First encounters with capital, in coal mining town, on campus: Interview of Michael D Yates, on labor – organization, negotiation education

by Farooque Chowdhury and Michael D. Yates

Michael D Yates
Michael D Yates

The emancipation of labor is one of the foremost questions in all exploitative societies and societies in transition. Labor itself demands looking at this issue deeply, not simply in an abstract way but concretely in all of its aspects, from the nature of work to the efforts by workers to end their exploitation alongside those who seek to prevent labor’s emancipation. Michael D. Yates, Editorial Director of Monthly Review Press, has been involved with labor struggles, mainly in the United States, for more than five decades: helping to organize workers, supporting organizing efforts, working for a labor union, arbitrating labor disputes, teaching workers for many years, and writing books and essays for working people. He has tried to help workers in the United States understand not just US labor history and the role of worker struggles, including armed resistance at times, but also the imperial role of the United States in the world. In his work, Professor Yates, whose area of study was labor economics, has encountered issues intricately related to the struggle between labor and capital and the efforts to radicalize the labor movement. He has pushed in his own small ways for a radical change in the capitalist mode of production, including its dominating ideology and politics. This, he believes, is an inescapable task for any radical.

This interview searches for the lessons learned from Yates’s activism, with special focus on the issue of class, so that his experience might be helpful to future organizers also aiming for a radical change of society. Instead of discussing abstract issues and issues in abstract form, Yates discusses functional questions related to labor’s struggle in concrete form based upon his own experiences, which, of course, have always been informed by those of others, especially his comrades worldwide who have been associated with Monthly Review, for which he has written many books and articles on labor activism. This interview, hopefully, is going to be a kind of manual for radical labor organizers and labor education-workers.

It is a long interview, broken into four parts, done by Farooque Chowdhury, a regular contributor to a number of media outlets and author of a few books related to aspects of people’s politics. Hopefully, this interview will generate debate on working-class issues related to radicalizing labor. Opinions and observations on the topics covered in the interview are welcome, with the hope that discussions on labor and labor’s politics will increasingly focus on real issues instead of desktop discussions having no relation to practical work among the exploited masses. What follows is the first part of the interview that spanned weeks in the later part of 2023:

Farooque Chowdhury: You come from a working-class background, with at least three generations of working people, and you also were a worker. Many people with such a background forget all essentials – his/her roots, exploitation, and the sufferings of the working people, and they try their best to join the ranks of those who faithfully serve capital, an exploitative system, and try to take part in the profit in order to have a comfortable life. You became a college teacher, with high intellectual capacity and promises of joining those who enjoy a life of milk and honey. However, you rejected this and got involved with organizing labor. It’s a difficult and thankless task. Why and how did you join this project, one that some would say is essential work for liberating humanity?

Michael D. Yates: The English poet William Wordsworth said in one of his poems, “The Child is father of the Man.” If we ignore the fact that he is using “Man” to describe all of humanity, we see that what he means is that we all reflect in our adult lives, in one way or another, the forces that shaped us as children. My mother’s father, Dante Benigni, died at 44, possibly of a brain tumor, when she was 13 or 14 years old, and her mother, Lucia (Parisi) Benigni, who was then 34, moved her and her brother Dan, who was a year younger, in 1937, to Cadogan, a small coal-mining village along the Allegheny River, about 40 miles north of Pittsburgh in Western Pennsylvania, to be close to my grandmother’s relatives. My mother’s name was Irene. I was born in this town and visited it often after we moved to a house on a small farm owned by friends of my parents. Like the house in Cadogan, this one had no indoor toilet, but it did have hot water. It was made of wood, while the mining village house was covered in tarpaper shingles. It was a modest house, bigger than the first one but not by much. Not long after my birth, my maternal grandmother left her home in the late 1940s to work for rich people as a governess and cook in New York City and several other enclaves of the wealthy. This was a round-the-clock job, seven days a week. I don’t know her earnings (she received room and board as part of her pay), but she was excited whenever she got some clothes from her employers. She could bring these back home when she visited and cut them to size to fit some of her relatives or my mother. She also took work as a cook on a tugboat (for the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company, or J&L as it was called, an important steel firm in Pittsburgh) that pushed large barges laden with steel down the rivers from Pittsburgh all the way to New Orleans. The barges had a crew of perhaps a dozen people, all but two of whom were men. It was hard labor for modest pay, cooking all meals for the crew, though I do not know how much she earned. It would surprise me if it was more than 50 cents an hour.

