Arthur Leclair, 1951-2007

By David Walsh

I first met Arthur in 1980, when I was a warehouse worker on Amtrak in Boston and a member of the Socialist Workers Party. On one of my first days working at the Southampton Street Yard, I was sitting in a small warehouse office when a big, tall guy came in. He was wearing an IBEW cap with buttons pinned on it, and he just about filled up the tiny office.

“Who’s got the El Salvador sticker on his car?” he asked in a blustering way. Here we go, I thought. My station wagon was parked outside with its “US Out of El Salvador” bumper sticker and I knew the kind of reaction I could expect from conservative railroad workers.

“That’s me,” I said warily, ready for an argument.

“Oh yeah?” he said. “Well, I like it. It’s good to see that.” And that was Arthur Leclair.

I noticed that those were progressive buttons on his hat—“Boycott Grapes,” for instance, in support of the United Farm Workers. We started talking and I found Arthur’s political thinking to be pretty advanced, so I went to work on him right away as a potential recruit to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). He was thrilled there was somebody else on the railroad who thought the way he did. When we worked nights we used to have political discussions every Sunday night with a group of about eight people. Arthur was sharp and curious, and when I recommended some basic socialist literature he would actually read it. The others might show some interest and enjoy a discussion, but they didn’t often get around to the reading.

Artie was different; he was always interested and eager to learn. So I told him I was in the Socialist Workers Party, and he wanted to know all about that. I invited him to a forum one night to hear a speaker and he was very impressed and excited by the event. He was just really, really happy to find people who thought the way he did. I guess we can all identify with that excitement. After a couple of months of being around the party, he asked to join.

Arthur and I also became close friends and I learned the circumstances that had made him who he was. He’d lost his father when he was about eight years old. His mother raised him and his two sisters in the notoriously tough Old Colony housing projects in South Boston, a haven of racism. He experienced the violent busing fights in Boston in the 1970s and he came out of those times firmly antiracist and in favor of school integration.

This was a courageous thing to be in South Boston at that time. When he was 16 years old, James Brown played at the Boston Garden shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Racial tensions were high at that moment and the mayor of Boston didn’t want white kids to attend the concert and aggravate the situation. But Artie didn’t let that stop him; he felt an instinctive solidarity with black youth and its culture.

After high school and a few years of working in meatpacking and printing, Arthur took an electrical technician’s course that qualified him for an electrical job on Amtrak, where he had family roots and neighborhood ties. He started on the railroad in his early 20s and worked as an electrician there for over 30 years.

Arthur’s strengths as a party member were clear right from the beginning. With his sense of humor and easygoing ways, he got along with other workers and made our interventions more effective. He was very helpful in strike solidarity work; people responded to his engaging personality and he had personal authority as a down-to-earth union member that legitimized our campaigns. He did some of his best political work in an informal way, over a beer with strikers, and he always liked the old timers and had a lot of respect for them.

He didn’t miss a strike, that’s for sure. Whether there was a local strike or a strike of some national significance, he was involved in the solidarity committees. He’d work among his fellow railroad workers, leafleting information about the strike, selling tee shirts, organizing support actions.

A few months after he joined the SWP we ran him for Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts. This gave him the opportunity to do some public speaking, something he had a natural talent for, and it was very good for his development.

At the same time this was happening, differences were developing in the SWP over the questions of Poland and trade union work. He was fascinated by the discussion and had a lot of questions, so we’d talk about that at work; I’d give him my point of view and he thought it made sense. In 1981, when the military dictatorship was declared in Poland, the national office had begun to oppose demonstrations in support of the Polish workers. He had an instinctive love for the Polish workers, like most workers did at that time, so it wasn’t difficult for him to find his way toward an active solidarity with them even while the SWP was turning their backs on them. He was naturally puzzled when he found that certain discussions were prohibited within the party in the early days of his joining.

