“In terms of style and methodology there were a lot of things wrong; on the other hand in terms of what we were trying todo, I have no apologies.”
HAROLD ROSSMAN, Newspaper Guild Organizer, Labor Journalist, Communist
By Richard Bermack
The books on his shelf range from a Long View From The Left, by Al Richmond, to The Second Ring of Power, by Carlos Castaneda. Now in his 80s, he does Tai Chi every morning and works as editor of the newspaper for a local central labor council. Born of Jewish immigrant parents, he was a rabbinical student until 16. “Then I looked at the world, and it was such a mixed up, fucked up place. The religion just didn’t make sense to me. if there was a man with whiskers running this show he would have to be doing a better job. I could do a better job.”
Rossman became a reporter for a daily newspaper, and a rank and file organizer for the newly formed Newspaper Guild. He broke the story of the Memorial Day Massacre-contradicting the reporting of the other dailies, he implied premeditated police brutality. His coverage of this event established Rossman as a prominent progressive and labor oriented reporter. However, his attempts to organize the paper he worked for resulted in his firing. Much to his dismay, Rossman’s reputation as a “Guild red-hot” would continually close the door to his working for the establishment press. With the organization of the Newspaper Guild, professional journalists like Rossman entered the labor movement and began working for and transforming the labor press, and it was here that he found his calling. The height of his career came with the editorship of the Labor Herald, the statewide newspaper of the California CIO. With Rossman at the helm, the paper reached a peak circulation of over 250,000, with several regional editions. The following is an edited first person narrative from a interview by Richard Bermack that was part of a radical oral history project.
I got my first newspaper job; I was a brassy, lucky kid. I was also a good newspaper man. I was assigned to cover the police beat, and I covered the riots, the so-called unemployed riots. And I watched how the cops were managing the crowds. How they attacked hungry people who were demonstrating for some kind of justice. And you know, I could just see the whole fucking system at work. Being a journalist is a real ringside seat. You realize they have to have misery, they have to have unemployment, or else who is going to do the shit work? Who is going to live under these conditions? Who is going to die in the mines? Who is going to break the strikes?
I read the AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF LINCOLN STEFFENS and it made a tremendous impression on me–that corruption is an absolute necessity for this system. It can’t function without it. And you wonder what kind of society is this with all these beautiful pretensions, and the people who come to the surface seem like such beautiful model people. But the fact of the matter is, there is something essentially corrupt about what they are doing. Growing up in the 1936s, it was everywhere. When the Newspaper Guild came along I got very much involved. In the Guild we had a little faction of Party people. We would get together and discuss policy and then try to change policies, both in the Guild and in the CIO. In retrospect, now, I would have to consider what we were doing and certainly I would want to have done it differently. We had a style that seemed righteous to us. We were very full of the vanguard role. But it was not a democratic style, and there were a lot of people against us for the wrong reasons. They just had a distrust of people who met together before meetings and came in with an organized policy. In terms of style and methodology there were a lot of things wrong; on the other hand, in terms of what we were trying to do, I have no apologies. The kinds of fights I was making in the Guild were for a policy that would actively bring minorities into the newspaper business. And it is a source of considerable satisfaction to me that in the recent years the Guild-has become a model union in terms of alertness to the issues of minorities and women. I am glad that we fought, bled, and died to create this union, because it is one of the better unions. But now, 30 years later, they are just catching up with the stuff we were trying to do.
It was a very difficult life to lead. I would get up on the floor in meetings; there would be hisses and catcalls, people from the right-wing faction of the union stamping their feet, to the point that anybody with weaker pipes than mine would have been virtually drowned out. I have a hell of a good set of lungs. I would persevere; I would be heard over the clamor; I would make my points. But then I would sit down, and I would just be vibrating like a fiddle string. It was not easy.
And the strangest thing about it was that then, after getting all these hoots and catcalls at the membership meeting, I would go to the representative assembly, where I was a delegate, and start to work on the real business of the union. From my training in the Party and study of Marxism, I knew how to make things work. So when it came to the non-controversial business of the union, these same people would turn to me to make the motion summing up and synthesizing the discussion. So on the one hand I was despised because I was one of these God-damned reds, but on the other hand I had a hell of a lot of personal respect because they respected me as a craftsman, and on the non-controversial issues they realized I was a good union man, and I helped over and over again to clarify and do the main work of the union.
The dialectic is really a wonderful tool and an aid to clear thinking. Although, at the other end, now that I have become soggy around the edges and am no longer a good hard-line Marxist, I start encountering this stuff as the Tao, as the Yin-Yang. It is the same business.
There were a lot of interesting things happening then. When we saw the end of the War (World War II) coming, we knew from what happened at the end of World War I that the last hired would be the first fired, which meant all the blacks and women employed during the war effort would be laid off. So the Communist Party people in the CIO raised the issue of super-seniority for minorities. We said, “Look, these people helped us win the war. They are here; if we go back to business as usual before the War, they’ll all have to go out somewhere. It isn’t right.” And there was a very reasonable proposal. I don’t remember the details, but it would have at least preserved the jobs of some.
