May 25, 2015
In Sam Johnson’s memoirs, we see his unusual attitudes at work: to include all co-workers – black, white, men, women, Arab, Yugoslav, Polish. It’s not surprising that workers came to him with their problems. He was one of them. His instinct was to reach out to others.
Whatever the problem was – unreasonable pace of assembly line work, harassment by white and black supervisors, times when auto parts were missing or tools not working properly, when even to use the toilet was a hassle – Sam couldn’t let it go by, not for himself, not for his co-workers. His instinct was to encourage a meeting: not a month later at the scheduled union meeting, but NOW, today, not just with Sam as a shop steward, but always with co-workers, sometimes with just a couple of guys, sometimes a bigger group when word spread. Sam had the same response: let’s call a meeting. Let’s deal with this now!
This spirit of “inclusiveness” was not only Sam’s attitude. A relationship of mutual support developed with militant Arab and Yugoslavian workers. Some translated the socialist newsletter, the SPARK, that was distributed throughout the plant. During Sam’s legal battles against Chrysler, Arab workers were among those who came and supported him in court. When Arab workers were under attack and blamed for the oil crisis of the 1970s, Sam and a few others supported them.
Even when Sam was a young man, getting into fights, drinking, carousing with women, and later heavy into drugs, when some of his friends showed rotten behavior, Sam didn’t degrade anyone. This quality stayed with him as he gained class consciousness in the auto plants during the militant period of the 1960s and 70s. This is when he “got the bigger picture” from his exposure to communist co-workers.
Toward the end of the book, Sam speaks with a sense of urgency to pass onto the younger generation what he has learned about the possibilities of a revolutionary working class fight, one that could lead to a different society. When he talks about the brutality of racist cops killing “a young black kid quicker than a white kid, especially if the black kid speaks up,” it’s a thunderbolt reminder of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.
Sam also confronts young black youth as they are today. Today’s “young people out in the street are harder, with no hope, no possibilities.” Connecting the lack of jobs for young people with crime, he says outright that “some turn to crime.... Some are real fighters, but who do they fight today? Who do they rob? Each other,” and other workers in the neighborhood. Yet Sam recognizes their potential. Fight yes, but “go after the real robbers who put you in that condition.” You have the right to the good life, to the nice things you want.
He confronts the adult working class as it is today. “When there is a fight, when the working class really gets moving, we have to bring these young people along with us. They could fight tomorrow along with the rest of their class.”
Sam is unusual, even rare in this reactionary period. He grapples with the potential of the working class. He hangs onto that hope in the potential for a real fight, a revolutionary fight, that values every human being and includes everyone ready to fight. That hope is contagious!
P.S. There are light moments in the book: Read it to find out what happens, for example, when 30 auto workers descend on the superintendent’s office during lunch break over a problem with their pay checks.
[A Fighter All My Life by Sam Johnson, published by Abecedarian Books, Baltimore, Maryland in 2014.]