president Ralph Helstein was a social democrat, not a Communist; he worked with them and opposed their exclusion from organized labor.  [Years later, active proponents of the expulsions wrote mea culpas—Paul Jacobs’ and Msgr Owen Rice’s are the most instructive of them.]  When Helstein succumbed to Taft-Hartley and fired Herb, it temporarily severed Helstein’s friendship with Saul Alinsky, a fierce opponent of Taft-Hartley.

Race and The Union

From its inception the union forged racial solidarity.  The symbol of the PWOC was a black and white hand clasped in handshake…Blacks were well represented in leadership…Race relations among packinghouse workers were advanced by a surprising happenstance:  a Polish-speaking African American hog butcher named John Hackett who learned the language as a World War I prisoner of war.  Herb recalls:

Hackett came back from Europe with a good command of Polish that he polished in the packinghouse.  The Poles would get a big charge out of him speaking.   They’d say, “We want John to speak!” and he’d get up there and sound off in Polish and they thought that was great, they loved it.”

There is much in the way Herb, his union and those rank-and-file packinghouse workers dealt with race that applies today.  Read the book to learn how.

The Neighborhood

The neighborhood was overwhelming Eastern European Catholic. European nationalities had their own language parishes; they brought to the neighborhood their old world culture and conflicts.  There were Irish and a small Mexican community, and Spanish language parish as well.  Jane and her group of young left activists sought to bring the rival ethnic groups together in a conference on youth issues and to bring jobs to the neighborhood.  Richard tells us, “The elderly pastors of their parishes were conservative, but younger assistant pastors, mostly American-born, tended to be liberal and pro-union.”  Vicky, one of the organizers, invited Alinsky, who was becoming an organizing presence in the neighborhood, to speak.  He declined the invitation, but showed up at the meeting.  The conference was a success. Twenty-six ethnic groups and parishes were “represented”.  I will return to this idea of representation below.

Jane became active in the neighborhood.  She and some of her women friends were “a group of dedicated community organizers, many of them communists, [who] learned how to bridge the neighborhood barriers of ethnic and religious rivalries.  Through the years of work they laid the essential groundwork and provided the model and the muscle to establish the Back-of-the-Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC), the organization upon which the famous community organizer Saul Alinsky made his reputation.  While the crucial contributions of Mom and her cohort are given only passing mention in the historical writings about the origins of ‘Alinskyism’, the work of the Back-of-the-Yards Council led the movement, thanks to Mom’s community and Pa’s union organizing.”

“Saul,” says Richard, “saw a big opportunity.  His mother’s cohorts “had united a critical mass of neighborhood organizations and interest groups around their project.  With the approval of mom and her cohort, Saul and Joe Meegan, the recreation director at nearby Davis Square Park, became the public faces of the emergent neighborhood organization.

“The community organization that Mom co-founded, the Back-of-the-Yards Neighborhood Council, still exists and still advocates for the interests of its immigrant inhabitants, now mostly Latinos.”

As I will soon elaborate, that’s not the way Herb and Jane told the story.  Richard doesn’t understand what Alinsky did.  Herb and Jane did.  Too bad.  It’s a weakness that runs through his story.

The Kelly-Nash Democratic Party Machine

The “Chicago Machine” ran the city’s politics.  Mayor Ed Kelly was responsible for the police killings (all shot in the side or back—they were running away!) of a dozen Republic Steel strikers or strike supporters.  Herb tells what followed politically:

…Kelly was up for re-election…and was beginning to realize how deep and intense was the sentiment against him among union workers.  So Kelly sent out word to us he was interested in seeing what he could do to resolve this stockyards situation [a developing strike] peacefully.  We said, “Well good…but in the meanwhile don’t interfere with our right to picket and carry on a lawful strike. Let’s see whether the police can behave much better than what occurred [at Republic Steel]”.

Faced with a strike, the company tried to form a company union and organize a “back to work movement”. A mass mobilization of strikers stopped that.

