In the fall of 1993 I sat down my friend Scott McGuire in front of a tape recorder and got him to tell me (again) the story of his involvement in the Boston public employees’ attempt to react, in 1981-82, to the layoffs and cuts which stemmed from the passage of Proposition 2 1/2. Although, as this narrative reveals, this agitation never solidified in strike action, it nevertheless had extraordinary dimensions in a very bleak period for American working people. It was these extraordinary dimensions which I wanted to record and disseminate for discussion today, in 1994. I am writing this short preface to clarify some points which might not be known to those unfamiliar with the Boston and Massachusetts labor scene in those years, as well as to underscore some of the unique points in this narrative.
Proposition 2 1/2 was passed in Massachusetts in November 1980. It was, in essence, the Massachusetts version of California’s Proposition 13, passed in 1978. A manifestation of the right-wing populist anti-tax revolt which still remains a force in American politics, it placed a cap on property taxes, thereby requiring the states and cities to cut social services. In 1981, the first cuts were announced, in this case involving a threat to lay off all non- tenured teachers in Brookline, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb.
At the time of the announcement, Scott McGuire had just begun teaching high school in Brookline. He had already had over 10 years’ experience in radical activism. Seeing the complete impotence of the local public employees unions in dealing in any way with the new wave of austerity, McGuire wanted to take an independent course of action. Together with two other teachers, he put out a short leaflet calling for a meeting to discuss the crisis. The publication of the leaflet began a chain of events which went on for over a year. The leaflet was already unusual by the 3 basic points of its program: the insistence that the struggle against cuts had to be cross-sectoral, that it had to go beyond any localism and link up with workers all over the state, and that direct democracy at all times was essential to success. It was already eloquent testimony to the radical thrust of these elementary points that, throughout a year of riotous meetings, no one, including the union bureaucrats, ever dared to question them head on, even though their formulation, in a single stroke, superceded the union as the framework of the struggle. By the mere publication of these three points, which were so self- evident in view of the depth of the crisis opened by Proposition 2 I/2, the intervention of three Brookline teachers began a firestorm which, over a year later, the bureaucrats of the public employees union were still attempting to put out.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this process was the impact of the events in Poland on the Massachusetts public employees. As McGuire shows, the 1980-81 Polish strikes were fresh in everyone’s mind, and were a constant point of reference, in the most concrete and often astoundingly casual way, in the planning of action. In the seizure of the closed firehouse in Chelsea, a working-class suburb of Boston, the wives of the firefighters, grappling with the problem of feeding the occupation, tried to find out how it had been done in the occupied Gdansk shipyards. In one of the most dramatic mass meetings of the year-long ferment, a public school janitor delivered a fire-eating speech calling on Massachusetts public employees to do what the workers had done in Poland. That a struggle thousands of miles away, in a political and social context seemingly on another planet from Boston, could enter so vividly into discussions of ordinary working people about where to get mustard and relish for a firehouse occupation, or into a seemingly “apolitical” janitor’s call to “bring the state of Massachusetts to its knees” is a classic example of the “contagion of struggle” in certain situations that cut through all localism in an instant.
What is unique, for 1980’s America, in McGuire’s account is the way in which developments one normally associates with ferment of the scale of May 1968 in France unfolded, on a much smaller scale, with such a natural rhythm. Those readers familiar with Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind will immediately see the concrete manifestation, as the framework of struggle radicalizes like brushfire, of the emergence of the truly social individuals, possessing powers whose existence in themselves they did not even suspect. The radicalism of their acts shocked the actors even after they had acted. Hegel called this “the lower concrete form of existence … (which has’)…sunk into an obscure moment … where what was formerly an objective fact is now only a single trace”. In this instance, the “formerly objective fact” was the Brookline teachers’ union, with its lethargic bureaucrats and passive membership, now become “only a single trace” in statewide meetings open to all, discussing a possible general strike which the union, or even all the unions put together, could not pull off on an adequate basis, and which the concrete union in place did everything to sabotage. In certain crucial instances, McGuire shows, these radical ‘jumps in consciousness and self-organization were recognized and carried out by ordinary, “apolitical” public employees, while the main constituency (aside from the bureaucrats) for staying within old, superseded framework were the professional leftists and politicos, jaded by years of “boring from within”. It is a time-honored but often forgotten (above all in the current, seemingly endless phase of rollback) sequence of events erupting again and again in the most radical labor struggles of the past half century.
In addition to the immediate global framework, exemplified by the impact of Poland, and the way in which “the real becomes rational” (to use another Hegelianism) in the accelerated movement of atomized, passive individuals to creative collective action, (which at times seems surreal to someone outside the process), McGuire’s story raises in a most unusual way the question of the relationship between conscious intervention and spontaneity. McGuire himself had a long activist background on the radical left, yet was himself repeatedly astounded by each turn taken by events. This struggle was almost an ultra-left textbook fantasy of spontaneous self-organization, yet at the same time would never have occurred (at least in the way it unfolded) without McGuire’s leaflet and 3-point formulation of a minimum platform. This was the pebble cast onto a landslide waiting to happen.
Neither McGuire nor I have any clear-cut sense of the meaning of the story told here, except that the story is important, and that its lessons point to a minimum basis for real class organizing today, beyond the existing framework of (declining) unionism. Looking back 12 years later, when the condition of American working people has become much more serious than it was even in 1981-82, the circumstances in which these events took place look almost prosperous. At that time, there was certainly an awareness of social and economic crisis by many people, but as yet very few grasped its permanence and depth in a way which has now become generalized. Most people then, and through the ephemeral glitter of the 80’s, still believed the crisis to be temporary and transient.
This is a story of ferment in a rather special group of mainly white, mainly middle-class professionals in one city which did quite well in the high-tech boom of the 1980’s. But a struggle begun by this small group ultimately unleashed a process which drew in the most diverse elements, at its height from all over the state, with the aim of a statewide general strike. This general strike never took place. It is unlikely that labor historians of the future will ever make much of this story, which seemingly had so little aftermath. We are distributing this account today, in January 1994, to people interested in drawing its lessons, and the lessons of similar situations, to understand and intervene in the more general crisis of today, and tomorrow. Our aim is to elicit a response from readers and further debate and dialogue among those who find no place for themselves in existing left and union organizations.
