Militant as Hell on the Waterfront: The Political Thought of Stan Weir

“In a world which says that ordinary people can’t do anything, they attempted to do everything.” -Martin Glaberman, Punching Out and Other Writings

Stan Weir was a lifelong laborer and labor activist. During 50 years on the job, he worked as a merchant marine, an autoworker, a teamster, and a longshoreman. Throughout his life he remained dedicated to the causes of working people, and never lost faith in their unique power and ability to bring about a better world through their collective efforts. Weir went through his “political apprenticeship” during World War II as a young merchant marine working alongside former members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) who had been involved in the militant strikes of 1934-36 on the West Coast in the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific (SUP) and the longshoring industry. These struggles established some of the most democratic forms of workers’ control the world had ever seen. Here he learned the principles that would inform and guide his activism for the rest of his life: direct, on-the-job action to settle grievances; the importance of unions with leaders who stay on the job; and the role informal workgroups play in creating workers’ culture, in grooming and selecting on-the-job leaders, and in holding these leaders accountable to the rank-and-file in decision-making processes.

He later joined the Workers Party (WP). The WP had been formed by Max Shachtman after breaking from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) over the nature of Soviet society during the Cold War. It included such notables as C.L.R. James, Hal Draper, and Martin Glaberman. Weir’s activity within the WP during the 1940s and 1950s disillusioned him from the concept of the vanguard party such organizations championed, but his experiences also strengthened his understanding of the way working people can successfully combat both their bosses and their union officials. He took this knowledge with him when he left the WP in the late 1950s, and transferred it to the many other labor struggles he was involved in throughout his life.

Weir had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, and was involved in some of the most important labor struggles of the 20th century. He also spoke his mind in no uncertain terms. This, along with the training he had gone through at sea, gained him respect and admiration among his peers and fellow workers, and as a result he was often called on to lead. In one of those struggles, the fight in the early 1960s to retain the democratic gains won by merchant marines, longshoremen, and warehousemen during the militant strikes of 1934-36 on the West Coast, Weir was a leader of the committee formed to defend a group of 82 longshoremen.

Later, Stan Weir taught courses to workers in union locals throughout the state of Illinois and at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and in the early 1980s he founded Singlejack Books, whose motto was, “Writings about work by the people who do it.” These books were meant to highlight the experiences of working people and at the same time develop them as leaders in the struggle for democracy at work. They were issued as “little books” and designed to fit easily into workpants or purses.

During all this, Weir wrote frequently of his experiences, his observations, and his insights. He vividly recalled his political “apprenticeship in militancy” as a young merchant marine. He documented his fight against Harry Bridges and the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) extensively. He wrote passionately about what he called alternately the “New Era of Labor Revolt” or the “American Shop Stewards Movement.” As he lost his fight against the union bureaucracy after a 17-year struggle, and as the promise of the so-called New Era of Labor Revolt seemed to fade, Weir found a new source of inspiration in the example of the Spanish dockworkers of La Coordinadora (roughly, “coordinating committee”). These workers sustained Weir’s hope for 20 years, and, as with the New Era of Labor Revolt, Weir was again prepared and willing to document the promise their struggle represented to those fighting, what it meant for the labor movement in particular, and how it impacted the fight for a better world in general.

As a storyteller, teaching through anecdotes from his personal life came naturally. Weir’s life story is therefore inseparable from the insights he gained through practical experience, and it is by recording his practical experiences that Weir generalized in order to draw political conclusions. The insights Weir gained provide the basis for a renewed labor movement, and there are many things we can and should learn from his experiences, which he took the time to dutifully record. To learn from his experience, we must understand his story. This, briefly, is that story.

