That’s the kind of fight that is in the blood of our Lean to the Left podcast guest today, Jon Melrod, author of “Fighting Times, Organizing on the Front Lines of the Class War.”
Melrod’s story is one of a young man who came to unionism through social activism beginning in his teens. His world view was formed in the 1960s when he saw a chain gang of Black prisoners working along-side the road, and couldn’t understand why the local amusement park near Washington DC refused to allow Black kids to enjoy the pool and the rides.
His is a story of student Vietnam War protests, of fighting racism, and then of working as a laborer at various companies where he helped organize workers and protest injustice. Those jobs, which often involved working with toxic chemicals, resulted in his 2004 diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and given only six months to a year to live. Determined to overcome the illness, he marshalled both western and alternative treatments and, despite the odds, survived the deadly disease.
Now in his 70s, Melrod has written a memoir that he hopes will help his sons understand what motivated his choices over the years as a union activist after his cancer diagnosis. It’s a fascinating book, filled with personal accounts of his fight to support workers and overcome racism. And it takes us back to the experiences of the 60s and 70s, to violent campus protests against the War and racism.
Here are some questions Jon discusses on the show:
1. Tell us about “Fighting Times,” it’s origin and what you hope to achieve.
2. What were some of the transformative events that resulted in your determination to help working people?
3. You went to a boarding school in Vermont as a teen. What happened there that influenced your world view?
4. Tell us about your experiences at the University of Wisconsin, the battle for justice for Hispanic farmworkers, and the fight against racial disparities.
5. What prompted you to sort of infiltrate companies like American Motors and lead efforts against racism and unfair labor practices?
6. You eventually went to law school. To do what?
7. What are your thoughts about the revival of union activism that we are seeing at companies like Amazon, Starbucks, Kellogg’s, Nabisco, John Deer, and American Airlines?
8. Do you see a resurgence of young people working to organize at companies that some might believe are immune from union activity, like Starbucks or Amazon, for example?
9. What is your view of the future of organized labor in the U.S. today?
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[00:02:07] Jon Melrod: pal. Thanks a lot, Bob. And I don't know what else to say after you've given such a great summary.
[00:02:14] Bob Gatty: We can just cut this off. See ya. Yeah. . There you go. .
[00:02:18] Hey, tell us about fighting times, it's origin and what you hope to achieve with it.
[00:02:24] Jon Melrod: Yeah I, never really looked at myself as an author but as you say, when I was diagnosed, Terminal pancreatic cancer in 2004, my young kids who were seven and 10, they came to me and they were just befuddled in a youthful way and said, dad, why did you work in these factories that are now taking your life when you went to college?
[00:02:57] They just, there was a disconnect for them. Not knowing at that point that I would survive more than a year. Yeah. I started writing as fast as I could because I, felt like if they were ever gonna if I passed away and they were ever gonna understand who their father was and what he did, they would have to read it in what I left for them.
[00:03:22] So that was the origin of the book. Okay. In, writing. , I began to look back and realize things like what you just brought up about the lack of the integration of Glen Echo amusement park and seeing black chain gangs on the side of the road. In Virginia. And as a kid I, in a very naive way, I was thrown by the unfairness or inequity.
[00:03:51] Okay. And I didn't, had never really thought to myself what got me going in the beginning. And it was really seeing that sort of blatant in your face racism that I just didn't have in me. And I went on and after they killed three civil rights workers in 64 in in Mississippi, the Klan killed them. I became active in the Civil Rights Movement a year later at 15.
[00:04:19] Yeah. Sending out letters, informing people, and raising awareness of the danger of groups like the Klan and the impunity with which they were able to commit murder.
[00:04:32] Bob Gatty: How old were you when you did that?
[00:04:34] Jon Melrod: I was 15. I was living in DC at the time.
[00:04:38] Bob Gatty: You were 15 years old?
[00:04:40] Jon Melrod: I was 15 years old. I used to have to hop on three buses to get to that side of town, and most people thought I was, had gone berserk
[00:04:53] Bob Gatty: What did your parents have to say about all this?
[00:04:57] Jon Melrod: My parents said can't you protest for the Soviet Jews something closer to home ? And I said there's not enough people talking about this injustice, and what happened to these young guys? And from there, of course the Vietnam War was just really beginning to lurch into a full scale conflict.
[00:05:23] And I became very involved in high school in the anti-war movement. In fact, we took a van load of students from my school. To the Manchester, New Hampshire induction Center where we lay down in front of buses bringing inductees into the induction center. And those became really two legs on which I walked forward, which was taking up the fight against racism and taking up the fight against the Vietnam War.
