Progressive Labor Party

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Progressive Labor Party


The pro China, Progressive Labor Party split from the Communist Party USA in 1961 "because of our disagreement with their support of the Soviet Union (whom we viewed to be revisionist) and because of their reformist approach to issues here in the U.S."

PLP argued that "racial, gender-based, and national oppression take place within our class-divided capitalism and can best be fought in that light. We thought that the exploitation of the working class is central to this system of mindless accumulation, thus giving all workers a stake in fighting our bosses and leading a revolution."[1]

PLP leaders

In “Road to Revolution II” the Progressive Labor Party leadership had tried mightily to suppress their feelings about the Vietnamese “betrayal” and to give the Vietnamese leaders the benefit of their rapidly increasing doubts. But the National Steering Committee (The NSC was the collective responsible for the line as it developed in Challenge, PL magazine and the internal bulletins. The NSC consisted of Milt Rosen, Wally Linder and two other New York leaders. In the first period (to 1970) Bill Epton and Jeff Gordon rounded out the NSC; in the second period (1971-1975) it was Bob Leonhardt and Janet Foley. In practice, however, Rosen invited whomever he wanted to the NSC meetings, which were fairly informal) (NSC)’s patience with the Vietnamese wore thin in short order. [2]

SDS politics

In 1969 PLP published Revolutionaries Must Fight Nationalism, an essay articulating their differences with the groups that would later form Revovolutionary Youth Movement.

PLP’s Marxist-Leninist outlook "led us to advance the Worker Student Alliance", a strategy of "students allying with working class struggles, fighting racism in ways to advance class solidarity, and helping win working class support to end the war and eventually overthrow capitalism."

This WSA grew from a handful of PLP’ers in SDS in 1966 to become the largest of organized Students for a Democratic Society factions by the 1969 convention.[3]

Union work

PLP’s original concept of participation in the trade-union movement was exactly borrowed from the Communist Party USA. This meant slow clandestine work in union committees and in alliance with supposedly progressive union leaders like Harry Bridges of the ILWU, Leon Davis of the 1199 and David Livingston of District 65 in New York. All of the PLM’s trade-union cadre were ex-CP’ers, white and mostly middle aged, in their forties and older. They were not inclined to any bold moves, were not in basic industry and were generally not together in a concentration. The one exception was a small group of New York City railroad workers, led by Wally Linder. However, when he was laid off in 1963 the base and membership of PL in railroads dried up and Linder became a full-time PL functionary, “the trade-union organizer.” Generally this not impressive trade union base (Considering he was N.Y. State trade union organizer for the CP, Rosen did not take much with him into PLM.) was either dying out (literally) or quitting by 1965. When Clayton Van Lydegraf and Lee Coe quit in late 1966 they took better than one-third of the trade-union cadre with them.

At some point it became clear to Rosen and Linder that genuine communist work in the trade-unions was impossible with the base inherited from the CP. Thus the NSC began pushing the students and the younger full-timers to get a job and do trade-union work. (There had been 20 full-time organizers for a membership of less than 200 in 1965, but with little money for full-timers, PL made a virtue out of necessity.) Eddie Lemansky, organizational secretary for PL, and Steve Martinot, organizer of the Cuba trips, got jobs in New York City’s garment center; Steve Cherkoss, West-Coast student organizer, got a job in a Los Angeles Steel plant. Dozens of other young PL activists followed suit going to work in industry.

The approach to “T-U” work (trade-union work) was generally correct in the period 1966-1969. Linder waged many a sharp struggle against the laziness or adventurism of the ex-student cadre. The PL T-U cadre was first of all instructed to be a good worker and win the respect of his co-workers, secondly a friend on all levels to his co-workers, thirdly a good union person, active with a solid trade-union attitude. (Thus in order to become more like the working class PL members shaved their beards and moustaches in 1966 and cut their hair short. PL members also after 1965 foreswore pot under penalty of expulsion. It is doubtful that short hair, no pot or clean shaves helped PL get close to the younger workers, but these moves showed the attitude of ex-students determined to become serious workers.) Within this context it was possible step-by-step to build rank and file caucuses and participate in union committees in sharper and sharper struggles against the boss. And eventually the right-wing union leaders would be more and more exposed as labor lieutenants for the captains of industry.