Boston-Area Public Workers’ Ferment, 1981-82
Q. Why don’t you start out by talking about that leaflet that you put out?
A. I unfortunately don’t have a copy of that. But there were three essential points to the original leaflet that we passed out. The way the whole thing started was I was riding on the T in the morning every day going to work with another teacher and was talking about the crisis, talking about the fact that the union wasn’t doing anything. But one day I said: “We should do something ourselves. The union won’t. We should.” He said: “Fine”. So we said “let’s get together and write a leaflet. We’ll pass it out.” He said “Great”. He had had no experience ever doing this…”
Q: So he was not particularly political…
A. He wasn’t particularly political but he certainly agreed that we ought to do something. l believe that at this point all of the non-teachers, teaching staff, had been told they would be laid off. Potentially. We weren’t certain at this point. This was speculative. He was non-tenured, I was non-tenured. We decided to do something about it. We called up a friend of mine, he was interested as well. We’d meet at my apartment, we’d come together and write up a leaflet, so we came together one Saturday morning and wrote up the leaflet. And it was literally a paragraph announcing the fact that the crisis was really reaching enormous proportions and that there has to be a response, and that no one will do it unless we do it ourselves and, I think, outlining, making some mention of potential job actions, not saying particularly “strike” or anything but just potential job actions. And we based it, we put down at the bottom, or really at the center of the leaflet three central points, absolutely key. The first is that any action should be cross-sectoral, I can’t remind exactly how we worded it but there shouldn’t be just teachers, it should be all public employees, the whole public sector. We were the teachers union, the BEA, Brookline Education Association. And they distinguished themselves from the AFT as being more of a “professional” organization, less union oriented, less Teamsterish, and so forth. So we said it has to be across sectors, that it has to go beyond geographical boundaries, in other words, it has to extend beyond localities, in other words, state crisis needs a response that’s statewide. And the third essential point was that all actions, all decisions had to be in the hands of those who carry out those decisions. All the people involved, I can’t remember how we worded it…
Q: But basically, direct democracy.
A: Absolutely, direct democracy. Saying, and just being very emphatic in the way we worded it, that these three things were cardinal points that could never be anything other than central to everything. And what was interesting was that they just seemed–and I was the one who listed these as central points–and they just seemed so compelling that you couldn’t argue with them. You couldn’t really say “No, no we need to remain entirely local”. Because one of the guys was a leftist and the other was non-political but we all said that we need to do something.. So these, without a passing glance, on the leaflet anyway, became the central points, It’s sort of interesting, the way it wasn’t questioned. It later came to be questioned in a major way down the road. That’s how it started.
Q: Then you say that the leaflet got a mixed response.
A: Well, we passed it out, sort of clandestinely. We didn’t sign it, which became a big point of contention, there was no author to the leaflet. We stuck it in everybody’s mailbox. All the teachers have their own mailbox so we just put 680 in nine schools. We’d just go in early in the morning and in the afternoon and stuff every single mailbox. And that’s how the whole thing started.
Q: How did you sign it?
A: We didn’t sign it all, we simply said “Brookline Teachers”, that’s all we said. And it’s funny. We had no intention, there was no reason we didn’t sign it, it wasn’t because we were afraid, we didn’t want to be arrogant and say “Well, I’m saying this”, but there was no organization, there was nothing, this was just an idea we wanted to throw out…
Q: And there was no PO Box, no phone number…
A: Nothing, nothing at all. And what we wanted to do was follow it up with discussion in meetings or whatever, in union meetings, or in faculty meetings, or in any get together, we wanted to follow it up and say, well, a leaflet was passed out, we think the leaflet had merit and, you know, discuss it. The very next thing that happened was that they called a union meeting…
Q: In response to the leaflet?
A: Well, the union meeting was scheduled anyway, so it was a major meeting, but I think that what happened was a lot of people came to the meeting partly as a response to the leaflet.
Q: Thinking that…
A: Well, I don’t know what the response was. I don’t know exactly what happened.
Q: Did you specifically attack the union in the leaflet?
A: No, all we said in the leaflet was that there was inactivity, nobody was doing anything, therefore we had to do it ourselves. That’s all. We didn’t make any specific comment about the union’s lack of initiative. The union … I ‘m a little confused on the scenario. The president of the union may have found out that we passed out this leaflet prior to the union meeting. I’m pretty sure that was the sequencing of events. She called me up, she called up one of the other guys that wrote the leaflet, attacked us as being absolute saboteurs of the union…
Q: How had she found out that you were…?
A: Well, this is why I’m a little confused about the sequencing. She may have made this call after the first union meeting. Cause I can’t remember how she could have found out. And, again, we were making no effort to keep it a secret. But at any rate, she attacked us for sabotage, and we said you have no one to blame but yourselves, that the union’s doing absolutely nothing to prevent these layoffs, etc. The union meeting took place, and, interestingly enough, the agenda was the regular business agenda of the union, but it was immediately preempted by questions about who wrote the leaflet…
Q: From the bureaucrats?
A: No, from the floor, from the membership. “Where did this leaflet come from? Who wrote it? Who put it in my box? Who didn’t sign this’? There was enormous anger over the lack of a signature. Who had the nerve to put this in my box and not even own up to who they are? The other issue that really hit the fan was that in one of the schools, the secretary or the principal or somebody authorized someone going into all the boxes and removing all the leaflets. Now, nothing is ever removed from boxes, ever. No matter who puts it in. Insurance salesmen come by, they stuff the boxes, no one takes it out. No one authorizes it, they just say “I’m an insurance salesman, I want to promote this”. Someone had the audacity to take it out. That’s when people really got angry. They got as angry over that, that is the blocking of information, as they got over who signed it. So immediately I stood up and said that I wrote the leaflet, and the other guy stood up and said “I helped write the leaflet, we wrote it together”, and a third guy who helped stood up and said he wrote the leaflet so we all three identified ourselves, what schools we taught in, why we did it, and then a fourth person who did not write the leaflet, who was sympathetic to the leaflet–and we had not planned this in advance–stood up and said “I also helped to write the leaflet”. A fifth guy stood up and said “I too helped with the leaflet” and a sixth guy stood up, so at least three people stood up and said they also helped write and distribute the leaflets, to take the heat off of us. So a lot of people who didn’t receive the leaflets said “Read the leaflet out loud, read it out loud” so one of us got up and read the leaflet out loud, and that dominated the whole discussion from that point on.
Q: How did the union bureaucrats handle that situation’?
A: They were a little dumbfounded by it, there was such a lack of experience on their part that they didn’t know how to respond to the whole thing, and basically they promised that they had nothing to do with taking it out of the mailboxes, but I think their response was along the lines that “we have ways that we deal with these issues at the state level and the local level which are coordinated, that these are issues that we’re talking about, and trust us, trust us, trust us” was the basic line that they were giving. Well, what happened, and again, I can’t remember the sequencing, whether it was before or after that meeting that the union hit the ceiling and attacked us for sabotage. Immediately, that week, the same week that meeting took place, in a school that didn’t have any of us in it that wrote the leaflet–in other words, we didn’t organize it, it just spontaneously emerged, there was a meeting, a spontaneous meeting outside of the union, of the faculty of the particular school to discuss the issue of a job action, in the context of the leaflet. We were invited, as authors of the leaflet, to attend that meeting. And so we attended the meeting, and stated our case more clearly, and more elaborately, the whole idea about controlling the job actions, about the absolute necessity of extension and so forth. And from that they decided, well, what we need is an organization, so we spontaneously, right then, created a committee. And it took us a few weeks to figure out a name, but finally we came up with a committee name, that was to organize and coordinate further meetings, that was its only purpose.
