James P. Cannon

Bill Brown

A Proletarian Fighter

(July 1938)

Published: Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 27, 2 July 1938, p. 2.
Source: PDF supplied by the Riazanov Library Project.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
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(This is the first of two articles by Comrade Cannon [1] on two outstanding leaders of the workers’ and farmers’ movement in the northwest whose deaths were reported in preceding issues of the Appeal. – Ed.)

Death struck twice with cruel perversity in recent days at the liberation movement of the oppressed. One cannot get accustomed to the thought of the Northwestern sector of the movement without Bill Brown, president of Local 544, and Rodney Salisbury, one-time Farmer-Labor sheriff of Sheridan County, Montana, and president of the Montana Farm Holiday Association. They were as indigenous to the country as the tough native grass. Both were men of unique and distinctive personality. They were rich in talents which they freely devoted to a cause bigger than themselves or any of us. They truly reflected and expressed the movement out of which they had grown, by which they had been shaped and upon which they, in turn, had placed their own personal stamp.

They Live On!

Now they are both dead. But I assert with confidence that their names and their deeds will live after them in the grateful and affectionate memory of their co-workers who numbered many thousands. More than that, their memory ought by all rights to be saluted in wider circles than those in which they lived and died, and passed on to our youth. It should be a source of inspiration to them. Such considerations alone prompt and will perhaps justify these lines, which otherwise would not be written. It is not easy to write about the dead, especially when the wound is fresh; I have always believed with Swinburne that “silence after grievous things is good.”

From the time that William S. Brown went to work driving a one-horse wagon as a boy of 13, until his untimely and tragic death at the age of 41, he was continuously and uninterruptedly associated with the workers; more specifically, the drivers, and their trade unions. Flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone, he reacted sensitively to all that concerned them – their grievances, their advantages, their victories and defeats.

College of Hard Knocks

Lacking formal education, he compensated to a large extent for the deficiency with a first-class diploma from the college of hard knocks, and supplemented it with mother-wit and native shrewdness. When he attained to leadership in the big mass movement and had to match wits with the bosses and their slick and oily lawyers, he was able to hold his own. Without any schooling in the technique of public speaking, he revealed in the great struggles of the union a surprising articulateness, and became a commanding orator and master of the felicitous phrase. Nobody could lash the rapacious employers and their murderous cops with the bitter effectiveness of Bill, and none could stir the workers so deeply.

If there is such a thing as the “typical American,” he was it – tough, hard-boiled, sophisticated and, at bottom, deeply sentimental and a sucker for a hard-luck story. Like all Americans, he was an empiricist, learning as he went along and inclined to improvise answers to problems as they arose from day to day. At least, that’s what he had been all his life up to the great strike of 1934. After that he stood at the head of a mass movement. He was involved more and more in big and complicated actions where rule-of-thumb practice was lost and helpless. Under the influence of his new environment, Bill was thrown more and more into the consideration of things from a broader standpoint. He assimilated the basic ideas of socialism and became inspired by; its great ideal. That is the true explanation of his remarkable transformation from a more or less ordinary trade union official to a leader of militant mass actions. In this, I think, he pioneered on a road that hundreds and thousands of minor trade union officials in America are destined to follow.

An Assiduous Student

He became a party man and a fairly assiduous student of the theoretical teachings of our great masters. Few knew this; he didn’t advertise it. The hard-boiled trade unionist remained to the last a bit shy about explaining this strange business of comprehensive theory and world-wide vision which was so far removed from trade unionism of the old school, its limited outlook and its humdrum routine. Nevertheless, it opened up a new window on the world for Bill, as he freely acknowledged in the close party circles, and greatly heightened his stature as a leader of the stormily developing mass movement.

This was all the more remarkable in view of his life-long background in the stagnant pool of old-fashioned trade unionism. Bill was President of General Drivers Union, Local No. 574 (now 544) continuously from 1921. It was a small union and he continued to work as a driver until 1932. During all those years, up until 1934, as with most unions of the same sort, nothing much ever happened. There were a few piddling contracts with small bosses. There was the routine business of keeping an office open and collecting dues and letting well-enough alone that is so characteristic of the old craft union school.

Bill had something in him that such an environment could not draw out. During all those years of that deadening routine, there wasn’t much on the surface to distinguish him from the ordinary run-of-the-mill business agent.