Inasmuch as alliances with more progressive trade-unionists and existing caucuses were not emphasized (but not outlawed in the period before 1969) progress was slow and defeats suffered by inexperienced cadre were to be expected. Depending on how PL handled its defeats, whether the Party could dialectically separate the strengths from weaknesses, the work could grow or collapse. It collapsed after the defeat in the New York garment center.

The garment center became the number one PL trade-union concentration. PL used a two-prong strategy there: first slow base-building by cadre working within, and second, Challenge sales and rallies, addressed by mainly Epton and Linder, outside. The key strategy for the inside cadre was to get a whole shop to join the union en masse, under PL leadership. Outside, Challenge ran a monthly column on the union contract provisions, which were in general being grossly violated, plus a story or two each issue about various shop struggles. It was a difficult strategy but it was the only road to success given the objective problems of the garment center: racism, gangsterism, low wages, transient work force, runaway shops, corruption.

Throughout 1967 the work in the garment center proceeded slowly, but steadily; little by little PLP made a name for itself. Then on October 23, PL led its first strike; some 40 workers at City-Wide Trucking, where Lemansky worked, went out for 3 hours until the boss gave in and allowed them to join the union and get union scale.[77]

A similar action at Selman’s also involving 40 workers was led by Steve Martinot on Nov. 1. In the aftermath PL forces fought hard as collusion between union and boss took away most of the gains and in January Martinot was dropped as shop steward by the union. Meanwhile Challenge sales reached a garment center record of 400 in December. The February, 1968 issue of Challenge had 4 pages devoted to the garment center as did the issue preceding it. The on-the-job struggles continued at Selman’s and City-Wide with the union-boss – “impartial arbitrator” gang-up being too much for PL and the workers steadily lost the gains of the previous fall until Martinot was fired from Selman’s on April 18. But the PLP leadership sent more cadre into the garment shops. Felipe Dejesus, editor of the Spanish section of Challenge, got a job at one of the biggest, Figure Flattery. There on August 15, 1968 Dejesus led PLP’s biggest action yet, a 7 day successful strike that involved 800 workers. Throughout the long complicated struggle Dejesus, the steward, had to fight the union bosses as well as the cops who were brought in aggressively on the side of the boss. For the first time there were definite signs that other shops in the garment center were responding to PLP leadership and the 2-year old garment concentration was beginning to pay off.[78]

The powerful union-boss alliance was determined now to crush PLP in the garment center. First the gains of the Figure Flattery strike were eaten away slowly, four hundred were laid-off during the fall. But Dejesus and his Workers Alliance Committee were still strong. So the first overt move was made at City-Wide which fired Lemansky, PL’s head of the garment center work, immediately after the union removed him as steward in mid-October; a half-day wildcat strike failed. Then on December 20 Dejesus was fired from Figure Flattery and arrested to boot. An 8-day slow-down with mainly student “solidarity picket line” failed to achieve anything and in late January, 1969 the Figure Flattery management let it be known that a purge of PL’ers was imminent. In the second half of 1968 the PL national leadership was growing impatient and the slightly less emphasis on patient base-building combined with the extremely difficult objective conditions led to defeat. PL tried to organize a strike in January with no success and PL’s biggest base in the garment center was lost. PL still had a few forces left in the garment center but the spring of 1969 saw the work slowly peter out. Challenge sales and rallies at the garment center ceased, and after May 1969, nothing more was written in Challenge about the garment center. This was significant nationally because all PL’ers were looking to the garment concentration for direction, emphasis and tactics.[4]