Militant as hell on the waterfront: The political thought of Stan Weir

Militant as hell on the waterfront: The political thought of Stan Weir

New Beginnings looks at the life of workplace militant and writer, Stan Weir.

“In a world which says that ordinary people can’t do anything, they attempted to do everything.”

-Martin Glaberman, Punching Out and Other Writings

Stan Weir was a lifelong laborer and labor activist. During 50 years on the job, he worked as a merchant marine, an autoworker, a teamster, and a longshoreman. Throughout his life he remained dedicated to the causes of working people, and never lost faith in their unique power and ability to bring about a better world through their collective efforts. Weir went through his “political apprenticeship” during World War II as a young merchant marine working alongside former members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) who had been involved in the militant strikes of 1934-36 on the West Coast in the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific (SUP) and the longshoring industry. These struggles established some of the most democratic forms of workers’ control the world had ever seen. Here he learned the principles that would inform and guide his activism for the rest of his life: direct, on-the-job action to settle grievances; the importance of unions with leaders who stay on the job; and the role informal workgroups play in creating workers’ culture, in grooming and selecting on-the-job leaders, and in holding these leaders accountable to the rank-and-file in decision-making processes.

He later joined the Workers Party (WP). The WP had been formed by Max Shachtman after breaking from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) over the nature of Soviet society during the Cold War. It included such notables as C.L.R. James, Hal Draper, and Martin Glaberman. Weir’s activity within the WP during the 1940s and 1950s disillusioned him from the concept of the vanguard party such organizations championed, but his experiences also strengthened his understanding of the way working people can successfully combat both their bosses and their union officials. He took this knowledge with him when he left the WP in the late 1950s, and transferred it to the many other labor struggles he was involved in throughout his life.

Weir had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, and was involved in some of the most important labor struggles of the 20th century. He also spoke his mind in no uncertain terms. This, along with the training he had gone through at sea, gained him respect and admiration among his peers and fellow workers, and as a result he was often called on to lead. In one of those struggles, the fight in the early 1960s to retain the democratic gains won by merchant marines, longshoremen, and warehousemen during the militant strikes of 1934-36 on the West Coast, Weir was a leader of the committee formed to defend a group of 82 longshoremen.

Later, Stan Weir taught courses to workers in union locals throughout the state of Illinois and at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and in the early 1980s he founded Singlejack Books, whose motto was, “Writings about work by the people who do it.” These books were meant to highlight the experiences of working people and at the same time develop them as leaders in the struggle for democracy at work. They were issued as “little books” and designed to fit easily into workpants or purses.

During all this, Weir wrote frequently of his experiences, his observations, and his insights. He vividly recalled his political “apprenticeship in militancy” as a young merchant marine. He documented his fight against Harry Bridges and the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) extensively. He wrote passionately about what he called alternately the “New Era of Labor Revolt” or the “American Shop Stewards Movement.” As he lost his fight against the union bureaucracy after a 17-year struggle, and as the promise of the so-called New Era of Labor Revolt seemed to fade, Weir found a new source of inspiration in the example of the Spanish dockworkers of La Coordinadora (roughly, “coordinating committee”). These workers sustained Weir’s hope for 20 years, and, as with the New Era of Labor Revolt, Weir was again prepared and willing to document the promise their struggle represented to those fighting, what it meant for the labor movement in particular, and how it impacted the fight for a better world in general.

As a storyteller, teaching through anecdotes from his personal life came naturally. Weir’s life story is therefore inseparable from the insights he gained through practical experience, and it is by recording his practical experiences that Weir generalized in order to draw political conclusions. The insights Weir gained provide the basis for a renewed labor movement, and there are many things we can and should learn from his experiences, which he took the time to dutifully record. To learn from his experience, we must understand his story. This, briefly, is that story.

