Chapter VII: Join the Communist Party
I gave my mother some of the money I had earned. I found out she was lining up in the neighborhood soup line for one meal a day. "Everybody is doing it," she said. "It's the least this bloody country can do for me. You won't find this situation at home in Ireland. Only in this bloody country do they make old men and women stand in a soup line all day waiting for a bowl of watery, lousy soup." I looked at her face, like I had so many times before, and watched the frustration and quickness in speech come upon her as she got mad. I knew that no matter what she would survive. She was the surviving kind, a descendant of the "green mouths." (The "green mouths" were Irish found dead with their mouths green from grass they had tried to live on during the great famine brought on by the British in their determination to force the Irish into submission during the Cromwellian period.)
For the next several weeks I entered into a reflective, brooding mood. I started to think about all the time I had spent in reform school, time all wasted. I thought of my first trip to sea, to Texas with its drinking fountains all spouting the same water, but one "For Whites Only" and another "For Colored Only." I thought about the Texas sheriff who complained that the only drawback in killing "niggers" was that he had to put out five dollars from his own pocket to bury one. I though of the hunger and misery I had seen throughout the nation, men willing to fight each other and demean themselves for any kind of job.
I also though of the plight of the warm, friendly, generous people of South America, and of the English working class in their cold, drab stone houses. Finally I thought of the death of the lonesome, misunderstood Indian--so naive, so trusting, so beautiful at heart. His precious life ended needlessly in the stormy cold sea. God almighty, I thought, how in your wisdom could you be so cruel to the poor, so blind to their illness, when they ask so little of you?
There had to be some way to strike back. There had to be someone to confide in, someone who perhaps knew how to fight back against these injustices, someone who could show a better way to achieve more fulfilling lives for all of us.
There was a lot of activity shaping up on the waterfronts of most seaports in the country. There was one seamen's union, the American Seamen's Union, run by a guy named Smith. Smith had one program: "Run the foreigners off the American ships and make room for the American seamen." He offered no other way to fight than to write letters to congressmen. He expected Congress to eventually pass bills to remedy the situation. He had one asset that drew seamen to him. In his loft that served as his office and meeting room he set up a ten-cent breakfast: two eggs, toast and coffee. While eating your breakfast you were pounded with his propaganda, from first bite to last. Smith's walls were decorated with letters from every high official in Washington. They extolled his patriotism and wished him well. They made Smith feel important, but they didn't improve conditions or get jobs for the American seamen. His ranks were thin.
The big or major union, around since the late 1800s, was the American Federation of Labor's International Seamen's Union (ISU). To most of the seamen, it was a discredited union, since their major strike of 1921 had been sold down the river by the heads of the ISU--many of whom were still in the leadership. The union espoused the cause of the American seamen, but its officers sat on their fannies and, in true class collaboration, played ball with the shipowners, against the best interests of the seamen. Not one official was under the age of 50. Since only a handful of men belonged to the ISU, it was obvious that they were not able to support the leadership financially. Thus, money for wages and expenses came down from the parent body, the American Federation of Labor, whose policies were outright conservative.
During the depression years a new union appeared on the waterfronts of most American seaports, the Marine Workers' Industrial Union (MWIU). The MWIU was a product of the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL). It was a Moscow-inspired wing of the Red International of Labor Unions, an organization to counter the "do-nothing" unions in capitalist countries. The organizers of the MWIU worked hard at their jobs. They would make contact with every possible ship, distributing literature and giving sailors the message to organize into the MWIU. On many streets adjacent to the piers, MWIU organizers set up their soapboxes to reach the maritime workers. They were outspoken in fighting for relief for the unemployed seamen. One had to be totally blind not to recognize those who were fighting for the rights and welfare of the seamen. The sanctimonious AFL-ISU union officials sat on the sidelines watching the MWIU lecture, organize and lead the seamen and shouted invectives at the men, calling them "communist dupes."
The MWIU put out a monthly paper called the Marine Workers' Voice. The paper's editorial staff made no bones about its admiration for the Soviet Union, its leadership or way of life. From what I could see of the MWIU, it held the answers to many of my questions.
I was drinking coffee in one of the waterfront cafes when I met one of the organizers, a little squinty-eyed guy named John Robinson. I told "Robbie" about the trip on the American Farmer and the plight of the stowaway. "Why don't you write it all down as it happened, and maybe we'll publish it in the Marine Workers' Voice. We'll let everybody know about it," he said. For the next two days I worked on the story, getting in every possible detail. Being flat broke, I decided to walk downtown with my article to the MWIU office, a distance of about five miles. A shortcut veered me toward City Hall, where a demonstration to demand some relief for the jobless was converging. The streets surrounding City Hall had been blocked off to traffic. Mounted cops on horses as well as motorcycle cops tried to keep the crowd of around eight or nine thousand from reaching city officials in their well-guarded, square-block building. I continued walking downtown and was just about past the demonstration when all hell broke loose.
