In November 2007, Nat Weinstein sat down with Conor Casey, an intern at the Holt Labor Library, to talk about his life as a trade unionist and revolutionary socialist. Nat had a chance to review the transcript once and append his comments, but his political and family commitments and declining health prevented him from further preparing the text for publication. Following his death on May 9, 2014, Socialist Viewpoint now presents Nat’s reflections on his life in order to illuminate the conflicts, intellectual evolution, and moments of both deepest disappointment and sweetest victory in a life of socialist struggle. This is the second of three installments of “Nat Weinstein—An Oral History.” All efforts have been made to preserve both the content and style of Nat’s remarks.
Part IV: The 1940s
Joining the painting profession
I became a painter; I was working for my wife Sylvia’s uncle. He was doing jobs of his own and paying me a good wage and I was learning. I didn’t know how to paint, but I had to go the hard way, painting fire escapes. I was ice-cold in the winter—it was freezing. I had to work: I had a wife. I had a baby.
I was young. In 1946, I was 21, I guess, on my way to being 22. I always looked younger than my age and I dressed like a kid: I wore dungarees, which painters don’t wear—they wear a suit to work. It’s a culture. Of course, it was mostly Jews and Italians in New York. In my day, in the teens and twenties, they were still immigrants. Earlier painters were Germans who had been an earlier migration. There weren’t many Irish painters in New York for some reason.
They used to have “language locals”—locals that were authorized to conduct their proceedings in their native language, so locals were all German, all Italian, and so on.
That was naturally phased out as the immigrants became integrated into the United States.
The Painters Union
My local was 892 in District Council 9. It was really one big unit with ten or eleven different locals—Manhattan and the Bronx. The women painters were in a separate district council. We had about ten or eleven thousand of the district council, about a thousand members of Local 892 at the time. Their meetings were two hundred people every week. The level of union activity was very high at the end of the war, in 1946. We ran a comrade for secretary treasurer of the district council and he won. The first time he ran was before I got into the union and he lost by 13 votes. Then I joined—I was recruited—I was colonized. In 1946, the party wanted to reinforce our fraction. We had about three people in the union. The guy who was running for secretary treasurer won by 113 votes. That’s a lot of the ten thousand—maybe six or seven thousand—votes. So that was a “squeaky” victory, just like the loss was a “squeaky” loss.
So an SWP member held office in a local AFL union in New York. He was the secretary treasurer, and we had comrades who were elected to labor offices—district council and local unions. In fact, we had a caucus and I was made the secretary of the caucus. I had to take minutes and mimeograph the postcards. We did that in the party headquarters at 116 University Place. I had just come into a union, then. I think the guy who was my comrade had to explain why he picked me to be the recording secretary because it’s kind of a privileged post. It’s somebody representing the authority of the union, but he said I was his brother-in-law, and I didn’t find out until I heard people saying, “Oh, yes—Marty’s brother in law!”
Actually, he degenerated very quickly with the power, privilege, and so on. If you have family or people, you have to be pretty strong to stick it out under those circumstances. A lot of people go bad when they have positions of privilege and power. So it fell to the party to discipline him, too. We did it, but it was very difficult. Life is hard for revolutionists and for a revolutionary party.
Getting involved in the Socialist Workers Party
I was pretty good at recruiting people when I was young, winning people over in personal conversations. But they had to be ready. You can’t win somebody over if they’re not ready. When they’re ready, they’re easy, because they keep asking questions.
I was a pretty good street corner speaker, even though I didn’t start out eloquently. The first time I tried to speak in a union hall, it was very stupid. It was a seaman’s meeting, a meeting of the SIU, in New York. There were about a thousand workers there and I got up. I tried to sound like an old sailor. I don’t even want to try to reproduce what I said, but they were all smiling at this young radical that they all heard and knew about. In those days, there was lots of socialists, Stalinists, Trotskyists around.
When I joined the party, a lot of your education came from discussion with other members and from going to classes at 116 University Place. (That’s where I was the organizer from 1960 until about 1965.)
We began recruiting youth, student youth. In a way, they learned faster than workers do because that’s what they do. They’re dealing with ideas, they’re college students.