“Never Walk Away from a Beef”: Stan Weir’s Apprenticeship in Militancy

“If you walk away [from a beef], you contribute to the breakdown of solidarity where it counts the most, among the people on the job. They see that you didn’t look out for them, and that makes it easier for them to do the same thing to others.” - Stan Weir, Unions with Leaders Who Stay on the Job

Stan Weir dropped out of college after three semesters and decided he wanted to “live the social experience of his generation,” which was to fight in World War II. Although “the risk to life was greater on merchant ships during the war,” Stan realized that if he joined the Naval Reserve, he could get that experience while also avoiding the discipline of the Armed Services he dreaded.1 When he stepped onto a ship for the first time wearing his cadet’s uniform, he saw a look of pity on the deckhands’ faces for the “worthlessness of the contribution that anyone could make who would be wearing such an outfit. To them,” Weir recalled, “that uniform symbolized useless activity.”2 Before too long, Weir was working on deck as a seaman, and wearing the same clothes the deckhands wore. It was in contact with these men, many of whom had participated in the Sailors Union of the Pacific strikes of 1934-36, and who were called, with a great deal of hard-earned respect, ’34 men, that Stan Weir underwent his apprenticeship in militancy.

Every day, the ’34 men took him aside and told him more of their stories. These included not only the historic struggles that had gone into winning some of the most sweeping gains in workers’ control the country had ever seen, but also small struggles, every single day, that sailors waged to secure for themselves humane working conditions. After they had related their stories, they quizzed Stan on them: “What happened on such-and-such a date,” they would ask, or, “Why were we able to win victories before getting a collective bargaining contract?” For Weir, these questions, and the practice that went with them, did not remain abstractions for long. Soon after he had finished his apprenticeship, with a note from one of his mentors in his hand, he went into the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific hall, and was admitted into the union on the strength of that recommendation. Weir’s career in militancy had only just begun.

Weir quickly put the principles he had learned into practice, but even here he was not alone. On nearly every ship he signed up for, ’34 men remained, passing on the wisdom of their generation’s struggles, hoping to “protect those gains,” as they said, for future generations. But those future generations had to fight and struggle to keep those gains themselves.

The militancy Stan Weir learned was expressed in direct action. Weir and the ’34 men were deeply skeptical, and even downright dismissive of the ability and possibility for union leadership to change. They knew well that the responsibility to change their working conditions was theirs alone, and that they could not rely on the union in their struggle to improve these conditions. This meant that rather than submitting themselves to the union’s grievance procedure to settle work grievances, they settled them directly, as each arose, by bringing work to a halt and not going back to work until those grievances were settled. Weir recounts one example of the use of direct action in his essay, “Unions with Leaders Who Stay on the Job.”

In this essay, Weir gives an account of his work crew settling a beef with the captain of the ship they were sailing on, the Hanapepe, in 1943. During lunch, after a pre-determined signal, the deckhands get up and walk off the ship. Beforehand, they’ve coordinated their plan with the Engine Department and Stewards’ Department. All have agreed to leave the boat if necessary. Weir has been chosen as deck delegate, to deal with the ship’s captain, through a process of selection relying on the operation of what he calls the “Informal Work Group.” This group is formed through socialization “that is necessary to the performance of a job,” as when experienced deckhands tell new ones how to avoid “assholes” or tight kinks in the ship’s lines. This then leads to “fun socialization,” such as the creation of nicknames. Fun socialization then leads to a “socialization of mutual protection.” This kind of socialization is what Weir and his mates are engaged in when they walk off the job. Nicknames and jokes can serve both to cohere a group working together and to define it against its enemies, namely the bosses. The purpose that this culture among Informal Work Groups serves, with its outright scorn for the bosses, as Weir says, is “to legitimize the side that is ‘us’.” This “enables defeat of the fear that stands in the way of action.”3 This culture, then, serves the valuable purpose of preparing workers and Work Groups for confrontations with their bosses, whose power has been consistently challenged and diminished through these in-jokes. This entire culture exists in direct opposition to the bosses and is important in any struggle for control of the workplace.

It is also from all these different socialization activities, which happen in the daily course of a job and not through extra effort on the part of workers, that, as Weir notes, “Leaders emerge from these groups by selection of their peers…with sufficient backing to challenge official union bureaucrats.”4 Stan Weir had emerged as a leader among his deckmates through these processes of socialization.

