Staughton Lynd tackles Wobblies and Zapatistas

By Paul Bocking
The Industrial Worker

In an opening chapter of Wobblies and Zapatistas, interviewer Andrej Grubacic refers to Staughton Lynd as "something of a guru of the new IWW." The title is apt. Within the grassroots labour movement of North America and beyond, as a labour lawyer and advocate, Lynd has popularized the concept of Solidarity Unionism–building a union through the daily efforts of rank-and-file workers on the shop floor to come together and 'act like a union'. Lynd is the radical antidote to the many prominent union leaders, intellectuals and academics who claim that to address the contemporary challenges of production moving overseas, massive multinational employers and anti-union governments, unions must become more hierarchical, open to 'partnerships' with employers, and increasingly focused on lobbying politicians.

I have twice had the privilege of hearing Lynd describe his vision for a renewed, radical grassroots labour movement, delivering key note speeches at the 2002 IWW General Assembly in Ottawa and the 2005 IWW Centenary Conference in Chicago. "Workers should look primarily to each other to accomplish their objectives, rather than depending on laws, government agencies, or distant unions," said Lynd. "Collective direct action is likely to resolve problems more rapidly than filing a grievance or bringing a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board." Yet matching the diverse experience of its main subject, a reader of Wobblies and Zapatistas will quickly discover this book seeks horizons well beyond a radical analysis of the contemporary labour movement.

The core of the conversations between Lynd and Balkan activist intellectual Andrej Grubacic that comprise this book is an articulation of Lynd's beliefs on the theory and practice of how grassroots social movements can radically transform our world.

The legacy of the IWW is briefly discussed in an early chapter. It receives pride of place in the title along with the Zapatistas (EZLN) of Mexico, because both serve as a short-hand for the mix of values that Lynd hopes will be embraced by a broader range of activists and organizers. While the IWW insists that "we are all leaders", the Zapatistas say that "we lead by obeying" the people. There is ample support for Grubacic's opening claim that "it is virtually impossible to write or read about American radicalism after the Second World War without encountering the remarkable activist life of Staughton Lynd."

What is a rich exploration through decades of Lynd's personal experiences of movement organizing and of his own sources of inspiration. Beginning as a civil rights activist and leader of the 'Freedom Schools' of the American South in the early Sixties, Lynd engaged in anti-war mobilizing, Central American solidarity, workers' rights advocacy and prisoner support work. Drawing from these experiences, Lynd argues that the next generation of radical activists and organizers need, and are increasingly discovering, a political perspective that combines the best, most liberating aspects of Marxism and Anarchism, while discarding elements that have held back or diverted popular grassroots movements.

"The IWW has been revived by a new generation of young activists. This phenomenon should no doubt be understood as part of a larger revival of libertarian socialist thinking all over the world. How those currents of thought and idealism survived or reached the United States from abroad is a story yet to be told." Identifying with Marxism, Lynd argues that it "provides the needed objective analysis" for understanding our contemporary society, but adds that it is "inadequate as a guide to practice, to personal decisions." Lynd draws inspiration from his spiritual beliefs as a Quaker for acting in solidarity and non-violence. The centrality of his own deeply held moral principles to his political outlook is evident as Lynd emphasizes the importance of 'accompaniment', a term he attributes to Archbishop Oscar Romero and Catholic liberation theology, describing working in solidarity and as equals with poor and marginalized peoples. As a whole, through his dialogue with Andrej Grubacic, Lynd presents a wide-ranging book that illuminates a lifetime of struggle to create a better world.

Wobblies and Zapatistas is full of insights on how to build 'horizontal' grassroots social movements, as exemplified by the IWW and the Zapatistas, which can overcome divisions of race, gender and life experience, to create a new society within the shell of the old.

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