Tuesday, March 5, 2013



Socialist organizer and union hell-raiser shares the secrets of his success


February 2013



PHOTO 1980s: Noble being interviewed by the press on an information picket line at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Photo: FS archives

Henry Noble served as National Secretary of the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) for 15 years, from 1995 to 2010, and is currently the party’s National Labor Coordinator. Born in 1939 in the Bronx, New York City, Noble has organized and supported scores of unions and strikes and social justice struggles, always keenly aware that the most militant fighters come from the ranks of the most afflicted.

Noble has traveled to Australia to speak to a Socialist Alliance convention and to Belfast, Ireland during the deadly British occupation. His consistent solidarity with workers of the world, from Iraqi oil workers to South African miners to Palestinians’ right of return, is characteristic of the FSP’s commitment to international socialism.

This selection is from an interview of Noble by Lois Danks on Dec. 10, 2012 in Seattle, Wash. Danks worked with Noble at the University of Washington in the 1970s.

FS – How did you get started as a labor rabble-rouser?

HN – My brothers and sister are rabble-rousers too, so I think it was our upbringing. Our parents were Jewish — Dad was an immigrant who came from Poland at age 10 and Mom was raised in an orphanage. They taught us working-class consciousness, and we became more political when the family lived in Florida during the Civil Rights era.

I got started in labor as an extension of my politics. In Boston I was involved with the anti-Vietnam War fight in 1968, and I talked about it with people at the mental health center where I worked as a computer programmer. They drafted me to be secretary-treasurer of AFSCME Local 1718 because of my politics.

FS – You’ve taken part in many unions and helped form independent unions?

HN – When I moved to Seattle in 1971 my job was at the University of Washington Computing Center. A campus fight against a lowered wage scale came about, because the state tried to compress the job classifications from all of the universities and colleges into one. So clerical workers began organizing the Staff Rights Organizing Committee (SROC) and I joined them.

One of the concepts that came out of that struggle was the idea of comparable worth, which SROC initiated because of our emphasis on racist and sexist discrimination. With the help of the party and Radical Women, SROC called the first strike in Washington State’s higher education history, and then formed United Workers Union-Independent, which was focused on the needs of lowest paid workers. If you raise up those at the bottom, we figured, you raise everybody up — not that trickle down bullshit.

Later I worked at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and was a leader in the struggle to form a union that included most everybody, from janitors through researchers. “Hutch” management fired me. But the employees and I fought it and won my job back. After I retired from 10 years at Boeing, I and a few other pensioners led thousands of retirees in support of the Aero Machinists strike in 1995.

FS – What’s your assessment of the labor movement today and what’s to be done?

HN – The labor movement has had to change because the work force is now a majority women, people of color, immigrants and other beleaguered folks. And they’re the best fighters! But the walls of discrimination still exist.

The party has played a dynamic role in the effort to change the movement. We’ve been in the forefront of every fight for union democracy. We help our members get union jobs and become loyal unionists who fight for workers everywhere, here and across the seas. We have fought hard for labor solidarity, affirmative action, civil rights, equal pay for equal work, and against sell-out contracts, on campuses and work sites.

That’s our role in unions, to speak up for the most oppressed. Through it all, we point out how the Democrats fail every time to represent the workers’ interest — just the opposite! — and don’t deserve the millions and millions of dollars they get from unions every time there is an election.

Today, the movement is in a crisis. Unions are losing legal protections and membership, partly because of very high unemployment. But it is also a product of the labor leadership repeatedly telling the rank and file to go slow, like one-day symbolic strikes that accomplish next to nothing.

Masses of Wisconsin public workers could have shut down state government to protect their right to organize, but their leaders channeled all that union power into a recall effort against the Republican governor and a failed effort to elect a Democrat in his place — a candidate who promised in the campaign he would not be accountable to the unions. That is no way to win a war!

Well-organized rank-and-file longshore workers on the West Coast militantly defended the union with solidarity from other unions and community groups, but their national leaders stepped back. The same thing happened to Chicago teachers recently. But a change is coming. I can feel it. U.S. workers aren’t going to take these assaults endlessly and passively. And then look out!

The U.S. working class must look beyond its own borders, because capitalism is a global menace. Several unions attempt to organize internationally, but much of officialdom prefers China-bashing and chanting “Buy American,” instead of organizing with workers — including the Chinese! — who are plagued by the same multinational corporations.

Unions came into existence to defend workers from capitalism. But the best way to defend our class is to end capitalism, and a great many unionists have come to the same revolutionary conclusion.

FS – You’ve been a socialist and a party member and leader for a long time. Why?

HN – The party and Radical Women played leading roles in organizing against discrimination at the University of Washington. I was interested in the political theory party members studied and developed. And I greatly respected its socialist feminist, anti-racist politics. So it was an easy decision to join and it’s been a defining part of my life for many decades.

I’m convinced that if you want to contribute to a better world, you can be the most effective if you join a revolutionary organization. It extends your abilities and impact many times over. In the party I have absorbed some critical life tools: the theoretical wealth of works by Marx and Lenin and Trotsky and Clara Fraser; a rational world view — dialectical materialism; and the lessons of a successful revolution in 1917 Russia.

This party is a rare organization — multi-generational and multi-racial — and I predict that more and more young women and men are going to make the same decision to join that I did, not that long ago.

FS – As a retiree, you’re still organizing. What are you up to?

HN – I am a member of IAM Local 751 and work on many campaigns. I helped immigrant workers organize an AFSCME interpreters union, assisted UFCW with grocery contract fights and many others. It’s been a privilege to meet and work with a new crop of young, dedicated union organizers in these struggles.

As you can tell, I relish organizing. I think everybody ought to be in a union — it’s a vital tool for working people.

Another reason I keep fighting is my grandkids. How can I leave them a more difficult life than I’ve had? That would be all wrong!
I've had the privledge of working with Freedom Socialist Party/Radical Women and Henry Noble for many years. They are consistent allies in the struggles of all oppressed and impoverished peoples.

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