Cops came charging out of closed vans, swinging their clubs. There was yelling and screaming as the crowd scattered this way and that, not knowing which way to go since the cops were closing in and clubbing from all sides. The mounted patrol, whose horses were trained to disperse crowds, came charging into the demonstrators, horses knocking down men and women like ten pins. The police spared no one. Women were hit as fiercely and brutally as men. I saw a cop slap a middle-aged woman so hard on the face that she reeled in a circle before collapsing, unconscious, on the sidewalk. I tried to work my way toward her to pull her to a safe spot where she wouldn't be trampled. Several other guys had the same idea and beat me to her. The area was covered with picket signs dropped by fleeing demonstrators, and the police and horses trampled those, committing the final insult.
The police were many. Small groups of them came out of the doors of City Hall to stand and watch their fellow officers pursue and club the fleeing protesters. There was no way the demonstrators would reassemble. They were scattered too widely, and the police were moving all the time, clearing a larger margin between City Hall and the small pockets of demonstrators. I was disgusted with myself for not doing more, but I was also dismayed at the protestors for not using the sticks on their placards to defend themselves. Many protectors were hurt that day. The mayor, Jimmy Walker, thought that he had succeeded in even more firmly securing his position. But his graft-ridden administration would ultimately be driven from office.
I gave the article to Robbie and told him about the melee at City Hall. "I know all about it," he said. "We had about 25 seamen up there helping to do what they could to make the demonstration a success. A few of them got clobbered." He read the article, made a few minor corrections and said it was good, informative and to the point. Then he asked me to join the union. "Hell, all you're doing is cheating the union out of dues by not joining," he said. "It's only a dollar to join, and the first month's dues are a nickel if you're unemployed."
"I'll think it over," I told him. Actually, I wanted to join right then and there, but I didn't have the money. There was no longer any doubt about it. If I wanted to see things accomplished, it had to be done by the union. The men who could do the job were here. They were not sitting around complaining and talking about improving conditions, but doing nothing about it. I was now in contact with men who were devoted and highly-motivated in what they were doing.
Out on the street I met an old buddy, Blair. Blair was far ahead of me union-wise and politically. He had long ago convinced himself that solutions to economic problems came from honestly-led unions. He was delighted with my decision to join the MWIU. "Maybe I'll join with you," he said.
I started the long walk uptown to my neighborhood habitat. My mind was so preoccupied with joining the union that it did not even dawn on me that all I had to do was cut a small piece of thin cardboard into the shape of a nickel, cover it with tinfoil from a cigarette pack and put it into the subway instead of walking. Now my stomach was sending signals that food was a must. I'd start hitting the first guy who looked prosperous.
On every block I walked I picked at least two guys who looked like they could dispose of a few cents without suffering. I now had 50 cents, surely more than enough to get a good meal. But, I said to myself, if I could get fifty cents in six blocks without much effort, I should be able to collect one dollar and five cents. I'd give it a try. I forgot I was hungry. My enthusiasm and vigor increased. I became less choosy about who I bummed from. Before I got to 14th Street I had collected the final nickel. I quickly turned and headed back the way I had come. An hour later I plunked down the money in front of a powerfully-built, redheaded guy called Red Drummond. "You're now a union brother," he said, handing me my small membership book. "Be sure to attend the next membership meeting, this Thursday."
I scanned every page. Each had a section for dues payments and a slogan at the bottom. One was "Workers of the world, unite!" Another was "Make every ship a fortress of unionism!" The preamble at the beginning of the book was as forceful as the preamble of the IWW. The preamble of the MWIU stated in plain language that the working class has nothing in common with the ruling class, and the best thing that could happen would be for the working class to ally itself with the poor farmers and end the reign of the ruling, exploiting class.
My union book became my most precious possession. I found myself tapping my pocket on occasion just to feel assured I had not lost it. I was introduced as a new member at the union meeting, and I saw a lot of new faces, as well as a few old ones. At this meeting the chairman called for volunteers to work with the Port Organizing Committee (POC). It consisted of six or seven men who worked full-time in the port, visiting ships, barges and the piers, handing out literature, recruiting new members and contacting old ones, collecting dues and donations, selling the union papers and generally encouraging the men to organize for a united fight against the shipowners.
