The UAW, My Dad & Other Musings from a Child of the Movement
What follows are Excerpts and ramblings taken from a draft from the Book, “Road to Bamascus”, written by Talibdin El-Amin
ARGUS Publisher Talebdin El-Amin (right) and his father (left, foreground)
The recent UAW (United Automobile Workers) strikes on the Big Three is cause for nostalgic reflection. The ideals they have shaped the union upon are the foundations of the struggle for fairness and equity.
In my faith, it states “Reverence the wombs that bore you.” This is commonly understood as the physical womb of the mother, but in a more holistic view anything to gives birth to the essence of a thought, action, inspiration or achievement.
The womb that bore my own interest and involvement in public service, organizing, activism, protest and struggle was the United Automobile Workers (UAW). My life was impacted by the UAW even prior to birth as my father was an assemblyman at Ford Motor Company and a member of UAW Local 325 beginning in 1966 until his retirement forty years later in 2006 prior to the Hazelwood Plant closing. Subsequently, I began working there shortly after my stint in the Navy, from 1994 to 2006 just prior to my foray into public office later that year. Dad was nicknamed “Frog” and somewhere along the line I picked the nickname “Tadpole” because of my physical likeness too him and my inclination to labor politics and organizing.
My father, was a die-hard union man, and a selfless political strategist and organizer whose efforts were rooted in the desire for the collective success and upliftment of the common person. He was very active and commanded little to no fanfare for his efforts. Earlier on my siblings and I were often tasked with going door to door advancing the cause of an elected official, or some voting or ballot initiative or community initiative. I pause, to acknowledge my dear mother, Lizzie Mae, a Southern belle and transplant from Greenville, Mississippi, selfless and sacrificial in maintaining the home of her six children in a one bedroom shotgun apartment on Cote-Brilliante while my father dedicated himself and resources to helping people outside the home.
Civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and UAW founder Walter P. Reuther
My earliest recollections were of serious and often raucous and contentious times of the unions and national efforts by Corporate America to decimate union membership through such legislative efforts as Right to Work Legislation, which was soundly defeated on the November 1978 ballot by 69% to 30. The 70s and 80s were a time just north of the decades of the bold and transformative union leadership of iconic leaders such as the Teamster’s Jimmy Hoffa and UAW’s Reuther brothers, Victor, Walter and Roy, in particular Walter.
Although the AFL (American Federation of Labor) chartered the UAW in 1935 with Francis Dillon as the first President, it was Walter Reuther, along with brothers Roy and Victor who exponentially grew its membership with a robust, broad-based based grassroots activism that crossed over into the civil rights movement and support from African-Americans struggling in our fights for human, voting and civil rights that had taken center stage. Needless to say my father found a balance of a five to six day work week in the plant, and bartending at the Union Hall for extra money and extracurricular political union and public activism and spending time with his children by often having us shadow his activity.
He and Mom also found time to slide into the Wednesday Pizza night at his friend’s shop on Airport Road and the occasional trip to the airport where he’d park the station wagon and we’d just watch airplanes land and depart. The culture of family, brotherhood, unionism and activism was inculcated in our core. The very first song I can remember learning next to my ABCs was the “Solidarity” song.
The very first family plane trip was to the Walter Reuther Training Facility in 1978 in Black Lake, Michigan. We traveled to Ottumwa, Iowa in 1978 in the midst of the meatpackers strike and Hormel workers of Local 431 that ultimately led to the firing of 503 workers that refused to cross the picket line. There was Ottumwa Mayor Jerry Parker who joined the strikers in support and I took delight in witnessing my father speak to a large crowd of protesting workers and their families. The sight of his UAW ballcap, yellow tee-shirt with the No Surrrender, No Retreat moniker and his bell bottom jeans with his fist pumping in the air and his scraggly goatee shouting slogans of solidarity.
It was the UAW and his union activism that gave way to his community involvement and activism. The organizing meetings off of Skinker/Delmar, where he’d conference with Lew Moye, former President UAW Chrysler Local 110 and others in the early 70s at the organization of the St. Louis Chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionist (CBTU) for which Moye was also its President., Then there was the meetings at the University City home on Vernon of long-time political strategist and community activist Walle Amusa. Between the closure of Homer G. Phillips and the local politics and strategies surrounding those efforts, Right to Work, the divestment initiative and protest of South Africa’s apartheid, I just knew whenever they gathered it was in a spirit of liberation.
I first heard “Amandla” amongst the cries of the South African people and protest, later popularized in song on Miles Davis 1989 album Amandla.. Dad was true to missives of protest and boycott. Breaking code of a boycott line was almost synonymous with ratting in the “Cosa Nostra”. Even if the car was close to empty, he’d refuse and would drive the extra mile to avoid buying gas from Shell Oil that was one of the companies being boycotted as part of the South African divestment initiatives.
I was only 8 or 9 when I trailed my father to the bookstore at the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King and Euclid as he met with a diverse mix of people, who espoused varying economic and religious philosophies. There was communist, socialist, Marxist, Capitalist, Atheist, Christian, Muslim but all I can remember gather for the common purpose of supporting the down-trodden. It was here, that I was introduced to the likes of Cesar Chavez, Leonard Peltier, Fidel Castro, the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara, Frantz Fanon, Pio Gama Pinto, and the various African liberation movements and the Mau Mau of Kenya and Jomo Kenyatta. They would let me occasionally get up to speak on something I read of those personages.
My memory calls to mind a few: there was Linda Robinson Turner, Will Bill , Jerry Foster and others. Linda and Wild Bill were Caucasian and consistently visible and present in social causes and protest within the labor movement as well as. Ironically it was Wild Bill, who introduced and gifted me the Autobiography of Malcolm X at age 12 as we traveled by bus to Washington, DC in August of 1983 for the 20th Anniversary of the March on Washington. Again the UAW was well represented at the local level, there was , Jerry Foster, Verda Anderson, Linda, a young Walter Moeller and of course my siblings Larry, Yolanda and Tim. Prior to that Wild Bill would always gift me the copy of the Socialist newspaper and yes I was a self proclaimed youth affiliate of the Young Democrat Socialist of America.
In 1978 and 1979, there was the Homer G. Phillips protest that set to stop the shutdown facilitated by Mayor Conway that stays etched in my mind. It was there that I witnessed a fellow organizer and colleague of my father, Zenobia Thompson and blood streaming from her head coming from what I can recall a strike from the force of a police baton, my father screaming and being taken away in a police van as he ordered my Mother to take us out of there. To this day when I see Zenobia, I smile in reverence and memory of the struggles of the likes of her and ageless warrior activists such as Lew Moye, Walle Amusa, Percy Green, Jamala Rogers, and even Kenny Jones and others who laid the pavement and set the stage for politics and activism before me and have remained consistent and active after my own presence on the public and political stage. When I see them, even as an adult, I smile with a child-like reverence recalling the respect for father had for their works and his support.
The history of the UAW, unions and its relation to the national struggle of Blacks and Civil RIghts Movement and the collaboration of the national labor movement in support of international struggles of liberation is worthy and necessary to study so that the generations that may sit outside of the labor environment, in the comforts of corporate America or academia understand that the decades long efforts of the labor movements, in the case UAW, have made it advancing the plight and fight for fair wages, and benefits