[00:05:58] And that really were my roots.
[00:06:01] Bob Gatty: You just covered the question I was going to ask you, which was, what are some of the transformative events that resulted in your determination to help working people? Do you wanna expand on that a little bit more?
[00:06:15] Jon Melrod: Yeah it, My first experience with working people was when we drove into Manchester New Hampshire, which in those days was an old shoe making town.
[00:06:26] Yeah. With the old factories that looked like they were from the Dickinsonian era. Uhhuh and the workers had hung banners out saying, better dead than red, and. support our boys. Be patriotic. And, it caused me to say to myself, these are the guys whose kids are fighting in Vietnam.
[00:06:46] And if we only had them on our side, we'd have a lot more power. Because they're the ones that make the country run. Yeah. So when I was in Madison at the university, the first year I saw a poster for a speaker for the United for the Farm Workers Union. Okay. And. I listened to him and I got enthused about participating, and I signed up as an organizer and spent the next months driving around Wisconsin to the fields and to the, canning plants organizing Latino workers with the aim of joining with the United Farm workers Cesar Chavez was leading at the time. Okay. And in the grape boycott, which was a five year boycott of grapes to bring a union into the grape fields of California. Yeah, there was a boycott of grapes and we spoke to a group of union workers who had come to Madison. and they made a motion that they join us on the picket line in front of Kroger's that Friday.
[00:07:53] And these are big, beefy guys with the nylon jackets, with steelworkers on the back and crew cuts. And I was like, oh God, these are the guys that were yelling at me in Manchester, out of the factory windows. So I was a little bit hesitant. And we got on the picket line in front of Kroger's and about 50 of them marched into the store and they filled their grocery carts with, groceries, put the ice creams on the bottom. All 50 of them went to the checkout line at the same time. They left their carts there and they marched out singing solidarity forever. the Union, Anthem, . And there was one line in it that just stuck with me. We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.
[00:08:37] And I said, wow, that's really what I wanna help. I wanna build these unions into being democratic strong institutions and really make fundamental systemic changes to the system under which we lived.
[00:08:53] Bob Gatty: You went before you went to the University of Wisconsin, you went to a boarding school in Vermont, right?
[00:08:59] As a teenager?
[00:09:01] Jon Melrod: I did, yeah. It was a, it was kind a hippie school on a farm in Vermont. .
[00:09:07] Bob Gatty: So you fit in there. So what happened there that influenced your world, your
[00:09:11] Jon Melrod: worldview? That was the first thing I ever did was that I. Somehow read about Julian Bond who had been elected to the Georgia Legislature.
[00:09:27] Okay. He was a civil rights activist. And he opposed the Vietnam War, and because of that, the Georgia, legislature banned him. Yeah. And that just seemed just to me it violated the fundamental principles of democracy, although they still are doing it in Georgia. So I dunno. I dunno how far we've gotten.
[00:09:50] But anyway, , I started a petition in the high school demanding that he be seated in the Georgia legislature. Okay. And I stood up on a chair in the cafeteria and I was shaking, I was so nervous at that time. And I said, Hey, are we gonna be active and support this anti-war legislature? , every student and every teacher except two signed it.
[00:10:16] And those two teachers had lived through Nazi Germany and had a real natural fear of putting their names on anything. Ah-huh. . But that got me started and from there it was all steady activism. Okay. Wow.
[00:10:31] Bob Gatty: So you were this was high school, so look, 16,
[00:10:36] Jon Melrod: 17 years. 15. 15 years old. Yeah, he was back. This was back when.
[00:10:41] Okay. 15 . Yeah. All right. Look, those were the days when you could still hitchhike. We could hitchhike from DC up to Martha's Vineyard. Oh, yeah. I know. Those were,
[00:10:52] Bob Gatty: I used great days. I used to do a lot of hitchhiking back in those days.
[00:10:56] Jon Melrod: Yep. Yeah. Yep.
[00:10:59] Bob Gatty: Yeah, I had a girlfriend I had to go see and I didn't have a car.
[00:11:03] Hit you
[00:11:03] Jon Melrod: and you made it. Yeah. .
[00:11:05] Bob Gatty: That's right. Oh, alright. So let's get back to the University of Wisconsin then, and the farm workers and all the stuff you did there. Tell us a little bit more about about what your activities were and why you did
[00:11:21] Jon Melrod: what you did. Yeah. One of the big factors was that around the time I got to the university in 68, there began to be military veterans coming back from the war.
