A true working class educator

Earlier this year, I attended a tribute to my late friend Wells Keddie, at the Labor Education Center of Rutgers University. Wells died in April after a lifetime of struggle in the labor movement and as a labor educator.

More than half a century ago, as a graduate student at the University of California, he refused to sign the anticommunist “loyalty oath” that the state Legislature had passed. This was shortly before Joe McCarthy got going and lent his name to the purges, blacklists and general policy of political segregation that the whole capitalist class launched against Communists particularly, but also broad left activists of all kinds, to suppress dissent.

They never really got Wells, although they kept on trying, at Penn State where he was fired in spite of mass protests, and even at Rutgers. At Rutgers he played a leading role in building the American Association of University Professors and in training students who went out and became organizers and leaders of the labor movement for three decades.

In labor and in other academic fields which have some connection to the left, there is a practice of rewarding those who educate the least but publish the most in establishment journals, get grant money from establishment foundations and other sources, and in effect contribute the least to labor as a movement.

Wells Keddie’s life was lived in opposition to that “do nothing good for nothing” approach to scholarship and teaching.

Wells sang labor and left political songs, and loved them. At the tribute to Wells, a chorus of New Jersey labor singers, including longtime New Jersey labor and peace organizer and activist Carol Gay (who won the Democratic nomination to run against right-wing Republican Chris Smith and would bring joy to the workers of the world if she won), sang some of these songs, including “Joe Hill.”

Students of Wells got up and talked about being fired from jobs as they fought for workers’ rights. Like Wells, most of the people at the tribute (including myself) who were employed were not receiving equal pay for equal work with their establishment peers, particularly in the universities. None of those establishment types were really there at the tribute, including those in the Rutgers administration who had profited from Wells’ accomplishments while they disdained him.

One prominent person who was there was Bill Kane, president of New Jersey’s Industrial Union Council, a body which proudly seeks to continue the progressive inclusive unionism of the pre-merger, pre-purge, pre-blacklist CIO.

As I listened to the songs, I was inspired to think of what the world would be like if we won, and the champions of big business and the rich were on the outside looking in. I began to imagine the songs they would sing in tribute to one of their own. Say for example, the 19th-century robber baron Jay Gould. Here’s a version of “Joe Hill” that I thought might be sung at such an event:

“The Ballad of Jay Gould”

I dreamed I saw Jay Gould last night alive as he could be

Why Jay, I thought you died of being rich

I never died, says he, I never died, says he.

From San Diego to Guantanamo

From Baghdad to Bayonne

As long as scabs are breaking strikes

And judges and politicians are bribed

Jay Gould will be alive Jay Gould will be alive.

Then I thought of the “Investors’ Internationale” as it might be sung by demonstrators from the American Enterprise Institute.

I thought of some others, from “Outsourcing Forever” to “This Land is Murdoch’s Land,” but that is enough. Wells Keddie will live on in the struggles of the people he educated and the lives he touched (his dog was even named “Struggles”). The establishment types who made more money and received greater accolades then he did will soon be forgotten by the very people who paid them and praised them, since they really had nothing to say or do that was memorable, and, unlike Wells, can be easily replaced.

Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University.