Herb continues the story:

Then the question of getting a contract came up, and these gentlemen [Union Stock Yards and Transit Company] indicated, “No contract under any circumstances.” We met with Kelly and Kelly said, “Well, you just leave it to me.  These gentlemen get their water from the City of Chicago at a very, very good price.”  If they didn’t have a cooperative attitude, they might have their water cut off.  So we did leave it to him and by God they came through with the first contract in the history of that company.

Richard sums it up well, “The battle was won on the streets and in the yards, but the victory had to be sealed in the corridors of local political power.”  That’s a lesson worth the price of the book.  Kelly, by the way, became an ardent New Dealer, and pushed for an end to racial segregation in the city.  It cost him the support of the political Machine, and his downfall as a politician.

Alinsky and Race in BYNC:  How Herb and Jane Saw It

In a lengthy interview I conducted with them, I asked Herb and Jane about race in Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council.

“Could Saul Alinsky have done anything different that would have prevented the racist turn the organization took?”

For a while, I was an observer as Jane and Herb disagreed among themselves on how to answer the question.  Initially, Herb thought “yes.”  Jane said “no.”  They explored what Alinsky might have done, and at the end of their exchange both concluded:  nothing.  The combination of a new location for the Packinghouse Workers Union (away from the Back of the Yards so blacks no longer came to the neighborhood), the exodus from the industry of many whites who were able to move into other unionized jobs that both paid more and were less dangerous or onerous, but that discriminated against blacks, the already-present prejudice among the Eastern European white ethnics who were predominant in the Back of the Yards, and the erosion and near-disappearance of any social relationships between the blacks and the whites all conspired to make the emergence of racist policies likely when the first blacks sought to move into Back of the Yards.  Note, by the way, that even in the best moments of race relations, there was never a question of blacks moving into the neighborhood.

With the benefit of 2017 eyes I would add this:  it was the accepted view among working class whites in those days that after the first African-American family moved into a neighborhood, the value of homes plummeted.  From the perspective of the whites who owned the homes, the facts supported their view:  in neighborhoods like Back of the Yards, the home price for the white seller dropped significantly after the first black family moved in. But that’s not the price black buyers paid.  Because of pent-up demand for homes among African-Americans who were limited to living in tightly defined ghettos, there were working- and middle-class blacks who could afford to pay more, and they did—a lot more.  Most people now know about red-lining.  Then, nobody except those engaging in it did.  The on-the-ground players in this devastation of white working class neighborhoods and robbery of blacks seeking decent housing included federal, state and local governments, banks, savings and loans, and insurance companies, and disreputable realtors who made lots of money on the deals.

Just after World War II, Alinsky called for a city-wide racial quota in Chicago neighborhoods as the only way to achieve racial integration.  Nobody supported that!  At the time, and almost 80 years later, these patterns of discrimination in cities persist.

Alinsky, Herb March and the Left

The route that follows is a bit circuitous, but what you’ll find at its end is important.

While I was a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee I was also in touch with Saul Alinsky.  I’d read his Reveille for Radicals where I encountered, in pseudonym, Herb March, and John L. Lewis:  An Unauthorized Biography.  Alinsky and I had numerous lengthy conversations on organizing that by 1965 convinced me of what he was doing; he wanted me to come to work for his Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)—something I later did.  (SNCC was too important the first time he asked.)

In Chicago Friends of SNCC I met Ann and Jesse Prosten.  By the time I met them, I had encountered numerous people from the Communist–led left whose attitudes toward Alinsky were hostile, but when pressed could not make clear the source of their anger.  Ann shared those hostile feelings.  When I asked her about their source, she said, “You should talk with Herb March.,” and she knew where to find him:  San Pedro, California where he and his wife spent an afternoon with me talking about organizing, the union, race, Back of the Yards, the Communist Party and Saul Alinsky.

I asked Herb,

“What were your differences with Alinsky about?”

“We agreed on strategy in Back of the Yards; our differences were political.”

“And what were those political differences?” (I thought I would now get at what was behind all the earlier left criticisms I’d heard of Alinsky.)

“The Hitler-Stalin Pact.” (March supported it.)

I laughed.