[00:11:36] Okay. And they would come to speak on campus and I'll, never forget this one, Marine, big, husky looking guy. Kind of what you'd think a Marine would look like. And he got up at a rally and he spoke and he started crying. And he said, I went into villages and I was ordered with a flame thrower to burn down huts with women and children in them.
[00:12:05] Nobody can tell me that. That's a just act of war. And he was a, wreck and I said this is crazy that these American boys are being sent over there into jungles to fight. They don't know who, or they don't know what for. Yeah. And at the same time, you're watching on the news pictures of Vietnamese kids being napalmed by bombs dropped from American helicopters.
[00:12:33] Yeah. I American airplanes. And I just I said, look, this is just so deeply unjust. I'm gonna devote my time to trying to end this war. So the first week I was in Madison, they had a mandatory, this was absolutely mandatory for all freshmen, R O T C training, and we, in the students for a Democratic Society, which was about a big organization, about a hundred thousand students.
[00:13:02] Yeah, SDS yeah. SD S. Yeah. Yeah. And we decided we would demand that they cease making R O T C compulsory because it was really churning out propaganda for the war. It was training, recruiting young guys to become first officers, and we disrupted that class and the students voted overwhelmingly to end mandatory R O T C and the university stopped it.
[00:13:32] and that was my first week in Madison. So I said, wow, this is we've got some power here and let's use it for good. Wait a minute,
[00:13:42] Bob Gatty: you said that the university stopped it? They stopped the
[00:13:45] Jon Melrod: R O T C program, the mandatory, for all freshmen, the mandatory seven weeks of classes. Oh, okay.
[00:13:53] Bob Gatty: That was cool.
[00:13:55] That was a victory
[00:13:56] Jon Melrod: right off the bat. Yeah. Yeah. It took quite a few more years to end the war, but that wasn't victory right off the patch. You're right. Oh,
[00:14:04] Bob Gatty: yeah. You can't, I know you can't claim that you were responsible for ending the war, but you certainly did play a part in, the protests that helped bring attention to the injustices that were taking place.
[00:14:18] Absolutely. One of the things that, that really fascinated me about your story Jon, was that you made this decision to infiltrate these companies and work as a laborer. And the way I am reading your book, it. looks like you did that with the intent of strengthening the unions of of, working from the inside to help make it better for the people that work there.
[00:14:59] Is that what I take from that? Correct.
[00:15:02] Jon Melrod: Yeah, that's, that, that's very correct. There used to be all. Students from the campuses that would come sell newspaper at a factory. Yes. Trying to turn people into socialists by reading their newspapers . And I said, that's just a dead end. If you're not in there experiencing the day-to-day monotony, boredom, difficulty of working on an assembly line, one car an hour coming at you, and you're putting the same goddamn six bolts on every car.
[00:15:35] Nobody's gonna listen to you when you say, I want to change the world. And it was I, hope people do read the book. As you said, it's fighting times organizing on the front lines of the class war. And right now it's on sale for 50% off until January one. And if you go to my website, www.jonathanmelrod.com.
[00:16:01] The landing page has a link right to the publisher to buy it at half price. Okay, that's very cool. That's very cool. Yeah, so I hope some of your listeners check it out. Yeah, I hope so too. . But yeah, that's why I went to work and about, it took 60 days to get off probation to get into the union and about on the 65th day, I had gotten into the union and I felt like this is it.
[00:16:29] I'm a union man, right? And and I didn't get my break in the morning. You're supposed to extend a relief person to give you a five car break. Wait a minute, before
[00:16:40] Bob Gatty: you get go there. Just let me say I, read that passage this morning and it cracked me.
[00:16:48] Jon Melrod: Here's
[00:16:49] Bob Gatty: a guy who pretty much brought the American Motors Company assembly line to a halt cuz he didn't get his
[00:16:59] Jon Melrod: damn break. , I can't take that much credit. But later we did actually bring it to a halt when this, you refused to put
[00:17:08] Bob Gatty: in the taillights. Taillights. I
[00:17:10] Jon Melrod: think it was right? Yeah, you're right. It's taillights. Why?
[00:17:13] Bob Gatty: Why did you refuse to put in the taillights?
[00:17:17] Jon Melrod: The older workers. It's a, it's a rite of passage. It's hazing. They started yelling at me, Melrod, you a company man. You scared of this goddamn damn company. Come on, show some. Some balls. Some balls and take your break. And I'm like, shit I don't wanna be fired. I just started here.