There was one other woman on the boat, but I don’t know if she was a cook too. No doubt when I was young, I heard stories of grandma’s work life, relatives gossiping about laboring in the mine (Cadogan Mine No. 1), and later, as I remembered back to my youth and met people from different backgrounds, I reflected on the obvious poverty of those in the mining town, with its shacks covered in tarpaper shingles and without hot water or indoor plumbing. For example, Grandma not only took care of the children of her employers, but she also often cooked, sewed, cleaned the house, all kinds of chores. And the food she cooked required her to understand how to prepare complicated meals, often with ingredients she knew little about. Once when one of her employers spoke to her as if she were part of the family, grandma said, “You don’t think I work here because I like you.”

My father, Carl Russell Yates, nicknamed “Bud,” was a factory laborer, toiling in a glass works in Ford City, Pennsylvania (about three miles north of Cadogan, again along the Allegheny River), helping to make glass for cars and airplanes, and so forth. He began working at the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (PPG for short) in 1940 when he was 18, and he toiled there for 44 years. He spoke sometimes of his work, of the foremen, and even his father, my paternal grandfather, Carl R. Yates, who worked for the company as a self-taught industrial engineer, monitoring the workers’ every move with a stopwatch so that the way in which they did their jobs could be streamlined and made more efficient (from the company’s point of view!). Here is how I described one job at the factory my father had:

Bud is examining airplane windshields destined for the F111 fighter jet. It is the late 1960s, and he has been working for nearly thirty years at the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company in a small town forty miles north of the city. The glass will sit in the plane’s cockpit at a very shallow angle, so any flaws in the glass will be magnified. It is high-pressure work. The company wants to ship flawless glass, but if he rejects too many pieces, the foreman will be unhappy. As will workers down the line, who get incentive pay for the number of plates that go through their stations. Bud works under high-intensity lamps, giving him constant eyestrain and headaches. He copes by gulping aspirins and smoking cigarettes. Several of the latter are burning simultaneously on his table. He’s drained when he gets home, where there will be other demands to satisfy. Later that evening, he will coach kids in a local sports league. Unless, of course, he is working shifts and has the miserable 4 PM to midnight stint, which wrecks much of the day before the whistle calls him back to the endless plates of glass. Many years later, when he is retired, after 44 years of hard labor, he is dying of emphysema, the product of all those cigarettes, plus the asbestos and silica dust in the factory. He ruefully remembers a boss telling him that if you could see the dust, it wouldn’t harm you. He tells his son, who remembers still what he said, “Mike, I didn’t think it would be like this.”

In 1951, when I was 5 years old, we moved to a new house on a hill above Ford City. As a veteran of the Second World War, my father applied for and received a special government-guaranteed mortgage to buy the house. Unlike the previous two houses, it had central heating and indoor plumbing, so it had a real bathroom and hot water. There were two floors, with one bedroom on the ground floor and two smaller bedrooms upstairs. It sat on a large lot, on which my parents planted fruit trees and a large garden. Water came from a well, and sewage was flushed into an underground septic tank. The house and the lot were a step upward for my parents, especially for my mother. Soon enough there were more children – a sister, Antoinette, had been born when we lived in the farmer’s house–ultimately another sister, Elaine, and two brothers, Carl and Joseph.