Weir, in this small-but-significant battle with the captain of the ship, is aware that the crew must settle the matter then and there, win or lose. He had been instructed never to leave a ship, “in the middle of a fight with an officer or captain. If you do, you leave it for the next crew that comes aboard. It will catch them off guard, as a surprise, and they will be at a double disadvantage because topside will know the history of the beef and they won’t.”5 Therefore, when the captain tries to play the, “But there’s a war on” card, Weir refuses to budge. From the dock, standing fifty or so feet from the boat, he holds his ground. Weir reminds the captain that he has been elected delegate by his deckmates. That makes him the captain’s equal in bargaining processes such as these. Weir notes that he’ll gladly go over the history of struggle that reestablished that rule, but that if he has to do so, he’ll soon be joined by the engine department. If the captain needs a reminder after that, Weir shouts, he’ll soon have the stewards out on the dock as well. The captain needs no more reminders after that, and promptly agrees to all the deckmates’ demands, which include supplies for the engine department and the stewards. The struggle doesn’t end there.

It continues during lunch, as the deckmates, including Weir, strategize about what to do to handle any contingency. If the FBI comes, they have a plan. If the captain tries to get one of them fired, they have a plan. They also develop behavior rules while working the ship: no one is to come back on board drunk; everyone is to work hard and leave no reason for any kind of complaint; no one is to talk to any of the officers during lookout times about anything personal. After a confrontation like this, they cannot give the captain an excuse to go after any one of them. In this way, they discipline themselves to fight together and defend themselves.

The requested supplies – new mattresses, fresh milk, good coffee, fresh vegetables, citrus fruit, fresh meat besides mutton, new showerheads – all arrive within an hour. Their final request is one that must be constantly enforced, throughout the duration of the voyage: they demand they be given the right to organize their work as they see fit. They do not want any supervision over them watching as they do their jobs. They reserve the right, at any time, to stop work entirely until supervisors have left them alone. Upon witnessing such power for the first time, Stan Weir was thrilled!

The emphasis on direct action among the merchant marines was no accident. Weir had often asked questions of the ’34 men about the possibility for union bureaucrats to change. They always had a similar answer: “Bureaucrats can never undo what’s happened to them. They can’t go back to being who they were. The reason bureaucracies get built is to avoid making the good fight.”6 Or they would say, “Now maybe you can see why we emphasize direct action. We know it’s what you need in order to keep the new bureaucrats from taking the unions to their offices.”7

In spite of these words of wisdom and warning, Stan Weir had to learn through bitter experience the nature of the union bureaucracy. One hint of the lesson in store for him came in December, 1946, when he experienced the Oakland general strike firsthand. His first impulse was to call Harry Lundeberg, head of the Sailors’ Union and let him know what was happening. Shortly after, some SUP members arrived, gave him some buttons to pass out, and left. That was their idea of leadership. At a mass meeting called in the Oakland Auditorium, masses of people showed up an hour early hoping to be moved to continue their struggle. Only Harry Lundeberg, likely without the help of any SUP buttons, was able to move them or connect with them. But even he had little to offer the strikers in the way of tactical considerations on how to win their struggle. As Weir recalls, “the strikers left without instructions for protecting themselves and their occupation of Oakland’s core area.”8 The unions proved equally incompetent in their ability to bargain for the retail clerks whose strike had sparked the city-wide shutdown. After the general strike was called off, the clerks stayed out another five months, and returned to work then only out of sheer exhaustion, having little to show for their struggles. In hindsight, Weir laments his lack of faith in the ability of everyday people to take control of those matters. Rather than waiting around for union bureaucrats to lead the general strike to victory (which would entail a long wait indeed!), he notes that “at no point during the strike did any of us…climb up on a parked car and express the ideas that were already kicking around among us: ‘We can lead this strike ourselves’.”9

It would be long before Stan Weir could fully understand the lessons the ’34 men had tried to teach him during his apprenticeship in militancy as a merchant marine and those before his eyes during the Oakland general strike of 1946. Many painful experiences awaited him.

