Book review: Jon Melrod’s Fighting Times a new class struggle classic
Minneapolis, MN – Jon Melrod’s newly-published memoir, Fighting Times, is more than just a remembrance. It details his time as a revolutionary helping to build the fighting people’s movements – from the student movement of the 1960s in SDS and being part of the Revolutionary Union, to the solidarity struggle with the Menominee Warrior Society occupation in 1975, to building a fighting UAW local at an American Motors plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin – and the lessons learned from each fight. It is a book that class-struggle union militants, student organizers and activists from all the people’s movements alike would do well to read.
Students stand up, fight back
Attending school in Madison, Wisconsin in 1968, during the time of the Vietnam war, Melrod was quickly swept up into student activism, particularly as part of the resident chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). He readily participated in the disruption of ROTC recruitment on campus and helped to build the broad fight among students. During this time, he also got his start in union organizing, joining up to help the Obreros Unidos, a union of agricultural workers led by of Jesus Salas, building support for the Delano Grape Strike called by the United Farm Workers.
In the fight on campus, Melrod and Madison SDS joined up with the Black People’s Alliance, a group formed by Black students on campus to challenge the administration’s refusal to address racism on campus, taking part in a student strike in support of the BPA’s 13 demands, which eventually the National Guard was called in to suppress. In response, as Melrod explains, “The BPA and SDS issued a clarion call for a mass march on the domed state capitol – home to the Wisconsin state legislature and the seat of state power. According to news accounts, twelve thousand students – over one-third of the student body – gathered as the sun set.” Going on to say, “Never had such a powerful force of humanity gathered under one banner in Madison’s history.”
In 1970, after a brutal attack by the police on a street party, the murder of Fred Hampton, the trial of the Chicago seven and the announcement of Nixon beginning of the invasion of Cambodia, Melrod and the rest of the Madison SDS chapter – many of whom had joined the Mother Jones Revolutionary League – led up another fight on campus which would grow to encompass many organizations in a United Front Against the War. Together they kicked off another mass student strike centered on the Army Math building.
Melrod at that time joined the many young people – steeled by their experience organizing in the student movement and realizing the need for revolutionary change – in becoming communists, and in joining the Revolutionary Union. That summer he spent time in Oakland organizing with the Bay Area Revolutionary Union, the predecessor of the RU, participating in the Los Siete de la Raza Defense Committe and more. After this last year of student activism, Melrod moved on, heading from campus to Milwaukee, intent on joining up with the working class struggle.
Class struggle in Kenosha, no contract, no work
Upon leaving campus, and after working for a time in a paint factory, Melrod got a job at an American Motors Company plant in Milwaukee and joined the resident United Auto Workers local. There he played a role in building a rank-and-file caucus on the shop floor to stand up to the petty rule of supervisors and constant company attacks. The “Fight Back” caucus, as it first came to be called, published a shop floor newsletter and quickly set to galvanizing workers against the bosses’ attacks and the concessionary outlook of the local’s executive board that got in their way of fighting back.
The caucus gained a leading position among workers on the shop floor and led the charge in fighting speed-up and forced overtime. After being defeated, the bosses responded by firing Melrod and another worker, Al Guzman. The campaign for rehire was fierce and drawn out with more than half the union local prepared to strike to win their brothers back their jobs, but the local president derailed the effort.
With few other options, Melrod filed a complaint with the NLRB, and spent the next 1008 days waiting for a response, while continuing to try to organize in other workplaces. After being reinstated, Melrod and other caucus activists on the trim line and other departments soon found themselves being transferred to the Kenosha plant as production was moved and layoffs kicked in.
In Kenosha, Melrod and other militants developed a newsletter and caucus know as Fighting Times. They again built up ties on the shop floor, distributing newsletters, buttons and shirts on each campaign, as well as trying to tie the movement at the plant to the working-class fight and progressive struggles going on all around.
Fighting Times organized militant walkouts on contract expiration dates, raising the call of “No contract, no work” and fought racism and male chauvinism on the shop floor. They allied themselves with reformers in the union to replace the leadership that was in the company’s pocket.
Melrod was eventually elected steward, then chief steward, and eventually on to the local’s executive committee. He continued to mobilize rank-and-filers for a long time to come, especially during the fight against concessions in the 80s, and for the fight for “one man, one vote” against the UAW international leadership who were more interested in securing board memberships at Chrysler and AMC than in waging a concerted fight.
Continuing the fight at home and abroad
After leaving AMC and the UAW local, Melrod went on to practice law, opening a practice which particularly defended refugees fighting for legal protections in the U.S. This led him to become involved in the solidarity movement with the people of the Philippines against the brutal rule of the Marcos and Duterte regimes, fighting to free the hundreds of political prisoners being held, as well as with the Lumad people in the southern Philippines in defending their lands against attacks from foreign corporations. He continues this activism with his wife today. In California, when a Sonoma County sheriff murdered 13-year-old Andy Lopez in 2013, Melrod went back to law to represent families of Chicano and Latino youth murdered by police in California.
At the end of the introduction, Jon Melrod expresses hope that “The chapters that follow, I hope, will answer many questions, point today’s new generation of organizers in the right direction, and maybe inspire a few young people to join the struggle.” At the end of the day, Jon Melrod’s book is truly a new movement classic. Activists and organizers from all over the people’s movements would take something away from reading it.
To purchase Jon Melrod’s Fighting Times, go to https://pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=1349