The Goldman/Cannon split
I listened to the debate in the SWP between Goldman and Cannon in 1945. It was over the question of the defense of the Soviet Union. Goldman and Morrow had taken the position that once the Stalin-Hitler Pact had occurred, the revolution was no longer worthy of defense. That’s pretty much their position, so the debate was over the question of the defense of the Soviet Union, which was pretty hard to do in those days, with the Stalin-Hitler Pact still fresh in mind and the reactionary role played by the Soviet Union, the Stalinist bureaucracy, during the war. That role was contradictory, but just like everything in life is contradictory. They did some good things and they did many bad things, but the bad outweighed, on the balance sheet, the good.
That split recurred when the Goldman/Morrow faction proposed unity with the Workers’ Party in 1946, after the debate between Goldman and Cannon. The Workers’ Party was unity-mongering the SWP, and we went through a relationship with them to see if unity would work. Goldman said, “I can argue just as well as you can argue about the defense of the Soviet Union, but it’s not important now and you should unify with the Workers’ Party.” That was their line. We actually were testing them—they had been asking us about unifying the two Trotskyist groups. The question of the defense of the Soviet Union was not that important right now and we had lived in the same organization, so we took them up on it after a while because it was very hard to oppose it.
The party leadership took it on in good faith—they didn’t say it was a test. They just said “Okay, let’s try it. Let’s see if it will work.” Later on it became clear to me that they had no confidence that it would work but they said they had no choice but to make it a test, to make it visible to the comrades that it wouldn’t work.
So the only thing we did with that unity is we organized a bazaar—we used to organize bazaars to raise money. We had a unit that we called the New York School of Social Science and the businesses of the area would think that it had something to do with the New School of Social Research. We were a community organization; we went to the neighborhood stores and asked for donations, and then sold them. Comrades would bring their junk. I used to bring my little paintings and stuff and sell them.
Anyway, we organized a bazaar together, the two groups. We worked on that and we worked with them on the committee to raise money for the Trotskyist victims of fascist occupation in Europe that were in dire straits and needed financial help. The unity project never got any further than that. They lost interest because they didn’t want to be part of a democratic centralist organization. We had a bigger organization than them, you see. They took 40 percent of the party and we grew more than they did during the war.
They argued that the Soviet Union was no longer a degenerated workers’ state. They had two positions in the Schachtmanite group. One was that it was a new kind of state called “bureaucratic collectivism” and the other faction argued that it was state capitalism. What state capitalism means is that it’s capitalist. There’s no such thing as “state capitalism” except the Soviet Union could be described as state capitalist, but it’s a superficial analysis. There’s never been such a thing and that doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but we found too many contradictions to such a conclusion.
The civil rights movement
In the 1950s, both Nat and Sylvia played a prominent role in the party’s involvement in the civil rights struggle.
We played a big role. Sylvia and I were active in the Black movement, which was unusual. All our comrades were a little bit interested, participated in demonstrations, and played some kind of a role—usually in white organizations in support of the Black struggle. But Sylvia and I joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and comrades were urged to do things like that. It’s hard for the whites to work in an organization like the NAACP, but we found we were able to. The racial crisis in the United States made them suspicious of all whites, including those that came over, because a lot of whites would come in with the wrong attitude, like they’re there to teach more than help—usually socialists, Stalinists, social democrats, and so on.
I joined the NAACP in ’53, right after Emmett Till1. Of course I tried to recruit to the SWP, but there was a line I didn’t cross. We’ve always had an orientation to the Black struggle for freedom.
The Khrushchev revelations and the Hungarian revolution
There was a marked increase in SWP members after the 1956 Khrushchev revelations about Stalinism. That was a big conquest for us, for the reputation and everything that Trotsky stood for, even though Khrushchev didn’t tell it all, by any means. But he told a lot. He punctured the balloon of Stalin’s image. Of course, the Soviet CP party leadership split, and the U.S. Communist Party was split. The CP was always oriented to the Democratic Party, at least since the 1930s, since Roosevelt.
We recruited a few former CP members—not many. We won over a lot of influence with people, including somebody who was pretty prominent in the “fellow travelers” of the Communist Party, who were affected because they were all Stalinist oriented. They were affected more than the members of the CP, who just got demoralized and dropped out, the ones that were quickly affected by that information.