Democracy at Work: A Fight Against the Bosses and the Union

“The bureaucracy inevitably must substitute the struggle over consumption, higher wages, pensions, education, etc., for a struggle in production.”

-C.L.R. James, State Capitalism and World Revolution

“[Autoworkers at GM] were far more interested in the question of the conditions of their daily lives than they were in a wage increase.”

-Stan Weir, New Era of Labor Revolt

“There can be unions run by regular working people on the job. There have to be.”

-Stan Weir, Unions with Leaders Who Stay on the Job

During his lifetime, in numerous struggles on the job, Weir came face to face with the nature of union bureaucracy under capitalism. The longest of these struggles began in 1960, as Harry Bridges, then-president of ILWU, began his efforts to “mechanize and modernize” the longshoring industry by signing a contract with the Pacific Maritime Association that allowed for the automation of the industry to begin in earnest. The introduction of this automation made industry “more efficient,” while at the same time eliminating thousands of jobs. In addition, this increase in efficiency brought with it a decrease in workers’ safety. In the aftermath of automation, the accident rate in the longshoring industry soared. “Between 1958 and 1967,” according to statistics cited by Weir, “U.S. waterfront employers reported a 92.3 percent increase in the number of workers’ compensation cases.”10

Harry Bridges signed the first “Mechanization and Modernization” contract in 1960. Along with eroding the gains made by longshoremen during the strikes of 1934-36, gains Weir had learned so much about as a merchant marine during WWII, this contract created a new classification, that of “B Men,” for dockworkers and longshoremen. “B Men” were hired provisionally, and became “A Men” after a 6-month trial period. As “A Men,” workers got their choice of jobs, and this in turn created an informal seniority system that relegated “B Men” to the worst jobs, in the worst conditions. In addition, “B Men” could not vote on union matters until they had achieved “A” status. What no one but Bridges, ILWU officials, and members of the Pacific Maritime Association knew was that these workers were never meant to achieve “A” status. “A” status was continually denied them as the union and companies “studied the impact of automation.”11 The system merely eroded workers’ solidarity, which allowed the controls won during the militant days of 1934-36 to be eliminated.12 The result was a dramatic increase in production and profit, which then funded further automation of the industry. In essence, workers funded their own doom.

Stan Weir was among the leaders of the opposition to this plan. As such, Harry Bridges and the ILWU bureaucracy had him and 81 others fired. The ensuing battle over the fired workers’ reinstatement lasted 17 years. Weir knew from his time as a merchant marine what was at stake: the controls over production that had been established previously through the militancy he had learned about and been trained in while at sea as a merchant marine. One of these controls was a union hiring hall, where unions issued work permits to new longshoremen, a system that made workers themselves responsible for hiring, and not the company. Other features included a “low-man-out” system, which gave the right to first refuse work to workers who hadn’t worked in the longest time; a system of hatch seniority, which meant that a crew had the right to work at whatever hatch they had been assigned to as long as a ship was in port. This forced employers to pay overtime when warranted. Finally, sling load limits protected workers on the job, “created more jobs, prevented companies from speeding up work,” and also, “catered to the social world of the workers by ensuring more breaks in between loads. This social warrant enabled longshore workers to select work partners compatible with them and to organize the work process as they saw fit.”13

It was this method of control, along with the extent of that control, that employers sought to eliminate in order to reassert their own control of production. The introduction of automation techniques on the waterfront served as a handy pretense to assault workers’ control ruthlessly. It was this same thing that Weir and so many longshoremen resisted. That this resistance pitted them not only against their employers, but also against their union, is the political lesson Weir drew from his experience fighting against Harry Bridges and the ILWU bureaucracy. While it is true that Weir was well aware of the way unions operated in our society through his previous work experiences and his firsthand experience of the Oakland general strike, this experience confirmed in devastating terms the reality of his previous insights.

Hope Sustains: the Model of the “New Era of Labor Revolt”

“The main cause of the revolts was and is the onerous conditions of work in America.”

