Note: This is the fifth installment in my series of memoir posts about the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 and my small role in the streets action surrounding it. In this episode on Monday morning I get a surprise invitation and step into history then join the SDSers on a Transit Workers picket line.
Back at the Movement Center Church on Diversey, the kids stirred on Monday morning. Some of them, the ones with bumps and bruises and clothes reeking of tear gas, assumed the demeanor of grizzled veterans adopting an air of almost condemnation to the uninitiated. Even the ones who threw up after getting in late from the Battle of Lincoln Park/Old Town the night before were hungry. Maybe even hungrier than the rest.
Staffers like me rustled grub. It was running low and we weren’t sure how to re-stock the larder. Someone suggested dumpster diving the bakeries and grocery stores. May be a couple of folks went out and tried it. I can’t remember.
Back at the dumpsters behind the church again that morning, I had another visitor. This one quite different from the cops the day before. She rode up on a battered girl’s Schwinn painted baby blue—almost the exact color of Chicago cops’ shirts—and festooned with oversize wire baskets on the handle bars and hanging over the rear fenders like saddle bags. She was old. The oldest person I may have ever seen back then on a bicycle. Which in retrospect means that she was somewhere north of 50, but probably too far. Her grey hair was cut in a short pixie style, and wore turquoise pedal pushers and white canvas shoes. She had a wide smile and bad teeth.
When she spoke, she had a lisp. “Do you guys need any food?” she asked. “We just had our big annual picnic and there is plenty left over at the Hall.” I readily acknowledged that she was a godsend. She invited me to walk her bike back to the Hall to fill the baskets and my arms with the aforementioned food.
Her name was Ruth Sheridan. I learned later that she came from a big, sprawling family of Irish radicals. Her two older brothers Jimmie and Jack, tiny men in tweed caps who were former hobos and sometimes jockeys, were two of the last of legendary orators at Chicago’s Bug House Square. All three of them were Wobblies, members of the legendary labor union the Industrial Workers of the World. We were headed to the IWW General Headquarters on the second floor of a run-down building on Halsted Street near Fullerton over the Assyrian American Restaurant.
We trudged up the stairs and entered a large room with a slightly musty smell. Up front by three large windows overlooking the street was an island of five mammoth old wooden desks pushed together. A long clerk’s desk with high stools hugged one wall and file cabinets and antique safes the other. Toward the rear were some antique office machines—an open drum, hand cranked Mimeograph; an Addressograph plate maker operated with a spinning wheel to select letter and a cast iron treadle to punch them into plates, and a machine to stamp the plate through thick ribbons onto envelopes or sheets of paper. I learned that all had been purchased by Big Bill Haywood himself and reluctantly returned to the union by the Feds after busting up the offices in the 1919 Red Scare Raids. There was a large table where the Industrial Worker was laid out and later wrapped in manila sheets stamped with addresses and pasted for mailing.
A row of glass fronted books shelf units partitioned the front of the Hall from the rear, where there was a kitchen, a table, a cot for visiting Wobs, and a barely functioning bathroom.
Three men sat at the desks. All of them well on in years. One practically leapt from his desk to come and greet me. “Welcome, Fellow Worker!” he said as he pumped my hand vigorously as if he expected to see me. In retrospect, it is clear that he did. He was a small man with a gleaming bald head and fringe of gray hair. He introduced himself as Carl Keller—seemed to be a lot of Carl’s that week—the General Secretary-Treasurer of the international union.
Sitting opposite to him was a large man with rumpled shirt and a shock of gray hair. He had a cigarette hand rolled in yellow wheat paper dangling from his lips. When he smiled he displayed a snaggle of bad, yellow teeth. He did not get up. Turns out he lost a leg at the thigh hopping a freight in Omaha about 1929 and had come to Chicago to work at General Headquarters. His name was Walter Westmann and he had served as General Secretary or his current position as Bookkeeper and Office Manager most of the years since. I learned that he kept his spare wooden leg and a broken Lugar locked up in the smaller of the two safes.
At the smallest desk, nearest the window was a youthful looking man with an impressive high salt and pepper flat top haircut and bushy eyebrows. He had a soft, high voice and the mien of a scholar. That was Fred W. Thompson, editor of the Industrial Worker, a man destined to play a huge role in my life.
|This photo taken in the mid-70's shows Mike Hargis, Lesslie Fish and Fred Thompson at a Chicago Branch social. By then Fred was a mentor and close friend, a man with a huge impact on my life.