We won over—as a supporter—Clifford T. McAvoy, a guy who had been the head of the American Labor Party in New York, which was a Stalinist-dominated or “front” organization. They elected a lot of people—local city officials—but they also supported the Democratic Party, which labor parties are not supposed to do! At least principled labor parties. Because a party that says it defends the workers against capitalists can’t support “good capitalists.” ’Cause there ain’t no good capitalists from the point of view of their policies that they have, the consistency of their positions.
McAvoy died around the time of the Krushchev revelations. He came close to us then. He wasn’t close to us before. He was close enough that his wife joining the party after he died was a reflection of the impact it had on him.
The Hungarian Revolution in 1956 shook up the Communist Party, too. That was the turning point where Khrushchev, I think, got back on the Stalinist line and was soon replaced. We had some influence in the CP, as you would expect, and the Trotskyists in England made big headway. We won a lot of top leaders of the CP at that time (not the uppermost leaders). They were horrified by the role of the CP in crushing the Hungarian Revolution, because they created soviets! It was modeled on the Bolshevik Revolution!
The CP had a larger cadre of workers, as well as being the larger organization, so they had a lot more workers in industry, especially in the industrial unions, but we had a small, solid cadre.
Ebbs and flows in membership and the Cochran split
We recruited a lot of students, beginning in the 1950s with the civil rights movement and the Cuban revolution. Then the Vietnam War and the draft gave students an even more compelling reason to rise up and become part of a broader movement. Then there was the women’s liberation movement, and of course the civil rights movement played a powerful role at that time.
At our height in 1946, we probably had fifteen or sixteen hundred members. The decline began with the McCarthy witch-hunt. It was very, very effective in silencing the militants inside the unions and, of course, our comrades. That’s why we lost the United Auto Workers fraction as a result of their orientation during the Cochran Split, in 1953. We had a large auto worker fraction, and we lost them because one of their leaders—Cochran himself—or maybe it was Mike Bartell, one of the other leaders of their faction—said that “the labor bureaucracy is to the left of the working class.” The leader, Bert Cochran, was an experienced autoworker intellectual. He was an intellectual who became a worker—he wasn’t a worker who became an intellectual, see. The labor bureaucracy was leading the campaign against communists and the Reds inside the union!
The orientation of the Cochranites was a kind of a mixed bag. You had two factions, or two currents that united around a program that was advanced by Cochran and a guy by the name of George Clarke; that was his party name. He had been in Europe representing the party in the Fourth International for a couple years around that time. Michel Pablo, a Greek, was a leader of the Fourth International in the ’50s. What appeared to be an approaching imperialist war against the Soviet Union, rolling back the recent occupation of Eastern Europe, led Pablo to the conclusion that they would be forced to take a revolutionary stand to defend the Soviet Union. Of course, there was a certain logic to that but to say that they would move to the left would be a legitimate proposition to have advanced. But the approach that he came up with was the “Entrism Sui Generis” or entry of a special kind. [Pablo proposed that the Trotskyists actually become members of the Communist Parties.]
During that period, the FBI visited constantly! They’d come knocking on your door. Sylvia was mostly at home—I was never at home or was working, and Sylvia didn’t tell them anything, wouldn’t talk to them. They’d go and visit her where she was working, which means that they had followed her to see where she was working. She was a waitress, and they would come into the restaurant, sit at one of the tables wherever she was working, and sit down and talk and leave a big tip. Well, a big tip in those days in a restaurant—you know—a diner—a working man’s restaurant. She wouldn’t tell them anything and couldn’t talk because she had work and she couldn’t sit down and talk to them and she wouldn’t. So they visited her constantly and they would have visited me if they could find out where I worked, but I worked in a different place almost week to week.
I used to be a pretty good public speaker. I’d get up on a soapbox in Greenwich Village in New York. We went through a period where we did a lot of recruiting of people that way. We had big meetings, so sometimes a couple hundred people in the street. We used to have a street meeting on 6th Avenue and 8th Street. It was the heart of the business district of Greenwich Village. That was around the time just before the Cuban Revolution—’59 and immediately after.
We had a meeting, in fact, a couple days after the Bay of Pigs and the hysteria was very much anti-Cuban, because it looked like World War III was about to begin. Really. That’s the way it looked. If you were alive then and walking down the streets, people would look at each other like: “Have you heard anything new? Have the Russian ships arrived yet?”