My role in all of this was as educator. My title was publicity and education director (for the California CIO). I was responsible for all our leaflets, our publications, our convention reports. Take the ideas and put them in words, and try to peddle it. I used the paper as well as I could to make a case for this stuff, to get the message out. But the fact of the matter is that our dear brothers were not about to step aside for anybody. You could appeal to them on the issues of justice, history, and stuff like that, but the possibility that somehow at the end of next month they might get laid off was too much for them to handle.
What I said in the beginning, this system has to have scared people. These are marginal people even when they are working. They know more about their own needs and what their own jeopardy is, than ideologies do. They killed us, our own brothers. They completed the job of the rout of the left in the CIO on issues like this. I am past being judgmental about it. I have no question about the correctness of our decision. I have no questions about my sadness that we weren’t able to make more people understand that this was the right thing to do. But I have no mystification about it, because I know how people are. I want heroics but I don’t expect heroics. But still I am proud that we raised these issues and articulated them, even though we took our lumps and got beaten. Looking back, I would rather have been beaten than not have tried.
I feel good about those years in the Party. I believed in what I was doing and I believe that most of what I was doing was right. The things I disagree with, looking back, have to do with the need for better human relationships while you are trying to have a better political order. These cannot be separated as we used to think. There were things like the whole business of non-association–the business of making pariahs of people who deviated from policy. I wouldn’t go along with that stuff. For example, there was this woman in Sacramento who was into politics and did a lot of work for the CIO. I worked up there during the heat of the legislative sessions and I knew this lady and really dug her personally. If I had a little more guts I would have slept with her. One day the lines are drawn on some issue and the word comes down that she is “non-associational.” I am walking down Market Street and this woman comes walking towards me, and I am supposed to cross the street and cut her dead or some damn thing. I just wouldn’t do it. It wasn’t the sort of thing I could do. I didn’t care who saw me.
When I ran up against stuff like that I just did what seemed to me to be human and proper. I was not a flagrant rebel. I didn’t challenge people to real showdowns I would have lost. But at the few places where the policy didn’t fit my own personal ethic, I didn’t violate my personal ethic. And I think that is why at the end of the process I can feel good about it, and don’t feel shitty about myself or feel bitter about the experience.
After reviewing the above interview, he looked at me and responded, “You know what is wrong with this interview? I feel it presents me as an ex-radical, an ex-Guild militant, an ex-whatever-the-hell. Well, I am not an ex-anything. I am all the things I have ever been and a hell of a lot of new things.”
I speak of myself as having been around the track three times. These are separate existences, but they are not discontinuous. There is the person I was in the 1930s, a newspaper reporter, and a rank and file organizer building the Guild in Chicago. Then there were those long years working in the CIO, putting out a newspaper, being a Guild official, and being a young parent. I did a hell of a lot for my work, I did a hell of a lot of work for the movement, and I did a hell of a lot of work for the marriage to make it go. But I wasn’t doing a hell of a lot of living, or a hell of a lot for myself. It was one type of politics.
One of the most profound things I heard in the 1960s was that shibboleth, “change the world, beginning with yourself.” We were busy trying to change the world with our own overly self-righteous and self-assured point of view. We were utterly sure that the truth we knew was the only truth, and that it had to be brought about. And that led to a lot of excesses, a lot of authoritarian structures, and a lot of power trips.
My conversion came when I was watching the kids during the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. (His son Michael was a prominent activist in the Free Speech Movement.) And a lot of subsequent learning–I have been going through the human potential movement, encounter groups, marathons, the whole works, an exploratory acid trip. A whole lot of stuff like that gave me new information.
So how does a person who has been a political person all his life deal with it? I am no longer running around all the time with petitions; I am not always mobilizing and knocking on doors and all that sort of thing, so how do I justify myself? I consider myself a political person because in putting out my paper I work with a whole lot of people on the low and middle levels of the union bureaucracy, and in working with them I try to present myself authentically. I dress like a hippy and tell them flat out when I disagree with them about environmental issues and stuff like that. I think it is a political act for me, clearly a left-wing person, clearly an old red hot and so forth, to be making it with these people, because I really screw up their stereotypes. And they really care about me and the newspaper I am putting out. It is a good newspaper and really serves them. I think it is a political act when I bounce around at 71, instead of creaking around like some kind of crock. I can talk about how old age is a conspiracy, but I do better when I show it to be a conspiracy.
Now that might not be the stuff of grand politics, that might not be the stuff that moves mountains and moves multitudes, but I think a whole lot of people being personally authentic is a part of politics. I am not a has-been; I am all that I have ever been and whatever-the-hell is new that is bouncing around inside. And at some turn down the road, when something starts to happen that just feels as good to me as Tai Chi feels to me, I might be up to my ass in some organized movement again. But it has to reach me in that dimension as well as in the political dimension.