An Interview with Staughton and Alice Lynd
By Daniel Burton-Rose
In the process of
putting together their classic work of oral history Rank and File: Personal Histories
by Working-Class Organizers, Staughton and Alice Lynd met several extraordinary
workers from Youngstown, Ohio. These men, Ed Mann and John Barbero, were, as Staughton
identifies them, “ex-Marines who had opposed not only the Vietnam War but the Korean
War, who were ardent civil libertarians, who worked for racial equality both in the mill
and in the community, and who I think it’s fair to say were socialists with a small
‘s’—they certainly weren’t in any way upset or discombobulated by
Marxists, or people with Left lingo.”
veterans of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War struggles—decided to make
Youngstown their home. There they threw themselves into the many problems that faced
working and unemployed people. Primary among these was the closing of the steel mills in
the late 1970s and retirees’ subsequent fight to get the pensions and medical
benefits they had been promised by LTV Steel, which had declared bankruptcy. As lawyers—initially
for a private union firm, then as Legal Services attorneys—they worked to make the
legal system accessible to those who needed it while urging people to build their own
organizations rather than appeal to the courts for justice.
Alice and Staughton are as active as ever. In the last year two prisons of the most
atrocious sort have descended upon Youngstown: a 1,700-bed private institution—in
which two prisoners have been murdered and at least 20 stabbings have occurred due to the
managerial incompetence and callousness of the Corrections Corporation of America—and
a state super-maximum security prison in which prisoners are isolated 23 hours a day or
more. The Lynds have been instrumental in organizing a series of community forums on
prison issues facing Youngstown and Ohio. They also help to edit Impact, a monthly
newsletter on rank-and-file labor issues.
Staughton and Alice
are currently working on another collection of testimonies from creative
rank-and-file labor organizers. “What I want this new Rank and File to be,”
Alice said, “is people telling about things they did in such a way that it can
stimulate other people to think, ‘I can do that’ or ‘I wouldn’t do it
that way, but I’d do it this way.’ That is, to draw on the experience of people
in the past who have done creative things under difficult circumstances, just to loosen up
BURTON-ROSE: I know
“lawyer” is much of your community identity; is “historian” as well?
Have you seen more interest locally in the tradition of radical working-class democracy
because of your work?
SL: I suppose the
answer is yes. For example, when we met these incredible steel workers—Ed Mann and
John Barbero—it was natural to ask, “Well, how in the world did these guys get
here, where did they come from?” The answer turned out to be that as young men just
back from World War II they had both been involved in the a United Labor Party, based in
Akron but somewhat active in Youngstown. It obviously was very exciting to someone with
any interest in history to track down some of the older people who’d been involved
and to look at what literature remained. Basically the United Labor Party was a fusion of
some Wobblies and some Trotskyists. It was very refreshing in that it was not a group of
intellectuals in New York City who had decided to do something—it was working-class
people in communities like Akron and Youngstown.
I’ve had a
continuing interest in that kind of grassroots radicalism, as an alternative to the notion
that, for example, John Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO is the second coming of
something or other that’s going to change everything. I just think that attitude is
I was very much
involved in the movement against the Vietnam War before we came to Youngstown. That
interest in antiwar work has continued. We made five trips to Nicaragua between 1985 and
1990. During the Gulf War we became aware—as I’m ashamed to say we had not been
aware, though we had lived here for 15 years—that there was a very large
Palestinian-American community in Youngstown. We made a lot of new friends and wound up
doing a book of oral histories of Palestinians entitled Homeland.
looking for ways different strands or threads come together, and it just so happens that
the largest local union in this area is at a plant called Packard Electric, which makes
electric harnesses for General Motors. They have about 8,000 people here in Ohio. They
have 39,000 people in Mexico, none of whom were working for that company 25 years ago. It’s
transparently obvious that this company is little by little shutting down its North
American operation, and becoming a company all of whose manual labor will be done south of
Is there a
possibility that the Mexican workers, who make 50 cents an hour, and the people here in
North America, who make $20 an hour, will somehow discover a common interest? Together
with a friend of ours in the local union here at Packard Electric, we’ve been trying
to develop contacts between Mexican and American workers.
to the question of prisons because I would say the ordinary white worker thinks that all
prisoners are black, and the longer they’re locked up the better. They have to
overcome that, in the same way that the ordinary worker for Packard Electric would begin
from the point of view that Mexican workers are craven folk who work for nothing and are
taking away his or her job—it’s their fault, these workers who won’t stand
up for themselves. I see all of this as an effort to build a class consciousness among
Do you see the
best way of making those ties between people as making the stories of less privileged
workers available to the more privileged ones, as with the books you two have done?
SL: People need to
meet each other face to face. In 1988 a whole group of workers went to Nicaragua from
Pittsburgh and Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, and Youngstown. One of the men who went is an
electric lineperson, Bob Schindler, who at the time worked for Ohio Edison. He went back
with another electrician. There was a young man named Benjamin Linder who went to the
north of Nicaragua and was trying to help people develop hydroelectric power and was
killed by the Contras. Bob went to that same area and helped to put in some of the poles
and string some of the wires that Ben Linder would have presumably worked on had he lived.
