Review: Learning from an Older Generation of Troublemakers
One of the fun things about the 2022 Labor Notes Conference was the presence and enthusiasm of young people. To this labor veteran, it was encouraging to see the young blood and new faces; it was clear that we have a new generation of leaders emerging in the labor movement. And that is more than welcome!
That being said, there is a lot of experience that has already left and will leave over the next 20 or so years. It’s not that my generation—folks who came of age during the late 1960s and early ’70s—had all the answers or did everything correctly. But we did a lot; and there’s a lot that younger activists need to be exposed to so they can smell our victories, learn from our mistakes, and surpass our efforts.
That’s why I am happy to see the publication of Frank Emspak’s new book, Troublemaker: Saying No to Power, while recognizing that Emspak’s engagement with labor and the left is more extensive than all but a few of us.
A WORLD OF EXPERIENCE
Emspak has a unique labor pedigree. His father, Julius, was one of the founders and national leaders of UE, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers’ Union, one of the largest and most progressive unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. (UE and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union are the only unions out of 11 expelled by the CIO in 1949-’50 that have survived until today.)
But Emspak, though he grew up at the knee of his old man, is much more than just his father’s son. He was a leading activist in the emerging anti-Vietnam War movement of the mid-1960s; a longtime elected local labor leader in a major General Electric plant in Massachusetts that had been long-been represented by the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE); and a professor and scholar at the University of Wisconsin’s School for Workers.
Not only that, but he was also the initiator, producer, and fundraiser of the extremely innovative Workers Independent News service, which almost singlehandedly revived national coverage of workers’ efforts on commercial radio in the U.S. (Full disclosure: I worked with him for a short time on this project.) He is someone with a world of experience—much of which he shares in this book.
AN EVEN-HANDED APPROACH
Emspak takes an even-handed approach in the book; he tries to tell the story as straightforwardly as he can.
Most controversial, perhaps, was his membership for a number of years in the Communist Party. “I joined the Communist Party because I wanted to change our society,” he writes. “The Party of those years was based in the multi-racial and multi-ethnic working class and worked closely with Black communities and political leaders. The Party’s work in this area provided a standard by which I could measure the mainstream liberal response to the challenges to America’s racist past and present.”
Yet even as a member of the CP, Emspak was no party flunky. He tried to take the best of the party’s history and work, and use it to inform day-to-day struggles in the anti-war movement and within an industrial union. How much this helped or hindered his work is probably debatable, but he clearly recognized its limitations, and he later left the party.
I think this is one of the strengths of his account—this is the legacy of a man who’s been part of the left from the 1950s to the 2010s, and been on the front lines of major struggles throughout this period. He has kept a critical mindset, and used it both to try to evaluate his opponents and to understand his allies. And I believe he’s done that in a way that is a credit to himself and his family.
THREE KEY LESSONS
There are three lessons in particular that Emspak passes on:
One is from his father, Julius, who told Frank: “Go to work in [an] industry, become a competent worker and thus gain the respect of your fellow workers as a contributor, not just as a talker, and run for office on some principled basis.”
The second lesson: “I concluded the strike is the fundamental strength unions have—and without it and without using it, the individual worker cannot be protected.”
The third lesson comes when Emspak talks about the viability of protests and community organization to the left of the Democratic Party. He was on the steering committee of the effort for a citywide referendum on the Vietnam War in 1968 in Madison, Wisconsin. (The measure, calling for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of U.S. troops, got 43 percent of the vote.)
He concludes: “The Madison effort demonstrated it was possible for progressives to build a community-based political campaign, that it was possible and effective to work outside the two party system, and that a sizeable portion of the population was ready to get out of Vietnam.”
Emspak didn’t write this book as a manifesto for young leaders today; he’ll be the first to tell you that he doesn’t know everything. What he’s done is taken an approach that basically says to the reader, These are my experiences. This is the thinking behind what I did or did not do. See what you can learn from them to help you figure out how to operate in these fields—and my hope is you do better than I.
Agree with him or not, Frank Emspak has set a high bar for activists in the labor movement, and he shares his story well in this book. I couldn’t put it down until the last page. Read this book!
Kim Scipes, a member of the National Writers Union, is the former chair of its Chicago chapter, and a longtime shop floor labor activist (as a printer) and recently retired university professor. His latest book is Building Global Labor Solidarity: Lessons from the Philippines, South Africa, Northwestern Europe, and the United States (Lexington Books, 2021, now out in paperback). A list of his writings, many linked to the original article, can be found online for free, here.