With my enthusiasm high, it was only natural that my hand went up and I volunteered. Other volunteers, in addition to Robbie, were Bell, a lanky Scot nicknamed "Ding-Dong," a capable guy with an unlimited flow of energy for organizing; Smithy Hopkins, Emory Reddin, "Coffee-an" Nelson, "Low-Life" McCormick and "Whitey" Baxter, all good men. We had to be at the union hall at seven in the morning. We were given a summary of the ships in port, the ships to concentrate on and where we had the most friends or sympathizers, as well as where we were likely to meet some hostility. Bundles of literature made up the night before, small enough to hide under a coat if necessary, were stacked on a table I was handed twenty cents, a nickel to be spent on the subway or El going to the ship, a nickel to return to the hall, and ten cents for a bowl of soup for lunch. In addition to the 20 cents there was a receipt book for any donations, some application cards for joining the union and some petitions calling for the freeing of some political prisoners. Since I was the trainee, I went along with Ding-Dong Bell. Our target was a United Fruit Company ship tied up on the lower West Side.
One of Bell's attributes was his keen ability to sense hostility before he stared it in the face. Long before we got to the pier, Bell filled me in on what to expect, assuming we were able to get past the gate guards and board the ship. "The longshoremen who work this pier hauling bananas are hostile to any attempt to organize a decent rank-and-file union," Bell told me. "At least 90 percent of the men are ex-cons paroled from all the jails in the state of New York. Basically they are all decent guys who paid their dues the hard way, but to get out of the stir on parole they have to have some sort of job to go to. That's where Joe Ryan fits in. He runs the International Longshoremen's Association and takes the responsibility to have these men paroled in his care. He pulls strings with United Fruit, and they hire all the ex-cons to unload bananas. Aside from the lousy wages and speedups the men must accept, they also have to act as Ryan's personal goon squad. That means stomping some guy's brains into the pavement if he advocates organizing a union. He threatens them with having the parole officers throw them back in the slammer if they fail to carry out his orders. Three weeks ago we set up our soapbox outside the pier at noon. Ten guys chased us down the street, tore up our literature and smashed our chair to pieces."
With our little bundles of literature tucked securely under our coats, we waited on the sidelines until we saw a big truck move on to the pier. While the guard's attention was with the truck driver, we quietly walked up the opposite side and onto the pier without being seen. Now we had to get aboard the ship without some company-minded mate spotting us. That was easy in this case because the ship was hauling bananas and lots of additional men were employed. There was no standard set of work clothes. We were taken for longshoremen and boarded the ship with no trouble.
Some crew members knew Bell, and he knew many of them on first-name bases. They greeted him as we entered the crew's quarters. He introduced me as a new member, then told me to go around with the literature and sell what I could. Bell had made the United Fruit ships part of his concentration. He was fairly well-known to most of the crew members who sailed the vast fleet of sleek white vessels that plied the Central American coast. Many of the crew members came from Central America. In fact, the company was more inclined to hire someone from Central America rather than someone from Boston or New York. They knew from experience that the man from Central America was usually married, with a family, and willing to work for low wages, just as long as he was able to get some money back to his family. Since he feared losing his job, he was less inclined to join a union and create ill feelings with his boss
The wages and working conditions on United Fruit ships were below par, yet, as with similar lines, they always had a waiting list of seamen hoping for jobs. Bell understood the reasoning that kept a man working under such conditions, and he also understood that sooner or later the workingmen would be forced to strike out in protest. He told me, "Sometimes the workers can feel this pressure, yet not fully understand it. That's where we come in. That's what we're here for, to explain to them how and why this happened and what they can do about it. After that's it's up to them. If you let it, the system will make a groveling dog out of you. That's why we're the real doctors of the working class. we recognize the illness and we know how to cure the patient."
Bell was not a complicated man. To him there were just two classes of people: those who owned the means of production, the capitalist class; and those who owned nothing but their labor power, the working class. "Then there's the bunch of leeches in the middle, the professionals, who neither produce nor own the means of production. Some people call them the middle class, but I call them the spoilers," Bell said.
The hour we spent aboard the ship was a learning one for me. Several crew members bought the Voice from me, giving me 50 cents and refusing to take change. One guy gave me two dollars and said, "Forget who gave it to you." But trying to get them to add their names to a petition was impossible. "Look, fellow," one oiler said to me. "You have more sense than that. If I put my name to that, somewhere, somehow, sometime, that petition will show up on the boss's desk and wham, I'll be out of a job." I didn't figure that. Hell, I wasn't afraid to sign my name, why should they be afraid to sign theirs? But that was another story, and somewhere along the way I would better understand the reluctance to sign.