[00:17:39] But the, chorus got louder and louder. Walk off Melrod walk off . So I said, all right, God damn it. If I'm gonna be a militant, I gotta show it. Put the taillights in the trunk, walked off and went and sat down in the cafeteria . And a minute later I saw my boss headed toward me. They all wore these white t-shirts with and white SL sleeve shirts with a m c logo on them.
[00:18:04] Ah-huh. And he got there and he said, Melrod, you're fucking fired. don't go back on your job. And I said, oh shit. This was a short career organizer. And my steward, my union steward came up in those days, we had one steward for every 35 employees. So there were a lot of stewards and they had a lot of power.
[00:18:29] And he came up, he sat down next to me, he said, go back on your job. And the boss said, he's fired. And the steward said, no, he's not. Go back on the job, Mel Rod, you're not fired. You just took your break. So I got back and everybody was cheering and from then on I was considered a leader even though about 22, how old was I?
[00:18:50] 22 years old. He was a
[00:18:53] Bob Gatty: fricking hero cuz he, refused to put in some taillights and he demanded to take his break and he held up and you had. , you had the what, the contract or whatever it was it a
[00:19:08] Jon Melrod: book. Yeah
[00:19:12] Bob Gatty: And you memorized that thing word for word, and you made sure that, everything was done according to
[00:19:18] Jon Melrod: that book.
[00:19:19] Right? Absolutely. That was our job, was to enforce, that working agreement after we had worked there about four months and I had gotten close with a group of young guys and we used to party every those were days when we partied hard. In fact, we used to go do the disco the guitar and the bump and those dances Okay.
[00:19:42] On the weekends. And so we would stay out late and then the company came around and they told us that we'd have to work on a Saturday. Yeah. And I got my book. and I found a provision that said all overtime is voluntary. So I went to Xerox at, I don't know how many of your listeners know what a Xerox machine is.
[00:20:01] But that's how you probably a lot cuz I got a lot of old listeners. Okay, good. So they know that's how you make copies. And I brought 'em in the next day and I handed 'em out to the young guys and they handed 'em out and it's spread like a viral telegram right on the assembly line. and really it wasn't a political protest.
[00:20:18] We didn't wanna get up early on Saturday morning to go to work at six o'clock. So when the company went around with the stewards to notify everybody, That there was overtime Saturday, everybody started yelling, not me, I ain't coming in. I got right to voluntary overtime, , they couldn't put together a workforce.
[00:20:39] So then the word came back, Melrod, you're in big trouble. Because the president of the union had promised that he'd give you a, the company, a workforce on Saturday and he's gonna get you.. Then I said I better be careful what I do and make sure it's by the book
[00:20:57] Okay. So you made sure it was by the book all the way through? I made sure it was by the book, but in the end that didn't matter because the company announced they were gonna speed up the assembly line by three cars an hour. And if you've ever worked on a line three cars an hour with the same amount of work
[00:21:16] it makes a big it's, exhausting. Okay. And we got together a group of guys and we formed a caucus, in the union to, to reform it, to make it more militant. And we put out a flyer that said, fight speed up, work at a normal pace, cuz that's what the contract said. Normal pace, right? So all of a sudden, everybody's working to do their entire job, even if it takes them two car length down the line, . So then everybody else is throwing their parts in the car cuz they can't get it done, . And what happens is basically that the aisles fill up with repaired cars. The roof fills up with cars that need to be repaired and the old guys tell us, You ride the line, which means you do your job until you get it done.
[00:22:13] So you could be 50 feet till you ran outta air hose, so you couldn't put your bolts in and then you'd let the car go. Okay the word came out that they were gonna get rid of me. And sure enough, three guards came up and picked me up like under the arms, my feet dangling and trying to hold my ground and they people were yelling to sit down.
[00:22:46] Yeah. People wanted to stop work because they said people were yelling. No one has ever been fired in this company for following the contract. Yeah. And they got me out. and then I went through a long battle. We went to a union meeting. More than half the workers voted to call for another meeting, to take a strike to get my job back.
[00:23:08] But the president of the union, I had already become his nemesis and he ruled regardless of the vote that we had lost, and he adjourned the meeting. So I went to the National Labor Relations Board and I was out for over a thousand days, but I eventually was restored to my job and the day I went back to work, , they had to give me a paycheck for all my back pay for the time I was fired.
