An Interview with Staughton and Alice Lynd
By Daniel Burton-Rose
In the process of putting together their classic work of oral history Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers, Staughton and Alice Lynd met several extraordinary workers from Youngstown, Ohio. These men, Ed Mann and John Barbero, were, as Staughton identifies them, “ex-Marines who had opposed not only the Vietnam War but the Korean War, who were ardent civil libertarians, who worked for racial equality both in the mill and in the community, and who I think it’s fair to say were socialists with a small ‘s’—they certainly weren’t in any way upset or discombobulated by Marxists, or people with Left lingo.”
The Lynds—dedicated veterans of the civil rights and anti Vietnam War struggles—decided to make Youngstown their home. There they threw themselves into the many problems that faced working and unemployed people. Primary among these was the closing of the steel mills in the late 1970s and retirees’ subsequent fight to get the pensions and medical benefits they had been promised by LTV Steel, which had declared bankruptcy. As lawyers—initially for a private union firm, then as Legal Services attorneys—they worked to make the legal system accessible to those who needed it while urging people to build their own organizations rather than appeal to the courts for justice.
Though “retired,” Alice and Staughton are as active as ever. In the last year two prisons of the most atrocious sort have descended upon Youngstown: a 1,700-bed private institution—in which two prisoners have been murdered and at least 20 stabbings have occurred due to the managerial incompetence and callousness of the Corrections Corporation of America—and a state super-maximum security prison in which prisoners are isolated 23 hours a day or more. The Lynds have been instrumental in organizing a series of community forums on prison issues facing Youngstown and Ohio. They also help to edit Impact, a monthly newsletter on rank-and-file labor issues.
Staughton and Alice are currently working on another collection of testimonies from creative rank-and-file labor organizers. “What I want this new Rank and File to be,” Alice said, “is people telling about things they did in such a way that it can stimulate other people to think, ‘I can do that’ or ‘I wouldn’t do it that way, but I’d do it this way.’ That is, to draw on the experience of people in the past who have done creative things under difficult circumstances, just to "loosen up people’s imaginations.”
BURTON-ROSE: I know “lawyer” is much of your community identity; is “historian” as well? Have you seen more interest locally in the tradition of radical working-–class democracy because of your work?
SL: I suppose the answer is yes. For example, when we met these incredible steel workers—Ed Mann and John Barbero—it was natural to ask, “Well, how in the world did these guys get here, where did they come from?” The answer turned out to be that as young men just back from World War II they had both been involved in the a United Labor Party, based in Akron but somewhat active in Youngstown. It obviously was very exciting to someone with any interest in history to track down some of the older people who’d been involved and to look at what literature remained. Basically the United Labor Party was a fusion of some Wobblies and some Trotskyists. It was very refreshing in that it was not a group of intellectuals in New York City who had decided to do something—it was working-class people in communities like Akron and Youngstown.
I’ve had a continuing interest in that kind of grassroots radicalism, as an alternative to the notion that, for example, John Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO is the second coming of something or other that’s going to change everything. I just think that attitude is unhistorical.
I was very much involved in the movement against the Vietnam War before we came to Youngstown. That interest in antiwar work has continued. We made five trips to Nicaragua between 1985 and 1990. During the Gulf War we became aware—as I’m ashamed to say we had not been aware, though we had lived here for 15 years—that there was a very large Palestinian American community in Youngstown. We made a lot of new friends and wound up doing a book of oral histories of Palestinians entitled Homeland.
I’m always looking for ways different strands or threads come together, and it just so happens that the largest local union in this area is at a plant called Packard Electric, which makes electric harnesses for General Motors. They have about 8,000 people here in Ohio. They have 39,000 people in Mexico, none of whom were working for that company 25 years ago. It’s transparently obvious that this company is little by little shutting down its North American operation, and becoming a company all of whose manual labor will be done south of the border.
Is there a possibility that the Mexican workers, who make 50 cents an hour, and the people here in North America, who make $20 an hour, will somehow discover a common interest? Together with a friend of ours in the local union here at Packard Electric, we’ve been trying to develop contacts between Mexican and American workers.
It’s similar to the question of prisons because I would say the ordinary white worker thinks that all prisoners are black, and the longer they’re locked up the better. They have to overcome that, in the same way that the ordinary worker for Packard Electric would begin from the point of view that Mexican workers are craven folk who work for nothing and are taking away his or her job—it’s their fault, these workers who won’t stand up for themselves. I see all of this as an effort to build a class consciousness among workers.
Do you see the best way of making those ties between people as making the stories of less privileged workers available to the more privileged ones, as with the books you two have done?
SL: People need to meet each other face to face. In 1988 a whole group of workers went to Nicaragua from Pittsburgh and Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, and Youngstown. One of the men who went is an electric lineperson, Bob Schindler, who at the time worked for Ohio Edison. He went back with another electrician. There was a young man named Benjamin Linder who went to the north of Nicaragua and was trying to help people develop hydroelectric power and was killed by the Contras. Bob went to that same area and helped to put in some of the poles and string some of the wires that Ben Linder would have presumably worked on had he lived.