“Never Walk Away from a Beef”: Stan Weir’s Apprenticeship in Militancy

“If you walk away [from a beef], you contribute to the breakdown of solidarity where it counts the most, among the people on the job. They see that you didn’t look out for them, and that makes it easier for them to do the same thing to others.” - Stan Weir, Unions with Leaders Who Stay on the Job

Stan Weir dropped out of college after three semesters and decided he wanted to “live the social experience of his generation,” which was to fight in World War II. Although “the risk to life was greater on merchant ships during the war,” Stan realized that if he joined the Naval Reserve, he could get that experience while also avoiding the discipline of the Armed Services he dreaded.[1] When he stepped onto a ship for the first time wearing his cadet’s uniform, he saw a look of pity on the deckhands’ faces for the “worthlessness of the contribution that anyone could make who would be wearing such an outfit. To them,” Weir recalled, “that uniform symbolized useless activity.”[2] Before too long, Weir was working on deck as a seaman, and wearing the same clothes the deckhands wore. It was in contact with these men, many of whom had participated in the Sailors Union of the Pacific strikes of 1934-36, and who were called, with a great deal of hard-earned respect, ’34 men, that Stan Weir underwent his apprenticeship in militancy.

Every day, the ’34 men took him aside and told him more of their stories. These included not only the historic struggles that had gone into winning some of the most sweeping gains in workers’ control the country had ever seen, but also small struggles, every single day, that sailors waged to secure for themselves humane working conditions. After they had related their stories, they quizzed Stan on them: “What happened on such-and-such a date,” they would ask, or, “Why were we able to win victories before getting a collective bargaining contract?” For Weir, these questions, and the practice that went with them, did not remain abstractions for long. Soon after he had finished his apprenticeship, with a note from one of his mentors in his hand, he went into the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific hall, and was admitted into the union on the strength of that recommendation. Weir’s career in militancy had only just begun.

Weir quickly put the principles he had learned into practice, but even here he was not alone. On nearly every ship he signed up for, ’34 men remained, passing on the wisdom of their generation’s struggles, hoping to “protect those gains,” as they said, for future generations. But those future generations had to fight and struggle to keep those gains themselves.

The militancy Stan Weir learned was expressed in direct action. Weir and the ’34 men were deeply skeptical, and even downright dismissive of the ability and possibility for union leadership to change. They knew well that the responsibility to change their working conditions was theirs alone, and that they could not rely on the union in their struggle to improve these conditions. This meant that rather than submitting themselves to the union’s grievance procedure to settle work grievances, they settled them directly, as each arose, by bringing work to a halt and not going back to work until those grievances were settled. Weir recounts one example of the use of direct action in his essay, “Unions with Leaders Who Stay on the Job.”

In this essay, Weir gives an account of his work crew settling a beef with the captain of the ship they were sailing on, the Hanapepe, in 1943. During lunch, after a pre-determined signal, the deckhands get up and walk off the ship. Beforehand, they’ve coordinated their plan with the Engine Department and Stewards’ Department. All have agreed to leave the boat if necessary. Weir has been chosen as deck delegate, to deal with the ship’s captain, through a process of selection relying on the operation of what he calls the “Informal Work Group.” This group is formed through socialization “that is necessary to the performance of a job,” as when experienced deckhands tell new ones how to avoid “assholes” or tight kinks in the ship’s lines. This then leads to “fun socialization,” such as the creation of nicknames. Fun socialization then leads to a “socialization of mutual protection.” This kind of socialization is what Weir and his mates are engaged in when they walk off the job. Nicknames and jokes can serve both to cohere a group working together and to define it against its enemies, namely the bosses. The purpose that this culture among Informal Work Groups serves, with its outright scorn for the bosses, as Weir says, is “to legitimize the side that is ‘us’.” This “enables defeat of the fear that stands in the way of action.”[3] This culture, then, serves the valuable purpose of preparing workers and Work Groups for confrontations with their bosses, whose power has been consistently challenged and diminished through these in-jokes. This entire culture exists in direct opposition to the bosses and is important in any struggle for control of the workplace.

It is also from all these different socialization activities, which happen in the daily course of a job and not through extra effort on the part of workers, that, as Weir notes, “Leaders emerge from these groups by selection of their peers…with sufficient backing to challenge official union bureaucrats.”[4] Stan Weir had emerged as a leader among his deckmates through these processes of socialization.

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