In Memoriam: Stan Weir, 1921-2001
— Norman Diamond
STAN WEIR was a dear friend and inspiration to many of the new generation of socialists that arose in the mid-1960x, particularly in the Independent Socialist (later International Socialist) current. His pamphlet on "The New Rank and File Revolt" was a particularly valuable contribution in that period. Stan's unwavering commitment to socialist values was a prototype for the character of the fictional "Joe" in Harvey Swados' novel Standing Fast.
Two of Stan Weir's autobiographical essays have appeared in Against the Current: "Meetings With James Baldwin" (ATC 18, January-February 1989: 35-41) and "1956: A Vanguard Party Dying in a Foreign Land" (ATC 40, September-October 1992: 39-43). The former piece includes Baldwin's appeal on behalf of tile "B" longshoremen; the latter includes the story of Max Shachtman's fishing experience with Trotsky, mentioned in Norman Diamond's tribute published here.
—David Finkel, for the editors of Against the Current
"We are all monument builders, but most of us are made to feel that ours is so small as to be without consequence."
—Stan Weir "Informal Workers' Control"
THIS HAS BEEN a bad year for an important part of our political heritage, the non-Communist Party revolutionary left that preceded the New Left. We have lost Daniel Singer, among others. Now Stan Weir has died.
Stan fought as a worker, activist and intellectual in many of the key struggles that shaped the labor movement and the left from World War II to the present.
He was working in auto during the decisive fights over the nature of the industrial unions then still forming. In particular, he stood for a union challenge to management over control of the production process, and for a union leadership tightly responsive to its own members.
Stan was also part of the resistance to containerization on the waterfront and generalized from that experience to a critique of automation under capitalism as a whole. Both as a seaman in the Merchant Marine and a worker in auto plants, he was active in struggles over racial integration, struggles not only in the workplace but also within unions. He wrote thoughtfully about all these experiences.
Throughout this period, Stan maintained his independence within the left. His membership in the Workers' Party and Independent Socialist League from 1944 through the 1950s involved him in probably the least dogmatic and most democratic left organization of the time.
It also provided him with strong concerns and reservations about most subsequent efforts to organize left groups. A driving ambitions in the last years of his life was to write a book on the tragic mistake of organized vanguardism. The chapters he was able to complete are included in a collection of his essays, Singlejack Solidarity: Work, Culture and Job-Based Unionism, to be published by the University of Minnesota Press early in 2002.
Stanley L. Weir graduated from high school in East Los Angeles in 1940. He was an avid swing era dancer, following the big bands, with hair color that earned him the nickname "Red." Experience with the class structure of American society began to shape his perspective in a way that gave a political edge to the nickname.
One striking lesson in the politics of class came within a year of graduation. Stan discovered that, because of his high school's participation in an experimental curriculum, he and his classmates had been eligible for automatic admission to UCLA. None of them, however, had been told of their eligibility.
When he returned to confront his high school principal, Stan learned that the omission was deliberate. The principal's thinking, and that of the city department of education when Stan investigated further, was that kids from this part of town were needed as mechanics, drivers, factory workers and garbage collectors, not as college graduates.
Stan was able to enroll briefly at UCLA. For his buddies, some of whom had been equally interested in a college education, the opportunity was lost.
When the United States joined the war, Stan enlisted as a naval reserve cadet, an officer candidate position, in the Merchant Marine.
His first voyage was on an ammunition carrier, part of a convoy heading for Pearl Harbor and Australia. En route, he spent most of his time with the deckhands, learning splices and seamanship from former members of the Industrial Workers of the World. The deckhands told him stories about the great 1934 longshore strike, quizzing him to make sure he'd understood the lessons.
These encounters were decisive for the already receptive young man. As the voyage went on, Stan tested the ship's hierarchy by eating with the seamen instead of in the officers' mess and gradually changing his cadet's khakis for the crew's Frisco jeans. Three days before he would have become an officer, he resigned his commission and became an ordinary seaman.
Membership in the Sailors' Union of the Pacific followed, bringing him contact with the organized left. As a young leftist, he found like-minded radicals in foreign ports, eager to get fresh news and share perspectives.
On one of his voyages, from New York to North Africa, sixty-three of the eighty-two ships in the convoy were sunk, with few survivors.
With the war's end, Stan returned to California. He worked in auto plants in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles, drove trucks and worked as a painter. All of these were union jobs.
In the East Oakland Chevrolet plant, he led a quickie sit-down strike that forced management to comply with a grievance decision on safety. The strike was a wildcat, lacking official union sanction but with the support of shop-floor rank-and-file leadership.
Following the Workers Party line, he was an activist for Walter Reuther when Reuther first ran for the United Automobile Worker presidency. By the next election, he had become disillusioned by Reuther's opportunism and refusal to back workers on issues such as assembly line speed.