We had a street meeting. We were defending the Cuban Revolution against the invasion, and we had a very friendly crowd but there was one guy there yelling, “Castro-Oil!” He was drunk. “Castro-Oil!” He was a drunken fool being provocative. He knew enough of what was happening that he knew he hated it, and it was scary. The crowd didn’t respond, although you could see they were under pressure. We were able to hold the street meeting, but we had to end it prematurely, if I remember right. At any rate, I tried to get my kids to leave; they were in their teens in those days, and they wouldn’t go. I tried to say, “Get out of here because there’s going to be trouble!” They wouldn’t go. They stayed there. That’s my kids! Red diaper babies. Both of my daughters joined the Young Socialist Alliance when they were 15 or 16 and so you can call them “red diaper babies.” They’re still socialists.
New York forums
Nat organized Militant Labor Forums at 116 University Place every week, in order to share the ideas of revolutionary socialism with a broader audience.
We had a lot of social events. We kept ourselves busy during the worst period by having forums every week, one night a week. We used to have forums only in the wintertime, not in the summer. In the late ’50s, early ’60s, I instituted the policy of forums every week throughout the year, no matter what. We had forums every week with a social every week. Friday night social, Saturday night forum. We would make a little bit of money for the party from the socials by selling beer and liquor, which was illegal. We tried to circumvent the legality by buying little tickets from the 5- and 10-cent store, you know, that had numbers on it. They were little tickets that people could charge for drinking, so no money would be exchanged.
We got raided once at Mountain Spring Camp. Some guy came in and pretended to be a visitor and sat at the bar and ordered a drink and we took his money. We told him what to do and they camxe in with axes and they chucked up everything. The people who were technically in charge who identified themselves were arrested. They spent the night in jail. I think we won that case, if I’m not mistaken. Well, that was democracy in the United States!
We had organized three or four forums for Malcolm X. We were the only white organization to do so. I was the organizer when we did it. I was the one that established a relationship with him. I reported what I had seen and heard when I went to the meetings when he split from the Nation of Islam and he formed the Organization for African American Unity. All his meetings were in the place where he was ultimately assassinated, the Audubon Ballroom. I reported what he was saying and it was shocking because he was way in advance of everybody else in the leadership of the Black movement at the time.
The first time I heard him was at a street meeting in Brooklyn. That’s why when he broke with the Nation of Islam I knew something about him. I didn’t know how good he was until I went to this meeting and I was fascinated by everything he was saying. It was revolutionary. It was revolutionary nationalism, but it had a working-class thrust to it, and I’m listening to him and I make no notes. I was there to make notes! I had nothing to write; I was just so absorbed in what he was saying. I couldn’t make any notes. I was listening, I just wanted to get it all in. Then he said something about the Jews, because the Nation of Islam was very anti-Semitic at the time. It wasn’t that bad, but I felt compelled to make a note of it and he saw me—I was sitting right up in front. He says: “There’s a reporter here. A white man. He’s listened to this speech up until now and the only time he got a pencil on paper was when I said something about the Jews.” That’s in one of his speeches, and nobody knows that it was me.
Anyway, I reported these things—not the part about him mentioning me—but I mentioned everything that he was saying. The party trusted me, the comrades trusted me, and they took it and began to come to the meetings. They saw for themselves and I didn’t have to explain anymore. That’s what I mean by “he had a proletarian thrust to everything that he said.” The things he said and what he stood for made a big impression and I think will be around for a long time, long after he’s dead. He said things like: “For a capitalist to be revolutionary is like a turkey laying a chicken egg”—or something like that. He said it beautifully.
[Malcolm X’s quotation reads as follows: “People will realize that it’s impossible for a chicken to produce a duck egg—even though they both belong to the same family of fowl. A chicken just doesn’t have it within its system to produce a duck egg. It can’t do it. It can only produce according to what that particular system was constructed to produce. The system in this country cannot produce freedom for an Afro-American. It is impossible for this system, this economic system, this political system, this social system, this system, period. It’s impossible for this system, as it stands, to produce freedom right now for the Black man in this country.
“And if ever a chicken did produce a duck egg, I’m quite sure you would say it was certainly a revolutionary chicken!”]
At one point, before he went to Africa, we contacted him and invited him to speak at a meeting that we had organized in Harlem someplace; we didn’t think we had a big enough hall for him to speak in our meeting hall. We could hold 120, 130 people in our meeting hall, 116 University Place.