At 11 years of age, I began to work cutting grass for neighbors and helping a friend deliver newspapers, and then at 12, I got a very large paper route myself. My earnings were less than 40 cents an hour, far below the minimum wage in the United States, which was then $1.00 per hour. I worked about fourteen hours per week, delivering the papers over about four miles and collecting money from the customers for the papers. The work was not so much to help the family as it was for saving money for my college education. It did reduce their expenses some, because now I could buy some things myself. Also, I was expected to work as a way to become disciplined and learn that people had to work to support themselves and to be respected. I began to notice some things: that the tiny wage my employer paid me and the other newspaper carriers didn’t seem at all fair. That work was often hard and seldom rewarding. This view was deepened later, in college and graduate school, between 1963 and 1968, where I continued to work at a variety of jobs: night watchman at a state park, selling insurance, clerical worker in the glass factory, assistant to a college teacher, camp counselor for the Salvation Army. I calculated that I earned about 11 cents an hour as a camp counselor, but at the state park and the factory, I earned more than the minimum wage, getting a few hundred dollars per month.

My education before college was for the most part unpleasant. Physical abuse by teachers was not uncommon, even in secondary school. In elementary school, Sister Mary Charles, a Catholic nun, smashed a girl’s head against the blackboard because she got inches, feet, and yards confused. In high school, science teacher, Louis Byers, hit a boy so hard across the face that his glasses flew across the room. We seldom learned anything worth knowing. In secondary school (high school), it became clear that a few were bound for better things, while most of us were being conditioned to work in one of the town’s factories, or as secretaries and nurses if we were women, or in the military. Racism was common. The unfairness and arbitrariness of this began to strike me. The same was true for arbitrary authority, from the Catholic nuns in elementary school to most of the teachers in high school, as well as the principal and superintendent.

College and graduate school began an eye-opening process, one in which I began to put my life into perspective, coming to understand why I felt the way I did. Learning something of history, economics, politics, etc. was like a breath of fresh air. And meeting people from different backgrounds and places, including my first radical professor (David Houston, one of the founders of the Union for Radical Political Economics, or URPE), helped a great deal to deepen my grasp of what made societies tick. A key event was the war in Vietnam and the fact that the US government appeared intent on drafting me into the military and sending me there. The My Lai massacre, sights of the dead bodies being returned to the United States, a Vietnamese person shot in full view of the cameras, and the shattered minds of friends returning home after their tours in Vietnam ended — all of these things seared my brain and made me a permanent enemy of the US government. The counterculture blossoming everywhere in the United States was important as well.

I did everything I could to avoid the military. I did not want to kill Vietnamese people. My politics were not yet communist, but they were moving in that direction. I entered college with liberal sentiments. These deepened in college and turned left in graduate school. I became a truer radical when I openly said that I hoped the United States would be defeated by the communists in Vietnam. By about age 24, I became completely opposed to capitalism and supportive of all socialist revolutions, especially that in Cuba. I could see that the United States was not a good country. It rained murder and ruin all around the world. At home, it began as a country committing genocide against Indigenous peoples, with much of the country reliant upon enslaved labor. The friends from my hometown who were returning after a year in Vietnam were uniformly traumatized in one way or another, angry, often heavy drug users, lost. Two friends went through Pittsburgh city streets shooting out streetlights. Another, a heavy substance user, suggested we kill a man from a nearby town who wouldn’t sell him drugs. Still another told us that he refused to kill a young Vietnamese woman when his sergeant ordered him to do so.

Through some luck and advice from a professor, my thesis advisor, Herbert Chesler, I managed to get a job teaching at a branch campus of the University of Pittsburgh, where I attended graduate school at the central campus in Pittsburgh. The branch campus was in the industrial town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The job began in the fall of 1969. Johnstown was an important center of the steel industry, with the Bethlehem Steel company dominating the local industrial scene. When I got to town, there were still about 15,000 steel workers there.