Herb is in Democratic Promise, a documentary about Alinsky.  I connected the film’s producers with him.  At one point, describing his relationship with Alinsky, March says, “I told Saul…‘Saul, uh…you may be a pretty smooth guy, but I don’t know whether you’re going to be able to get me and these priests in the same room.’”

What Alinsky did was move the institutional church into relationship with the Communist-led union, along with just about every other voluntary association in the neighborhood.  As Richard notes, “the pastors were conservative”.  But they were essential people to move.  If they opposed something, it might get off the ground, but it would be a one-winged bird and couldn’t fly for long.  Here’s what canon law says about the role of the pastor:

[He is] in charge of the congregation of the parish entrusted to him. He exercises the pastoral care of the community entrusted to him under the authority of the diocesan bishop…teaching, sanctifying and ruling with the cooperation of other priests or deacons and with the assistance of lay members of Christ’s faithful…

Alinsky and Joe Meegan were far more than the “public faces of the organization.” Meegan’s brother was a monsignor who gave them access to the hierarchy.  They were able to obtain the support of both Auxiliary Bishop Bernard Shield and Cardinal Samuel Stritch, Archbishop of the Diocese.  When Herb said to Saul, “I don’t know whether you’re going to be able to get me and these priests in the same room.” it’s not the young liberal priests he was talking about.

In many Catholic parishes there is a social justice, peace and justice or similarly identified committee.  In some, the people who participate in those committees are also widely known and regarded in the parish as a whole.  In most, they’re not.  They are people whose faith leads them to take Catholic teachings on justice seriously, and to want to act on them.  Too often, they are on the fringe of parish life.

Richard’s idea of “representative” isn’t sufficient.  A group of liberal lay Catholics and a young liberal priest may be from a specific parish; they aren’t representative of it because what they thought is not what most parishioners in Back of the Yards thought.  Alinsky understood that.  Vicky Starr was mad when Alinsky attended their meeting after having earlier refused to speak at it.  Ann Prosten, who initially connected me with Herb and Jane was mad because Alinsky had similarly ignored her work on Chicago’s southside when he began building The Woodlawn Organization.

If you want to “deliver” the people of the parish, these activists are not where you start, though you certainly want them on boardPeople power, which Herb and Jane understood deeply, requires delivering people.  The art, craft and science of the skilled organizer was, and remains, to transform from within the character of an organization (parish, congregation, union local, whatever) from one of passive to active membership that takes moves proclaimed beliefs from Sunday’s sermon into action.  My conclusion from Richard’s text and my conversations with many leftists is that Vicky and Ann either didn’t understand, or opposed, this idea.


I suspect that the ambiguity in Richard’s description of Alinsky’s role with his father and in Back of the Yards reflects a personal ambivalence.  Richard grew up politically in the culture of the Old Left and New Left.  From people like Vicky Starr, and perhaps Ann Prosten, he heard the critical views of Alinsky.  Both SDS and SNCC, later influences on Richard, considered Alinsky and rejected him.  In their various analyses he was a reformist, not a revolutionary; a pragmatist, not a visionary; “top-down”, not “bottom-up”.  It is the last of these that particularly plays a role here.

Alinsky respected the institutions to which local people gave their allegiance.  If they participated in them, and offered their time, talents and money, then the organization was one whose participation he wanted in a people power “organization of organizations”. Because Alinsky respected existing institutions, and went through their structures, his organizing was called “top-down”.

While the Pope might appoint bishops, and bishops might assign pastors, the internal life of a Catholic parish in Alinsky’s time was filled with voluntary associations formed and sustained by the people themselves. Further, in the collection plate and at various fundraisers the parishioners showed the importance of the church to them by giving it their money.  In fact, in those days the pastors were often children of the very neighborhood in which organizing was going on, but that’s not a necessary point to this perspective.

And there’s this important development that takes place internally in parishes where Alinsky and his organizers worked.  San Antonio Archbishop Francis James Furey told this story—with a twinkle in his eye.

