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Discussion & Film “Wildcat at Mead”

wildcat discussion
On May 16th, Interference Archive hosted a screening and discussion of the film Wildcat at Mead.

Chronicling a successful 1972 wildcat strike at Mead Packaging, an Atlanta, GA cardboard plant, Wildcat at Mead highlights the struggles of the predominantly Black  workers on strike, who had been battling racism within their labor union as well as with the plant management. The film includes a significant amount of footage from picket lines, including confrontations with local police and private security; interviews with workers from divers parts of the shop floor; and rallies and press conferences in support of the strike. Featured prominently are Sherman Miller and Wayne Draznin, two workers at Mead and members of the October League, a Marxist-Leninist organization which counted several Mead employees among its membership, whose members made and distributed the film, and which provided “militant leadership” to the strike.

On August 18th, 1972 700 of the plant’s 1,100 workers walked off the job, demanding safer, healthier workplace conditions and an end to racial discrimination at the plant, especially in hiring and promotions. Less than two months later, on October 5, 1972, the strike ended when Mead conceded to several of the workers’ demands. Wildcat at Mead speaks powerfully to the careful planning and collaboration that goes into making a strike successful, and it is also a startling document of a time when people everywhere were making frequent and rapid advances in the struggle for self determination.

Joining us for discussion after the movie were Jim Skillman, who helped raise support for the strike as a member of the October League Atlanta District Committee, and Linda Alcoff, who joined the October League after seeing Wildcat at Mead in Florida in the late 70s. After the jump is a full transcript of the  discussion:

You can view the full documentary here

Wildcat at Mead by SolidarityUS


Jim: I would ask that you view this with a forgiving spirit- this was shot with the very first portable video camera ever made- the Sony Portapak. It was made by someone who was 25 years old, who had never made anything before in his life. We didn’t have anyway to edit it so we took it to New York and kinescoped it, and then we edited the film and made 16mm sound prints and showed it all over the place, and then lost track of it as our organization grew and got bigger. I think we originally had 10 or 12 prints made but everybody lost track of it.

Then a few years ago somebody found a copy of the old 16mm prints and it was scratched and damaged. We had one of the most premier, state of the art production houses take this film and spend a lot of time on it, trying to clean it up and clean up the sound and even with that you will not be impressed by the production values. (laughs)

Q: Before we start can you give a brief description of what the October League was?

Jim: The October League was a revolutionary communist organization that came about from a merger with Georgia Communist League and the October League collective in California. These organizations grew out of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). When SDS split in 1969, it was because a bunch of us were opposing the Progressive Labor Party’s attempt to take over the organization. We split into two groups: The Weathermen, and RYM II (Revolutionary Youth Movement II), based on a paper that was written in opposition to the Weathermen, and there were collectives all over the country that were RYM II collectives. The basic idea was that we have to go to the working class and we have to win the advanced workers to socialism. The October League grew by recruiting individuals and from other collectives all over the country. Eventually it became the Communist Party Marxists-Leninists, which was recognized as a fraternal party from the Chinese Communist Party. The party dissolved in the late 80’s, but the people didn’t.

Q1: What was the settlement between the workers and the company when they went back to work- did they actually get what they wanted from it?

Jim: They got a number of things- we didn’t get things that were really very important to us, some of the strike leaders weren’t able to get their jobs back. The white guy you saw with Sherman, Wayne Draznin, he was not able to get his job back at the plant, and in fact he wasn’t able to get a job anywhere in Atlanta after this. He ended up transferring to a different district and he passed away a few years ago. The other things- I had the opportunity to go through the plant a few years ago because I was in that business- not as a political person but to look at a piece of equipment that my company was thinking of buying. And the plant is now air-conditioned, they don’t use solvent alcohol-based things anymore, there’s no dust in the air, there’s a ventilation system that’s one of the most advanced I’ve ever seen. The department that I went to look at- the lead man in that department was black, they had a black supervisor. The other thing about the plant was they had about 20-25% of the workforce they had at the time of the strike. They automated a lot of the equipment and put in palletizers and everything. So they were very effective in getting a lot of the concrete demands answered- and Linda you might want to add to this- but in terms of us building something that was ongoing, and challenging the union, we were not successful. What’s not in the film is the fact that the union basically was controlled by these little white Ku Klux Klan people- there were two different Klan factions that competed with each other for control of the union, and that went on for a number of years after the strike. So, they were not able to do anything in terms of changing the leadership of the union.

