Family tale weaves union activism across generations

Mike_Matejka

Mike Matejka
Grand Prairie Union News

Book review

Where does the inspiration come to devote one’s life and energy to improving the human condition? What makes a person willing to sacrifice their own safety and well-being to organize a union?

A compelling look across three generations is featured in A Great Vision: a Militant Family’s Journey through the 20th Century by Richard March.

Traveling from an Adriatic Sea island and Lithuanian Jewish ghettos to urban America, this book comes full circle across three generations.

The book’s central characters are Herbert and Jane Marsh, two young people radicalized by the 1930s Depression. Many jobless and angry youth gravitated to the Communist Party; the two met at a Young Communist League meeting in Chicago in 1932 and were soon married.

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Organizing industrial workers was the 1930s’ epic tale, including the meat packing industry. Herbert and Jane were central figures in organizing Chicago’s stockyards into the United Packinghouse Workers. In previous years, the packers had played white against African-American workers.

Through their commitment to human rights, the March family won the confidence of the workers, with Herb speaking on street corners to rally strikes and short-term walk-outs to prove worker power. More than once, assassination attempts almost took Herb’s life.

After World War II, anti-communism enveloped the U.S. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act required union officers to swear non-allegiance to communist groups. Herb March refused and lost his union job.

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The family moved to Los Angeles, where Herb joined the Sheet Metal Workers’ apprenticeship school and eventually went to night school to complete a law degree, finishing his career as a labor lawyer.

Jane became active in the early 1960s anti-nuclear weapon “Ban the Bomb” movement. This led the author, Richard March, to involvement in Civil Rights, anti-war and United Farm Worker support efforts.

Richard eventually returned to his roots; having learned Croatian from his immigrant mother and grand-mother, he became an anthropologist with a specialty in eastern European languages and culture.

Most touching in this book is the way the generations connect. Jane’s mother, Maria Grbac, grew up on the Adriatic island of Losinj, as Mussolini’s Italy and Croatans contested for control.

The Grbac’s refused to speak Italian and their home became a resistance center. Jane’s brothers fatally went to the Soviet Union in the 1930s to join the “workers’ paradise” and disappeared in Stalin’s 1930s purges.

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Herb’s Jewish family immigrated to New York City, where they were immersed in garment strikes and radical politics.

This book echoes with the commitment needed to build a union and sadly reflects how the labor movement sometimes turned on its own most ardent supporters. Urban life in New York and Chicago neighborhoods echoes through tenements and flats, through to the 1960s promised land in California.

It’s an engaging read because it is a real-life story of families coping with economic and political dislocation, not only surviving, but passing on values of caring and solidarity.

The hobo’s journey through American literature

mike_matejka

Mike Matejka
Grand Prairie Union News
Book review
Jan. 5, 2017

Boxcar Politics: The Hobo in U.S. Culture and Literature, 1869-1956
By John Lennon
ISBN 978-1-62534-120-4

Imagine the word “hobo.” What comes to mind? Red Skelton playing “Freddie the Freeloader?” Maybe a tattered figure, a red kerchief tied to a stick, wandering down the rails?

Some like to say a “hobo traveled to work, a tramp traveled to dream and a bum traveled to drink.” In reality, from the Civil War to World War II, there was an itinerant work force available for construction, railroading, mining and agricultural jobs.

These usually short-term job opportunities meant ‘boes were welcome when labor scarce, shunned when the job ended.

The hobo was well-known in American life during the railroad’s peak. In a sense, they were a creation of the railroad, particularly in the early construction years when large crews were needed.

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John Lennon in Boxcar Politics examines the hobo in popular culture, particularly in literature and film. He divides the rail riders into adventure seekers, traveling workers and political symbols of a economically and racially-divided nation.

In the adventure category, two figures are analyzed, both who used their traveling experience to craft a story. Jack London, famed western novelist, not only wrote Call of the Wild, but also The Road (1907). London took to the rails not searching work, but rather to prove his own skills in an outcast world. The shadow world of the boxcar appealed to London, creating his own law, at least until the jail cell door slammed shut.

Sixty years later, another young American, Jack Kerouac, went On the Road (1957), this time not seeking adventure, but a pre-automotive lost America. Like London, Lennon sees Kerouac as an individualist, viewing hoboes as a free nation’s hero.

For most freight train riders, it wasn’t wanderlust, but hunger and dead-end jobs that led them to the train yard. Jim Tully’s Beggars for Life (1924), told his own tale, an abandoned Ohio boy who hoped for a better life, only to find misery and hard-traveling. Eventually, Tully wrote five books about the underside of American life.

The political hobo is the recurring figure in John Dos Passos’ trilogy U.S.A. (1930-36). Fainy “Mac” McCreary hits the road in the 1890s from necessity, and is radicalized by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a direct action union, which organized lumber jacks, agricultural workers and immigrants. As American radical politics crashes after World War I, “Mac” eventually travels south to support the Mexican Revolution, opens a bookstore and politically pontificates from a bar stool.

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A different political traveler were the Scottsboro defendants, impoverished African-Americans charged with raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. They became a cause celebrate for the Communist Party, transforming their image and saving them from a lynching.

The hobo also appeared in film. In the Depression 1930s, thousands took to the rails, particularly unemployed youth. In its prime era of gangster films, Warner Brothers produced Wild Boys on the Road (1933), in which an inter-racial, male and female traveling crew bond through their misery, creating their own law when a rail worker rapes a female fellow traveler, meting out their own justice to the offender.

Lennon is deep into literary theory, but the writer makes it accessible.

Hoboes lived on the society’s margin, in and out of the law and traditional home-bound life. They were a constant reminder of capitalism’s precarious nature, where one could have a job and then be unemployed the next week.

Real life stories of itinerant workers and dreamers surfaced in magazine articles, books and film, sometimes as stereotypes, occasionally with sympathy. Lennon’s book reminds us how pervasive these figures were in American life, surfacing not only to beg at the backdoor or work the fruit harvest, but also in the latest literary journal.