But, as further developments amply proved, that was only the surface appearance. Big events and new conceptions were needed for Bill to discover himself, and unfold his hidden talent and capacities for greater things. They came with the development of the crisis which shattered for all time the stability of capitalism and cleared the road for the militant mass movement of labor, which will finally put an end to its domination.

The crisis bore down with unbearable weight on the workers in the trucking industry, of which Minneapolis is the great northwestern center. The provincial Minnesota bosses, their greed multiplied by their ignorance, slashed wages and increased hours of work with reckless abandon. The truck drivers, unorganized for the most part, were goaded to desperation; only a spark was needed to touch off the explosion that would rock the country.

The entrance into this fully-ripened situation of a new group of men, and the working collaboration established between them and Bill Brown, supplied the spark. The “new men” were a group of coal-yard workers who are sometimes called “Trotskyites.” These studious men of theory, who were also qualified mass workers – a rare enough phenomenon – came into the teamsters’ union by way of an organization campaign in the coal-yards. It is to the eternal credit of Bill Brown that he opened the door of the union to this new development and received the new dynamic forces with open arms. The compact formed between them – one of the happiest and most fruitful ever recorded in the labor movement – endured to the end and flowered into political as well as trade union solidarity, not to speak of unshakable personal friendship.

Had Indispensable Qualities

Bill’s rich experience in the trade union movement, his charming personality, oratorical ability and widespread popularity were an absolutely indispensable factor in the subsequent developments. He and the “new men” from the coal yards, working together, welded the new insurgent mass movement and the apparatus of the old drivers’ union into one solid piece. The rest is history. They formed a combination that hasn’t been beaten in a single engagement to this day.

In the great strikes of 1934 – especially the July–August strike – Bill Brown came out of his shell and showed his real talent as a mass leader. Somewhat weak as an executive, and a poor office man (Bill wasn’t gifted on these lines), he loomed up powerfully at moments of crisis and showed the heart of a lion in times of action and danger. He fulfilled the duties of union president best on the picket line; and if a recalcitrant scab had to be clipped, he wouldn’t spare his own knuckles.

As the mass orator at critical moments in the strike, and at later fateful turning points in the life of the union, Bill was supreme. He articulated the indignation and the mass courage of the workers better than any other. In this field also he was pretty much of an improviser. I don’t think he ever “prepared” a speech in his life, but he delivered some mighty fine ones; some almost perfect speeches for the occasion. Like the true orator, he sensed and “felt” his audience and let the inarticulate mass speak through him.

Virtues Outweighed Failings

All those who went together through those days of destiny, took a great personal liking to Bill. “The little guy,” as he was sometimes called by his friends, who had such a big and strong heart, had a way of making people like him; one tended easily to minimize or overlook his faults, of which, by the way, he had his share. Bill was no plaster saint, but human, all too human.

His virtues outweighed his failings, and that’s about the best that can be said of anybody. Bill Brown was a man who took sides and always stayed on the side he had taken. He hated the bosses as a bunch of greedy and cheating parasites; he was on the side of the underdog every time and his big heart was full of sympathy for suffering and struggling workers everywhere. He had a fierce hatred and contempt for policemen and deputies, and all hirelings of the bosses. He loved the workers, the union, the big headquarters with the big auditorium where he presided and spoke so often. His whole life revolved around it.

Herald of the Future

With all his importance and his fame as a labor leader, Bill was a carefree laughing fellow all the time. Everything seemed to sit lightly on his shoulders, even when in moments of desperate crisis in the union’s battles he seemed for the moment to bear the whole weight himself. I never knew a man who loved life better than did Bill; never one who got more fun out of it even under the most adverse circumstances. That is why his death seems such a monstrous incongruity. He was a decidedly gregarious person. Companionship was the breath of life to him. He liked action all the time. He had a good time fighting and a good time celebrating when the fight, for the moment, was ended.

I recall Bill Brown as a herald of the happy future when social relations will be organized sanely and will be lighted up by human joy and laughter. He was a good soldier in the emancipation struggle of the toilers and put in his licks and his blows to hasten on the day of their liberation victory. Those who survive him and carry on the struggle which alone gives life hope and meaning will gratefully remember the man who bore the proud title of president of Local 544, the lion-hearted fighter and soft-hearted friend, Bill Brown.

(Next week’s article will deal with Rodney Salisbury. [1]Ed.)

Note by MIA

1. The article published the following week was not written by James P. Cannon, but by Charles E. Taylor.

Last updated on 11 September 2015