Linda: Well, I think what happened from the strike was a lot of increased organization in Atlanta. Betty Bryant, who was prominent- she was sitting between Sherman and Wayne in that last one [interview in the film]- she became a leader in Atlanta, in the struggle. She really came from the ranks, she was not originally a member of the October League, she was a worker at Mead, and she became a leader. She just had that kind of ability- she should have been the mayor of Atlanta! So several people came out of that, the Georgia Communist League, I think, developed, recruited more people. So the movement in Atlanta gained from this, learned the lessons of this struggle, and gained organizational experience from it. And one of the things that strikes me now, because I was recruited on the basis of this film- I’m a little younger than Jim in terms of my membership- this film was used all around the South and I saw it in Tallahassee, Florida when I was a student at Florida State. And, I ended up quitting college, and we ended up moving to Atlanta. One of the things that we did in like ’76- was organizing in the white communities, in the poor white communities; Cabbagetown, where Nanny Washburn was from- the older white woman who was dragged- she was a veteran of civil rights, she was an amazing woman, poor white woman from Cabbagetown. So we tried to do some organizing on campuses, we were brought up to do some student organizing and some organizing in some of the poor white neighborhoods- but what you see here is there was no hesitation to say “soul power,” to say “this is about the liberation of black people,” even though these were communists, right? They didn’t mince words, they didn’t hold back from raising the question of race and talking about national liberation for African American people, we called them Afro-Americans back then (laughs). It wasn’t seen as a contradiction to our overall working class politics, at all.

Q2: I have two questions for you both, and I guess for anyone else in the room: It was very powerful to see in Atlanta, in ’72, a lot of this tremendous organizing from the civil rights movement and the emergence of the black power movement- but the focus not on power at the point of services, in terms of boycotting transportation or boycotting different public places, but very much people’s work being the focus of their power. And I wonder if in Atlanta if there was any way that people really tried to coax and support that shift, from moving from only boycotting and forming actions at different public places for services, and then more towards doing actions at their workplaces? Whether there was a campaign, or political education or anything to encourage that?

And the second one more logistically about wildcatting; so this was a plant of about 1,000 people, I wonder if y’all could speak about how people have those conversations to do a wildcat strike, and if you had even some suggestions for organizing in workplaces even larger than that.

Jim: Well, we didn’t believe in wildcat strikes. The labor movement is different today than it was then, and we didn’t see ourselves as organizing in opposition to the union. If we were in a plant, and they didn’t have a union, we saw it as our job to organize a union, If they had a union at that time, we saw it as our job to try organize a progressive caucus in that union, not to do away with the union or set up a dual union in opposition to the union. Mead was a special case. That plant was a powderkeg, and the workers- that was a special case in a lot of ways. So that’s number one, and number two, we were communists. We thought that if you wanted to be a member of our organization, you had to be willing to go to work in a factory. And it didn’t matter what you believed, or how deeply you thought, or how good your line was- if you wanted to be a member of the October League you had to go get a job in a factory. And if you didn’t want to do that, that’s fine, we can all be friends, but you couldn’t be in our organization, because that’s where we wanted to do our organizing. Now we also organized in the community, we also organized in the anti-war movement and left movement. But our focus, again, was in organizing the workplace. And of the twenty-something places where we had people working in Atlanta, there’s only three of them still left, they’ve all closed down, they don’t exist anymore. But if you wanted to have that same strategy today I don’t know what you would do in Atlanta, because there no factories left for you to get jobs in- you have to figure out something else to do. Mead’s still there, and one of the workers who was a member of the October League still works there- I think you saw him when you came to Atlanta didn’t you?

Linda:Gary Washington? No we didn’t see him, we saw Betty though, and Cassandra and Felicia. I would just say on the union stuff though- it was different. Larry [Linda’s husband] was in the GBBA, the Glass Bottle Blowers Association, and they were really racist, just not good at all. So we didn’t have very good relations with them at all. But at Arrow Shirts, where I worked, the union was a little bit better, and so those of us who worked in that union, we worked with the union. We did have one wildcat walkout one day, because one of the young activists was fired, so we walked out- but we walked to the union hall. So it was like 500 women- and she got her job back the next day. So different unions, you could work with them to push them to be more responsive, as they say.