-Stan Weir, The New Era of Labor Revolt

In 1966, Stan Weir wrote a pamphlet for the Independent Socialist Clubs of America called, “The New Era of Labor Revolt.” In this pamphlet it is clear that Weir was drawing strength for his own fight on the waterfront, which was at that time in its 3rd year, and destined to last 14 more, from a new wave of democratic-minded militancy sweeping across the nation. Weir finds its essence aptly summarized in a bumper-sticker campaign that originated in Detroit among locals of the United Auto Workers and spread to all auto cities in the country, including “Fremont, Milpitas and Southgate, California, Arlington, Texas, and Atlanta, Georgia.”14 As negotiations began in 1964, Reuther pursued a ruthless strategy for ensuring labor peace. He negotiated with Chrysler first, which was the smallest of the Big Three automakers and had the smallest organized workforce. He then used the Chrysler contract as a template for negotiations with Ford to secure a similar contract. It didn’t take fancy educations for GM workers to read the writing on the wall, and they struck without further consulting Reuther.15 But Reuther outmaneuvered his dissatisfied ranks by declaring their walkout an official strike. What is significant about this strike, Weir notes, is that it “was a strike directed primarily against the union leadership and directed against the employer only secondarily.”16

Even before these negotiations began, bumper stickers began to appear that read, “Humanize Working Conditions.” These were significant because they were an example of union members reaching out and appealing to members of the community directly, and circumventing the union leadership in order to do so. They were forced to do this because the union refused to address what to them was the central issue of their struggle: the fight to control and organize the work process as they saw fit. Weir saw in this parallels to the successful campaigns of dockworkers on the West Coast in the early 1930s. By making the fight about working conditions, they had the courage to break from traditional union logic that said that they could only gain sympathy from the community and succeed if their goal was more money. If they were successful, they stood to gain substantial control of their working lives. By going around unions to do so, they made it clear that a victory would destroy the way unions had operated in the industry up to that time. The fight was about workers’ direct and democratic control of unions, and it was “new” because it so boldly and willingly declared the fight for workers’ control a fight for democracy at work.

By stating clearly that their struggle wasn’t about money, and declaring that the problems they had at work could be settled by nothing less than their direct control of production, they were dramatically new. But not only was the content of their struggle different, they were also new in the form their struggle took. This form Weir called an “American Shop Stewards Movement” and he compared it to the existing shop stewards movement in Great Britain. The British steward system had the notable advantage of, “provid[ing] alternative leadership, and a duality of power.”17 This was important because by doing so, it “restricted the freedom of Britain’s labor bureaucracy.”18

The shop stewards movement was significant because it relied in practice on what Weir would later call “unions with leaders who stay on the job” who were selected by and accountable to informal work groups. Weir had experienced informal work groups at numerous workplaces, and realized their importance and potential. In the struggle for democracy, informal work groups and unions with leaders who stayed on the job are crucial because together they mean that leaders are subject to the direct pressure of their peers on the job through the various socialization processes mentioned earlier. The problem with bureaucrats is that they are bureaucrats: they are far removed from the daily problems, irritations, and stresses of the people they represent. As a result, they find bureaucratic methods for solving problems, such as filing grievances and talking to “our union reps,” perfectly suitable and acceptable.

Not so with leaders who stay on the job. Not only do they experience the same problems, irritations, and stresses of the people they represent, but they must go back and work with those same people the next day. If they do not represent their grievances fairly and accurately, or if they propose solutions unacceptable to them, they are held directly accountable to those decisions on the shopfloor by their peers and the informal work group at work. It is this direct accountability of leaders through informal, on-the-job work groups that ensures that representatives represent accurately and creates a democratic labor movement. Without it, we get what we have today.

The great strength of this new era of labor revolt was that the interrelationship between unions with leaders who stay on the job and the control of those leaders by informal work groups ensured democracy in a way few systems of labor, or representation on a larger scale, had been able to do. The informal work group both groomed and selected leadership from within its ranks. It also exerted control on that leadership that made it directly accountable to the people it represented.

