R.I.P. James Thindwa, Friend and Comrade

Lee Sustar January 23, 2020

(James Thindwa/screen shot)

First pub­lished at Jacobin.

If you lived in Chica­go over the last two decades and came any­where near labor cir­cles — or just about any strug­gle for social jus­tice at all — chances are you met James Thind­wa, who passed this month after a long ill­ness. And if you were a senior fight­ing for decent liv­ing con­di­tions, a strik­ing work­er need­ing sup­port, or a char­ter school teacher need­ing a union any­where in the Unit­ed States, you ben­e­fit­ed from James’s hard work.

The young Zim­bab­wean free­dom fight­er who came to the Unit­ed States in the 1970s touched count­less peo­ple with both his effec­tive orga­niz­ing and unmatched spir­it over the last four decades. James’s life part­ner and com­rade, Martha Bion­di, has writ­ten a beau­ti­ful trib­ute. What fol­lows here is a sketch of a man’s life lived ful­ly in the strug­gle at a time when the odds were usu­al­ly long and the suc­cess­es few — and the vic­to­ries there­fore all the more sweet.

The long­time exec­u­tive direc­tor of Chica­go Jobs with Jus­tice and a lat­er an orga­niz­er with the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT), James was a friend to many. While I had the good for­tune to occa­sion­al­ly see James in pure­ly social set­tings, I knew him best as a col­lab­o­ra­tor in labor activism.

Cer­tain­ly there was talk of per­son­al mat­ters: inquiries about the well-being of mutu­al friends, James’s accom­plished musi­cian­ship, and rem­i­nis­cences about south­west­ern Ohio, where we’d both once lived around the same time — me as a local, James as an immi­grant stu­dent and a mil­i­tant anti-apartheid activist. But the count­less hours I spent talk­ing with James were less con­ver­sa­tions than a sin­gle orga­niz­ing meet­ing stretch­ing more than a decade.

Would this or that con­tract get vot­ed down? What where the chances of a strike? Could we get a res­o­lu­tion through a union exec­u­tive board to send some bad­ly need­ed funds for a labor sol­i­dar­i­ty effort? Would the reform­ers real­ly win the upcom­ing union election?

A call to James when he was on a long dri­ve or in an air­port with time on his hands was always an oppor­tu­ni­ty to assess the state of the strug­gle and fig­ure out just what was need­ed to take the fight for­ward, no mat­ter how mod­est. I worked as labor jour­nal­ist in Chica­go dur­ing most of James’s time on the local scene, and his input was always invaluable.

James’s arti­cles avail­able on the web­site of In These Times mag­a­zine, where he was a board mem­ber, pro­vide a sense of his direct and effi­cient style of argu­men­ta­tion. Look­ing back over his writ­ing, I recalled the many dis­cus­sions of issues where we’d agreed (the dis­as­ter cre­at­ed by the Oba­ma administration’s sab­o­tage of the health care pub­lic option”) and where we didn’t (James’s cri­tique of an effort to build a third par­ty to the left of the Democ­rats). But it would nev­er occur to James to refuse to work with those on the Left who dif­fered with him, even on key polit­i­cal questions.

While his writ­ing was sharp, James was at his most effec­tive on the ground — in a meet­ing, on a pick­et line, speak­ing at a protest. For James, a big turnout for a meet­ing wasn’t only an oppor­tu­ni­ty to ral­ly sup­port, but also to edu­cate and chal­lenge. And he brought that same ener­gy to count­less small­er-than-hoped-for orga­niz­ing meet­ings, using the time to brain­storm and strate­gize with oth­er activists.

At Chica­go Jobs with Jus­tice, James rou­tine­ly worked late into the evenings at his small office in a near­ly cen­tu­ry-old Chica­go union hall, cre­at­ing an impromp­tu meet­ing space for activists when no rooms (or the funds to pay for them) were avail­able. For­tu­nate­ly, we have a won­der­ful video pro­file by PBS jour­nal­ist Bill Moy­ers that shows James in action — includ­ing James’s indis­pens­able role in the vic­to­ri­ous 2009 fac­to­ry occu­pa­tion at Repub­lic Win­dows and Doors, an action that com­pelled Bank of Amer­i­ca to extend an emer­gency loan to what even­tu­al­ly became a work­er-owned factory.

More than a few Chica­go politi­cians angling for labor sup­port rec­og­nized James’s influ­ence and took note. After orga­niz­ing what turned out to be a small­ish and rather for­lorn protest out­side a long-closed fac­to­ry to protest a planned Wal­mart store on the site back in 2004, James got an ear­ful from a clout-heavy Demo­c­ra­t­ic machine hack who want­ed to use the occa­sion to make a speech for his US Sen­ate pri­ma­ry cam­paign. But James had already promised the slot to a rival who’d actu­al­ly showed up to pick­et lines in the past — an obscure Illi­nois state sen­a­tor named Barack Obama.

But ingra­ti­at­ing him­self with big names nev­er inter­est­ed James in the slight­est. His atten­tion went else­where — to the oppressed and work­ers tak­ing on the boss. When about one hun­dred nonunion Mex­i­can immi­grant work­ers won a two-week strike at the Cygnus soap fac­to­ry in 2007, James answered my email announc­ing the vic­to­ry not with a cheer, but with the five most urgent words he could think of: Are they still need­ing dona­tions?” James knew that the work­ers — almost all of them temps — had missed a cou­ple of weeks pay and were still hurt­ing despite their remark­able win.

But for all his mod­esty, James’s impact was con­sid­er­able and con­tin­ues to rip­ple across Chica­go and beyond. His orga­niz­ing dur­ing the tough times of the Great Reces­sion in Chica­go helped to lay the ground­work for a revival of left-wing labor activism, most vis­i­bly in the Chica­go Teach­ers Union strikes — first in the pub­lic schools and lat­er the char­ter schools where James was among the first union staff orga­niz­ers. James’s work in Chica­go led to an impor­tant orga­niz­ing job work­ing on char­ter schools across the coun­try for the AFT. And many of the polit­i­cal issues James cham­pi­oned, once seen as out­liers, have become part of reg­u­lar dis­cus­sion in City Coun­cil, where six demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists now hold office.

All these con­tri­bu­tions were con­sid­er­able enough. But James gave us even more — an opti­mism that suf­fused all his orga­niz­ing work. His out­look wasn’t based on feel-good slo­gans or a denial of the chal­lenges ahead. It was the prod­uct of a world­view — and a fight­ing spir­it — root­ed in the long strug­gle for jus­tice and the lib­er­a­tion of work­ing peo­ple, whether in South­ern Africa or Chicago’s South Side. James was a cit­i­zen of the world — and those who shared a cor­ner of that world with him are much bet­ter for it.

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