[00:23:32] And I went and blew it up to a boxer holding his belt over his head. And I walked down the assembly line with this big check blown up, and people just went wild. What's his check for? Oh God, I can't remember. What did you make in those days? I made about five bucks. Yeah, but it was
[00:23:52] Bob Gatty: three years or something.
[00:23:53] You said Over a
[00:23:54] Jon Melrod: thousand days? It was three years. But you got deducted pay that you made while you were working in the interim. Oh, okay. But it to most some people thought I was too radical. Some people thought I was too left. , but everybody loves a David beats Goliath story. Oh, sure. And fact that I had beaten one of the top major automakers at that time.
[00:24:16] In the United States was really an event. Yeah, I would say so.
[00:24:24] Bob Gatty: Of course, American motorist cars weren't exactly known for the highest quality. Was that because you guys refused to put in the taillights?
[00:24:34] Jon Melrod: No, it wa that wasn't because I refused to put in the taillights. They just, they didn't, the truth of the matter was that they were such a small fourth competitor, Uhhuh , that they really couldn't compete in the market with GM and Ford.
[00:24:53] And it was just the economics of it that never worked. But of course they did blame the union for its militancy causing them to shut the factory, but Oh, sure. That wasn't in the end what it was really about. Yeah. Yeah. Okay.
[00:25:10] Bob Gatty: You eventually went to law school,
[00:25:11] Jon Melrod: right? I did in, 85. . I had been elected to the top post, one of the top posts in the union to negotiate and bargain the contract.
[00:25:23] Okay. And we were owned by Renault, the French automaker. At that point, they had a 51 per stake interest in American Motors. Okay? And they came in and they said, look, you're making two Renault cars, the Alliance and the Encore. But I haven't seen a single one on the road. So the quality couldn't have been very good.
[00:25:44] But. , we can build those in France, we got empty plants. Okay. And I have been very much opposed to concessions in the auto industry, cuz I really believe that it's the market that determines whether people buy cars. That the wages are a small component of that. But Renault said, look, we're telling you the honest truth.
[00:26:06] you take these concessions or we're gonna move these cars and build them in France. Okay. And I was pretty educated. I kept up on the Financial Times and Auto Week. And they were I couldn't call their bluff, not me, but we couldn't call their bluff. So instead we decided we had a bargain for the best deal we could get, which guaranteed retirement for 18,000 workers.
[00:26:30] That would not have had their retirement pay. It guaranteed that every worker could move to a different Chrysler plant throughout the country. So we want, we gave concessions, but we ma and we made real concrete gains in exchange for those, and the people voted for that agreement. But after that, the assembly lines, they took the work, went down to such a small number of employees.
[00:26:55] I said I've done the good I can do. In fact, as I left the, there was an headline in the newspaper, Melrod 7, AMC zero, which was, I had won seven cases at the National Labor Board Relations Board and a M C had lost every one of them, . But so I did go to law school.
[00:27:17] Bob Gatty: Before you go there though I know that you work for a bunch of other companies doing the same thing.
[00:27:25] Trying to jack up the union and making things more fair for the workers. Because cause you, cuz you were subjected to some fairly nasty chemicals during, in that process.
[00:27:40] Jon Melrod: Yeah, I really was. I had to earn a living. Yeah. And I wanted to stay in industry.
[00:27:49] And the f fbi, the company, American Motors had involved the fbi my discharge. So the F FBI was, then I have a memo of people go on to my website, jonathanmelrod.com. There's a lot of pages of the F FBI files. Yeah. And the F FBI came back and said 'Fire him. he's causing work stoppages, he's creating caucuses and he is a troublemaker.
[00:28:16] Yeah. And they then followed me around the F B it's all up there Posted. There was a thousand pages on my F B I file. Holy shit. and I went into a, I went into a foundry. The worst job in the city of Milwaukee. On third shift working midnight, no, 11 o'clock to 7:00 AM Uhhuh, , welding, Mac truck axles.
[00:28:42] And there was silica. When you pour molten steel into a sand mold to make an axle, There's silica dust everywhere in the air. All right? And we didn't know better at that time how dangerous that was. Sure. In fact, it was only black guys who worked there, and I was the only white guy because it was really low down on the totem pole.
[00:29:05] Uhhuh of jobs. And there it was 90 days on probation. And honest to God, on about the 88th or the 89th day, the night superintendent called me into his office and he said Melrod, you're fine with me. You're a good worker, you're a good welder. And I wouldn't fire you. But these federal people came in and they said to get rid of you.