The control of leadership by the informal workgroup means that leaders emerge naturally from informal, on-the-job groups, and are selected on the basis of their performance and ability to confront management and articulate workers concerns well. These same leaders are subject to peer pressure, directly, by their colleagues on the job. This is made possible because they work; they never become bureaucrats. Hence, if they start to stray, they are reprimanded or removed from their post. They have a limited mandate, and don’t have any more authority than they’re given, which is always subject to scrutiny and can be rescinded at any time. When Weir saw that this New Era of Labor Revolt had these characteristics as central features, he took strength from them, and found in them great hope.

La Coordinadora and Another New Era

“Working dockers and clerks designed [Coordinadora]. Their idea was to make an organization that from the bottom up depended upon built-in rank and file controls. They do not claim to have achieved perfection…But they have made progress and are rightly proud.”

-Stan Weir, Longshoremen and Marine Clerks of Spain Building a New Kind of Union

Stan Weir fought valiantly on behalf of himself and his fired colleagues for 17 years, but they eventually lost their battle to retain the gains of the 1930s on the waterfront of the 1960s. In addition, the promise of that “new era” had gone largely unfulfilled. As both struggles wound down, a new avenue of hope opened to him. In 1982, he attended a meeting of the International Harbor Workers in Denmark, and met delegates from a Spanish network called La Coordinadora or, “the Coordinating Committee.” This network, and this way of organizing and running a “union” (for lack of a better word) gave Stan Weir hope for good reason. Here was a nationwide union, a union larger than that of the West Coast longshoremen, without a single paid official or staff person. Representatives of the union worked three weeks out of every month, and in the fourth week, they were supported by members of their local to attend to workers’ problems and concerns, and this only when there were complaints to handle. This could include networking – traveling to other cities in the country or in the international network – to meet like-minded people and expand the struggle, or taking grievances to employers, or coordinating potential national strike actions. Each of these reps was instantly recallable if he didn’t adequately defend the interests of the workers he represented. Because each worked three-quarters of the time, each was also subject to direct, on-the-job peer pressure, and was directly held accountable to decisions made at the network level.

New Beginnings, Old Principles

Direct action on the shopfloor, or on the waterfront; settling beefs oneself, not passing them on to future generations; commitment to these principles secured any gains the labor movement had ever achieved. But without “Unions With Leaders Who Stay on the Job” and the democratic control of Informal Work Groups, few of these movements were able to sustain themselves. A look at the fate of any of them is proof enough of the necessity for a combination of all three in equal measure. While it is true that principles such as “Unions With Leaders Who Stay on the Job” and the peer pressure of informal, on-the-job work groups do not provide a programmatic answer to the ills that plague the labor movement, such principles are necessary, along with a commitment to direct action, to ensure not only a democratic labor movement or workplace. Such principles form the basis of a new society, one based on free association, mutual aid, and democracy. Our dignity as workers, and even as human beings, depends on our commitment to these principles today.

Taken from New Beginnings: A Journal of Independent Labor (Originally posted July 1, 2007)

  • 1. Weir, Stan. “The Informal Work Group.” In Singlejack Solidarity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. 237.
  • 2. Ibid., 238.
  • 3. Weir, Stan. “The Role of the Individual and the Group in the Creation of Work Cultures.” In Singlejack Solidarity. 28.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Weir, Stan. “Unions with Leaders Who Stay on the Job.” In Singlejack Solidarity. 126.
  • 6. Ibid., 140.
  • 7. Ibid., 134.
  • 8. Ibid., 143.
  • 9. Ibid., 144.
  • 10. Weir, Stan. “New Technology.” In Singlejack Solidarity. 49.
  • 11. Ibid., 47.
  • 12. Ibid., 49.
  • 13. Lipsitz, George. “Stan Weir: Working-Class Visionary.” In Singlejack Solidarity. 351.
  • 14. Weir, Stan. “New Era of Labor Revolt: On the Job vs. Official Unions.” New York: Independent Socialist Clubs of America. 1966. p. 6.
  • 15. Ibid.
  • 16. Ibid.
  • 17. Ibid., 22.
  • 18. Ibid.