Rather than seeing the problem as one of replacing bad individuals in leadership, Stan began to develop a more structural understanding of the bureaucratic pressures on union officialdom. His own allegiance, ever more clearly, was with the rank and file.
During this period, Stan Weir and Mary Knox were married and began raising a family.
The "B" Men's Struggle
In 1959, the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) created a new hiring category in San Francisco. "B" men would work irregularly and have the dirtiest jobs, with the promise of promotion to "A" status after a year. Until that promotion, they were second-class citizens, barred from participation in union meetings.
No longer a party member [the Independent Socialist League, formerly Workers Party, dissolved in 1958—ed.], Stan went to work on the waterfront and became one of three representatives of the approximately 700 "B" men.
Over the next four years, the promised promotion did not occur. Harry Bridges, president of the union, fired the other two reps. When Stan called for a replacement election, Bridges eliminated representation entirely.
In 1963, Stan and eighty-one other "B" men seen as Bridges' opponents were peremptorily fired. Their united battle to recover their jobs led to a seventeen-year lawsuit that was unsuccessful.
With his workplace and union background, and especially as a longtime organizer, Stan was a natural labor educator. Offered a position by the University of Illinois in 1968, he taught courses to union locals throughout that state for seven years.
This opportunity to compare his own experience with that of the thousands of other union workers he met in six and eight week classes led to some of his richest writing. His essays draw on anecdotes from his own life but are rooted in the stories, thoughts and insights of the many fellow workers he encountered.
In the mid-1980s, after another stint working longshore, now in San Pedro, Stan co-founded Singlejack Books. Its motto was "Writings about work by the people who do it." Singlejack published worker-writers and, on principle and with cold hard cash, made sure they got paid.
The intention was not only to share work experience and make workers and workplaces visible in a culture that ignores them. It was also to encourage the self-reliance of worker-intellectuals and the development of people able to speak out and stand up for themselves and their class. Singlejack pioneered the "Little Books," able to fit in a blouse or workshirt pocket.
Art of Storytelling
One of the highlights of any gathering with Stan was the late-night storytelling. He had a knack for converting his experience into illuminating anecdotes, and he prized that same ability in others.
In his projected book on organized vanguards, each chapter was to begin with a story from his or others' lives. One of the completed chapters, for instance, starts out with an immaculately dressed Max Shachtman accompanying Trotsky in Turkey on an early-morning expedition to hunt fish by hurling big rocks from a tippy rowboat.
An endearing quality of Stan's own stories was that they portrayed him not as a finished product, but learning from his experiences and laughing at his own follies. This was a personal characteristic he valued in friends: their ability not to take themselves too seriously and to acknowledge their own mistakes.
He would remark that so-and-so hadn't ever been part of a disciplined group. This was his explanation for someone's poor response to the give and take of comradely criticism and disagreement.
With his friends, Stan was a frequent phone caller, running up long-distance bills to discuss newspaper articles that piqued his curiosity. He would mail gifts, computer printouts of quotations he liked. Invariably the quotations were about expanding our human limits, pushing beyond the way present society defines us. Sometimes their source was unexpected, the world of women's dance, for instance. (A long quote from Martha Graham about soaring comes to mind.)
As a recipient, I understood this not only as the result of Stan's own wide-ranging interests, but the influence of his loving wife and daughters.
Writing became difficult in the last few years, but Stan's political enthusiasm remained. He was active in the Workers' Democracy movement of the late 1980s. Every year or two till recently, he would pull together a new group to draft a document or take stands on issues within the labor left.
He kept in touch with the "B" men from the ILWU battle, and was one of its last survivors. He and Mary also began getting together with old militants, some of them long-ago opponents from other left groups. They were generous hosts to a steady stream of guests.
Efforts to live in the Midwest and in the desert always brought Stan and Mary back to the ocean. Bodysurfing (Stan) and boogie boarding (Mary) eventually gave way to walks on the beach, but the sea stayed a constant.
Another constant was a kind of physicality that came out of workplace experience. It was important to him to respond forcefully to attempted intimidation. As a seventy two year-old, he told with glee about backing down a large and younger man who had become abusive at a community meeting.
Stan's allegiances were always to people on the job. His critique of vanguard political parties and his observations about informal work groups are deservedly influential. His writings have the integrity of a genuine radical, someone knowing the right questions to ask, not always sure of the answers, but with full confidence in the abilities of his fellow human beings, acting in concert, to make the needed changes.
Stan is survived by his wife of 54 years, Mary Knox Weir, and two daughters Hari Simran Kaur (Kim Elizabeth) and Laurie Hope Weir, and one grandson Stefan Lisiciewicz, 11 years old.
Norman Diamond was president of the Pacific Northwest Labor College. He is co-author of The Power in Our Hands: A Curriculum on the History of Work and Workers in the United States.
from ATC 95 (November/December 2001)