Q3: I had a question about the production of the film itself. On the radical media production, was this something where there were a few people in the organization participating in the filmmaking, or were the workers participating in that, or were there outside groups like News Reel or anybody who came in and did advisory type stuff- just how did that come about in the making of the film? And then after it was filmed and it was time to edit, what was the decision making process among the workers and the OL and the various parties that edited the film?

Jim: Well, the person that shot the film was a young manwho came out of the student movement and joined the October League and subsequently got a job working in a factory in Atlanta. And he worked with a couple other people in the October League including Sherman Miller, who was a leader of the strike, Wayne Braslin, another member of the October League, and I think Betty and Gary Washington.

But when it came time to actually edit the thing and put it together he had to come to New York to do that, and he came by himself and basically put it together. In fact, the first attempt he had at putting it together, we felt like it had some problems, and he came back to New York and fixed some of the problems that we felt it had politically. I’ll tell you what they were: the original film was much tougher on Hosea Williams. We didn’t want that in the final film because we wanted to continue to try and work with Hosea in Atlanta, but Hosea was not an easy person to work with, and a lot of the workers that were on the strike committee would be the first ones to tell you that. On the one hand, he brought a lot to the strike, it was very good that he was involved, but on the other hand he was somebody that you had to manage, to keep him from taking it over and dominating it, plus taking all the money that was collected. And so, the first edition of the film I think was actually a little more honest about the role that he played. And I think a lot of the workers saw it and said, ‘We don’t wanna do this,’ so we tempered it. And what you just saw was what we ended up with, obviously.

Q3.1: Did the first cut include the voiceover, or was that part of the re-editing process?

Jim: Yeah. She [narrator] was a member of the October League too. You know, I just don’t know all the technical details of [the filmmaking]- and the guy that made the film- he’s great, he’s still alive and he loves for people to see the film, and I wish he’d come to people to tell them how he did this, especially people like yourselves, who know how to do this-

Q4: I was deliberating over whether I should ask this or not- but my parents also joined the October League basically because of this movie. The question that I wasn’t going to ask, but since you brought it up, was that there was a rumor that I heard that basically as the line of the October League would change, re-edits would circulate. I assume that my parents saw it in Ohio, which is where they lived before they moved to Birmingham. So, the question for you, Jim, is what was the process of getting it out for people to see, and how did you use it once people had seen it, as a tool for organizing what became the CPML? And maybe for Linda is, what about this documentary made you want to leave Florida, and go to Atlanta, like my parents moved to fucking Birmingham of all places-basically on orders- there were lots of other people circulating lots of other material, so what was it about this film, that made you not just want to get involved, in the way we maybe think of it now, but actually commit to party-building, and long-term, total commitment.

JS: Well I was already in, so I’ll guess Linda’s the one to answer that question, but I’ll tell you how we used it: we made a bunch of sound prints and took it around to these different collectives and showed it- this thing showed in France somewhere, and we took it and showed it to the Chinese, we did use to it to help build our organization. And the reason for that is there was a period much like today, where you have a lot of people who are very active, and there are a lot of different ideas floating around about, ‘Well what is it that we should get together and organize to do next week?’ And there were different political theories, and we were promoting a particular political line, which was Marxism, and going to the working class, and we wanted to show that you could be successful. You could go out and organize workers, you can organize white workers, in the South, you can turn them into communists if they’re smart enough and you’re good enough, we wanted to show that it was possible to do that- and I think this film shows that it’s possible to go out and go to work in a factory and organize, and not just organize around day-to-day issues, but to actually win over people to your program. That’s how I think we tried to use it, and [to Linda] what do you think of how we used it?

