By Wally Linder
The one thread running through all of these experiences is the inspirational role and leadership potential of young people.
Wally Linder is a respected labor leader in New York whose life of struggle is best expressed in his dedication to the rights of working people, he being a member of the ranks himself. The Len Ragozin Foundation, a not-for-profit organization supporting innovative ideas and practices of social struggles, honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.
We reprint his acceptance speech which is a remembrance of his battles as a worker and leader woven in the struggles of working people in New York since post-war America.
I guess it was my parents who set me on a path of a lifetime of struggle as part of the working class. My father, Abe, had immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s and went to work in the original Macy’s on 14th Street. In 1916, after meeting my mother, Ann, during the first World War, he asked her to join him in Washington at an anti-war demonstration organized by the IWW, the International Workers of the World. She later told me that she fell in love with him then and there, and they were married four years later.
Both were active union members, he with the hotel workers and she with the pocketbook workers. They always impressed on me the idea that there is only one side, the side of the workers, no matter what their color or origin. It was this belief that guided my entire life. Born and bred in Brooklyn, I spent summers in my teenage years in Monticello, New York, working as a caddy at the Concord in the Catskills. In 1944, when I was 14, I used to hitchhike three miles each morning to the hotel. Little did I know that this job would lead to my first strike.
About 20 of us, ranging in age from 14 to 17, lined up to be hired by the golfers to carry their bags and help search for balls driven into the adjoining woods. We were paid 75 cents per bag per golfer — sometimes we’d carry two bags.
On our way to the golf course we’d pass guests on the lawn playing cards and watch some of them rake in $300 on a single hand. The caddies began talking—maybe they could afford to pay us another quarter — $1.00 per bag. The next morning, we decided, we’d demand a raise. We would also ask the caddymaster, our boss, to charge us only a nickel for a soda instead of the usual dime.
The night before our planned action, we wrote a leaflet to be handed to each golfer; it put forward our demand that we’d carry their clubs only if they agreed to the increase. That morning we gathered near the shack where the golfers checked in. One of the 17-year-olds stood back, holding a long metal pipe. When the caddymaster realized what was going on, he told Jackie, the first caddy in line, to go out at the going rate or be fired. The pipe-holder yelled, “Hold fast!” to the caddy, waving the pipe a little menacingly. Jackie held fast and was promptly ordered by the caddymaster to leave.
At that point the rest of us walked off and set up a picket line at the entrance, carrying signs that said, “On Strike.” This was before the era of golf carts, and—just as we’d figured—none of the golfers were ready to carry their own bags, so the course was effectively shut down that day. The hotel’s millionaire owner came out and told us to either work at the old rate or get off his property and not bother coming back.
We never found out if or how they operated the rest of that summer. But the following year we all returned and were offered our jobs back at the new rate of $1.00 per bag—and five-cent sodas. We were amazed at the power of our unity. I was particularly impressed by the leadership shown by the 17-year-old pipe-holder.
Five years later, I was involved in another strike, this one with a more political character. In April 1949, I was a sophomore at the uptown campus of City College when an uproar arose involving the chairman of the romance languages department, a professor named Knickerbocker, and an economics instructor, a guy named Davis.
Knickerbocker had withheld a language award from a deserving Jewish student and held back the advancement of others, who were also Jewish. Meanwhile, it was learned that Davis, who oversaw the Army Hall dormitory housing returning GIs, was segregating black and white students. This triggered an anti-racist campaign to demand that the two of them be fired, or a strike would shut the campus. The action was led by the American Veterans Committee, composed of GIs who had fought in the Second World War against the racist filth spread by Hitler’s Nazis.
The next morning, as we walked from the Broadway subway station uphill along 137th Street, we saw scrawled in chalk across the width of the street one word emblazoned in eight-foot-high capital letters: “STRIKE!” That was one of the best “leaflets” I ever saw.
We reached the center of the campus and saw two dozen students by the administration building marching in a circle carrying strike signs. Suddenly a swarm of cops drove up and began manhandling the picketers and arresting them, shoving them into police vans. Some of you may know one of those arrested, Bert Lessuck.