Q: This was the CUA?
A: Yeah, Coalition for Unified Action. So the very next thing the coalition did was pass out a leaflet simply calling for an open meeting in one of the schools, where all public employees are invited and, I believe, they also called for the public to attend this meeting. In other words, anybody was invited to attend this meeting. It was an open meeting to discuss job actions. So we said we an organization and called for a meeting for public employees, but, we would bar no one from entering from entering the meeting. That was the policy we decided, that no one would be barred from the meeting, And we came up with a format to try to trigger as much response as we could, which was that everybody could speak by putting their name on a speakers’ list. There was no agenda, there was nothing other than a presentation on how this meeting evolved. There was no political line, there was no argument for this action vs. that, it was simply saying “this is how this meeting came into existence, and the way we’re going to organize the meeting is that everybody can speak by putting your name on a speakers’ list, just raising your hand, we’ll put your name on the list, and you’ll wait your turn, everybody then come to the microphone so everybody can hear, it was a big auditorium, and everybody has 2 1/2 minutes to speak, and you can speak for as many 2 1/2 minutes as you want, just keep putting your name on the speakers’ list, or, the next speaker could defer their time to you if they chose to. It sounded like a very equitable way to everybody, and right off the bat, anger came out, all kinds of incredible ideas were popping up, all kinds of explanation and analysis. There were at least 100 people at this particular meeting, if not more…
Q: This was at the public meeting’?
A: Well, “Public” in quotations here, because this was the Brookline public employees that had been invited, but I believe at this first meeting only teachers attended. I don’t remember any non-teachers attending. If they did attend, they certainly didn’t speak. So this was really still a teacher’s thing. All the union leadership came. All of them did. And all of them sat in the very back, across the back, and remained completely silent during the entire 2-hour meeting. Never said a word. People were attacking the union, people were being very savage, I got up and attacked the union two or three times very savagely, saying the union is standing in the way, we need to circumvent the union. The union did not say a word during this whole meeting.
A: I think they were shocked. I don’t think they knew how to respond. It’s the only explanation I have…
Q: Were the union leaders themselves teachers’?
A: Yeah, all teachers.
Q: So these were not full-time professionals…
A: These were not full-time professionals. They come in later in a big way to try to derail what we did. Out of that meeting, that format got adopted. The union, immediately when they saw…this was immediately after this meeting, the union called us up. I got a call from the same union president who had attacked me for sabotage, and, after this meeting occurred, she said, pretty much hat in hand, we underestimated the response, we were wrong, you people really did have some good ideas, we would like you to be a real important sub-committee of our union strategy committee or something like that. I, of course, disagreed. I said “Well, look, I’ll go back to the group and I’ll tell them what your proposal is”, and I tried to have a very objective presentation, that they want us to be a sub-committee. I would argue against it. But, the group unanimously voted against it. And, again, these were people who had no previous political background, for the most part, these were people who had no political agenda, that were involved in this Coalition for Unified Action. And they universally said “forget it, the union can’t do what we’re advocating in this format. We want to go beyond Brookline, we want to go beyond teachers, and we want state-wide action, and the union cannot do this, they’re incapable of it.
Q: You had mentioned the last time we talked about this that there were various kinds of leftists who were hostile to all these developments…
A: No, the leftists didn’t get, the only real hostility at this early stage, and not so much a hostility, as a disagreement with me in particular over my hostility to the union, arguing that, no, you’re underestimating the union, the union has bad leadership, we need rank-and-file leadership, the union is a good vehicle, it’s just got bad leadership, and that you’re saying that all unions are necessarily the enemy in all cases, no matter what the union leadership was. That became a debate that opens up, and doesn’t resolve itself, a lot of the people who were non-political sit back and watch that debate occur between me and this other leftist. And what eventually begins to happen is that the union begins to show its colors in this debate, just through the activity, the union shows itself over and over again as being structurally incapable of changing, of becoming anything other than trying to sabotage what we’re doing by incorporating us into some kind of sub-committee. The coalition as a group had no position on the union, and in fact never had a position on the union, never developed one, never came out and made any statement one way or the other. Eventually, a major portion of the coalition protested against the union and tore up their membership cards. But the coalition never came out and said as one of its principles “the union is the obstacle”, which is what I was advocating all along, saying “that has to be our fourth principle”. And that’s the debate. So then the state union organized a statewide demonstration. The state union organized the teachers to be mobilized on the Boston Common, at that point. So the coalition decided it was a perfect opportunity to spread the word of what we’re doing. So we write basically what are our principles, restating our first leaflet…
Q: This is the MTA (Massachusetts Teachers’ Association) that called the demo?
A: The MTA. The state level is the MTA. So the MTA organizes this, along with a number of other organizations, but primarily the state teachers. 20,000 people, I think, come to the demonstration.
Q: And they’re all teachers?
A: Most of them are teachers, yes. The Coalition writes a leaflet restating the original leaflet that we did, the three principles, the idea of spreading a job action across the state boundaries, the idea that it has to be in the control of the people doing the job action, therefore we need a meeting for the public employees, and inviting all public employees. So we passed out however many … All state employees. That was our target. Anybody that worked for the public sector…again, saying that anybody was welcome to come, anybody’s welcome to speak. So as to have no boundaries. No one asked for anybody’s verification of employment, unemployed people could come. That was a principle that we had, that all meetings were to be open. So we passed out…The ICC also passed out about 6,000 leaflets at that meeting.
(Editor’s Note: The ICC is the International Communist Current, an ultra-left tendency with sections in a number of countries, including the US, but most influential in Europe, particularly in France.)
Q: Were you in the ICC?
