Saturday, May 01, 2021

Journals of a lumpen-proletariat—The Stokely-Van Camp Strike in 1980

By Steve Otto

Not long ago on Facebook, I had the usual Capitalism vs. Socialism debate and there was the usual argument by right-wingers that poor people here are much better off than poor  people in other countries, especially Cuba. It is for that reason that I am reposting some stories I wrote some time ago about the years I lived in poverty. I called these stories "Journals of a Lumpen-proletariat." I basically wrote what it was like living as a poor Lumpen-proletariat, right here in the USA. And what is a lumpen-proletariat? It represents a sub-class of poor people who may work, full or part-time or may not work at all. They are below the actual proletariat and they often use criminal activities to survive.

So for my fist article, I am reposting this story on the strike we had at the The Stokely-Van Camp Strike of 1980


This is part of the series "Journals of a lumpen-proletariat."  The idea is to relate real working class experiences for the benefit of leftists who are studying the theories, but may not be familiar with the actual people these theories were intended to improve the lives of. Most of my 20s I spent as a member of the lumpen-proletariat class. I worked full or part-time jobs that paid only minimum wage. I tried to sell drugs to help stretch my money and to get drugs cheap or free. One year I landed a job working at the Stokely-Van Camp’s pork and bean factory in Lawrence, KS. It was one of the few times when I actually earned enough money to live comfortable. For that one half a year I was a member of the actual proletariat. (Real names are not used here and some details may be fuzzy as I am writing this from memory, mostly.)

I also joined the Teamsters Union while I was at the plant and it gave me an opportunity to experience actual class struggle through union activities.  By December of 1979, the Union and its members were tired of their contract coming up for approval right before Christmas. There was an issue of pay, but every union member agreed that the main reason talks broke down between the union and the company was a union demand for changing the negotiation date.

“No one wants to go on strike before Christmas,” a tall elderly man said at a union meeting I attended. “The company knows we can’t afford to go on strike before then and they use it as leverage to keep us from pushing our demands on them.”

There was real anger among the union members of the plant. The local newspaper, the Lawrence Journal World said the strike was divisive to the town. At one point a woman in the union complained that company official’s referred to us as monkeys. For people as myself it was a real eye opener to see these corporate rulers exposed as the creeps they are.

One thing that is probably not the usual for such a strike was the Marxist workers in the factory who came there because Lawrence is college town and the new communist movement was moving into the University of Kansas, as it did universities across the country. The Progressive Labor Party and the Revolutionary Communist Party occasionally made their appearance at KU. Also the Socialist Workers Party showed up a few times a month. There were local groups that dealt with a lot of foreign policy issues such as the North American Club, which I belong to. It was an umbrella group for Latin American issues. Many of those in the group were pro-Castro. There were also the Friends of the Iranian People, of which I was also a member. The last group was aligned with the Iranian Student Association, which was made up mostly of Maoist Iranians.

Most of these groups took part in the various university activities related to the Stokely Strike. Movies were shown and panel discussions were held. Some people involved in the strike attended these activities and one was a labor organizer called Sam.  

Sam was involved with the new communist groups and activities. He was a tall blond man who wore a red earring. I heard him arguing against the draft and US actions against the USSR for its involvement in Afghanistan.

“I don’t have anything against the Afghanistan people and their government,” I once heard him say.

The strike was a good opportunity for the both of us to get involved in class struggle right here in the USA. Sam used the opportunity to take a leadership role in the strike. One day I was discussing politics with Sam and he realized I had a lot of political experience.

As we talked, we both realized we were getting a unique experience that some Marxists never get. And later I would realize I might never get such a chance again.

Some of the tactics being used my certain union members and leaders involved vandalism. A thin red haired girl name Betty said she needed the money too bad and crossed the picket line. Her and some other scabs were parking their cars at a cab company and using cabs to get to work. Some union people found out and slashed their tires at the cab parking lot. Betty went as far as walking down railroad tracks, though a wooded area, to go to the plant in the back way so no one would see here. It didn’t help. When she returned to her car, her tires were slashed.

This one foreman was an old nasty redneck who tried to run the picketers over when he crossed in to work each day. He drove a big red pickup truck. It was brand new. One night some union people put grease and oil all over the inside of his pickup cab, making it impossible for him to drive to work the next morning. I thought that was funny at the time, especially since he was such a right-wing ass hole—Hell!—I still think it was funny. There were some people who didn’t approve of such tactics. Both Sam and I had no problem with them.

“Should we really use tactics like that?” asked a 20 something union man.

“If someone broke in and raped you mom, would you fight them?” he asked. “We are fighting to save our jobs. It is the same things.”

As the strike ground on, the union decided to spread the strike to two other plants. The plan would really hit the company in their bankrolls. Sam invited me to go with him to another plant in another state to help spreading the strike. Since I was taking a class at KU at the time I couldn’t go.

Stokely had been relying on union busting layers to try and break the union. When we spread the strike they flipped out. Sam told me their representatives were clearly pissed. They finally made an offer for a very tiny raise and they moved the negotiation date. The raise was a tiny fraction of what we asked for.

I had learned a lot from the experience. As the strike drug on, I went to a dog food company and told the guy I needed the money and would quit at the other place if he would hire me at his plant. I was wearing down and living on the strike benefits of $40 a week. It was getting hard for me to get by all this time.

“I can’t do that,” the balding old bastard told me. “If you’re lying then I would be helping another company to break a strike and I can’t have that. What if we had a strike here? We all have to work together to prevent strikes.”

So there it was. The guy had taught me that businesses know how to stick together and crush working people, while we had a hard time convincing some workers that sticking together was the only way to defend our rights as workers.

Right before the end of the strike I got a call from someone at Stokely’s asking me to come back to work. I told them I would not go back until the strike was over. They were polite, but when the strike ended, they didn’t hire me back.

I had a friend named Boz who worked with me at Stokely. I had known him before the strike. He lived as a lumpen-proletariat, just as I had been. He was biker and a vet and was a fanatic about bicker wear and customs as some bikers are. He was short and dressed kind of plain and was proud of his long-black scraggly hair.

Boz was on the grave yard shift cleaning tanks. He liked working on the grave yard shift so he could sit in bars all night and go to work about the time the bars began to close. He had it timed just right.

No one ever complained about his drinking until after the strike. He had been a solid union member and spent time on the picket line. So they fired him for drinking right after he went back to work.

Sam also got fired after another employee started a fight with him.

Another union member I knew was Barb, a young woman about my age who had long dark hair. She was the one who got me on at Stokely’s. We dated briefly but stayed friends. One day Boz and I were at her home visiting. Another friend of hers, a young man, came over and he said;

“I heard that Stokely has been firing all the people who were hard core supporters of the union.”

“You’re in a room full of them,” Boz said.

Today the plant is closed down. I moved to Wichita shortly after that. But I haven’t forgotten the days of that strike. It was a great learning experience. 

Some time ago I published this article: Journals of a lumpen-Proletariat—Homelessness here on this site.

Two versions of a song about Joe Hill.

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