[Labor History Workshop: Fred Thompson #2]

An organizing workshop led by activist Staughton Lynd at Indiana University Northwest. This tape features Fred Thompson, labor organizer and IWW leader, addressing a group of (mostly) United Steel Workers union members about the future of unions and how to create positive change.

00:00Copy video clip URL Black. Audio slate: “This is Fred Thompson, reel 2.”

00:09Copy video clip URL Thompson in mid speech addressing a group of United Steel Workers Union members talking about understanding unions and union workers. He talks about the Upper Clyde ship yards in Scotland. The yard was going to close but the workers insisted on staying. They occupied the yard. You could use these factories to build socially helpful things other than battle ships and luxury cruise ships, like parts for public housing. Factory workers all over must recognize this potential class-wide and world-wide. Things are being done to facilitate this world-wide communication.

04:55Copy video clip URL A man argues it’s one thing to have an ideal of worker’s control, but questions how the workers are going to do this. “You want them to follow you but you don’t tell them where they’re going.” Thompson replies as soon as a leader takes over a movement that leader runs the risk of becoming corrupt.

06:37Copy video clip URL Another man interrupts. “You’re saying we should have no leadership. I believe the country’s biggest problem is corrupt unionism. If we don’t have direction about what to do the problem won’t be fixed. I suggest when you know something is corrupt you take it over! We need a leader to tell us what the plan is and to stay focused. You should have a suggestion on how we’re going to fix the problem.”

09:12Copy video clip URL Thompson says one solution is to do what we’re doing here–exchange ideas. Camera cuts him off mid-sentence.

10:29Copy video clip URL Staughton Lynd is talking mid-sentence, asking Thompson to talk about “when it was started, what its strengths are…” Thompson goes back to talking about what to do about corrupt unions. Another man comments on the earlier discussion about where their leadership is coming from. We need to take back our unions. “If the workers take back their own unions they’ll attack the foundations of capitalism by saying this is ours.”

12:58Copy video clip URL Another man says you can’t separate corruption and economic considerations. If a local union has no power in the larger organization, then regular rank and file workers won’t be interested in using the local as a vehicle for their interests. Camera turns off mid-sentence.

14:53Copy video clip URL Another man is talking, mid-sentence. People need to know where they’re going. Call a pig a pig. You can’t be a nice guy and not identify who your enemy is. Not enough people are doing this. They’re trying to be nice. It’s time people speak up. Thompson responds, “no one is disagreeing with you.” He gives a history of the IWW union, started in 1903 by workers dissatisfied with working conditions. He talks about industrial vs crafts unions. The videographer stops and restarts taping a couple of times, interrupting Thompson’s speech. He tells a story of the head of the Steel Workers Union who got rid of elected leaders of their union and replaced them with the guys who were defeated in the election. The members didn’t like that and called for a meeting. Thompson says let them meet and I’ll pay for the meeting if no one else does. He spoke at the meeting. These workers were not being properly represented. We fought it and the union finally saw it our way. He is saying that the squeaky wheel got the oil.

20:10Copy video clip URL Thompson tells a story about how he helped the street car drivers in Cleveland in World War II, who wanted to go on strike. He tells of how he wrote a letter saying that the burden of this problem related to shut downs of public transportation is on City Hall to fix, not the unions, because the issue dealt with a nationwide restriction on gasoline. He tells another story but is cut off by the tape.

23:04Copy video clip URL Another man is talking mid-sentence saying that in the mills people are beat because of corrupt unions and lack of direction or leadership. We should be concerned about the demands for continually increased productivity and the rotten unions. Thompson says we can learn from other union fights. The ship yards in Scotland have been hurting for a long time. If you attempt to actively take over a bad situation instead of putting your tail between your legs and going home, you’ll have a chance of creating change. We can think of alternative, constructive ideas to fight.

27:42Copy video clip URL Another man in mid-sentence says that unions are corrupt in different ways. The problem is the whole ideology of the unions: the unions knowing what their role is. The ideology of capitalism has been undermined. Workers are no longer looking to unions as the hope for the future. They are convinced nothing can be done. We can build a new kind of labor organization, not new leaders of old unions, that have a better understanding of the relationship of workers to government and to each other. We need to have faith in each other. Workers must break down their belief in the old system and then build a new one.

32:08Copy video clip URL Video ends.



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