The MWIU had several groups of men. One group was made up of guys who just sailed and did their agitating in a meticulous manner. They were always good for sizable donations when their ships came to port. They were the best source of contact with other men. Upon arrival they would hand over to the union POC the names of the men who were pro-union and might, with some urging, sign up for membership. Another group was made up of those who dropped into the union hall off and on, read the literature and ate at the union stew pot, where a bowl of beef stew cost 15 cents. They were always willing to join in demonstrations or help out on a picket line or hand out leaflets when called upon. The third and perhaps most important group in the MWIU was made up of those who were fully dedicated, the disciplined ones who made up the leadership of the union. They were the self-sacrificing ones who, rain or shine, could be depended on to be out there building the stepping stones to the barricades and the "final conflict" that would change the economic and political systems. They were the Communists.
For the next three weeks I worked every day with the POC, always visiting ships with an older member of the POC. On every ship I boarded I learned something new. I listened carefully to the old-timers as they talked unionism to the crew, destroyed myths, played down fears and shored up self-confidence in the men. In turn they sold more papers and got more men to join the union. I was now able to stand on my own feet and advance the union cause. Day by day I felt prouder and prouder of myself, and I jumped for joy when I finally talked a reluctant sailor into joining the union. What a tremendous feeling of exhilaration in doing the almost-impossible! It was like a whole rash of little pieces of a beautiful flower all coming together and producing a sweet-smelling rose. What doubts I may have had about my ability to accomplish things began to slowly wither away. Self confidence was a magical cure-all. But a deeper meaning was attached to this accomplishment, the feeling that what I had done would help in the long run to move humanity ahead toward a new life of fulfillment and dignity.
In those days of organizing people into political action, new pamphlets came off the left-wing press daily and dealt with every political subject that arose. Aside from the ten- to fifteen-page pamphlets, there were more sophisticated pamphlets and magazines, like the New Masses and the Communist. Every day I managed to read something new, and just about every day I was handed something new to read. I was learning that there was a country called the Soviet Union, or Russia, and that over there a new nation had been formed from the old. In the year of 1917 the workers and peasants joined forces and wrested control away from the despotic Czars. Now the working class was in control. The means of production were now in the hands of those who produced the goods. there was no unemployment, no police oppression, no exploitation. Everyone was equal and addressed each other as comrade. The country, I was told, was now being subjected to harassment and intimidation from the surrounding capitalists states that were forever organizing plots and sabotage against her. The most prominent names of those responsible for this new country were Lenin and Stalin, who learned from Marx and Engels.
The heavy or villain in this whole conspiracy to bring havoc and ruin to the new nation, aside from the surrounding bands of capitalists, was a guy named Trotsky. This guy, I read, was forever organizing groups both inside and outside of the Soviet Union who would harm the best interests of the Soviet people. On top of that, Trotsky was receiving aid and comfort from capitalist countries, who saw through him a means of destroying the new nation.
The idea that there was a country where everyone was equal, where there was no oppression, where workers and farmers controlled their own destinies, where unemployment was unheard of and where people referred to each other as comrade appealed to me. After all, what else was there in life that was worth fighting for? This had to be the dream, the ideal, the ultimate and most progressive form of life. I could not imagine the Russian seamen crisscrossing their own country in boxcars, fearful of police as they went from port to port begging for a job. I couldn't imagine them standing in a soup line with their ankles deep in snow, hoping the watery soup won't run out before they get to the head of the line. By all means, this new system was worth fighting for. It was worth any sacrifice to achieve.
I dug deeper into my books. I was now trying to read and understand everything I got my hands on. I was fascinated with how the crew of the Russian warship Aurora trained their guns on the Czarist palace and fired a salvo of shots that helped the common people wrest control. The more I read, the more I wanted to read. If I got hung up on questions, the guys at the MWIU hall could always help me.
Within six weeks of joining the MWIU I joined the Communist Party. I was not too surprised when I attended my first Party meeting in the basement of an old West Side tenement house and saw many of the leaders of the MWIU. The meeting was held in the flat of an old-timer named Clay. Clay had one hand. The other was a hook. Some said he had lost his hand in some California cannery when, during a speedup, it got caught in a machine. The major point on the agenda was always how to make the Party a more successful and influential organ of the working class. The members were very critical of their own work. They lauded their successes and berated their shortcomings. Honesty highlighted their discussions. I had never before known people who would stand and say, "Yes, I was wrong. I acted stupidly, and for that I should be criticized." There were reports on organization, recruiting, finances, literature sales and other matters that warranted attention. Finally Blair and I were introduced as new members. We stood while a simple pledge was read. In the pledge we committed ourselves to the high principles of advancing the cause of the working class toward a socialist society founded on the principles of Marx and Engels. We pledged to accept the discipline and leadership, to support and advance the Party in every way.
After we were accepted, we shook hands with everyone and felt like we were now part of something that was true and noble. We had a dedicated purpose to advance all the people like ourselves toward a better way of life.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Two