I guess the Montgomery Ward strike was my introduction to the radical movement. lt was one of those struggles that turn people bigger than life, when the radicals’ dreams fuse with the workers’ own aspirations and things get really heady.
The Montgomery Ward workers had done everything right: they had gone through the long process of getting the War Labor Board to certify their complaints, they had spent time working without a contract, they had followed every government order. Now it had come to a showdown: these workers’ right to decent wages and conditions, against the labor bureaucracy’s pledge not to strike while the war was on. The national labor leaders (with the help of the Communist Party, which had switched sides on this one) were doing everything they could to quiet things down and break this union.
I found myself in a group of about thirty students, just about all the anti-Stalinists on campus, from the liberals to the Trotskyists. A group of us went downtown to the strike office and said, “We’re the University of Chicago Labor Rights Society. How can we help?” The organizers told us we could help raise money, we could help picket — it was one of those wide-open situations in which you just do what you can. We went to work getting University of Chicago students to give money to the strike fund, and we shivered with the picketers in the cold outside Montgomery Ward. Nobody seemed to mind that we were students.
Sidney Lens was a radical labor organizer and writer, and an SWP veteran. Harold Gibbons had built a militant warehousemen’s local years before in St. Louis. Lens and Gibbons made a pilgrimage up to the Communist Party‘s labor stronghold in Minneapolis to try to get the Party to change its line and support the Montgomery Ward workers. Without the support of the unions the Party led, there was no hope of winning this strike. (Keep an eye on Gibbons. He shows up again later in the story.)
Gibbons and Lens came back two days later and told us it was no go. After that the Montgomery Ward workers finally lost hope. The union was broken.
I was awfully disappointed that those people had to go back in without a contract. I was angry at Roosevelt, who I’d admired greatly for his New Deal reforms. I was angry at the whole system — the contrast between what our democracy professes to be and what it really is. Young as I was, I knew hypocrisy when I saw it and I yearned for a way to attack it. l decided I was a radical, maybe a socialist.