When the three old men discovered that not only was I a demonstrator and a student, but a genuine industrial worker myself, they got truly excited. For the next two hours they spun tales of the fighting union. They pointed at the oil portrait of Joe Hill staring down at us from a wall above the clerk’s desk and filled my hands with red pamphlets with covers by Ralph Chaplin and back issues of the Industrial Worker, then an eight-page broadsheet monthly newspaper.
All I knew about the IWW was from a paragraph or so in a high school history text that pictured Wobblies as dangerous radicals and virtual terrorists and what I had gleaned from studying Clarence Darrow to prep for a school production of Inherit the Wind. I was intrigued at first and after an hour or two enchanted. This seemed like just the kind of organization I was looking for. Too bad, I thought, that it was just a remnant of these old men.
After a while Ruth reminded me of the errand. We went to the kitchen and began packing up. There was a good deal left from that picnic—or perhaps they had run out to buy it just to lure a prospect like me into their lair. There were strings of butcher shop hot dogs, pounds of ground beef wrapped in white paper and tied with string, packages of bologna and salami, two big bricks of cheese, bags of buns and sandwich bread, paper cartons of potato salad and cold slaw from the deli, industrial sized cans of Amour’s Pork and Beans, and a huge jar of pickled eggs—a delicacy I was fairly sure had never been sampled by any of the kids back at the church. We filled paper grocery bags and then filled the baskets of Ruth’s bicycle with them. I was given a paper carton full of stuff to carry. Carl and Fred waved us good bye at the front door as we made our way the few blocks back to Diversey.
Back at the church unpacking the food, I discovered that I was not the only one with labor on his mind. The SDSers were planning a field trip.
Most people forget that there was a CTA strike going on during Convention Week. Actually, it was a wildcat strike. Most Black bus drivers and some motormen had walked out as much to protest the failure of their union, Amalgamated Transit Union, to strongly represent them in grievance procedures against the CTA as against the agency itself. An organization called the Concerned Transport Workers called the strike after 143 of their members were suspended for a job action and had received no support for their union. The strike shut down most bus routes, particularly on the South and West Sides, but also on the North Side. Most rail service was only spottily affected.
The strike was a resumption of an earlier 5 day protest walk-out and started on August 25, coincidental with the Convention. There was some thought that despite the inconvenience to city residents and the embarrassment that a strike in “The City That Works” would mean during a period of national attention, that Mayor Daley might not have been totally displeased. The disruption of bus service made it much more difficult for protestors to move freely around the city. It also might have been a deterrent to Daley’s greatest fear—that Blacks, who had rioted the summer before and again when Martin Luther King was assassinated, would pour out of the ghettos and join the protestors in a virtual insurrection.
At any rate, the SDSers were eager to forge ties with both the Black community and with left wing labor. Word went out that the strikers were having a hard time maintaining picket lines on the North and Northwest side due to mass arrests of strikers. Given the morning I had just experienced, I was happy to go with the SDS folk to the picket line.
We piled into somebody’s VW Bus. I didn’t know the city well enough then to tell where we were going, except that it was somewhere north and west. We piled out at a bus barn somewhere within sight of an expressway, don’t ask me where. There were a dozen nervous picketers on the line and signs stacked against a chain link fence. We took up our signs and joined the line. Other SDS members from other sites joined.
The picketers were glad for the support, but more than a little bewildered by the sudden appearance of a bunch of White kids. And more than a little reluctant to join in chants like “2,4,6,8 Organize and Smash the State!” I was a little squeamish about that one myself.
Our presence attracted extra police attention. Squadrols and lots of baby blue helmets began to line the street across the street from us.
Push came to shove at shift change. The cops warned us to keep moving. The strikers wanted us to mass at the gate to prevent mostly white drivers from breaking the strike. This is where arrests had been common. That day there was a good deal of pushing and shoving. A line of cars pushed slowly through the crowd and into the welcome of a mass of CTA security at the gate.
But before things came to a head, the squadrols began to pack-up and leave. They evidently were needed elsewhere, probably along the Lake Front for another round of battle there. There were no arrests that afternoon at our gate and after most of the police left, cars began to turn back rather than run the gauntlet of pickets.
After it was over there were high fives and hugs all around. We felt great. We piled back into the VW bus. On the ride back to the Church, the SDSers were scornful of the Yippies and the Mobe. By making common cause with labor, they said, we were making the real revolution.
Next—A foggy night with Alan Ginsberg.