Making ends meet
I was the organizer at 116 University Place from 1960 until about 1965. I think I was acting organizer in ’60 and I became organizer in 1961.
I think we were getting $35 a week when I was the organizer. Of course, I couldn’t live on $35 a week; Sylvia worked, and I would work periodically and I earned enough to collect unemployment insurance. So I went through one period where I worked, I collected unemployment insurance, I would stop collecting unemployment insurance, I went back to work, and then I went back to full time in the party. Other times, I’d take off for a couple of jobs and do a job here and there.
I began to find people that I’d worked for as a contractor who liked the work I did and called me. You’re not supposed to do that, but they called me—rich people: people living on 5th Avenue right across from Central Park and places like that. I worked in a house for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. You know, the ex-king of the United Kingdom. They were living in an apartment I worked on.
The union wage was, let’s say, a hundred dollars a day. I would charge two or three hundred for a day’s work. That way, I was able to get by putting in a day or two here and a day or two there. Other comrades, their wife would be working or their companion would be working, whoever their companion was. Sylvia was working—though she went to work full time for the party before I did as a secretary in the office and she worked in the business office of The Militant. I was getting $35 and she was getting $15, plus the unemployment insurance and the other things. That was only $57.50, for us, but we were able to get by. We had an apartment, a rent-controlled apartment. New York rent control is not like it is in San Francisco. Not anymore! It used to be. When we were there, it was really rigid rent control. We were able to get by.
The SWP was the dominant force in the anti-war movement. Democratic centralism is what made the party strong and during the anti-war movement we met as a faction, as a party caucus in the movement. Our policy throughout the anti-war movement was very simple and easily understood because our policy was class independence—independence of the anti-war movement from the Democratic and Republican parties. At the same time, we didn’t exclude people who were for the Democrats—that was our policy. We didn’t say, “If you’re part of this movement, we insist that you not support the Democratic Party.” We advocated a policy that was in the best interests of the movement against the war.
We have an organizational principle that we call “democratic centralism.” It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it’s not. It’s a real contradiction. In other words, what “democratic centralism” means is democracy informing the positions of establishing policies of worth. It’s centralism in action. Once the party decides some course of action, you can’t violate it. But you don’t have to defend it if you don’t agree with it. See, that would be a mistake. The Stalinists did that. They forced those that disagreed, who voted against it, to defend it, but they said they practiced democratic centralism.
That was Lenin, the Bolsheviks, Trotsky, and so on. It was their methodology. That’s what made Lenin’s party different from the other parties—it was democratic centralist. It was disciplined, but it was also democratic. Everybody understood that you had the right to say whatever you think in the course of the discussion and in talking to people who were comrades or informally, to argue about the politics. You could say anything you wanted and you wrote anywhere you wanted, but once the decision is made, you’re obligated to support it in action. You’re not obligated, as I said, to defend it. That’s a very subtle thing. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s designed to make sure that nobody feels that their independence has been abridged. That’s important. It gives you freedom and confidence in the leadership of the party that allows this to happen, that wants this to happen, that organizes the party so that this happens. Everybody understands.
Unions don’t follow democratic centralism, of course, but in practice, once there’s a strike, once the majority has voted for a strike, everybody is supposed to abide by that decision and not cross the picket line.
You’ve got to follow the decision made by the majority. See, that’s a very important concept. In a democratic organization that doesn’t follow that policy, that permits the leadership to do anything that they want, you see the effects. It also means that you can’t take the rank and file seriously, because they keep arguing and they keep saying what they think. Especially if you’re allowed to violate it in action.
Say there’s a vote in your local union. Well, everybody is expected to vote with what the party decision is.
So we had factions, we had meetings. We’d decide what our policy would be.
We had a democratic discussion over tactics. It doesn’t come from the top. The only people who could make the decision are the people in the situation. I’m talking also about program. I’m also talking about in practice the tactical application of democratic centralism. It works in principal the same way, and it’s a really effective method.
The policy of the Stalinists and social democrats and liberals in the early stages of the war was negotiation; the advocacy, the demand, that the United States negotiate in Vietnam. Well, that’s the same as saying that Vietnam wants to negotiate their control of their country with the United States! “Negotiate Now” is a counterrevolutionary slogan because it violates the rights of not only of Americans but of the Vietnamese. You’re demanding that the Vietnamese negotiate with the United States. Why should they if they don’t want to? We’re going to negotiate with you about whether you should stay in this country or not? Whether they should be killing Vietnamese or not? Absurd!
