Review: The Making of an Auto Worker Activist
A Fighter All My Life is the memoir of Sam Johnson, a black man from the South who became a Detroit auto worker and dissident union activist.
Johnson was born and raised on the front lines of class conflict in America. His everyday life was fraught with danger. In the tradition of the memoirs of Hosea Hudson, Malcolm X, and Big Bill Haywood, the book traces how he came to full consciousness of the roots of our oppression.
He was always a fighter—but in the United Auto Workers (UAW) he found his true calling, militant unionist, and the right target for his righteous anger, capitalism.
The book begins with anecdotes of Johnson’s childhood in Alabama, coming of age under Jim Crow, and being sent in 1959 to Los Angeles, where his mother felt he would be safe from the KKK and Southern police.
What a different place America was then. On a road trip back to Alabama to visit family, Johnson and his friends ran into Little Richard on a Texas highway. “Don’t you guys know me? I used to perform all around through Alabama,” the rock-and-roll legend said. Little Richard took them out to eat and picked up the tab.
In Los Angeles, Johnson worked various jobs, got some job training, cavorted with “a fast crowd,” and had a few run-ins with the police.
"I couldn’t hang with where Martin Luther King and them were coming from," he writes. "I saw these guys lying on the ground, letting the racists beat on them. Unh-uh. Nah. I wasn’t ready for that. I was for fighting back, turn it around."
GETTING THE BIGGER PICTURE
At age 29, Johnson moved to Detroit—just in time for the riots of 1967. New to the city, he was an observer. Afterwards he said, “So that makes you get the bigger picture. That’s why I say, if there are enough of us together, they can’t deal with us.”
Sure enough, the auto companies started hiring black workers. “The corporations were thinking they had too many blacks in the street. They didn’t want another riot—better give them jobs.” He also describes how heroin became prevalent in Detroit and in the auto plants in the late sixties and how tolerated it was by authorities and police: “Those drugs coming in helped break the militancy.”
Eventually Johnson got a job at Dodge Main, where he started reading the Spark, a militant leftist newsletter. “By reading the ‘Spark’ and talking to people around it, I began to get a bigger picture of the U.S. system...” he says. “Added to what I already understood from how I grew up, I began to see that as long as the capitalists control everything, it’s going to keep getting worse for the majority of people.”
The street fighter acquired focus. Johnson kicked heroin and became an elected union committeeman, and in his own words,
a revolutionary militant in the working class, trying to get other workers to see and understand what needs to be done, trying to bring workers to stand together to use the force they have.
And I always tried to give them the bigger picture, where we fit in, to get them to understand how things could change if working people stood together, what we could do to defend ourselves and to build a different society.
WILDCATS AND BATS
The international UAW broke up a 1973 wildcat strike at Chrysler supplier Mack Stamping, Johnson reports, “with sticks and bats and other things.”
Rather than support workers and address the safety issues which led to the strike, the union threatened striking workers and told them they would be fired.
Johnson witnessed this and reported back to his co-workers, warning them to get ready. “If you know what’s good for you,” a UAW official told him, “you’ll keep that Mack shit out of your mouth.”
“If you’re making that a threat, if you’re thinking about having your boys jump me, they better do a good job,” Johnson fired back. “If they don’t, I’ll be coming looking for you!” And he distributed a flyer about the Mack strike and the lies of the international.
Johnson took labor classes at Wayne State University. He got elected steward, organizing lunchtime meetings and rank-and-file direct actions to deal with grievances.
For example, when Chrysler deprived workers of overtime payments, Johnson led 30 workers into a supervisor’s office and let them do the talking. The next day workers got their checks.
When the UAW eliminated his district and he was put out of elected office, Johnson continued to organize and educate. He stood up against sexual harassment, too:
When you come to understand the system and if you want to change the system, you have to understand that it’s a problem, the attitudes a lot of men have toward women. I had to set an example to some of the militant guys in the plant who acted this way. These guys understood that I knew how to fight. I had got into some fights and they knew it. I had to let them know they were wrong how they acted toward women.
Over and over, Johnson was fired and laid off. “Any time you are a problem for the company, they definitely try to figure out a way to get rid of you,” he says, “but especially if you are trying to organize the workers to stand together. And that’s where I was coming from.” On or off the job, he kept organizing.
Johnson retired from Chrysler in 1999, but he never retired from militant life. This year he ran as an independent candidate for Congress in Michigan’s 13th district.
LIKE AN OLD FRIEND
The book was transcribed and edited from a collection of tapes recorded over several years.
Written language is judged by different standards than spoken language. There are vocal and facial expressions which can’t be elicited from a transcript. Stories collected over a long period are redundant, chronologically confusing, and sometimes conflicting.
It’s a painstaking process. An editor may be tempted to impose his or her own words in an attempt to clarify. She may wish to clean up the account. But such well-intentioned and protective editing can intervene between the author and the reader, and diminish authenticity.
I must commend the editor, Judith Carpenter. I never saw her shadow or felt her scalpel. A Fighter All My Life was like listening to an old friend.
Gregg Shotwell is a retired UAW-GM member and author of Autoworkers Under the Gun.