A: Not at the time, no. Various people came up. So they passed out…l passed out the Coalition’s leaflet, at that time, and we called for a meeting one week from that demonstration at the Arlington St. Church and we had no idea how many people would attend, but to our amazement about 100 people attended, from all over Massachusetts, including people who’d driven an hour to get to the meeting. Including public employees, non-teachers, at that particular meeting. A lot of leftist groups came, Trotskyists came, hawked their newspapers out in front of the meeting. We argued with them to come into the meeting, to present their ideas in the meeting and not just stand outside on the periphery. You have something to say, you may speak inside this meeting. Television came, newspapers came, all that, set up their cameras. I was going to give the original presentation but then it was decided by the group that I wouldn’t do that, that I would sit in the audience, because they knew I would do a lot of talking. So again they stood up, very frightened. These teachers who sat up there and gave this original presentation, with the sole exception of the leftist, were pretty nervous. Even a principal came. He was the principal of one of the schools, and he was very much a leftist, in the old days, and supported it. And these teachers were very frightened, because they were going to stand up and advocate shutting down all public services in the state of Massachusetts, publicly and on the TV cameras, and that was a very scary thing for these teachers to be doing. A minister came, and immediately attacked the people on the panel for–and, again, the people on the panel were only there to moderate the meeting, to give a presentation–and he attacked them for not identifying themselves, who they are. Of course they were terrified, at this point, to identify themselves, but they stood up and said “I am…”, going through this whole ritual, “I am so-and-so from such-and-such a school in Brookline, Massachusetts and we are advocating a statewide strike of all public employees to shut down the state to shut down the state until the crisis is dealt with in a fashion that we think is equitable. And what was amazing about this particular meeting, it was not a bunch of people who came to sit and get information. These people who came had a lot of energy, they had a passion, they stood up immediately and started speaking, one after the other, saying this is what’s happening in their community, this is what’s happening in their job sector, this is what the union’s not doing, here is what the union’s not doing, so the union became a central issue early on. I stood up and immediately talked about the role of the union as a saboteur, that what we needed was to overcome the union, as the organizing principles for what we’re doing. And almost immediate Poland came up, Solidarnosc, or really just the Polish strike, the mass strike in Poland came up as the issue.
Q: Where were the union bureaucrats?
A: Nowhere. We didn’t see any, and certainly none made their presence known. A minister came, that was kind of the one person who was outside, some guy who was an activist in the city employees’ union, no, wait, AFSCME, who was kind of a rank-and-file activist. He came to the meeting. He ended up being very active in the Coalition for Unified Action. He was a leftist, though, so he never ever could pull himself free of the union. He later became a union bureaucrat. But he was very active. And he said, this whole thing, if it’s taught me nothing else it’s taught me one thing, which is the principle of extension as a principle of organizing…
Q: Were there any significant numbers of blacks or Hispanics at this meeting?
A: Let’s see, the minister was black. I don’t recall a significant minority presence. If there was, it was small. It wasn’t significant enough for me to register one way or the other.
Q: So what was the social makeup of those present?
A: For the most part these were fairly articulate people, teachers, educators. There weren’t too many people at this early stage who were complete neophytes, who really came out of the woodwork from nowhere. That happened more at the local level. This was already at the state level, where people who were willing to make that drive, and make that commitment, come to this meeting, already had a pretty high degree of developed consciousness about the crisis, the lack of response on the part of the union. And what made the dynamic so interesting was that everybody was there for the same reason, that the unions couldn’t do this, That became clear as day, that the unions were incapable of doing what we’re doing here tonight . And there was enormous excitement, the atmosphere was truly electric, especially when we jumped back and forth between a Massachusetts state-wide strike and how the strikes spread in Poland. And there were all these different ideas about Poland–oh yeah–people who knew very little about it were jumping up and throwing out their ideas about the Polish strike. So there was just this instantaneous connection between what we were attempting and what was already happening internationally.
Q: So the next development is the occupation of the firehouse.
A: Yeah, Right, So basically the Coalition for Unified Action becomes a state-wide organization–it goes from Brookline to state-wide–and at this point people from different communities join it and non-teachers join it, so we have a custodian, we have a–I can’t remember what he was, the AFCSME guy–no, he was a hotel worker, he wasn’t even in the public sector. That’s what it was, a guy from the private sector who got very excited about this and he came, and saw the potential to spread into the private sector, that’s why he came. Then there was another guy who came as a union activist for AFSCME … Now, the next development was, I got a phone call from one of the teachers who heard that one of the firehouses in Charlestown had been occupied, Firehouse No. 2 as I recall, which had been closed by the city because of the budget crisis, as several firehouses had been closed. The wives of the firemen spontaneously took it over and occupied the firehouse. We immediately found out about it, hopped in our cards–two of us–and drove down there at 9 o’clock at night, They immediately let us into the firehouse, we asked around, is there anybody in charge of this? And somebody said “Oh yes, Dolores Somebody is in charge.” And we met her, and she was as delightful and nice as she could be. She said “Oh, welcome, welcome to the occupied firehouse! “. And they were organizing people who were going to sleep in the firehouse, what they were going to sleep on, organizing cots, organizing food…
Q: Had any cops showed up at this point?
A: No, no, no, in fact the firefighters themselves weren’t there at this point; maybe some of them were, their families were. There were plenty of males there, it wasn’t just all women, but it was led by these women, they were the ones who were behind it. And we had a meeting with one male, one female, and we said we were trying to do the same thing in Brookline, and we share completely what you’re doing, and we’re inspired by it, and we would like you to come and speak at our meeting, somebody representing the occupied firehouse to speak at our meeting. We would also like to come to support you and speak at your meetings, to say what we think needs to happen. And it immediately turned to a discussion about a state-wide strike, across sectors, democracy in the workplace, and in every single case, what they had done had replicated on a small scale what we were advocating theoretically…Well, in other words, they spontaneously took it over, outside of the union, this was a non-sanctioned occupation…they had instantaneously understood that the crisis they were experiencing was the identical crisis we were experiencing, and said yes to everything we said, everything. Statewide strike? Absolutely. Teachers and firefighters together? Absolutely. All public sector workers, control outside of unions? Absolutely. There was no question, there was nothing that was ambiguous at this point … Poland was a hot topic. And not only was it a hot topic that we would bring up, we overheard conversations spontaneously emerging about Poland, about the strikes, about confrontations, about the shipyards
Q: I remember you telling me before about how this all got mixed in with practical discussions about where to get relish…
A: Exactly. Yeah, it’s all blended together, the kind of sandwiches that Blanche is going to bring tomorrow will be with such-and-such ketchup, people really like that, and don’t put everything on whole wheat bread and, you know, in Poland they must have done this. You know, it was that kind of discussion, it was real practical things that would emerge… “How do you suppose they did it in the shipyards, really, that was the level of discussion that was occurring, in a very non-political way, which was what was so striking about it. It was this matter-of-fact way, here’s this problem we’re trying to solve, a practical problem, how do we feed the people in the occupations, and they’re doing it in Poland too, how do you suppose they do it? So people would start throwing out ideas, people would throw out all kinds of crazy…but it was such a lively atmosphere, kids were there, a lot of the firefighters were there but were sort of taking a back seat to their wives, the wives really had control of the thing. So we got very excited, and got the names of all the necessary people, we agreed in principle that when they had the first meeting, which they had not had yet, we would be invited to speak, they would be invited … We called back, we couldn’t get through to the woman we wanted to get through to, we drove back down to the firehouse within the week, and we couldn’t get close to the firehouse. The union had taken it over and had turned into specifically an issue between the firefighters’ union (the IFFA?) and the mayor of Boston. But it became explicitly a fight between the firefighters and Kevin White of Boston, that he was out to break the power of the firefighters’ union in the city of Boston, so they took over the firehouse occupation. The militants of the union came in and they wouldn’t allow us close, even after we told them who we were they wouldn’t even allow us close to the firehouse. We couldn’t get to within 50 feet of it, and they staked their people out around it…
Q: And what would they say?
