Staughton Lynd, 1929-2022Roundup
tags: labor history, radical history, Activist history
Rosemary Feurer is editor of Labor Online, author of Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950 and Against Labor, co-edited with Chad Pearson. She is completing The Illinois Mine Wars.
Staughton Lynd, one of labor history’s icons, died on November 17. He was an academic and activist when those combinations were reviled as unbecoming of a professional, and he was blacklisted from the profession for his bold anti-war stance. He became a labor attorney, moved to Niles, Ohio and was a strategic player in the fight against steel-mill shutdowns and the destruction of steel communities in Youngstown, Ohio.
I first met Staughton in the early 1990s when he came to St. Louis for a New Directions – UAW conference. A giant in the civil rights movement and anti-war movements, I knew him mostly in relationship to these struggles, and attempts to connect lessons from the labor history to the ongoing fights for a new structure for the labor movement to renew itself. That campaign withered away, and the UAW continued its plunge into cooperation and corruption. But some of the same people from that movement, such as St. Louis’ own Mike Cannon, are still involved in the current UAW reform efforts. There is a thread, Staughton suggested, one that is often missed, one that connects movements. He was a prime exemplar of that connection.
In any conversation, Staughton insisted on telling stories of people who had influenced him, such as Sylvia Woods, the UAW activist from Chicago featured in the classic film Union Maids (1976) who blamed union contractualism for labor’s decline. Or his mentor John Sargent from Inland Steel, who told him how steelworkers’ power grew without a contract that policed direct action, in comparison to the rest of the steelworkers locals which emerged supposedly more powerful because they had that contract in hand.
At the time I met him, Staughton was also proposing a project that became the book We Are All Leaders: The Alternative Unionism of the 1930s (1996). It was a book that was not that well-received by many labor historians, and he was hurt but not surprised that so many were eager to find flaws in the interpretation. It came on the cusp of other treatments that, in the wake of neoliberalism, looked at the New Deal and the CIO with romantic hindsight or were building the new framework of the the “rise of the right” as the key historical trend. The moment for criticism of the CIO had passed among labor historians, but not so for the labor activists who still experienced the undemocratic structures built during that time. Capital, Staughton knew, would not have had the robust power it acquired without the capitulation of labor leadership to its demands, and that required taking a more critical view of the CIO and its leadership.