As the differences in the party were deepening, Arthur and I went to the Young Socialist Alliance convention, where there were several points of disagreement. In addition to the issue of Poland there was a debate over women’s liberation, whether we should be active in the National Organization for Women. We in the minority said yes, we should be getting involved in abortion-clinic defense. There was a significant vote for minority resolutions in the YSA, and this seemed to shake the SWP leadership. Arthur went right along with us. I remember we spent almost a whole night arguing with YSAers who were trying to win us over to the majority positions. This was our last YSA convention before the SWP convention where the minority got its last chance to speak.

He didn’t miss a strike, that’s for sure. Whether there was a local strike or a strike of some national significance, he was involved in the solidarity committees. He’d work among his fellow railroad workers, leafleting information about the strike, selling tee shirts, organizing support actions.

When the minority was expelled and founded Socialist Action in 1983, Arthur became a member in support of our positions. He was president of his local at the same time that I was president of mine, and this was a very active time for us in the labor movement. Art was involved in a lot of strikes, including the Jay Paper workers in Maine, the flight attendants, the railroad Maintenance of Way union, and most importantly the P9 meatpackers’ strike in Minnesota. He did some great solidarity work and traveled out to Minnesota to participate in the mass pickets held to stop production, during which he came to know Jake and Dave Cooper, veteran of the revolutionaries workers’ movement.

When the Maintenance of Way workers went on strike Arthur helped to build a demonstration of 1,000 within four days, and to organize some P9 workers to address Maintenance of Way gatherings. The rail workers also supported the miners in their Pittston strike. Meanwhile, Art was active in branch life too, always attended branch meetings and national conventions when he could, and really understood the importance of the revolutionary party. One of his valuable contributions was to write for Socialist Action newspaper. He was an excellent writer and was able to report on Boston-area labor and other news.

In 1996 a fellow Amtrak worker, Bill Regan, began a campaign to enforce affirmative action on the railroad. He told his insider’s story about discriminatory hiring practices and routine racial and sexual harassment to a Boston newspaper and the issue got a great deal of publicity. Bill received harassment and even death threats as a result. He approached SA to help him in his fight and to protect his personal safety, so we threw ourselves into the campaign. We held a rally and press conference of the leaders of the black community, including the NAACP and the mass-transit system’s minority employees’ committee. Art chaired the rally and it was a success.

We held another public rally in front of Boston’s South Station, distributed informational leaflets throughout the Amtrak yards and stations, and produced a “Defend Minority Hiring” button that a good number of workers began to wear. As a result of the campaign, Amtrak was forced to abide by affirmative action law, and very soon the effects could be seen among the new hires. Many more minorities and women began to come out of the training classes, and that was something to be proud of. We successfully defended Regan and ensured that he kept his job, and Amtrak hired an affirmative action coordinator, a newly created position.

But success did not come without personal sacrifice, and Arthur came under particularly vicious attacks for his strong stance against racism in the still-backward Southampton Street Yard. He was ostracized and harassed for more than a year by the people he’d worked with for years and, in some cases, grown up with. His isolation in the yard was almost total, except for the black workers and a few of his closest friends. Art had always been radical and to some extent his views were accepted, but in standing up against age-old, bigoted job protection he’d crossed a line that made enemies.

Arthur suffered from longstanding health problems and had to remove himself from political activity for the last seven years of his life. He did join the Socialist Workers Organization when it was formed in 2001, and he served on the editorial board of Socialist Viewpoint magazine. He was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in early 2007 and spent his final three months in a hospice, where he received extraordinary kindness and care in a beautiful setting that he said was “home.”

Art always regretted that he never got to visit Cuba. But as he sat in the sun outside his hospice room, wearing his IBEW hat adorned with its political buttons, he repeated his amazement at receiving full coverage for hospice care in this day of inhumane healthcare restrictions.

“What is this, Cuba?” he laughed. Arthur Leclair was one of those rare items in the SWP, a working-class recruit who stuck with Trotskyism for the rest of his life. His dedication to the movement was unshakeable, as was his friendship, and he will be very much missed.