When I invited Saul [Alinsky] into our Diocese, I thought we would be taking action against poverty, discrimination and other injustices “out there” in the world. A couple of years after the organizing project got underway, the pastor at one of the COPS parishes was scheduled to leave; I would soon be announcing a new assignment.  One day my secretary told me a group from the parish had scheduled a meeting with me.  That was unusual, and I wondered what it would be about.  They came well prepared:  “We would like to have a voice in the assignment of our new pastor,” the spokeswoman for the group said, and continued, “We want someone who is a supporter of COPS.”  The democracy that Saul taught was now being used inside the Church against me!

Once given expression, the democratic impulse, and the skills and power associated with its implementation, isn’t contained in a specific (“the community”) arena.  Once learned, it is applied throughout life—the family, church world, work life, wherever!

Later, when he worked in the African-American community, Alinsky similarly sought involvement of the historically black churches and denominations:  various Baptist Conventions, Church of God in Christ, AME, AMEZ and CME Methodists, and independent congregations that often met in store-fronts.  Mississippi native Rev. Dr. Amos Brown, pastor of the historic Third Baptist Church in San Francisco, and one-time President of the city’s NAACP—and himself a moderate—said of the black church, “It’s the only institution we own lock, stock and barrel.”  In his black community organizing project that I directed in Kansas City, MO, there were also public and private housing tenant associations, block clubs, parent groups and other direct membership organizations.  It was never an either/or proposition.

Alinsky did both, and in the case of Fred Ross, Sr’s work with Mexican-Americans in California, supported an individual membership organization—the Community Service Organization (CSO).  CSO is where Cesar Chavez got his training as an organizer.

The fact of CSO and Alinsky’s support for it suggests that “organization of organizations” versus “from scratch” organization is not the dividing line between what young militants do and what Alinsky did.  As a result, there are now rather tortuous efforts by writers on the left to distinguish Ross from Alinsky and make the approaches of the two qualitatively different.  The difficulty they face is that the facts don’t fit their argument.

SNCC and the SDS Economic Research and Action Projects (ERAP) went door-to-door and organized “from scratch”.  More recently, a young organizer might form a non-profit, recruit a board of people who want to support him or her, write and submit proposals to foundations, receive a grant and then go door-to-door asking people to join what, in fact, is his organization.  Usually, being a “community organizer” quickly becomes part of a resume, not a vocation. That’s called “bottom-up”. In actuality, this organizer has simply gathered people without deep affiliations and created a new organization with them that is centered on the organizer.  From years of observation, the number of people such organizations delivered to their meetings was typically in the 20 – 30 range, with maybe 100 at an action.  They should be part of something bigger, but they are far from being “the community”.

Richard is also a careful listener.  He must have heard positives about Alinsky from Jane and Herb.  In the face of cognitive dissonance, one can block everything out, choose one or the other, or give a little to both.  Richard does the last in this book.

There’s Much More

There’s more:  final victory over the big meatpackers, the internecine struggles within organized labor, mobilization for World War II, Herb’s return to the Packinghouse Workers Union, the 1943 transition from organizing committee to the United Packinghouse Workers of America, election of Ralph Helstein as its President—with Herb’s support and the CP’s opposition, his mother’s wartime work at Studebaker, creative ways of “slowing down” work during the “no strike pledge” period of World War II, the union’s continuing push against racism, 1948 strike defeat, fear instilled in families during the Red Scare, his family’s move to San Pedro, Richard’s development as a young radical and his own career as a folklorist.

He has some SNCC and SDS details wrong, but that’s incidental to the main story of his book.  (For example, he takes seriously Stokely Carmichael’s, “The position of women in SNCC is prone.” It was said in a dozens-like repartee with some young feminist participants in the exchange.  They all laughed.)

More Such Books Are Needed!

I hope the sons and grandsons, the nieces and grandnieces, and the nephews and grandnephews of organizers will write books like this one about their legendary and not-so-well known family elders who played important roles in such past struggles as the industrial union movement, the Deep South civil rights movement, and many more expressions of history being built from the bottom up.

In Richard March’s A Great Vision, whatever its mistakes and occasional biases may be, they will find an excellent standard by which to measure their work.