For a while during the anti-war movement, our tactical statement was to support the proposal by others to end the war. At the same time, we said we would go further and when we marched on demonstrations, we carried signs that said, “Bring the Troops Home Now” before it was adopted by the movement as a whole, because that’s the principle of a united front-type demonstration. We had very little support for it at first but they compromised and accepted the slogan at the end of the war as against negotiation.
That’s how the Russian Revolution was made with a workers united front. That was the strategy of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution—a united front. The soviets are a united front. Every general strike is a united front. The anti-war movement is not a united front in the sense that it wasn’t big organizations united, but it was individuals representing currents that were welcome to participate, so it was a united front-type formation. We used that formulation to describe it succinctly. People might not have known what “united front” means, but we explained it that way.
Most anti-war movements are in principle united front-type demonstrations. They’re not workers’ united fronts because those are agreements between mass organizations: the old CIO unions, AF L unions, in a united action in their common interest during the general strike, for example. A general strike is like a soviet, and a soviet is a general strike. A general strike in a revolutionary period is a thing that stays; it’s permanent until you’ve got a plan. In other words, say all the different political parties and unions are part of the strike committee. That means not just the leaders, but also the rank and file comes to those meetings.
It doesn’t mean that everybody must go on a demonstration, just like being in a strike doesn’t mean that everybody has to go on a picket line. They have to be ready to go on the picket line, but they’re not obligated to go on the picket line. So it’s a voluntary thing. You can’t make it involuntary. A union can’t make its workers be on a picket line when everybody knows there’s going to be a fight between strikebreakers—scabs—on one side and unionists on the other. There has to be the spirit; if you don’t have that spirit, you can’t win the strike. There’s no way you can enforce it.
Once the rank and file get into motion, you can’t stop them! It’s hard to get them in motion—it can’t happen unless the workers want it to happen. Leaders have to understand the level of consciousness of the workers at that very moment. You can’t live in the abstract; you have to be there, you have to be part of it. You have to feel it. Then you can make a judgment: “This is what we’ve got to do. Let’s have a strike.” If you don’t think there is that mood there, then you have to limit it. If there’s going to be a strike, it has to be limited. You can’t bite off more than you can chew because you won’t be able to get the membership to put up the fight that’s necessary to make it stick.
So it just shows what happens when workers are in motion. When workers are in motion, they begin to think different. That’s what explains why the revolutionary Marxist movement has splintered all over the place. They never had mass support in the United States. But the loss of the influence they’ve had is because the workers have not been in motion for a long time. Not as workers, not through their own institutions—the workers as part of the anti-war movement. Who made up the anti-war movement? Most of them are workers. Not organized workers, not trade union, so much—though there was some union support in the anti-war movement, and more as time went on—but that’s because the whole population is against this war now. But they are against this war in a way that is not what it would be like if the organized workers’ movement was against the war, as it would be in a different situation, in a more advanced political situation.
You see, everything is rational. There are no mysteries about it, but there is a lot that you need to know, and what you need to know you don’t only get from books. You’ve got to get it from experience. That’s why we had a cadre—that’s what we call people who have absorbed the politics and methodology of revolutionary Marxism. Trotskyism is not something separate and independent—it’s just revolutionary Marxism of today.
In the ’60s, with the influx of students and recruits from the New Left, there was a shift in the membership of the party.
That’s where the degeneration of the party came in. There’s nothing wrong with the recruiting of students; that’s what we do. When workers are not in motion, you’ve got to try to keep the party alive and have cadres so that when the opportunity to lead working class struggles arises your in a position to do it. You have people to do it. So we recruited lots of youth, and they were trained not in the unions but in the anti-war movement. We taught them how to function in the anti-war movement, how democratic centralist policies and principles function and how we put them into effect. It makes sense, so it was easy for people to grasp and understand and become used to it—it became normal. It’s just the way you did things. It was effective and it was reasonable and it was democratic. You expected comrades to vote, but if they didn’t vote with us, with the majority—every now and then, for instance, they voted with friends—we didn’t make them.
Moving to the West Coast
Nat took a party assignment to rebuild the Seattle branch after it split with members forming the Freedom Socialist Party.
