Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Interview: Mead Strike Leader


First Published: The Call, Vol. I, No. 2, November 1972.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The Mead Rank and File Workers’ Caucus was formed out of the recent seven-week long wildcat strike at Mead Corp. in Atlanta, Georgia. Sherman Miller is a black communist, a worker at Mead and the Chairman of the strike committee. The following interview was conducted following the settlement of the strike:

CALL – In summing up the past seven weeks, what has been the overall significance of the Mead strike?

SM – Well, I think that the demands of the strike itself were significant in that they focused primarily on the question of racial discrimination in the plant as well as on the general working conditions of all the workers. This shows to me that the Afro-American struggle and the general workers’ struggle are being drawn closer together. It represents a part of the general trend towards unity of the two struggles.

Another significant thing was the broad united front that was built around the strike. This united front included SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), the October League and peripherally included many other progressive groups in Atlanta.

Furthermore, the Mead strike was part of a general strike wave in the city and I feel in the country as a whole. It is part of the response of the workers to wage controls, repression of working people and especially black people and so I feel that this strike wave is a reaction to the tactics of the ruling class which is trying to put more and more of its problems on the backs of the workers.

CALL – What about the fact that communists were directly involved in the strike and that you yourself were head of the strike committee?

SM – There have been considerable attempts by the ruling class, in there paper here, THE ATLANTA CONSTITUTION, to red-bait the strike as well as attempts by the company to isolate the communists.

The workers here haven’t judged people by the stereotype that was built up during the McCarthy era. They have judged us on the way we work and the type of militant leadership which we have offered.

There was a vote at one point in the strike as to whether or not I would remain on as chairman and the other OL Members retain their positions due to the great pressure of the press attacks. The vote was overwhelming, about 95% that the present leadership would be maintained. The workers didn’t succumb to red-baiting and defended the right of communists to work in the strike.

CALL – The union refused to support the strike and has never fought for the black workers at Mead. What has been the attitude of the Mead Rank and File Workers’ Caucus towards the union?

SM – We initially tried to work with the union. When they refused to support the strike our attitude was this. The union is required by law to do three things – one, to tell the people that the strike was illegal and that they should go back to work; two, to disavow their participation in the strike and three, to let people know the penalty for participating in the strike. We asked the union to do only those three things and not actively work against us.

However, the union leadership (Local No. 527 of the International Printing Pressman and Assistants Union) took a position of actively working against the strike by attempting to legitimize a couple of the sham committees which the company set up to “investigate racism” in the plant. So, the union played a backwards role to a very large extent.

Now towards the end of the strike, the union began to recognize that the bulk of its rank and file membership supported the strike and a great majority of them directly participated. They tried to make amends to the people by offering their lawyer for arbitrations and things like that.

Our position is that we in the Rank and File Caucus, recognize the need for a union. We also recognize the need for rank and file organizations because a lot of the trade union leadership has been bought off and that a lot of unions have a sweetheart relationship to management. So we are trying to force the leadership to be responsive or we are going to try and push them out in the next election.

We know that the ruling class controls the union and that our attempts to make the union serve the workers will require a difficult struggle.

CALL – Why have only a small minority of the white workers taken part in the strike while most have scabbed?

SM – There were several reasons. One is the lack of work among them when we were preparing for the strike. The lack of work with the white workers is one of the reasons. The white workers generally supported the demands for higher wages and improvement of the general working conditions. But they had some hang-ups around the demands that dealt particularly around discrimination of black people.

They also had hang-ups that the leadership of the strike was black people. Also they didn’t understand our position around the union. They thought that we were trying to break the union or bust the union, which is not true at all.

So in the main I think that the biggest problem of the white workers and the reason so many of them scabbed was white chauvinism and also lack of understanding as to what the struggle was about-what the movement is about.

CALL – What attempts will be made now that the strike is over, to work with the white workers?

SM – The Caucus has a position. We understand that the fight is not between black and white but that the fight is between the working class and the management, or the ruling class. So it is our position now to work with the white workers as much as possible. This is the special responsibility of those whites who already support the struggle.

We hope to win over as many white workers to the Rank and File Caucus as possible and make it as much as possible an organization representing all of the workers. It has been our position that the demands of the black workers against discrimination are in the interest of all the workers, including the whites. Discrimination keeps everybody under the thumb of the company and keeps everybody’s wages down. This is what has made the union as weak as it is. So it’s on the basis of their class interests that we hope to win the white workers to form a very broad caucus.

CALL – Do you think, from your experience at Mead, and at the other plants in Atlanta, that an organization of black and white workers is possible at this time?

SM – I’m under the impression that multi-national worker organizations can be built in the plant despite the widespread racism that exists, especially here in the South. I think that this is the only way we can be successful is to have multi-national organizations. However, this should not negate the particular struggles of black people. What I mean is that these organizations must help instill in the white workers the struggle and understanding of the Afro-American movement. But this can be best done in the context of multi-national organizations.

CALL – What was the role of women in the Mead strike?

SM – Women played an outstanding, militant role in the strike. In fact a great many of the most militant strikers were women. Rather than being a situation where there was men against women, this was an example of growing class unity. Women played leadership roles on many of the committees.

CALL – What is going to happen to the 36 strikers who have been fired?

SM – The position of the company is that now we have to go to arbitration. But they say no one will get fired unless they are guilty of ”strike misconduct.” If this means being convicted of some kind of felony or something like that, none of us are guilty of that. However, this is obviously an attempt by the company to weed out the leaders one by one on trumped-up charges. That is the reason why we have to fight to maintain our caucus and to protect our leadership.

CALL – Do you personally face charges?

SM – Yes, at the present time I have spent five days at Fulton County Jail and was bonded out on $2500. I’m facing six contempt of court charges along with the others. But I feel like we forced the company to back down somewhat. They were forced to drop all the criminal charges against us.

We also have to sum up the lessons of the strike and learn about the nature of this whole system. So there’s a lot of work to be done. We have an extensive program for doing the work within the plant during the next period.

CALL – What are the present needs of the strikers?

SM – Now, just because the strike is over it doesn’t mean that peoples’ economic problems are over. One important demand is for back pay during the time of the strike. But all we got was a $200 loan. Some people lost their car and their houses. Seven weeks off work when you’re working at a place like Mean causes great hardships. So we need money for this for and for court costs and to help support the struggle to get the 36 workers their jobs back.

CALL – Now that the workers have voted to return to work, do you think the struggle will die down?

SM – No! Not at all. In fact the strike was a victory in several ways. One, people stayed together seven weeks on a wildcat strike without any union support and without a check. Most were living week to week already on the sorry check we get.

Another victory was that we won some demands around discrimination and safety and for better grievance procedures. But there are many demands we did not win, especially the economic ones. We are going to expand the rank and file caucus to carry on the struggle against discrimination and to win the things we need.