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September 2004 • Vol 4, No. 8•

A Page from the History of a Fighting Union

By Hunter Bear

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Herbert Hill, who served as the NAACP’s labor secretary from 1953 to 1977 and later helped establish the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s black studies department, died at a hospice Aug. 15, the school said. He was 80.

Hill, who was white, also worked to desegregate the nation’s building trades unions and the Ladies Garment Workers Union while at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

He then joined the university, where he served as a professor until he retired in 1997. He continued to advise civil rights organizations after his retirement.

Hill wrote numerous articles on race, workplace discrimination by organized labor, black literature and jazz, and edited three anthologies of black writing.

Herbert Hill’s consistently dedicated work as Labor Secretary for the NAACP is obviously secure in history. He was certainly one of the much better people in the National Office, even as the organization became increasingly tied to the narrow, oft-legalistic and frequently red-baiting orientation of Roy Wilkins (Executive Director) and Gloster Current (Director of Branches). The latter frequently undercut the grassroots efforts of such staff as Mississippi’s Medgar Evers, actively worked to sabotage our massive and militant Jackson Movement in 1962-63, and carried on warfare—often conniving with J. Edgar Hoover et al—against more pervasively activist and militant civil rights organizations: SNCC, CORE, SCLC, and SCEF.

I am not an admirer of the United Steelworkers of America as it existed in the late 1940s when I was still very much a kid in Arizona or later in the 1950s and into the 1960s, when I had come of age and experience. My loyalties always were with the old International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW) and they very much remain—again, always—with the bright memory of Mine-Mill: pervasively democratic in the most basic grassroots sense, courageous and militant, socially visionary, thoroughly effective, and absolutely committed to the fight for full racial equality.

Much of the Mine-Mill membership was Mexican-American and a significant dimension was Afro-American. In addition, there were many Native people very comfortably involved with Mine-Mill. Conversely, the Steel union in the aforementioned time period—whether in the United States or Canada—was bureaucratic, Anglo in ethos, right-wing, given to any scurrilous red-baiting or race-baiting approach that would advance its imperialistic agenda against Mine-Mill.

Even, as in 1948 and 1949, IUMMSW had not yet, with the other left unions, been actually forced out of CIO and the [Canadian] CCL by cold warriors such as Phillip Murray. After the “expulsion” of the left unions, raiding and destruction were pursued year after year by the right-wing unions. Again, in the Arizona mountains, I was very well aware of the vigilante attacks which burned and destroyed the union halls of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers of America (one of the forced-out left unions) in the Salt River Valley. And the mounting attacks by Steel, the mining bosses, and thugs on Mine-Mill in the copper country.

When Mine-Mill withstood these unremitting attacks against it in its basic hard-rock, metal mining jurisdiction, the U.S. [and Canadian] Federal forces openly entered the conflict on the side of the mining corporations and the Steel union. The U.S. government from the mid-1950s well into the 1960s, levied a continual series of “legal” attacks against Mine-Mill. Among them witch-hunting Congressional committees, Taft-Hartley “anti-communist” charges, McCarran Act knives and hatchets such as the so-called “Subversive Activities Control Board”—whose spurious “hearings” and other thrusts against Mine-Mill well into the 1960s were endorsed by the Steel union and carried by the Kennedys.

As time went on, a very few somewhat “better” faces entered Steel’s leadership— e.g., “Wavy Davy” McDonald (and his pretentious hair-do) was replaced as USWA president by I.W. Abel. Ultimately vindicated by high Federal courts, and always very much so by the grassroots and by History, but with its fiscal resources totally exhausted, Mine-Mill merged with Steel in 1967. (Save for the Falconbridge local—598—at Sudbury, Ontario.) As indicated by me in a quite recent post, Local 598 very effectively carried on a completely independent Mine-Mill existence until it joined CAW (Canadian Auto Workers) in ‘93—but has certainly kept its Mine-Mill identity very much intact. At this point it was most effectively involved in the prolonged and bitter strike against Falconbridge Nickel at Sudbury.

The Mine-Mill merger with Steel saw the old Mine-Mill locals fight hard within Steel to maintain their uniquely democratic and vigorous identity—and those that have survived still do so. Not all have survived. Some of the most historic—e.g., Morenci (Arizona) Miners Union Local 616—were destroyed in the disastrous Steel-led copper strike of 1983-84 against Phelps-Dodge. In that tragic debacle, with still continuing ramifications, Steel’s traditional top-down “decision-making,” and then Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt’s (“Scabbitt”) betrayal of labor with heavy use of anti-strike state police, played pure hell for the copper workers.

This was, among other things, in sharp contrast to the extraordinarily hard-fought industry-wide copper strike of 1959-1960—led and effectively won by hard-pressed and consistently democratic Mine-Mill whose top leadership was also, concurrently, in a Federal court at Denver fighting the Federal Taft-Hartley Non-Communist affidavit “Communist conspiracy” charges. This case, initially started by the Federals and the mining corporations in 1956, lay quiescent for three years until the great copper strike, and was then deliberately brought to trial by the government in an obviously union-busting maneuver. Mine-Mill won that strike (and, years later, won the “conspiracy” case after appeals)—but, in 1983-84, Steel lost the Phelps-Dodge copper strike.

Anything that Herbert Hill (the former pro-labor NAACP Labor Secretary noted for fighting against racism everywhere, including inside the unions) and others could do to help USWA develop a much better racial attitude and practice (Steel used to call Mine-Mill the “N——r union”), was and is certainly all to the good. But if you’re going to look at effective—and, for a hell of a long time in the face of hideous and often bloody attacks from many reactionary sides—enduring and visionary democratic unionism, then look to the example set by International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (and others in the Sunlight of radicalism) and not to United Steelworkers of America.

A final word at this point: In the 1949 attack on Mine-Mill in Alabama (Tennessee Coal and Iron), a key Mine-Mill spokesperson, Maurice Eugene Travis, International Secretary-Treasurer, was brutally assaulted by Steel organizers and Klansmen in a Bessemer radio station—losing the sight of one eye. Brother Travis—who thereafter wore a black eye patch—was later attacked, again and again, by the U.S. government (ultimately winning consistently in the appellate courts) but died in relative obscurity in Northern California in 1985. Mine-Mill carried on the fight in Alabama long after 1949, a major leader being pioneer Mine-Mill Black civil rights activist (later International Vice-President) Asbury Howard of Bessemer. I am very much personally indebted to Maurice Travis—among many other Mine-Mill activists.

—Marxmail, August 21, 2004





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