You commented to me once, “Prisoners and workers on the outside have an immediate intuitive sense that their situations are similar.”
SL: I think prisoners feel that workers have more to overcome, partly because of the race issue.
AL: And I think a lot of working class people feel like they went by the rules, and they’re earning a decent living from hard work, and who are these jokers that think they can get a free ride.
So how do you get past that?
AL: If you can talk about real situations, people are often shocked, but they just don’t know.
SL: We did a community forum on prison labor because we thought that might be a way of looking at what’s happening in prisons that would really catch the attention of union people. A lot of jobs are going inside the walls.
How did your interest in prison activism start?
SL: I think it was Alice’s fault.
AL: I’m sure it was. You know what it probably goes back to? During the Vietnam War I was a draft counselor and my first book was called We Won’t Go. It was personal accounts of war resisters. And I have prison accounts in there. We knew people who had been in prison in World War I, in World War II. So this goes pretty far back.
When did the interest in non-political prisoners start?
SL: My best friend, for whom our son is named, was in San Quentin for armed robbery in the late 1950s.
AL: And Staughton used to be on the Quaker tennis team that played guys from the Atlanta Penitentiary in the early 1960s.
What were the 1980s like in Youngstown after the mills were gone?
SL: Beginning in 1986 we got into the retiree work. From 1982 to 1985 Alice was going to law school in Pittsburgh, and we had an apartment there. During the week I would commute to Youngstown to work, and then I would drive back to Pittsburgh in the evenings, and come here for the weekends. But I put a lot of energy into what was going on in Pittsburgh, because they were going through a cycle of steel mills closing similar to what was going on in Youngstown…
AL: Eminent domain, the NABISCO campaign. To keep NABISCO from moving out.
SL: That was one of the few campaigns that was successful. We had a gigantic meeting in a high school gym and the mayor of Pittsburgh said that if NABISCO left Pittsburgh he was going to start baking his own Oreos.
How else has the political landscape changed since you moved to Youngstown?
SL: First of all, as in every other community where a basic industry has shut down, the air has been full of get rich plans. This entrepreneur is going to come and everything will change. And what I feel very bitter about is that all during those years I was saying, “No, don’t rely on capitalism, don’t rely on private enterprise, you’re going to need publicly-funded jobs to pull this community out of the hole it’s in.” And I feel like they’ve finally got that, in the form of prison building.
AL: Martin Luther King, Sr. said one time when we were in Atlanta, “Parents be careful what you pray for, you may get it.”
The Nation recently wrote that you are “one of the visible saints of the modern American left.” It’s a nice tribute, but it’s also a way of letting themselves off the hook, as if we all shouldn’t be making these kinds of commitment. How do you respond to that type of comment?
SL: The way I react to that is that we’re very definitely not saints. First of all we’re a married couple and we have three children and five grandchildren, and we’re involved in their lives. We obviously aren’t giving everything we have to the poor.
But what has given me a lot of peace of mind about that very topic is that in Latin America we ran into the concept of accompaniment, which, in liberation theology circles, means you go to live in a city or a neglected village, but you remain who you are. In revolutionary El Salvador, Archbishop Romero wrote a lot about this before his death. He said, “I’m talking to Catholics, I’m talking to Christians. And I’m very sympathetic to your desire to join the struggle of impoverished workers and peasants. But you have to remember that you’re Christians. And you have to follow your conscience.” It’s easy to get swept away by the radical rhetoric of the moment and find yourself doing things that on reflection make you wonder, “How in the world could I have gotten into that?” That had a great impact on me because I felt I had seen it so much in the late 1960s, where people who had been into participatory democracy and consensus decision-making and nonviolence all of a sudden were acting in a very hard-edged, from my point of view, imitation Marxist manner, that I thought involved forgetting who you were.
Many of those people, only a few years later, were back to something quite different. They didn’t sustain that super radical lifestyle. What I took from Archbishop Romero was the idea—try to find a way of living a committed life but one in which you can be a long-distance runner.
AL: During the Vietnam War, Staughton got quite a bit of notoriety in the media. People would either regard him as a saint or as a devil. He knew he was neither. But it’s terribly hard to know who you are with other people seeing you in a way that’s so different that you can hardly relate to it.
Those kinds of comments are also condescending towards the people of Youngstown, as if you have to be enlightened to live here, and as if you’re not gaining something from them.
AL: That is so true. I learned so much from the guys in prison. I learned so much from clients. One of the things I loved about Social Security disability and the pension work is you get these windows into other people’s lives.
SL: Our challenge to people in their 20s is that you don’t necessarily have to give up graduate school and become a migrant farm worker. But consider the possibility of using whatever you learn in graduate school in a place where it’s most needed.