You commented to
me once, “Prisoners and workers on the outside have an immediate intuitive sense that
their situations are similar.”
SL: I think
prisoners feel that workers have more to overcome, partly because of the race issue.
AL: And I think a
lot of working class people feel like they went by the rules, and they’re earning a
decent living from hard work, and who are these jokers that think they can get a free
So how do you
get past that?
AL: If you can talk
about real situations, people are often shocked, but they just don’t know.
SL: We did a
community forum on prison labor because we thought that might be a way of looking at what’s
happening in prisons that would really catch the attention of union people. A lot of jobs
are going inside the walls.
How did your
interest in prison activism start?
SL: I think it was
AL: I’m sure
it was. You know what it probably goes back to? During the Vietnam War I was a draft
counselor and my first book was called We Won’t Go. It was personal accounts
of war resisters. And I have prison accounts in there. We knew people who had been in
prison in World War I, in World War II. So this goes pretty far back.
When did the
interest in non-political prisoners start?
SL: My best friend,
for whom our son is named, was in San Quentin for armed robbery in the late 1950s.
AL: And Staughton
used to be on the Quaker tennis team that played guys from the Atlanta Penitentiary in the
What were the
1980s like in Youngstown after the mills were gone?
SL: Beginning in
1986 we got into the retiree work. From 1982 to 1985 Alice was going to law school in
Pittsburgh, and we had an apartment there. During the week I would commute to Youngstown
to work, and then I would drive back to Pittsburgh in the evenings, and come here for the
weekends. But I put a lot of energy into what was going on in Pittsburgh, because they
were going through a cycle of steel mills closing similar to what was going on in
AL: Eminent domain,
the NABISCO campaign. To keep NABISCO from moving out.
SL: That was one of
the few campaigns that was successful. We had a gigantic meeting in a high school gym and
the mayor of Pittsburgh said that if NABISCO left Pittsburgh he was going to start baking
his own Oreos.
How else has the
political landscape changed since you moved to Youngstown?
SL: First of all,
as in every other community where a basic industry has shut down, the air has been full of
get rich plans. This entrepreneur is going to come and everything will change. And what I
feel very bitter about is that all during those years I was saying, “No, don’t
rely on capitalism, don’t rely on private enterprise, you’re going to need
publicly-funded jobs to pull this community out of the hole it’s in.” And I feel
like they’ve finally got that, in the form of prison building.
AL: Martin Luther
King, Sr. said one time when we were in Atlanta, “Parents be careful what you pray
for, you may get it.”
recently wrote that you are “one of the visible saints of the modern American left.”
It’s a nice tribute, but it’s also a way of letting themselves off the hook, as
if we all shouldn’t be making these kinds of commitment. How do you respond to that
type of comment?
SL: The way I react
to that is that we’re very definitely not saints. First of all we’re a married
couple and we have three children and five grandchildren, and we’re involved in their
lives. We obviously aren’t giving everything we have to the poor.
But what has given
me a lot of peace of mind about that very topic is that in Latin America we ran into the
concept of accompaniment, which, in liberation theology circles, means you go to live in a
city or a neglected village, but you remain who you are. In revolutionary El Salvador,
Archbishop Romero wrote a lot about this before his death. He said, “I’m talking
to Catholics, I’m talking to Christians. And I’m very sympathetic to your desire
to join the struggle of impoverished workers and peasants. But you have to remember that
you’re Christians. And you have to follow your conscience.” It’s easy to
get swept away by the radical rhetoric of the moment and find yourself doing things that
on reflection make you wonder, “How in the world could I have gotten into that?”
That had a great impact on me because I felt I had seen it so much in the late 1960s,
where people who had been into participatory democracy and consensus decision-making and
nonviolence all of a sudden were acting in a very hard-edged, from my point of view,
imitation-Marxist manner, that I thought involved forgetting who you were.
Many of those
people, only a few years later, were back to something quite different. They didn’t
sustain that super-radical lifestyle. What I took from Archbishop Romero was the idea—try
to find a way of living a committed life but one in which you can be a long-distance
AL: During the
Vietnam War, Staughton got quite a bit of notoriety in the media. People would either
regard him as a saint or as a devil. He knew he was neither. But it’s terribly hard
to know who you are with other people seeing you in a way that’s so different that
you can hardly relate to it.
Those kinds of
comments are also condescending towards the people of Youngstown, as if you have to be
enlightened to live here, and as if you’re not gaining something from them.
AL: That is so
true. I learned so much from the guys in prison. I learned so much from clients. One of
the things I loved about Social Security disability and the pension work is you get these
windows into other people’s lives.
SL: Our challenge
to people in their 20s is that you don’t necessarily have to give up graduate school
and become a migrant farm worker. But consider the possibility of using whatever you learn
in graduate school in a place where it’s most needed.