Linda: Well it was shown in a union in Florida State in Tallahassee, and the October League was not in Tallahassee- it was in Tampa, so it was not October League members who were showing it, it was young people who were fellow travelers showing it. I was already a young revolutionary at the time (laughs). I was a college student, but I had been a high school dropout, I came to this country from Panama, it was kind of a miracle that I was in college. There was a lot going on in that period, the Vietnam War was still going on when I started college. But this was different- because this was, as you can see from the film, working people in struggle, it was not student groups, it wasn’t anti-war struggle, around a particular aim. It was really rooted in a place, where people worked- and also, I think it was very powerful because it was black workers. Because they modeled for us how to think about race and class together, and how to do it, and that was a key thing in the South, certainly- I think throughout the country, but certainly in the South. So the chance of helping in that struggle, it wasn’t a question- that was the most important thing, because the war was winding down, you know, there were things we were winning. This was the long-term, this was being part of something that was really making- and I still believe this is how you do it- you don’t do it from national organizations so much, you do it on the local level, and workers’ struggles, in this kind of way. That was ’76 that I saw it.

Q5: So in the film they mentioned that there had been strikes at Nabisco and Atlanta Hospital, and I think there had also been a strike at Sears in the months preceding this. Was there an Atlanta-wide coordination among workers, or Black workers in particular? Was October League in all those places? How was it that there was so much happening?

Jim: We had people at Nabisco, in the Bakers and Confectioners’ Union. We had people in a lot of different plants. Our people tended to get jobs in the places that were shitholes because that’s the easiest place to get a job. [laughter] That’s why we were able to get people in Mead- we had a harder time getting people at Atlantic Steel, and the Chevrolet plant, because they paid pretty good money and had unions- So it took us a while to get people in those plants, though we eventually did. It wasn’t the October League, it was the times. There were walkouts every week we were chasing, doing strike support work. The unions weren’t doing much, but let’ s say you have a warehouse over in the Fulton Industrial Boulevard area and maybe in that warehouse there are 12 black workers, and a manager, and a secretary, and they’re really being crapped on, their working conditions are terrible, they’ve got a bunch of grievances- and they would get together and they would walk out and maybe they’d call Hosea Williams, and they’d call a TV station, and they’d say, ‘We’re sick of this.’ We’d hear about it and we’d go over, and we’d help them try to organize a picket or something, maybe it would last two weeks, maybe it would last two days, and they would win some things, and they’d go back to work. This was going on constantly. And we couldn’t keep up with it. That was just the times- it wasn’t anything that we did that caused that to happen. And if you didn’t live through it, you can’t imagine what it was like. Max Elbaum wrote a book about those times, and organizations like ours, that were around then, it’s called Revolution in the Air [worldcat]. And it was- revolution was in the air, people were open, people were not afraid. I think that time will come again, but it’s certainly not that way now. It made a big difference in terms of how the average worker, who maybe had never done anything before- what they were willing to do, just on the spur of the moment, just after a little bit of organizing.

Q6: I was hoping you could say more about Michael Klonsky, I’m curious about him. My uncle was a member of the Young Patriots In Chicago. A book has just come out about the Patriots, and a guy about my age has tried to track down members- so my uncle was one of the more cooperative people that talked to him– but what came out of those set of interviews was— my uncle believes strongly that Michael Klonsky was part of the concerted effort to either control SDS or destroy it altogether. And this guy that did the interview with the Young Patriots, he also interviewed Mike Klonsky, and Mike Klonsky said ‘One of the things that I regret about my life is that I played a role in sabotaging different organizations that I was a part of.’ And then this guy decided not to publish that, said ‘That’s not the story- I’m not interested in it.’ Anyway, I don’t know Klonsky for anything– but I find it interesting and important to understand how organizations fail or are sabotaged, just as much as how they succeed.

Jim: Well Mike’s not here to defend himself, but I am very skeptical that he would say something like that about that particular time. I think he felt a lot of pride, and that for all the mistakes he made, I think he still feels pretty good about the work that he did in the period you’re talking about. This was a RYM II initiative, the original Rainbow Coalition before Jesse Jackson ripped the name off and used it for his purposes, in Chicago where SDS was based. The RYM II people there put together a coalition with Fred Hampton from the Black Panther Party, the Young Patriots, Cha Cha Jimenez, the Young Lords, and the Brown Berets. This was the original Rainbow Coalition. This was the same time the Weathermen were running down Michigan Avenue with football helmets and baseball bats and doing all that, and we were trying to build something that we thought was real– and I think that holds up pretty well today. I am really skeptical that Mike said that. I don’t know, I can’t say he didn’t say it, I can’t prove a negative, but that’s not my take on those times at all. I was around, and I don’t think that’s his take on it either. I’m sorry.

