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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Russell, July 19, 1975. Interview E-0014-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Limits and opportunities with the merger of the Fur and Leather Workers and the Amalgamated Meat Cutters

Russell discusses the limitations and opportunities that the merger between the Fur and Leather Workers Union and the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union offered labor activists such as himself. Primarily, Russell explains here how the merger ultimately served to limit how overtly radical the former Fur and Leather Workers could be in their organization efforts while it simultaneously broadened their jurisdiction and the number of workers they had access to. This passage ends with Russell's discussion of his belief that unionization was just the first step towards a more radical changing of the social order.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Russell, July 19, 1975. Interview E-0014-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

WILLIAM FINGER:
So after you started organizing the Farmer's Federation in Asheville, and when other campaigns came up, did you feel any kinds of limitations? Compared with how you had been able to work within the Fur and Leather Workers?
JOHN RUSSELL:
Compared with how I worked inside of them?
WILLIAM FINGER:
Yes.
JOHN RUSSELL:
Always you felt somebody was looking over your shoulder to find some indication of what they might consider radicalism, some feeling that your position politically is way out in left field. You had to understand that, that was there, but that didn't bother me, because I figured that if I'd do a good job, I wouldn't worry. I considered it an opportunity. Like I told our people when we had our first meeting with vice-president Schacter, when he was named district director of District 2, "I'm going to do my best to do a good job because we've always waited for a much bigger jurisdiction, and we've got it now, and I'm going to work at it."
WILLIAM FINGER:
So you covered as an international rep North Carolina and you still had parts of East Tennessee?
JOHN RUSSELL:
We went anywhere they wanted to send us, but basically we worked in the Carolinas.
WILLIAM FINGER:
South Carolina?
JOHN RUSSELL:
Yeah.
WILLIAM FINGER:
Anything else you can think of about that time? It seems like it was kind of a, at least in terms of trade unions, a turning point. You were now an amalgamated. Personally, what I'm trying to get at, personally for yourself, if you kind of made a switch in the way you looked at your work?
JOHN RUSSELL:
Not so much that we made a switch, but I at least saw a golden opportunity to build something for the first time, in a field we never had before. See, up until then we were limited to a leather plant here, a leather plant there, or something in that area, or something close akin, even the laundry workers in Winston-Salem were with us. It was sort of a deviation. Nobody looked at who else had them, a laundry workers union. We didn't particularly want to build there. It happened before I came in, and it was in the midst of going ahead when I came into the South, and I didn't want to lose the situation. Frankly, we thought, I thought, merger with the Amalgamated gave us what a lot of our guys had been arguing about for many years, an expanded jurisdiction to work inside of and build unions. That's how we saw it. And, without any kind of argument, to make them the kind of unions we thought were good for working people, politically and …
WILLIAM FINGER:
What kind of unions were those?
JOHN RUSSELL:
Progressive unions, unions that saw more than just the immediate demands of workers, but had a broader outlook on life.
WILLIAM FINGER:
What does that mean, though, progressive unions, like you wanted to build?
JOHN RUSSELL:
One who saw that trade unions weren't the final answer, that unions were a weapon in the struggle of workers to maintain a decent standard of living. But at the same time, while we centered on the immediate problems, to try and lift their sights a little higher and recognize that if we are going to genuinely have a nation where working people have a fair, decent opportunity. It has to be the kind of a nation that working people control. That of course means a tremendous change in the political, social, and economic system.
WILLIAM FINGER:
You'd talk like that to locals?
JOHN RUSSELL:
Oh, yes. We never hid much. We never bragged about what our political points of view were, but we did our best to influence people.
WILLIAM FINGER:
Did you have a program, a more short-range thing? Were you involved in electoral politics? What kind of ways would a progressive union work in this period?
JOHN RUSSELL:
In that period, and in the period up until the sixties, we had very little use for working inside the electoral system. Very frankly, we just didn't feel there was much possibility of doing much with it. We were pretty repelled by the approach of the labor movement as a whole to Wallace in 1948. We were a little bit disillusioned …