A: “Nobody! Nobody’s allowed in here…you got a union card? It was that simple. You got a union card? Nobody comes in here. And these guys weren’t going to discuss it with you at all, there was no discussion. Just “no” was all they could say…
Q: They wouldn’t say stuff like “we heard there were some outsiders coming over here … ?”…
A: No, it came down to the union wouldn’t get involved with anybody else, it was a power struggle between the mayor and the union bureaucracy.
Q: Do you remember what ultimately came out of that whole thing?
A: I remember there was a big march of the firefighters against Kevin White (Editor’s note: then-mayor of Boston), They eventually reopened the firehouse but I don’t believe that had to do with the occupation…What began to develop–now this was at the peak of what the Coalition was doing, we were really peaking out in excitement and power and expansion and so forth … So the next thing, as I recall, was another state meeting similar to the one we’d had at the Arlington St. Church, at the Community Church in Boston, at Copley Square. At this point we’d done a lot of talking, a lot of groundwork, talking to hundreds of people…Let me just back up and give one little incident about the meeting, the first major Coalition meeting, the Coalition called in Brookline where just teachers came. One teacher stood up and said “What we need to do is stop all traffic coming into Boston, because if we stop the traffic, don’t allow the commuters into Boston at all, because we can do it in Brookline, because they all come funneling in Rt. 9, or at least major portions of traffic come pouring in on Rt. 9 … All we have to do is just stand in the middle of the street and stop the traffic for 30 minutes, every morning, and prevent traffic from coming in. That’ll make our case known to everybody. I stood up and said that was a mistake, we shouldn’t do that…l had some stupid argument about mass action versus the activity of a small group of ten people stopping traffic. Well, later, about a month later, spontaneously, they started doing the same thing over in East Boston, stopping traffic, and we realized , how stupid, of course, this is a great way, so we immediately went over there to try to link up with them, as we did in the firehouse. Those people were so narrow they wanted nothing to do with us. I mean they wouldn’t discuss anything with us, because they had closed a firehouse in East Boston. Their solution was not occupation, it was to stop traffic going through the tunnel, and they wouldn’t even have a discussion with us, unlike the firehouse. So it’s real unpredictable how people will respond….
So the next meeting was the Community Church meeting, and again, we had a good turnout, about 100 people, and this was when this custodian stood up, a custodian that I knew. We were accustomed for the last year and a half to having kind of chats in the hallway about politics. He surprised me. He said “I’m going to come to that meeting tonight…He was actually the union steward, or maybe the president of his local, but he was not a bureaucrat, not by any stretch of the imagination. He was just selected to be that, because I think he was the most militant. He came to the meeting, and gave truly a rousing speech, I mean it was so dramatic. He strutted up and down the aisle of this huge meeting, he didn’t stand in one place, he walked, he swaggered, he was–you know-potentially a real demagogue, you could imagine. But he invoked Poland in a passionate way, shouting: “You see what they did in Poland. That’s what were going to do here in Massachusetts. We will bring this state to its knees and we have the power to do it. Every public employee in this state can stop working and the whole state will have to stop.” And people got very excited. The tragedy of that meeting was that there arose this dilemma, of the difference between advocational agitation, advocating a statewide strike, advocating all these positions, but not organizing for anything other than continued agitation. People didn’t like that, they wanted to do something concrete. They decided it was ripe to organize for a real strike. I argued against this, a real strike has to emerge from a local area and then be prepared to spread itself. We can’t arbitrarily set a date, well in advance, to organize for a spontaneous strike. I was out-argued, out voted, I don’t know if I was out-argued, but certainly out-voted. Because I don’t think there was an understanding of the reality of organizing a strike like that. Because suddenly you become kind of a miniature union if you try to organize such a strike. And they arbitrarily set May 13 for a statewide strike deadline, way in advance. I didn’t like the idea, and suddenly what was interesting about that, was that the whole dynamic of the group changed, everything changed. No longer was it a question of exploring ideas, and agitation, and advocacy, and all of these sort of things where ideas were really fertile, as they had been up to this point suddenly, once they set that date, ideas were no longer fertile. Suddenly, it became how do we organize for the May 13 strike? What are the tactics that we’ll use, it became really nuts-and-bolts, how many leaflets do we write, where do we pass them out, who’s going to go pass them out, when, etc. More meetings? Can we pass out more leaflets, can we can small meetings in various towns ? and so forth and so on. So what happened there was interesting, because a lot of people that had no political experience got really involved in that, but a lot of people who had maybe been real sparked kind of backed off a little bit. And then what happened was that some group in one of the schools advocated again stopping traffic to coincide with the traffic stoppages in East Boston, and suddenly the Coalition took that up as a local cause, saying yes, we will organize traffic stoppages. We went around to all the schools, talking to everybody about meeting in the morning before school, stopping traffic, and that happened. The New York Times picked it up, we got onto the cover of the New York Times, it was a big deal, really causing chaos, coming into Boston.
Q: And how did the people in cars respond to it?
A: One of our guys was hit by a truck, got run over. Fortunately lie went up in the air instead of under, but he rode the hood of a car about 200 yards and went skidding across the pavement afterwards and just got all banged up. An angry businessman decided that by God no one’s going to stop me from going in.
Q: Were you stopping cars and also passing out leaflets to the drivers?
A: We had picket signs saying that we’re going to have a strike. Suddenly the state now knows we’re advocating a statewide strike. Suddenly the meetings are small, no longer big, organizational meetings for the most part. And the union begins to call meetings and suddenly, what the union does, is they adopt our format.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your argument, early on, that the union would do this, when everybody was skeptical?