By the time I arrived in Johnstown, I was aware of many things: that there were a multitude of “have-nots” and not nearly as many “haves”; that my family and my relatives were clearly “have-nots”; that there were those who gave orders and those who took them and that I didn’t like those who gave orders; that there was something horribly wrong and unjust about the war in Vietnam (it was clear that the Gulf of Tonkin incident of 1965, which the US government used to justify sending of hundreds of thousands of young men to war, was a lie); that the labor union representing my father and his buddies, the United Glass and Ceramics Workers, along with the local union leaders I saw every day during two summers working at the factory as a clerical worker, was a good organization to have at your side; that I had no desire to work for any corporation; and that, even though I had different political views than my parents, I could not imagine betraying them by becoming a member of the class of order-givers. I was becoming class conscious, more so than my family members, who were working-class in fact but not fully conscious of why their lives were as they were. This was the impact of both experience and study. My family members had the experience, but not the study.

It wasn’t long after I began teaching that I realized the campus was primarily a workplace, with a typical hierarchy of those who made decisions and those expected to obey them. Those who ran the college seemed to be mediocre people. They possessed no specialized knowledge, no insights, even into the town in which they lived. Their views were conventional: patriotic, nationalistic, and hostile to anything unconventional. How was it that they wielded so much authority? And how was it that there were low-level administrators who were keen to wield whatever little power they had? Worst of all, how was it that there were teachers all too ready to mouth the company line and criticize any teachers who did not? To the degree that one colleague was shocked that I did not support, fervently, the central campus athletic teams!

Teaching began to deepen my radicalization. Over the next few years (roughly 1969 to 1973), I began to see that the mainstream economics I was taught in college and graduate school was useless in terms of what I wanted to convey to students, namely, that we don’t live in a society of independent, self-centered, and maximizing individuals and that these same individuals, through their selfish actions, produce an ideal world; that inequality was a product of capitalism and not the consequence of individual success and failure; and that socialism was a much superior system to capitalism. I discovered Monthly Review and Monthly Review Press, read many other magazines and journals in the library (RampartsThe NationScience & SocietyThe Review of Radical Political Economics), began to study Marx in earnest (mainly the first volume of Capital, but also Monopoly Capital by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy and Labor and Monopoly Capital by Harry Braverman), came to understand US imperialism and its consequences for people in what we call today the Global South, and much more. I read all I could find about the Cambridge controversies in the theory of capital. In this, economists at Cambridge University in England destroyed the theories of growth, income distribution, and the nature of capital developed by US economists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard and MIT. I wrote a long paper on this for a graduate seminar in the early 1970s, the goal of which was to show that the distribution of income was a product of unequal ownership of the means of production, and not the impersonal consequence of individual behavior and the technical features of production. The title was something like “The Functional Distribution of Income.” I can’t remember the subtitle. (I was traveling about 75 miles from Johnstown to Pittsburgh once a week to complete my PhD coursework). I turned the paper in to my diehard neoclassical labor economics professor Arnold Katz. Remarkably, he was a decent man, and when he realized he couldn’t understand what I wrote, he gave the paper to Professor Houston to grade. One thing I learned from this is that even those who have different worldviews might share certain principles, and might sometimes be allies.

Students took my classes in large numbers, and many decided to major in economics. I also began to see how the faculty was treated by both the local college administrators and those at the central campus in Pittsburgh, for the most part, as second-class citizens. On a personal note, as a condition of my employment, I was given a free room in a student dormitory as a counselor for the students who lived there, and this included food in the faculty dining room. However, when I refused to search student rooms for illegal drugs when they were away at home, I was fired from this job. The college did allow me to stay in the dormitories until the semester ended, at which point I found a small apartment in the city of Johnstown (the college campus was a few miles away in a more rural area), in a house owned by an elderly couple of immigrants from Sicily, Mr. and Mrs. Polito. It wouldn’t be long before I learned a great deal about the town, its history and economy—that the steel company had been one of the great industrial innovators of the nineteenth century, developing more efficient ways to make steel, that the local political leaders had worked closely, even received weapons from the steel company during the Little Steel (all the corporations except the industry leader, US Steel) Strike of 1938, that the mayor, in response to an incident by Black residents of Johnstown against the Ku Klux Klan, had, in 1922, ordered all Black persons in town to leave immediately and many did, and so forth. I had no idea then that some years later I would be teaching workers in their Johnstown union halls.