I was asked to move to another city. I was given a choice of San Francisco or Seattle and I didn’t understand what was really involved and I said I’d go to Seattle. Tom Kerry told me, that was a big mistake. He didn’t tell me in so many words, because he was too smart a politician to tell a comrade something that would be treated as a violation of discipline, so he just said that it was a mistake, but it was too late; I had agreed to go.
They sent six of us to Seattle to reconstitute the branch. Sylvia and I, another couple, and two other single men.
Tom Kerry was the National Organizational Secretary of the SWP, along with Farrell Dobbs, who was National Secretary. They were a team, Farrell Dobbs and Tom Kerry.
Tom Kerry told me to stop off in San Francisco on my way to Seattle. We drove a Volkswagen there with a trailer with a few possessions. I wanted to see comrades: My daughter, Debbie, was married to Peter Camejo who was the party leader at the time and they were living in Berkeley. We stopped off to see Sylvia’s mother on the way in Arizona and we saw Debbie in Berkeley and my daughter Bonnie and her husband Roland went to San Francisco.
I stayed a total of two and a half months in Seattle and helped build the branch. I reported to Farrell Dobbs and to Tom Kerry. After a while, after I was there, they called me and told me to go down and talk to them again. Tom Kerry told me that while I had been stopping off in San Francisco, the leader of the International Brotherhood of Painters, Local 4 in San Francisco, Dow Wilson, had been assassinated.
Wilson was the head of the Bay Area movement. He put up a good fight at first, for about a year. Then, when the contract expired, and they had to negotiate a new contract, they made big concessions to the employers. One of the things that Dow Wilson was noted for is fighting for control over the tools. The employers allowed rollers to be used, but only on old work. New work, you had to use the paintbrush. The employers wanted to add the stick, which is a paint roller with an extension, so you could paint the ceiling from the floor and not have to get up on a ladder. It saves a lot of time.
I told the Local 4 leaders who I was, but I didn’t say I was coming to San Francisco. I had that wrong. I just went ahead. I didn’t ask them. I just said, I’ve always wanted to know what happened and so on and so forth and what was their estimate of the situation, and they told me everything. They were under the impression that it was the leaders in the International Brotherhood of Painters that had Dow Wilson assassinated.
They were ex-Stalinists—no longer Stalinists. They were seamen and I was a seaman, so we got along famously; I told them that I was a Trotskyist and they welcomed me. I said, “What would you think if I came here to help?” Me and another comrade? That was my son-in-law, Roland Sheppard.
So I told Farrell and Tom what happened and I reported the discussion I had with the Local 4 leaders, and they said, “We think you should go move to San Francisco.” Tom wanted me out of Seattle. They hadn’t recommended Seattle; they were forced. Tom apparently had told them, “Don’t send them to Seattle. Send them to San Francisco if you need help. That’s where you can do more good.” San Francisco had a big trade union movement, or used to have it. Now the union is dead in San Francisco. It doesn’t exist. In fact, they don’t even have a local here anymore. They’ve got a local for all of the Bay Area in Oakland someplace. You hear nothing about them; there’s no sign of the existence of the painter’s union in San Francisco.
So I moved to San Francisco. At one point, I ran for recording secretary, which was the highest position in Local 4. Dow Wilson didn’t want to be a high official—he was a recording secretary, which is usually an unpaid job in the union. The big positions are business agent and financial secretary, so that’s why a lot of union heads are titled “secretary treasurer”—they’re the recording secretary, full-time, and the treasurer.
I ran and I think I got 150 votes out of about 500, which was not that good. In fact, Roland Sheppard got elected some years after this, but he wasn’t part of any opposition. There wasn’t any opposition; there was no central leadership. The whole thing began degenerating after they gave up tools. You see? Because that was their way of making peace with the bosses and the International. They capitulated, in effect. They tried to con us.
Morris Evenson was the leader of Local 4 and he very much wanted, valued, our help and support. I could have been his “right-hand man” and eventually been a business agent, and go the way of all flesh, you know? Of course, I wasn’t interested in that, and I wasn’t too anxious to get a full-time job because I was afraid of what would happen to me. I had Roland to watch over me. He wouldn’t let me sell out on the job.
1 Emmett Louis Till (July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955) was an African-American boy who was murdered in Mississippi at the age of 14 after reportedly flirting with a white woman.