A: Yeah, I basically made the argument that the union would move to the left, as they understand that they have to move to the left, they will move to the left, guarantee you. And there was a lot of skepticism. But what happened was that the union leaders, they were right out there stopping traffic with us. One of the union leaders even got arrested, stopping traffic, and very consciously wanted to get arrested, I mean, you could see it, very clearly it was a statement that “no, we, as the union, are taking over this thing”, and so they started having more meetings than we were having. But they used our exact format, at this point. They had open meetings, anybody could attend, anybody could speak, they had 2-minute speaking limits, speakers’ lists, an open agenda, all the characteristics of our meetings, they adopted. And they also did some union business. So suddenly, what happened was that people who didn’t understand the role the union was actually playing, they realized, they thought that they had made this huge impact on the union, look how influential we are, now the union has adopted what we’re going…and that’s good, they thought. And I was constantly arguing, no, that’s bad … We have to be leery of this, because the union is doing this specifically because they know if they don’t do it they will lose everybody. So that became a constant, constant debate that was going on, and gradually, people started agreeing with that position. They could see fight through what the union was doing. The leftists were the ones who couldn’t see it. They thought it was a victory, which was the really amazing thing…
Q: What were the signs that people were picking up about how the union was maneuvering?
A: Well, they could see very clearly how the union was moving to the left to usurp the things that we were doing. And they were arguing, saying, no, can’t you see, it’s plain as day …There was this feisty Irish woman who was just incredible, who would get up and attack the union fight to their faces, saying “You people! Where are you when we were doing such-and-such? You argued against us at this point! And now you’re doing what we were advocating! All you’re trying to do is take over from what we’re doing! But you still are incapable of going out there and talking to the firefighters! We’re out there every day talking to the firefighters, trying to get them to join us, you’re incapable of doing that! And I mean really, she was militant as hell, every single time she was out there, out front, attacking, to the extent that they really loathed this woman, they were dreading this woman. Every time she would put her name on the speakers’ list they would just roll their eyes and say “oh my God!”.
Q: Was she somebody who had any kind of political past, or was she another one of these people who just come out of nowhere?
A: No, I think she came out of nowhere. She’s from Ireland, so I think she has this sort of fire in her, just by virtue of being from Ireland. I’m not really sure. And she had this brogue, that really made it interesting to listen to her speak. She was probably 55 years old. She was the most militant, spontaneous speaker in the whole group who was consistently militant… So what the union then did is they decided to be even more militant, and they called one of the state leaders to come and speak to our union local. So we had probably 600 people at this union meeting, and one of the top organizers of the state union came to speak to us about a statewide strike. And I got into a debate with the guy and attacked him…The argument became … he said “We are ready, in the state organization. But the membership in the state is not ready, for a strike. And when they are ready, we have the tactics prepared to tell them how to conduct a statewide strike.
Q: And this was done in a very condescending way…
A: Very condescending. And so I went on the attack, and I just said “the arrogance…you sitting up here telling us, when we were advocating long before you people even had the gall to stand up and have a meeting that open, and now you’re sitting here telling us that you have the tactics but you can’t tell us about it? And, boy, the crowd was getting very hostile to this guy, really hostile, and it was quite easy to sway the group’s hostility. And I think the guy started sweating, he was having a really hard time…
Q: You had mentioned that the guy was really stunned…
A: He was stunned by the militancy coming out, attacking him for the audacity of being so condescending to us. And so what the union did is evoke the rule of two-minute speaking limits and to stop me from speaking. And so people started giving up their speaking time so I could continue speaking…Then I’d have to stop, and wait for somebody else to give me speaking time… Then I started arguing that the speaking limit thing, where we used it symbolically, or to spark debate, you’re using it to close debate, so that became an issue. And then I think at the next meeting they shortened it to a minute and a half, or even made it shorter than that…
Q: Were non-union members allowed in the meeting?
A: Non-union members were allowed into the meeting, and to speak, if they wanted to. Because that’s what we continually insisted on. And then we realized that a strike would not happen, so we advocated a sick-out, a one-day sickout, and to try to organize that across communities, and that’s when the state union became involved with us, and started coming to our meetings, like the state-level organizer came to our meetings. And, again, they were very interesting, and very nice, trying to be very militant, trying to say there are all these very militant people out there, and you’re the most militant here in Brookline, and so forth and so on. And when the day of the sick-out came, there was a sick-out in a neighboring community that the union didn’t tell us about. Now, nothing made people more angry than that. And these people all went on sickout, we went on sickout and got arrested. And we didn’t know, there was no linkage, and the union knew it. Cause the union, who had the links between the two, but kept it a secret from us. It angered people it angered the Brookline group so much, that within 24 hours they organized a demonstration against the union as the main obstacle to solving the crisis. And this is when the leftists backed out, completely and attacked us. And I remember, a very dramatic moment, one of the leftists stood up and said “Never in the history of Massachusetts labor politics has a group of workers protested against their own union. This’ll be the first … and it’s a shameful moment in labor history in Massachusetts.” And the idea was… “you’re just blind. You’re just completely blind. These people = our enemy. They = our enemy.” And we went and we had a demonstration in front of the union … Called the newspapers, they didn’t come, nothing was printed. Everything we did was in the newspapers except this. And we all assumed they consciously kept it out of the papers. That there was some collusion between the press and the union … We don’t know if it’s true, of course, but it’s certainly what we were thinking. And it really created a rift between the leftists and our group.
And the union had taken on a very militant role, calling local meetings in individual buildings, a dispersal of meetings, individual meetings. And what they did is announce, since the union is now leading the meetings, we’re not, they announced that non-union members would be allowed to attend but not allowed to speak at the meeting; that’s a new policy. Well, what they had effectively done was they tried it out in the local schools, so immediately I got phone calls from all these other people. What immediately happened after that was the union called another major meeting. And what was interesting about this meeting was–they were very clever–we had always had our meetings in the cafeteria, where everybody in the meeting could face each other, so you could stand up, and everybody who stood up was automatically facing everybody else, all you had to do was barely turn your head. The next meeting, they moved to an auditorium, where all the seats faced the stage and the union bureaucrats sat in the front on the podium, and they put microphones in the audience, so that as we spoke, they necessarily designed it so that we had to speak to the podium, instead to the membership. And they put a rope up, and they re-announced the policy that you may come, but you must sit behind the rope if you’re not a union member, knowing that I had quit the union, this Irish woman had quit the union, this other guy, one of the original “Spartacus” (Editor’s note: this is a reference to a scene from the 1960’s film “Spartacus”, not to the contemporary Spartacist League) guys who stood up and said “I, too wrote this leaflet”, he quit the union. At least a half a dozen real militant people had quit the union because of what the union had done. They said “this is it, we’ve been arguing this all along, now it’s clear as a bell, they’re acting divisively at this point”.
Q: Why had people gone along with this stuff like putting the rope up?