A mass of students was standing across the street. When we witnessed the police attack, we moved as one, surging forward and formed a picket line a thousand strong. We chanted, “Free the students!”, “Fire Knickerbocker and Davis!”, and “Jim Crow must go!” We cheered when some students drove past displaying early editions of several New York newspapers. They all had the same headline: “Students Riot at CCNY.”
Five thousand students walked out of class that day in what the New York Times called “the first general strike at a municipal institution of higher learning” in the United States. Knickerbocker resigned as department chairman and Davis was forced to withdraw from his Army Hall post and received a sharp cut in salary.
Our multi-racial unity against racism was impressive in a student body that at the time was 85 percent white. The strike made headlines across the country and showed the kind of struggle a united leadership of teenagers and young ex-GIs could organize. The action opened my eyes to how people could stick together and not break ranks while fighting back.
In 1952, after my City College degree failed to land me a job, I found work as a freight handler for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, loading and unloading freight cars on the West Side piers. We were members of the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks and Freight Handlers, the largest of the 23 railroad craft unions. The B&O in New York City employed a thousand workers, 600 black and 400 white. I was taken aback to learn that we were divided into two locals, one all-white and one all-black, even though we worked alongside each other on the same platforms in the same gangs under the same foremen and the same union contract. There were 150 such segregated locals nationwide.
On the B&O, many of the most militant union members were newly hired black workers in their late teens and early twenties. Some of them were so repelled by the union’s segregation that they applied for membership in the white local and were accepted. That brought the idea of one integrated local to the fore.
By then I’d been elected shop steward and was talking to other stewards. I proposed that whenever the bosses brought a worker up on charges, stewards from both locals should represent the member, whether black or white. This was a first in the union’s history. Based on painstaking studies of previous cases and our new found unity, we began to win virtually every case. Fired workers were awarded thousands of dollars in back pay. Soon the number of hearings dropped to a trickle.
As the black local saw white stewards they could trust, it had a marked impact on their leadership. It also led to white workers increasingly supporting the idea of one multi-racial local with a multi-racial leadership. All this held us in good stead in January 1961, when our biggest struggle erupted.
We worked in freight cars on barges called “floats” that were tugged across the Hudson River between Jersey and Manhattan. In a money-saving move, the 13 railroads dieselized the tugboats and moved to lay off two-thirds of the 660 tugboat workers at the piers. These workers belonged to a separate railroad union. With their contract negotiations having dragged on for 14 months, they were in a legal position to strike.
Railroad workers traditionally respected other unions’ picket lines. When two tugboat pickets appeared in front of the B&O’s Pier 63 at West 23rd Street, we stewards mobilized the freight handlers to respect the tugboat workers’ picket line and walk out. Not one crossed the line. This was true up and down the entire West Side waterfront. The railroad end of the strike was solid. Within 24 hours, among freight handlers who’d never struck in their lives, we shut down the entire rail freight operation in the biggest city in the country.
But the companies figured they could circumvent the strike by having the International Brotherhood of Teamsters carry the freight via the tunnels and bridges crossing the Hudson to the Jersey rail yards, where it could be loaded into freight cars and sent across the country. So the strike hinged on the Teamsters’ solidarity; the stage was set to bring them into the strike.
We told one of the two pickets in front of Pier 63 to come with us to the platform across the street to stop the freight from getting trucked to Jersey and breaking the strike. He set up his one-man picket line in front of the freight-forwarding platform. As a few hundred picketing railroad workers followed him, we yelled to the Teamsters on the platform about the picket out front. These were workers we knew quite well, having worked alongside them for years. They immediately called a meeting on the platform, right under their bosses’ noses, and voted unanimously to respect the lone picket. To a man they walked off the platform; there was no one to drive their loaded trucks.
It took five minutes to shut down this multi-million-dollar outfit. The railroad workers cheered. In that moment, they understood more clearly than ever before the collective strength of united workers. This, we thought, would be the decisive step toward one united, multi-racial local.
The shutdown on the waterfront was complete. But the NY Central Railroad bosses devised another way to circumvent the tugboat operation. They’d run freight trains across the Hudson River upstate and pull them down to the Mott Haven yards north of Grand Central Station, from where they could haul scab freight into and out of central Manhattan. Once again, however, workers’ solidarity answered back.