I spent long hours in my office, every day of the week, preparing the five classes, all different, that I had to teach. I often spoke with the man and woman who cleaned the building. Once they felt comfortable talking to me (Mike had been a coal miner, working underground, but at least in a union, the United Mine Workers of America, and Jane had done various kinds of poorly paid labor, the exact kinds of which I no longer remember, but perhaps in a garment factory), they opened up about their job and their bosses. Soon enough, we began to wonder if there was something that could be done to better their circumstances. A labor union seemed the best plan of attack.

Let me conclude this response with some general comments. I was born less than one year after the end of the Second World War. While I learned little useful history, or much of anything else in my primary and secondary schooling, readers might gain some insight into what I have written by understanding something of the labor situation both in the country as a whole and in the places I lived. During the War, strikes were repressed by the US government, with the full cooperation of most labor unions. The mineworkers did strike successfully, although their leader, John L. Lewis, was vilified by the government and the press. There were also many wildcat strikes (spontaneous strikes not approved by the national labor union). However, workers suffered a loss of purchasing power during the War as price increases outstripped wage growth. Working conditions were often poor, and the intensity of the labor was high, as companies pressed for increases in war production. After the war, pent-up pressures on workers, along with returning soldiers who didn’t suffer wartime hardships only to be harassed by bosses when they returned to work, led to a massive strike wave. This included my father’s glass plant. In the mining village, unionized workers soon put an end to the repression in that company town. No longer would they be required to buy goods at the company store. Company houses were sold, and the private police force came to an end.

Workers in both towns received union magazines, but these were usually filled with photos of and stories about the unions’ leaders. Not much in the way of working-class education took place either through union media or worker education within the unions. By the time I was a young boy, the Cold War was alive and well, and a fervent anticommunism gripped the labor movement, further dampening any real class consciousness. The mass media and the schools reinforced this every day, as did the churches. There was trade union consciousness among many union members, and the bosses were seen as enemies. But that is as far as it went.

Johnstown was a much larger town, and I eventually learned about its history. The dominant steel company, which had a small plant in Johnstown but which had its largest plant near Pittsburgh, was the United States Steel Corporation (USS). It was formed under the financial direction of the wealthy New York City capitalist, J. P. Morgan, who organized a merger of Andrew Carnegie’s giant steel company and several smaller ones. This happened in 1901, with USS as the nation’s first billion-dollar corporation. During the Great Depression, the newly formed Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC, later the United Steel Workers [USW] union), formed under the direction of the new Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) and spearheaded by the United Mine Workers’ leader John L. Lewis. Rather than face a militant strike during an economic depression, the USS agreed to recognize the SWOC. The smaller companies, known as the Little Steel companies, refused to recognize the SWOC. Among these firms was the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, Johnstown’s largest employer. SWOC struck the Little Steel companies in 1937. This strike was often violent, and in Johnstown, the mayor took funds from Bethlehem Steel to finance vigilantes to intimidate the strikers. Unfortunately, there was violence between white and Black steel workers, reflecting the discriminatory treatment of Black workers and the union’s failure to address this problem. In the end, the Little Steel strike failed, and Bethlehem Steel wasn’t unionized until the early 1940s when the federal government pressured companies to recognize labor unions so as not to disrupt the war effort.

The USW was a fairly conservative union, and therefore, workers in Johnstown would not get much in the way of class-conscious education from it; just the same kind of labor media that faced workers in Cadogan and Ford City, with the same reactionary and anticommunist mass media.

The interview was first posted in MR Online ( on February 13, 2024 with the heading “Interview with Michael D. Yates on Labor: Organization, Negotiation, and Education”.

Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Michael D. Yates is author of numerous books on unions, conditions in the working class, and the labor process.

Reprinted by permission of Monthly Review Online. (c) Monthly Review. All rights reserved.

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