[00:29:32] And I didn't have any choice. I'm sorry, you're. fired. So I lost that job. Okay. And then I went into a tannery, which I, worked almost a year around the nastiest toxins and tanning fluids down on the B basement. There were huge wood barrels. This is how antiquated the plant was. And they throw the cow hides into the barrels.
[00:30:03] Yeah. Throw in all these chemicals to burn the hair off of them, to kill the lice, et cetera. And that slop would be on the floors. You'd be wading through it. I see. It'd be splashing on your face, in your mouth. Geez. And when the doctor wrote up the reasons for my pancreatic cancer as one of the two reasons he cited tanning solvents.
[00:30:28] Wow. The, second reason was that I had been exposed to Tri Chlor ethylene, which was used to clean grease off of metal. So when I was working at a factory, we made paint trays for Sears and Roebuck. Every time the punch press stamped out a tray, they had to have oil on it so the tray wouldn't stick to the die, the punch press die.
[00:30:53] Okay? That then ran through a vat where there was Tri Chlor ethylene. One day they my straw boss. . Hey Melrod. You get in there and you clean it. I said okay, where's my respirator? Where's my gloves? He says he was a, Mexican guy, and he says, only senoritas wear gloves and respirators. So there's another one of those hazing tests, what's your masculinity worth? So I got down in the damn pit and I'm sweeping this crystals. and I'm dizzy and I'm about to faint, and I jump out to get some fresh air. And for the next damn hour I was in and out sweeping out the residue of this chemical with no protection whatsoever.
[00:31:43] And I looked over and there was a 50 gallon barrel with a skull and crossbones on the side of it, right? And I said this is not good, but. It's what you gotta do if you're gonna be working there. I paid the price for with the diagnosis of cancer years later.
[00:32:05] Bob Gatty: John, I just have to ask you, you had a college
[00:32:08] Jon Melrod: degree, right?
[00:32:10] I did, yeah. Why
[00:32:11] Bob Gatty: did you take these kind of menial jobs rather than go to work in
[00:32:18] Jon Melrod: the office? I think you gotta read fighting times to the end. I'm just joking it is a question my kids asked and people have to be able to you were at the 1968 Democratic Convention Yeah.
[00:32:34] As a reporter. Yeah. for U P I. Yeah. And you saw those demonstrations out front. Yeah. Which they later called a police riot. Yeah. Where they beat the living crap out of the demonstrators. That's right. Tear gas and. I'm sorry, go on. No, I just said teargassed them. I saw teargassed them. Yep, Grabbed reporters and dragged them outta the convention for reporting on what was happening.
[00:32:59] Yep. And there was a movement, a young, among young people. It was Woodstock, it was hippies, it was back to the land. Yeah. It was politics. We believed that we could really change this world and make it more humane, more equitable . Without sexism. Without racism, call us naive. But we felt that was the power we had as youth.
[00:33:26] So I came to the conclusion, if after college I really was gonna continue that battle, it meant going to where working class was, where the unions were, where the strength was. Okay. And that's why I did, that, why I spent 13 years on those jobs. But you had a family. I have a family now. I didn't back then.
[00:33:48] Oh, you didn't back then. Oh, okay. No. One of the reviewers who reviewed my book said The one thing about Melrod's book is he doesn't discuss his personal life, but maybe his political life was his personal life. And that was true in that period. Yeah. It, it was a day-to-day battle. Okay.
[00:34:08] Bob Gatty: So let's get back to law school.
[00:34:09] You went to law school, and why did you go to law school and what did you do with your law degree?
[00:34:15] Jon Melrod: Degree? Yeah. I went to law school because I wanted to be a labor attorney. I thought that's the way I could carry on from the experience that I had. But instead I got interested in immigration law and I represented asai and refugees from all over the world.
[00:34:36] Just some terrible stories of Indian women being raped by. , the Indian police in the state of Punjab where there was a separatist movement among Sikhs, and we represented Afghanis who had fled the moulah who had taken over in 79. And young people from El Salvador that were being chased after by both the insurgents and the government.
[00:35:09] And we were very successful. We won about 80, 80 some percent of those asylum claims, whereas the national average was 33%. Wow. And it was a great, it was a great period, and I felt it was a great service. The problem became that our success was our own enemy. After we became so successful, people started hearing about us and they learned that they could reprocess the asylum stories that other people had given us and, basically try and cheat the system. And I didn't feel right about going in front of a judge and arguing a case I didn't believe in. And that wasn't most of the cases. But at that point I just said I've gotta stick with my principles.