We knew some of the electricians on the NY Central from our cross-craft struggle for weekly pay. Their local president believed in union solidarity. He said that if pickets showed up on 42nd Street in front of Grand Central Station, the electricians would respect the picket line.
We directed some tugboat pickets across town to Grand Central. As soon as two of them appeared, the NY Central electricians shut down the electric power and walked out. The Central, the second largest railroad in the U.S., was shut tight—and not just for freight. Commuter trains from Westchester and Fairfield counties, which carried 90,000 people a day into and out of the city, couldn’t operate, either. Within days, the NY Central was shut down as far west as Cleveland.
All hell broke loose. The ten daily papers in NYC screamed for our scalps. We were “holding the city for ransom,” they said. There would be no fuel; soon starvation would set in. And so on. Editorials called for John F. Kennedy, who’d just been inaugurated as president, to send a strike-breaking bill to Congress, call out the troops, and crush the strike.
But the walkout was gathering momentum. Many workers around New York saw the power of solidarity, even the potential of a
general strike. We got tremendous support. Kennedy, hesitant to be labeled a strikebreaker as his first act in office, sent his Secretary of Labor, Arthur Goldberg, to New York to “mediate” the walkout. Goldberg proposed that the workers return to work and that the railroads suspend all layoffs while negotiations resumed. The ten-day strike was over.
Some time later, the tugboat union leader agreed to a layoff of “only” half the tugboat workers, all of whom received $10,000 severance pay (probably $50,000 in today’s terms). While less than a victory, the workers wound up with more than they would have without this solid strike.
The B&O later shut its New York operation and laid off all 1,000 workers so it wiped out the possibility of establishing one integrated union local.
In the 1970s, I was active in a nationwide, anti-racist organization, the International Committee Against Racism — InCAR. It was particularly devoted to combating the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi Party and their resurgence in the Midwest. They were spreading their virulent racism and getting friendly publicity as well.
The Illinois Nazi Party had its headquarters in Marquette Park, part of an aggressively segregated, all-white neighborhood. The park was huge, one of the largest in Chicago, with many recreational areas, and the Nazis would violently chase black people away from using it. In 1979, InCAR decided it would join a May Day march to integrate the park. InCAR members streamed in from many cities to participate.
Western Avenue was the dividing line between Englewood, an all-black neighborhood where we assembled, and the all-white area that surrounded Marquette Park. When it was announced that we’d march into the park, the Nazis swore we’d never cross Western Avenue. But any overt threat — from either the Nazis or the cops — made us even more disciplined and ready to march. (On a personal note, my daughter was on the sound truck, translating chants and speeches, and my son-in-law was reporting from inside a crowd of potential racist attackers.)
I will never forget the send-off we received from the residents of Englewood. Hundreds cheered us and waved from their porches and windows. It was stressful as we crossed Western Avenue. But in the face of a line of cops on horseback, we became even more resolute. We gained courage after being joined by many working-class families, including black workers who’d been barred from the park.
Inside the park, a crowd of racists stood on a bridge poised to rain rocks down on us as we marched underneath. But our security was so tight that they backed off. We cheered a speaker denouncing the racists and declared Marquette Park integrated. As we returned back across Western Avenue, people on the porches in Englewood were jumping up and down with glee.
Our anti-racist action was a stunning success. It broke the back of the Nazi Party and its perceived invincibility. To this day, Marquette Park remains integrated. Interracial couples have moved into the neighborhood. Our members, black and white, return there for occasional softball games. We demonstrated what can be accomplished when anti-racists are united, organized and committed to breaking the system’s racist barriers.
While the invitation to this event says it is “Honoring Wally Linder,” it really should be viewed as honoring the caddies, the City College students and World War II vets, the railroad workers and the Teamsters and the anti-racists who integrated Chicago’s Marquette Park. My experiences were defined by the progressive workers and youth who surrounded me. Individuals make contributions, but it is the masses who make history.
The one thread running through all of these experiences is the inspirational role and leadership potential of young people. The fact that the Len Ragozin Foundation is dedicated to recognizing the abilities of youth, and to giving them an opportunity to lead the struggles of their time, makes this award especially meaningful to me. After all, what’s often said is very true: the youth are our future.
So thank you for this award. It has been a privilege to be able to devote my life to serving the working class. (Photos from Google.com)