AL: And where you
can maintain a living over a long period of time.
most important element in your estimation for maintaining the energy that takes?
AL: I think if you
can find that, that’s great. But you can’t always find it. You need to have a
love for what you do to sustain you. Staughton and I do some gardening. We sing for the
Youngstown Symphony Chorus. I do a lot of handwork. When Staughton was a lawyer he did a
lot of history work. You need things that keep your mind and your interest alive, where
you can have a balanced life and not just burn yourself out.
In an interview
in The Progressive a few years back you said you saw signs of the Youngstown labor
movement pointed away from identity politics towards something more united. Has that
materialized at all?
SL: Here in
Youngstown we have, in maybe the last 5 years, been much more successful in working with
black colleagues than in the previous 25 years, when everybody was so incredibly touchy
that it was very hard. I don’t know if that’s true elsewhere, but it’s very
gratifying to us. We were involved in the southern civil rights movement, and it’s
been painful to feel that somehow all of that had to be turned away from.
comment on the role white resentment at being turned away from black civil rights work
played in the dissolution of 1960s movements?
SL: We were very
fortunate in that I was on the faculty at Spellman College, which is a college for black
women in Atlanta. In June 1963—which was two or three years before black power—Howard
Zinn was very unceremoniously discharged. Thereafter it became very uncomfortable for me.
In the winter of 1963 to 1964, I accepted an invitation to go to Yale, which two years
earlier I had turned down. What it meant, I think, is that we exited the South of our own
volition, rather than being asked to leave by colleagues in the black movement, which
would have been as painful for us as it was for many others.
My rap is, I’m
still doing it, I’m still working with white workers, just like I was assigned to do
in 1966 or whenever it was. Of course back then the attitude was, “In a couple years,
we’ll get back together again.” Maybe it’s beginning to happen a little.
earlier “left lingo.” It seems to me socialist ideals could take place in the
U.S., but never with socialist rhetoric. Do you have any ideas for communicating those
ideals without the language?
SL: I feet Marxism
is the most powerful analytical tool of which I am aware. Alice and I, right at this
moment, are part of a small group of people—including the electric lineperson who
went to Nicaragua—who are reading Kapital together.
What has been
equally clear to me is the problem with what you might call the Leninist organizational
style. I don’t think it’s essentially a question of words, I think it’s
essentially a question of the way people treat each other. I have zero tolerance for a
little group of people who have read a couple of books and who meet together before larger
gatherings to decide what their position is going to be, and then maneuver for
parliamentary victories within the larger gathering, without ever listening to what
anybody else is bringing to the discussion. I just hate that. I think it’s people
with that attitude who destroyed the New Left, like the Progressive Labor Party when it
went into the Students for a Democratic Society.
To my mind, on the
one hand, you have this really powerful instrument of analysis that no one in their right
mind should neglect. But, on the other hand, the people who come out of that tradition are
often very overbearing and clumsy when it comes to creating a political community. I
believe there was a reason we were created with two hands. One of the hands has to be
Marxist analysis, but the other hand has to be something that in my particular case is
Quakerism. But it could be all kinds of things: any kind of tradition which is concerned
with values and with how people should act towards each other. Because I do not think
Marxism provides that and I think that second value-oriented practice is a necessary
AL: I think what
you’re saying about values is correct, but when I think of the stuff we’ve been
reading by Marx, where he is just screaming about the injustices to men, women, and
children as the result of the industrial revolution, there certainly are some value
judgments in there.
interesting to me—and I blush to say this at age 68—to be carefully reading Das
Kapital for the first time. But I read an awful lot of Marx when I was very young,
and, as you know, in his shorter writings he had a very polemical, even pretentious style.
It’s interesting how much less true that is in Kapital. As Alice said, he’s
so concerned to tell you about six-year-old children being treated this way and that way,
that he forgets to be snotty. I like it very much, it’s a welcome relief.
How do you
institutionalize values of social justice? Values that include challenging power, which
many who hold power often find uncomfortable.
SL: I think that’s
what nonviolence is about. Our favorite theoretician of nonviolence is Barbara Deming, and
she uses the metaphor of two hands. What she says nonviolence is all about is with one
hand you’re telling another person stop, or if you want to go forward you’re
going to have to walk through me because I’m standing in your way. But with the
second hand you’re reaching out to the very same person and saying, I recognize that
you’re a human being. If you’re a Czarist soldier, don’t be a schnook and
ride down all these elderly women demonstrating in the street—which is why the Czar
fell, because the Cossacks refused to do it. It’s always worthwhile trying to relate
to another person as a human being, no matter how bitterly you end up resisting what they’re
trying to do.
I think that’s
the best of Quakerism. I think the worst of Quakerism is that it has become so incredibly
The trick, which is
expressed in Quakerism and many other kindred traditions at their best, is where you can
take a very unrelenting oppositional attitude without “being personal”: hate the
sin but not the sinner, surely not a new idea.