A: They didn’t believe … Well they really didn’t have control over it, the union was calling the meeting. All they’d do is put a flyer in everybody’s mailbox saying “union meeting, such-and-such a school, such-and-such a time,” and people would attend, ostensibly to hear the “latest” from the state level…So then the big meeting was called, and there was this big confrontation I had with the union president at this point. I think it must have been the following spring, it was really the next year that the union took on a very militant, activist role. And again, I think that the union that first year was kind of stunned by the whole thing. They didn’t know how to respond…
Q: I’m just trying to get a sense of the chronology. There was the sickout, and the immediate violent reaction of the people against the union, then the demonstration in front of the union hall, and the tearing up of cards…
A: The demonstration occurred right after the sickout, because of the anger at the lack of communication. But maybe the tearing up of union cards did not occur at that point, although some people may have tom up their cards. I’m sure the Irish woman tore up her card, she was so angry, and there were a few others who were really pissed off and refused to rejoin, who the following year didn’t rejoin the union. But a number of us were still union members, and once the meetings occurred again, the following year, they were making a second round of cuts, that’s when it happened. The union had a new president, they were much more savvy about how to deal with us, we were less prepared because we hadn’t resolved this issue of the union, what was their nature, although some of us clearly agreed. That’s when I and two or three others tore up their union cards and resigned from the union, from the local union, this was the following year after the crisis level had died down and a new crisis was emerging…
Q: Sparked by what?
A: Just the second round…There was still a lack of money, they had to go through more cuts. There were going to be more cuts coming. So it was the second year; they used our same format on the proviso that non-union members couldn’t speak. And we weren’t having public meetings anymore, that was over with. So it must have been spring of 82.
Q: So what was the result of the leftward move of the union?
A: The result of the leftward union was a more militant attitude of the union to confront the crisis when it re-emerges, be more prepared for a job action, to start talking militantly about job actions, they called these meetings themselves and spoke very militantly…And it was in the spring, right in the early stages, when they called these local meetings, they called these local meetings in the school right as the time was brewing again for another round of cuts. And they called these local meetings and said that the new policy is that non-union members can come but they can’t speak. Non-teachers were allowed to come to meetings, that’s what we were arguing for all along, that everybody has to be invited.
Q: And when was this meeting where you were trying to speak, and they tried to stop you?
A: That was this major meeting, where the Coalition fizzled, the Coalition ceased to exist at that meeting. This is in the spring of 82. And what happened at that point was there was a tacit agreement, and in fact we thought it was an explicit agreement with every member of the Coalition, at least I0 people would put their names immediately on the speakers’ list and argue for opening up the meeting, that was the key, that the meeting had to be open. What happened was, when I stood up, I made a fatal mistake in what I said, I just made this catastrophic error in judgment, because it was an emotional reaction on my part as opposed to a cool-headed agitational one…l forced my way to the microphone, on the basis that I as technically still a member of the union. They didn’t have the right to prevent me from speaking without giving me right at that instant $60 in union dues. Since the didn’t have the money they had to OK it: there was this little wormy treasurer that had to a agree. He hated me, he hated my guts, but I went down and I forced his hand. He said “You got to let him speak.” They physically, tried to block me, they sent two of these guys, social studies teachers, to block me from getting to the microphone. They let me to the microphone, and I made the mistake, the first thing I did was tell everybody in the meeting what had just transpired, that they were trying to prevent me from speaking, and that was a mistake.
A: Well, it would have been much, much better if I had focused on the rope as a symbol of disunity, and had used that purely as a symbolic demonstration of the actual role of the union as divide and rule. If I had focused just exclusively, on that, I’m absolutely positive they would have taken the rope down on demand of the membership. As it was, I got a lot of support, but not enough. At least half of the people in the room were very excited when I spoke, and clapped and cheered, but when the union president spoke…
Q: So you never got around to advocating that the rope be taken down’?
A: Oh, I did, I said this rope is separating union members from non-union members, is the divisive tactic they’re attempting to do right now. They’re trying to prevent the militant voices within the union from speaking, or the militant voices among the teachers from speaking by putting this rope up., and what happened was that this leftist, who was in our meeting, in this local, when I spoke he clapped real loud, or yelled something like “hear, hear”, and the union president turned on him, pointed him out, and made some real clever sarcastic remark to him that I think put him in his place and it intimidated him so much, and I think it intimidated everybody else in our coalition that they were able to respond so decisively like that, that nobody else stood up and put their name on the list to speak. And with that, three of the Coalition members stood up and stepped over the rope and walked out and slammed the door, and I got up and walked out with them at that point. And so it was over with; we couldn’t carry the day; I’m sure we could have carried the day had I not blundered like that. And that was it; the Coalition never met again. It was completely over with, and in fact there was a good deal of hostility between those who stayed in the meeting and those who walked out. And that’s pretty much it.
Q: Talk a little bit about this phenomenon you’ve mentioned of people who seem to have had no previous experience..