AL: And where you can maintain a living over a long period of time.
What’s the most important element in your estimation for maintaining the energy that takes?
AL: I think if you can find that, that’s great. But you can’t always find it. You need to have a love for what you do to sustain you. Staughton and I do some gardening. We sing for the Youngstown Symphony Chorus. I do a lot of handwork. When Staughton was a lawyer he did a lot of history work. You need things that keep your mind and your interest alive, where you can have a balanced life and not just burn yourself out.
In an interview in The Progressive a few years back you said you saw signs of the Youngstown labor movement pointed away from identity politics towards something more united. Has that materialized at all?
SL: Here in Youngstown we have, in maybe the last 5 years, been much more successful in working with black colleagues than in the previous 25 years, when everybody was so incredibly touchy that it was very hard. I don’t know if that’s true elsewhere, but it’s very gratifying to us. We were involved in the southern civil rights movement, and it’s been painful to feel that somehow all of that had to be turned away from.
Could you comment on the role white resentment at being turned away from black civil rights work played in the dissolution of 1960s movements?
SL: We were very fortunate in that I was on the faculty at Spellman College, which is a college for black women in Atlanta. In June 1963–—which was two or three years before black power—–Howard Zinn was very unceremoniously discharged. Thereafter it became very uncomfortable for me. In the winter of 1963 to 1964, I accepted an invitation to go to Yale, which two years earlier I had turned down. What it meant, I think, is that we exited the South of our own volition, rather than being asked to leave by colleagues in the black movement, which would have been as painful for us as it was for many others.
My rap is, I’m still doing it, I’m still working with white workers, just like I was assigned to do in 1966 or whenever it was. Of course back then the attitude was, “In a couple years, we’ll get back together again.” Maybe it’s beginning to happen a little.
You mentioned earlier “left lingo.” It seems to me socialist ideals could take place in the U.S., but never with socialist rhetoric. Do you have any ideas for communicating those ideals without the language?
SL: I feet Marxism is the most powerful analytical tool of which I am aware. Alice and I, right at this moment, are part of a small group of people—including the electric lineperson who went to Nicaragua—who are reading Kapital together.
What has been equally clear to me is the problem with what you might call the Leninist organizational style. I don’t think it’s essentially a question of words, I think it’s essentially a question of the way people treat each other. I have zero tolerance for a little group of people who have read a couple of books and who meet together before larger gatherings to decide what their position is going to be, and then maneuver for parliamentary victories within the larger gathering, without ever listening to what anybody else is bringing to the discussion. I just hate that. I think it’s people with that attitude who destroyed the New Left, like the Progressive Labor Party when it went into the Students for a Democratic Society.
To my mind, on the one hand, you have this really powerful instrument of analysis that no one in their right mind should neglect. But, on the other hand, the people who come out of that tradition are often very overbearing and clumsy when it comes to creating a political community. I believe there was a reason we were created with two hands. One of the hands has be Marxist analysis, but the other hand has to be something that in my particular case is Quakerism. But it could be all kinds of things: any kind of tradition which is concerned with values and with how people should act towards each other. Because I do not think Marxism provides that and I think that second value-oriented practice is a necessary corrective.
AL: I think what you’re saying about values is correct, but when I think of the stuff we’ve been reading by Marx, where he is just screaming about the injustices to men, women, and children as the result of the industrial revolution, there certainly are some value judgments in there.
SL: It’s interesting to me—and I blush to say this at age 68—to be carefully reading Das Kapital for the first time. But I read an awful lot of Marx when I was very young, and, as you know, in his shorter writings he had a very polemical, even pretentious style. It’s interesting how much less true that is in Kapital. As Alice said, he’s so concerned to tell you about six-year-old children being treated this way and that way, that he forgets to be snotty. I like it very much, it’s a welcome relief.
How do you institutionalize values of social justice? Values that include challenging power, which many who hold power often find uncomfortable.
SL: I think that’s what nonviolence is about. Our favorite theoretician of nonviolence is Barbara Deming, and she uses the metaphor of two hands. What she says nonviolence is all about is with one hand you’re telling another person stop, or if you want to go forward you’re going to have to walk through me because I’m standing in your way. But with the second hand you’re reaching out to the very same person and saying, I recognize that you’re a human being. If you’re a Czarist soldier, don’t be a schnook and ride down all these elderly women demonstrating in the street—which is why the Czar fell, because the Cossacks refused to do it. It’s always worthwhile trying to relate to another person as a human being, no matter how bitterly you end up resisting what they’re trying to do.
I think that’s the best of Quakerism. I think the worst of Quakerism is that it has become so incredibly middle-class.
The trick, which is expressed in Quakerism and many other kindred traditions at their best, is where you can take a very unrelenting oppositional attitude without “being personal”: hate the sin but not the sinner, surely not a new idea.