Waiting for Lefty

[Introduction: Minneapolis Community and Technical College produced the 1935 play Waiting for Lefty in October 2013.  I wrote an article for the December ’13 Industrial Worker reviewing the concept of the play, the production at MCTC, and the relevance for building a revolutionary labor movement today. A Fellow Worker from Minneapolis wrote a letter to the IW about the article, to which I responded. I am reposting the original article as well as the letters here, with minor edits.]

Poster for MCTC’s production of Waiting for Lefty

I was recently pleasantly surprised to see that the local community college in Minneapolis was putting on Clifford Odets’ 1935 play, Waiting for Lefty. It turns out that it was also presented in London this year after a 30-year absence, so perhaps there is something in the play that speaks to the current moment. The Minneapolis production also took the admirable step of arranging contemporary union members or labor activists to speak after each performance. Normally, I don’t think that cultural review is the biggest priority for the Industrial Worker, but seeing the play live did start me thinking about some things that I think are important for our organization.

First, I’ll give a little background on Waiting for Lefty. It seems like it was a pretty famous play in its time (supposedly, the first performance sparked a riot in Manhattan), but it seems to have faded from public knowledge. I wouldn’t have known anything about it before the performance, except that FW John O’Reilly recommended I read it last year. Odets sets the play up as a meeting of a taxi drivers’ union in New York City, with only one item on the agenda: a strike. Although I thought some of the characters had the depth of sock puppets, Odets pulled off a stroke of technical-political genius by having the play occur within a union meeting. There is no fourth wall to break, as some of the cast members sit within the audience and sing “Solidarity Forever,” shout disagreements with the union boss, or get roughed up by goons.

The plot is pretty simple. The union boss, Harry Fatt, addresses the talk of a strike and tries to reassure everyone that “now that we’ve got our boy [Roosevelt] in the White House, we can’t go out [on strike].” Of course, he would have supported a strike under the previous administration, but since “Roosevelt has our back, it’s our duty to have his.” With his armed goons behind him, he goes on to blast the “reds” in the union, saying that he’s coming for them.

Members start shouting out for Lefty, the head of the strike committee, but he’s not there. The four other members of the strike committee come up to speak one by one, and each of them has a vignette explaining why they are in favor of striking now. Of the four, one is a doctor who was fired for being Jewish, and another was a chemist who did not want to make poison gas. Although this attempt by Odets to tie in other parts of society might have made political sense in some ways, this effort detracts from the idea that this is a struggle being led by workers. It’s unlikely that half of the taxi drivers were declassed intellectuals, so why write half of their leaders to be? However, Odets did say later that he’d “never been near a strike” and wanted to use the strike story to discuss many of the problems with capitalist society. After the flashbacks, a union member bursts in to announce that Lefty has been found—behind the taxi dispatcher’s office, with a bullet in his head. The strike committee, with the unanimous support of everyone but Boss Fatt, declares that the strike will begin. Odets uses Lefty’s death to argue that we can’t wait for militant and charismatic leaders to come save us; we have to run our struggles ourselves.

The play’s presentation as an actual union meeting proves to be its most interesting quality. As critics at the time pointed out, part of what was so engaging about the play for so many spectators was that it mirrored their experiences so well— coming to the union in search of a way to stand up to the bosses, seeing confrontations between entrenched bureaucrats and militant workers, and ending dynamically in either repression or some kind of victory.

How many union members today would recognize their experiences in this play? From my own experience in a business union, I would guess the percentage is probably close to zero. If anything, people who have never had any experience with unions would probably be more likely than actual union members to recognize the scenes as similar to what they think unions look like, based on movies and TV.

This is an important change to be conscious of, because, although unions look the same externally, the internal content has changed dramatically in the years between 1935 and 2013. At one moment, even the most problematic unions were a battleground between militant workers and “labor fakirs,” as bureaucrats used to be called. In 1935 maybe it was still possible to kick out all the bosses like Fatt, tell the president not to wait up for us, and turn the unions around. However, 70 years of government collaboration and workplace contractualism has made them such dusty upholders of the status quo that it would take a more creative mind than Odets’ to imagine them leading or inspiring a new workers movement. A local officer of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) spoke after the show and hammered the above point about the play home. While I was impressed that the cast reached out to labor and union activists, it quickly became clear that this one, at least, had more in common with boss Fatt than with Lefty. The resemblance began with the exhortations that our only weapon for stopping the privatization of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) was to “write our congressperson.” Some audience and cast members asked why APWU wasn’t preparing for a strike and the speaker said that “it’s illegal.” The speaker then let slip that the USPS has casual employees and a two-tier system, and after another Wobbly (and dual carder) that I was with pushed on it she confirmed that their union contract codified these concessions.

I’ve been an IWW for long enough that I thought I was pretty well inoculated against the business unions. However, hearing how anti-combative they are from their own representative is somehow much more powerful than hearing it from another Wobbly.

The business unions aren’t just good unions gone bad; they are literally zombies— shells that appear to still be alive but with all of their internal dynamic and thought process gone, destroyed by repeated doses of the poison known as the National Labor Relations Act. Finally, they have become incapable of acting out of the bounds that their poisoners have set. We can’t “recapture” or replace them (that is, not at administering the contract).

Although the once-lively unions have been zombified that does not mean that the workers are out of the fight.