A: Yeah, well before all of this happened, one of the early, early experiences right after we passed out the first leaflet, I called a meeting in our school, and our principal was very hostile to the whole thing. He was this imposing man, just ready to tear your head off if he thought you’d advocate a strike, so what I did, since I was a non-tenured teacher at the school, and fairly new in the system, I went around individually to every teacher in the school. I wrote a leaflet simply calling for a meeting simply to discuss the following issues, not advocating anything, just simply to discuss. I got every single member of the faculty to sign, calling for this meeting, and then–I knew who to go to first, there were about four key faculty members, and I knew if I got their signatures, other people would follow, if I didn’t get their signatures, other people wouldn’t do it. This was during Proposition 2 1/2, this was right after the first union meeting where we passed out the original leaflet. Now what happened was I was in discussion with a lot of people prior to all that, this stuff was brewing, so I was talking to everybody I could, and what was interesting and really intriguing is that before anything happened, there were these people who seemed to be quite authoritative, and experienced militants, people who had been involved in the 60’s, and doing all these various political things, anti-Vietnam war, spoke very authoritatively about what needs to be done, and what we need to do, and when I called the first meeting, and got these people to attend this meeting, and I walked into the principal’s office and asked for his signature, and he thought this was just a huge slap in the face, and he didn’t speak to me for the rest of the year, he was so angry. ‘The meeting occurred, and these very people who were so authoritative sat there mute, completely mute in this meeting. People who had never had any political experience were first of all arguing for … this one woman, who had had no political experience, she understood the dynamics of what was happening, she said: “I don’t have an opinion on the strike. But I do have a strong opinion about the right to meet and speak about it. And she was really going against the principal and arguing, defending me. And she really kind of saved me by speaking about how important it was for the faculty to come and hear what everybody has to say. These very people, and this was not just my experience it was the experience of everybody in the coalition, everybody was stunned at who did not step forward who stood in the background, these people who had been active in the union, people who spoke so radically in the classrooms, all these people you would have anticipated being out there first, stood in the background during this entire episode. The only time they stood forward was when the legal channels of the union came in, it’s the only vehicle they were capable of moving to. They could not move to the spontaneous movement that had opened up. All these people–many of them were quite giddy about the whole experience, I mean really quite tickled, saying “My God! Can you believe what I just did? You know, it was that sort of thing. I stood out there with a picket sign and stopped traffic. Or I spoke at this meeting–can you believe that that came out of my mouth?” They were stunned at their own behavior. Across the board this happened, just over and over and over again; it was just amazing. And that was just as much an exciting element, just to see who stood forward, people you wouldn’t have dreamed of the things that came out of their mouths, militant things, really courageous things that these people did–they just shocked me. And I’m sure that was the identical experience of the firehouse. That these people who had never had any thought of radical activity–in fact, what was intriguing is that Charlestown was one of the areas where they stoned buses during integration in 1975. These very same people that were stoning buses coming into their community were talking about Poland and mass strike in 1981. I mean, that was the intriguing thing. So the people with the clearest, thought out leftist political line often times became the people who were incapable of action in this spontaneous environment, they didn’t know how to handle it, they felt so uncomfortable with it, and they couldn’t wait to turn it into an organization. They were accustomed to leafleting, and sending out x number of leaflets, and to the extent that it was spontaneous, that was the extent that these people without experience came forward. To the extent that it was organized, the leftists could get involved, because they were experts at organization. They knew how to organize, they knew how to get committees formed, they knew how to get petitions signed, they knew how to get all of those things done. I mean, we were on television, we were on radio, we were on talk radio show debate, I mean this was really in the news a lot when it was happening.
Q: We were talking once about the relationship between, on one hand, this unbelievable spontaneity and on the other hand the fact that, in some sense, if you hadn’t written that leaflet…
A: The image that strikes me over and over and over again is riding the T every morning with that teacher. We’d have these conversations about everything under the sun for the 15 minutes that we were on the T together. And it was this chance conversation–I was pretty afraid to do anything, because I had only lived up here for a year and a half, and I was a Southern boy without much experience in this climate up here. I didn’t know anything about this area. I was pretty nervous, and he gave me the courage to say “Yeah, of course, let’s do it, let’s try it”, and we had this meeting. I can’t imagine any of this happening, in Brookline, had I not initiated that original meeting to write that initial leaflet. I just can’t imagine that would have happened. This other guy, this other leftist was the kind of person who would have supported any union activity but I do not believe he would have initiated anything outside of the union framework. He’s just not that kind of a person. He worked very hard, He was a leftist in the sense that he really was a great organizer. He knew how to get things done, he knew how to call meetings and make a thousand phone calls, and that’s what I was terrible at. And I’m absolutely certain that those three principles–self-organization, extension and cross-sectoral organizing–that those three principles simply would not have existed as organizing principles had I not been there. Had I not been influenced by the ICC, real specifically. Cause I was really heavily into reading the ICC at that point, had already met the ICC several times. The ICC didn’t spark it, I did this independently of the ICC, I would have done this without ever meeting the ICC, maybe my own conditions would have been a little different, maybe I would have emphasized this as opposed to that, but those three principles came from the ICC.
Q: And what became of some of the most interesting militants after all this? What happened to that Irish woman, what happened to the custodian…?
A: One of the efforts, with the group, after I joined the ICC, one of the efforts was an attempt to influence people who were most receptive to the positions that I was advocating, and there were several, who were very receptive to it. But when it came to political analysis, abstract political analysis, and historical analysis, using this context for historical analysis and political positions, it fell on deaf ears by the same people. I mean, a couple of people came to ICC meetings as a result of it, but I think were just overwhelmed. I mean, what does this have to do with what we just went through? There was just no connection between the two. It just seemed so abstract, talking about…nationalism, the national question or something when a couple of them came to the meeting, and they just sat there mute, staring. And they were kind of in awe of the whole thing, but they just couldn’t imagine the connection, the necessary connection between these things. I think people emerged repeatedly during various phases of all this-you know, it’s still going on. The union has become infinitely more radical, it’s a so-called militant union now, led by the Brookline teachers, but they’re led by in every case these people who are just these real doctrinaire rank-and-file sort of militants that teach social studies and know all about the 1930’s and the organizing of the CIO and who’re real sympathetic to the left and the CP and all that stuff. And they’ve become the union leadership. Interestingly enough, the guy who tried to prevent me from speaking, physically stood in my way, big brawny guy, social studies teacher, he became the president, and he became one of the most militant presidents of the union, the very guy who tried to block our influence, became by far the most militant leader they’ve had.
Q: Did he ever apologize to you for that episode?
A: No, he avoided eye contact with me. He would sort of grudgingly nod when we would pass each other… He must have known I hated his guts. I mean, I didn’t hold back. I was real clear that these union people were assholes, I said it openly, I said it loudly. And what was interesting, after this meeting, is that I was completely ostracized by my own faculty, people on my own staff. Those people literally avoided eye contact with me for a long time. A few people didn’t…But then they started talking to me, getting a better since of what was going on, and sort of forgave. But it is an interesting question, this whole notion of spontaneity versus revolutionary intervention. It doesn’t just happen. There is a role, for this stuff. How to judge it? It’s just beyond me. I think the basic philosophy I’ve always had is that you can’t judge, it’s not really possible to judge when the influence will have a resonance, or when the intervention will have a resonance in the spontaneous movement. There’s just no way to judge that. I was stunned at the course it took. I never would have anticipated it. I was so accustomed to doing these things and letting it all fall on deaf ears. And in finding one person that would respond and kind of zoning in on them and trying to bully them into becoming a leftist or a communist. That was mv whole experience. And then when suddenly when things took on a life of their own, and I wasn’t the center of it, that was extraordinary. But it was interesting that the group understood very quickly the importance of me not being the organizer of it. The group was the one who said, “No, don’t you sit on the panel, you sit in the audience, and you do your talking, cause you’ve got the most militant voice, and the most lively tradition, that will trigger the most. You need to be in the audience.” And again, I don’t know that it resolves the question other than to say, are there ever any spontaneous situations, it makes you wonder about the firehouse as well, to what extent did someone give that some forethought, or to what extent did some people sitting around the breakfast table one morning get pissed off and say “we’re not going to let it happen”. My suspicion is that was more spontaneous, in the sense that it was recouped so easily, so quickly, and ours was not recouped so easily. It took a long time to recoup ours.