[00:35:57] And one of those is, to not falsely represent things. So I moved on. and I went into the music business. Oh, okay. And we were recording Latin Rock, which came out of. Argentina in 68, in Mexico in 68. If you remember, in Argentina in 68, there was a military dictatorship and they were disappearing thousands of young students.
[00:36:27] And in Mexico, they had massacred hundreds of students at the time of the Olympics. Okay? And the only form of protest to the students after that was rock and roll. So rock and roll. Very political protest music. Correct. So those were the bands that we were recording. Mannu Chao, who's the most famous in that genre, is from Europe and was one of the biggest bands in Europe here.
[00:36:54] It didn't take off to the same extent, but I had a good run at that. But then, pancreatic cancer came and I found myself battling for my, life.
[00:37:09] Bob Gatty: So what have you been doing since then?
[00:37:14] Jon Melrod: Since then I've, there was a young kid named Andy Lopez, who was shot by police.
[00:37:24] He was carrying a toy gun. In a park. Okay. And there no justification. In fact the ninth Circuit, there's a video where one of the top judges said You can't just start shooting a 14 year old kid cuz you think he's dangerous. He had a toy gun. So I became very involved in that battle to win justice for, Andy Lopez.
[00:37:53] And after that I became known as a lawyer who could represent the families of people who had been unfairly murdered by the police. And I had my own practice representing clients both in, down in Half Moon Bay in San Francisco and in Santa Rosa, who had been you know, victims of law enforcement shootings.
[00:38:21] You couldn't
[00:38:21] Bob Gatty: have been making very much money at, that, right? Because I can't imagine those people.
[00:38:27] Jon Melrod: had the ability to pay very much. Is that true? No. You didn't make too much money at it. Although I do have to say that I, when a family won an award of 3 million for the death of their kid there was a certain retainer that they had paid, the law firm had put out the cost to, for the case for the experts. A lot of that was reimbursed to us. Okay. As well as some of the settlement. Okay. Okay. I, made a living. Okay. I've never been greedy, so I was okay.
[00:39:03] But then it's funny, after that I met my current wife and I met her online and she said she lived in Pinole about an hour and a half away from me in California. So then I invited her to go to lunch. Okay. And she said I'm actually living in the Philippines, . And I said that was a little more of a long distance relationship than I planned.
[00:39:32] Yeah. . But being a romantic , I went over there. Okay. And then I got there and I said, shit, just say somebody kidnapped me. So I called my brother, I says, are you gonna help me out? He said, I'll throw in 5,000 bucks. I said that's, a hell of a commitment to your brother. But anyways she picked me up.
[00:39:56] We stopped to go to the bathroom at a mall. And when I get outta the bathroom, there were 50 people surrounding her. Yeah. And I said, what is this? Turns out she was Miss philippines. In 1982, she went to Miss Universe in Peru and she had made 300 movies. Wow.
[00:40:16] Bob Gatty: What the hell was she doing looking for somebody online?
[00:40:19] You think that with all that she'd be
[00:40:22] Jon Melrod: have guys all over the place? She did have guys all over the place and that was the problem. Oh, they were all over the place. Cuz she was hot. Yeah. And she was beautiful and she was a beauty queen. So she wanted somebody that was a little different.
[00:40:36] That was
[00:40:37] Bob Gatty: So, she's landed on you. I'd say that's
[00:40:40] Jon Melrod: different, right? Yeah. I, I, what you're, you should talk to my brother because he says, what the hell does she marry you for? . Oh man.
[00:40:51] Bob Gatty: So, you're so married to this, you're
[00:40:53] Jon Melrod: still married to this woman, right? I'm still married to her and she is a political activist ,not quite to the extent that I am, but in the Philippines, and she's right now over there, she's gonna do a Netflix series in, in, in January and February. Oh yeah. She has quite a few shows on Netflix and Prime, Amazon Prime, but she's arranging a book launch in, in the Philippines and it's being sponsored by two of the bigger unions.
[00:41:19] And I'm really excited cuz they translated some of the book into gala. Which is the Philippine language. Wow. So that's gonna be exciting in January. Wow, that's very cool. Absolutely it is. And we've both been involved in working with the indigenous people who've had a terrible times with these foreign mining companies and logging companies coming in, stealing their ancestral land for the resources and forcing them off the land.