Linda: I don’t think one person could take down an organization either- certainly not as strong a one as SDS. I think that our group made some errors, like in working sometimes with other groups, like with SCEF (Southern Conference Educational Fund), and we didn’t survive because of the errors that we made. But, the people that I worked with in that group, like Jim, are all organizers today, every last one of them. They’re in unions, in community organizations, some are in electoral work, some of them are in the academy, like me. Nobody turned their back on it, nobody quit, nobody gave up that I know of. Its just that its really hard to make a revolution in the United States, it’s not an easy thing! (laughs) So, I feel, like Jim, proud of the work that this organization did. That’s not to say that we didn’t make mistakes, that’s not to say Klonsky didn’t make mistakes. Anybody would make mistakes. But I do feel like compared to other organizations, there were a lot of really good people and the basic approach was right.

The other thing I wanted to say to [Q5]: It was a moment of ferment in Atlanta. Because the Klan was active- they were active on the campus of Georgia State. Larry got knifed once, or this guy pulled a knife on him- this Klansman from the union he was working in, and Betty Bryant was assaulted by two Klansmen in a field across from her home after she was on local television as one of the militant leaders from the Mead Strike. So all of this was happening. There was a lot at stake and there was a lot to fight for in Atlanta and the South at that time.

Jim: Let me just expand on that briefly. Atlanta at that time was a place where white workers and black workers from the rural areas would migrate to because there were jobs there.  There were people that came from as far away as South Carolina and lived in boarding houses over in West End and would work during the week and go home on the weekend. There were Klan chapters at Chevrolet and at the Mead Plant and at Atlantic Steel. Now we had a policy that anytime we had people in a plant, that we would sell our newspapers. That’s how you would know that you had October League members working there, because these people would show up distributing October League literature. At Chevrolet and Atlantic Steel we had to mobilize like 15 people to do that, because we would get in fights with the Klan. They would come and attack us, we had people beat up. And we finally said ‘Well, we’re not gonna back down but we can’t just send 2 people to get slaughtered.’ So we had to mobilize people– when they attacked us, we would counterattack them and everything, and that would calm it down. I had forgotten about that until you mentioned the thing about Betty, but it was like, just to go out and sell 5 newspapers at the Chevrolet plant, Jesus- the resources that we had to bring to bear and the coordination you had to do just to get enough people there so our folks wouldn’t be intimidated.

Linda: I remember the first action I did outside of Tallahassee – it was this little nursing home outside of town– we were trying to help workers strike there and the boss sent these thugs– they were white guys, and they had billy clubs, and they were threatening us. And this cop came- we knew him because he used to come to all of our meetings, Officer Hall– and he came and he saw the three of us, and we were all skinny at the time, and all these guys threatening us and he just drove away. That was the role of the police back then. So, you had to do it yourself.

Audience: Still true today

Q7: I’m curious what worker organizing excites you right now, given your history and what you’ve done. We’re in an interesting moment now with Occupy, and new worker organizing with Walmart, Fast Food workers, others, and a labor movement in general that recognizes that something’s got to change. My feeling is that we are in a beginning of innovation. But I’m curious for you all, what excites you, and what you’re willing to get involved in.

Jim: Well, I’m a member of Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism in Atlanta and we work a lot with DSA (Democratic Socialists of America). Do I think it’s a great organization? Well I think it’s got some great people in it. October League was a disciplined cadre organization, and it asked a lot of people to be members. We don’t function that way now, so we invite you to join our organization. If you don’t like our organization, we invite you to find one you do like, and join it and not be a lone ranger, and once you get in that organization you do what we did- work for left unity, because we’re so small now that that’s what we have to do. The organization that I’m a part of, I’m in it because I think that’s where I can be the most effective in terms of bringing abut what I think needs to happen. It’s not because I think it’s the greatest organization, or I think everybody just ought to quit their organization and join ours- I don’t think that. We work with day-to-day struggles, we work with Jobs with Justice, Progressive Democrats of America. We’re involved in the day-to-day struggles and we’re also trying to build left unity among socialists. And I know In Atlanta we work with IWW, we work with DSA, we work sometimes with Solidarity– I never thought we’d be able to work with some of these groups that we’re able to work with. But there’s a feeling among all these groups, inside all these organizations, there’s a lack of sectarianism that used to exist. I know Linda remembers how sectarian all the organizations were, and we were too. I don’t sense that now, among the different organizations, the way it used to be, and that’s encouraging.