Our task has to be to show a different path, as a permanent fighting workers’ organization. We should also be visibly putting out our revolutionary message at events like this. Don’t get me wrong—between a branch that focuses on workplace organizing and one that focuses on outreach, I’ll take the organizing branch every day. However, as Fellow Worker MK explains dialectics, there’s “what’s going on,” “what’s really going on,” and “what’s really, really going on,” which brings back the moment of truth from “what’s going on.” We can bring forward a powerful message as long as it’s rooted in experience of work and organizing, rather than pure ideology. We should become more intentional about bringing this message forward because we can’t become the organization we need to be if our only activity is organizing at our individual workplaces. The business unions don’t have any plan or desire to change the status quo, let alone rupture it. If we regain the confidence that our fellow workers had in the 1930s to proclaim publicly and loudly what we’re about and organize aggressively, then we can once again help to initiate a widespread fighting workers’ movement that brings the bosses—whether in the unions, government, or workplaces—to their knees.

Dear IW,

My Fellow Worker (FW) Brandon Oliver’s excellent review of the play “Waiting For Lefty” (“Valuable Lessons Learned From 1935 Play ‘Waiting For Lefty,’” December 2013 IW, page 3) ended in a critical examination of the state of the official labor movement—what Wobblies often call the “business unions.” I liked that the FW hit the business unions hard (we need more of that in the IW in my opinion). I also generally agree that: “The business unions aren’t just good unions gone bad; they are literally zombies—shells that appear to still be alive but with all of their internal dynamic and thought process gone, destroyed by repeated doses of the poison known as the National Labor Relations Act. Finally, they have become incapable of acting out of the bounds that their poisoners have set. We can’t ’recapture’ or replace them (that is, not at administering the contract). Our task has to be to show a different path, as a permanent fighting workers’ organization.”

It would be a mistake however to conclude that there won’t be turmoil and struggle from the ranks of the business unions. Even in their decrepit state there has been a consistent pattern of rebellion emerging from under and against the bureaucracy. This can be seen inthe raging class war of the Detroit newspapers strike, the [United Food And Commercial Workers] P-9 strike in Austin, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) strike at Northwest Airlines, the West coast longshore workers and the Chicago Teachers Union.

I see this pattern continuing, not ended. Militant workers will continue to TRY and use the business unions’ structures for class self-defense, and this will inevitably cause clashes with the bureaucracy and bosses. I believe we need to be prepared for these insurgencies and meet them (and/or participate in them) as Wobblies. Sophisticated bureaucracies will not seek just to repress this militancy, but channel it into controlled protest aimed at adding more chips to the labor bosses’ hand at the capitalists’ table.

For these reasons, downplaying or dismissing the possibility of militancy emerging from workers in the business unions or from the business unions themselves will disorient people (including our membership and base) if and when that happens. This could in turn build up illusions in the bureaucrats (“This union is different, it IS fighting”). I think this is some of the reason the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has a different image with many radical young folks.



Twin Cities Wob

Dear IW,

I’m glad to see the response to the review of “Waiting for Lefty.” I think there were some weaknesses in how I expressed some thoughts, and Kdog did a good job responding to those.

First of all, maybe my “zombie unionism” analogy was kind of stretched. I’m trying to address what I see as a huge blind spot in radical thought since the 1930s, which is that we ought to look at unions the same way we ought to look at anything else in society. That is, we have to look at them as historical objects that change both due to internal and external pressures. So much of the way that unions are discussed on the left is the same as they were discussed in 1934—but even by 1944 unions in the United States had been fundamentally changed into semi-governmental organizations. So much of the discourse is still stuck in 1934 and essentially boils down to two ideas: the first is that the unions are basically good organizations of the working class but with a bad, bureaucratic leadership which we have to struggle against and try to replace; the second is that the bureaucratic unions are bad unions, because they are not revolutionary, and that the working class would be better off going with revolutionary unions that know how to fight. However unions are just like anything else that humans make: they change. The Republican Party and the sport of baseball have changed a lot in the past 80 years, not just on the surface but in major structural ways.

I think the question that we have to ask, in order to understand unions today, is “Who do they depend on for their existence?” Originally unions, even the worst ones, depended for their continued existence on workers who would be willing to pay dues, attend meetings and walk off of the job in defense of their positions and their union power. Maybe they had undemocratic leaders, maybe they supported colonialism, maybe they excluded women, immigrants, or Blacks. These problems were certainly also present in the working class, they weren’t invented by the bosses. This led to the classic position among radicals that trade unions represented the average of the working class, and couldn’t be expected to be too radical.

From a Wobbly perspective this was problematic even in the 1930s, but made sense. But there is a global tendency that we can see in hindsight of tying unions to the state and employing class, not just ideologically but for their everyday existence. This began in Russia in the 1920s, it was fairly well-perfected in the United States between 1935 and 1947, and employed in other countries in different ways (the one I’m most familiar with would be Spain in the 1977 “Pactos de Moncloa” that paved the way for the return of capitalist democracy). The general common feature is to remove the union from depending on the workers for its everyday existence, making it dependent instead on the employers and the state for planning its budget and cutting paychecks to its staff. A contemporary example would be the money flowing from Democratic Party outfits through Madison Avenue firms into SEIU’s Fight for 15 campaign, and the total lack of dependence on fast-food workers.

So what does this mean for our practice? The key thing to realize is that the two classic approaches—replace the reformist leadership with a revolutionary leadership, or replace the reformist union with a revolutionary union—are both inadequate now. What we need is an organization which can build independently, and outside of the union structure, for a working-class fight-back. This organization should organize workers where there is no union, and it should also be a visible tendency within already unionized shops that stands for a real fight-back, not just changes of leadership, and which organizes and pushes for militant action on the widest class basis possible, not just symbolic pseudo-militancy.

The IWW is our best bet for this kind of organization in the US and Canada, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

Looking forward to continuing the debate,

Brandon Oliver


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