[00:41:46] So we've been really working to help house and provide refuge for them. because they can't go home because the army is siding with the loggers and the mining companies and driving them off their land. Okay. So I'm pretty active till this day. Wow. All right.
[00:42:06] Bob Gatty: So that brings me to this question.
[00:42:10] We've seen in, in, in recent months would say a revival of Union activism at companies like Amazon, Starbucks, Kellogg's Nabisco, John Deere, even American Airlines. What are your thoughts about, that? Do you feel like unions are getting stronger rather than weaker as the republicans hope?
[00:42:41] Jon Melrod: don't think there's any question about that, to be honest with you. Why do you think that is, Jon? One reason is I think that young people have brought a new spirit to the labor movement. Okay. When I work with these, I work with quite a few Starbucks organizers in the Northeast.
[00:42:58] Bob Gatty: Okay. One of the good purposes of my book was, to help the younger generation understand some of the history of trade unionism, and I've luckily been able to do that. I work with some AFL organizers, work with some Starbucks organizers. In fact, not too long ago I was on a book launch up in Seattle and they had just fired a union organizer at Starbucks and they asked me to speak at the rally to demand her job back.
[00:43:27] I feel like I'm able to take my knowledge. . But more than that, there's a spirit. When I talk to the Starbucks kids, young people, I shouldn't say kids, they're not just about wages and hours. They say, we want to fight for the environment. We're living an existential crisis. And they know it, they're educated, and they say, that's gotta be part of the union.
[00:43:52] the union fight has to be about health benefits, whether you're transgender, gay, or heterosexual. They have a much broader view of the union. And I think they're infusing new ideas and a new spirit of militancy. That I'm really excited because I just got, I got an email today. It said, we live in Rhode Island and there's a group of us that are all reading your book for the lessons that we're learning from it.
[00:44:19] And that's the response I'm getting. Wow. So I hate to plug myself, but I'll just say once more. If people go to Jonathanmelrod.com front landing page, they can order the book at 50% off until January one. Okay.
[00:44:37] Last question, John. , what is your view of the future of organized labor in the United States
[00:44:44] Jon Melrod: today?
[00:44:46] My view is that there's already reform beginning and there needs to be a lot more reform. Okay. For instance, we fought to get what we called one member, one vote in the u a w. Okay. All the top officials in the U A W were elected by delegate. Not by the broad membership. We took that battle to the convention floor and I was the main speaker advocating, and we got about 500 votes, but it wasn't nearly enough to change the system.
[00:45:21] Because there was an administration caucus that ran the top of the union and that appointed all the reps and there were like 300 reps around the country, so they had some power. Okay. This year. The Justice Department intervened and they indicted 11 leaders of the U A W and they're in jail for being outright crooks, taking money from Chrysler, taking money from the corporations, using union funds to buy summer homes.
[00:45:53] The court ordered that the system be changed to let the members vote, and that vote just took place in the last month and half of the new candidates are reformers, young people who want to make the union fully democratic to make it transparent. and the same movement is on a is going on in the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
[00:46:19] So there's a spirit, in fact, at the Railroad Union, there's a lot of unhappy union workers with that settlement. Sure. And they've become very active saying that we shouldn't have taken this contract without sick days. In fact, I gotta just tell you one thing I've, read yesterday, Aaron Hills, 51 years old died from a heart attack in June weeks after postponing a doctor's appointment so he wasn't penalized at his railroad job for missing a sick day. What kind of society allows that to happen to a 51 year old hardworking family Man, it just isn't right, and that's why the book is called, there's a Class. We're fighting for survival and the support for unions is higher than it's been in history.
[00:47:18] It's at 71% of people believe in unions, which is a remarkable number, and I think it's gonna bode well for young people and new organizing going on in the future. Yeah, I
[00:47:30] Bob Gatty: think
[00:47:30] you're right. And once again, the book is Fighting Times Organizing on the Front Lines of the Class War by John Melrod. You guys pick it up.
[00:47:42] Jon Melrod: really, you read our good book. Thank you Bob. I really appreciate your comments. Could you just look at the top where Noam Chomsky on the top cover of the front page. Noam Chomsky recommends the book and gave me a great review so you know if, Noam Chomsky likes it, I'm sure most of your listeners will also like it.
[00:48:07] I think
[00:48:07] Bob Gatty: you're probably right. So there you can see that an inspiring guide for carrying the crucial struggle forward.
[00:48:16] Jon Melrod: Noam Chomsky, thanks a lot, Bob.
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