Linda; I think the fast food workers organizing is very important and exciting. Justice for Janitors was a brilliant campaign that won real successes. And the thing about it is, both of those campaigns have been financed and organized by the labor movement, like SEIU. The labor movement has changed tremendously from 35, 40 years ago. It is- in terms of immigration, they negotiate contracts so that there’s no discrimination between if you’re documented or undocumented; SEIU has gender and race quotas for conventions, it does transgender training workshops for its shop stewards. It’s light years ahead of what the labor movement was when I was a kid. These unions are not the October League, it’s a different kind of organization and it makes its own errors and has problems. But the labor movement in this country is worth working in and trying to make better; it’s worth struggling in. It was totally critical in Wisconsin, it was unions that did Wisconsin, and Wisconsin was a radicalizing moment in this country– and the unions were all into that. So I think we have to give the unions credit.

Audience: But they didn’t strike in Wisconsin

Linda: No– but they were agitating and organizing a big broad coalition around the cutbacks on public workers.

Linda: (to Jim) Do you agree with that?

Jim: Yeah the labor movement, I’ll give you an example- the Teamster Union is the best union in Atlanta right now in terms of reaching out to the community, in terms of organizing even small shops, trying to organize into unions, in terms of immigration, in terms of supporting the Latino Alliance on Human Rights. They are the best union in the city- they put their money where their mouth is and they bring the rank and file out to demonstrations in the community, not just their staff. In 1973, when I was in the Teamsters in Atlanta, they were the sorriest, worst union in Atlanta. The labor movement has changed. Trumka- what I hear him saying sounds pretty good to me, in terms of what you’re going to get, what you can expect at this point. Things are much better now. There are still unions that are not activists, there are still a lot of problems in the labor movement, but the difference between now and back then is the difference between night and day. If you get out and do some of this organizing work, you’ll see it for yourself. They’re not perfect, but compared to the way they used to be, they’re so much better, so much easier to work with. They’ll work with people on the left now– maybe that’s because they got the shit beat out of them for 20 years and they don’t have much left, but whatever the reason is they are will to work with people on the left, as long as people on the left are willing to be productive and do some of the work and not just sit back and pontificate and write articles about how fucked up the labor movement is.

Audience: NAFTA was the first time I saw the Teamsters step out like that. In the 90s, when they started working across the border, they were working with- I was working for a left organization and I was going to Teamsters meeting, which had never happened. And I grew up in a sheet metal family – and their union is still probably one of the most sexist unions in the country from what I’ve been told by my dad and my brother. But they look to the Teamsters not for any kind of radicalization, but just because what the Teamsters got they would get. It was in ’76, when I was a kid, we moved to Cornwall on Hudson because [?] went non-union, and they drove out all the shops. IBM shut down their union, and that stuff- I don’t think people- the attacks against the unions were so strong, leading up to Reagan.

Linda: I mean, there’s class struggle going on all around us, it’s just not covered in the media, or covered badly. I tell my students all the time, ‘Yes there’s class consciousness in this country,’ ‘Yes, there’s class struggle.’ It’s just local struggles. And in these labor struggles, people work across African American, Latino, Asian American, white, and you have this working together, and leadership development- it’s a possibility that you don’t get anywhere else because they work in the same place, so there’s a common base. It’s not people coming to a space, like Zuccotti Park, as wonderful as Zuccotti Park was- you’re all employees- in a hospital, in a nursing home, so it doesn’t mean that it solves all the conflicts that arise, but it is a basis from which- where else is that organizing happening? That kind of cross-race organizing, multiple gender organizing? It’s happening in the labor movement in this country, in a lot of different struggles.