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Jon Melrod: A Lifetime of Fighting for Union Rights

It’s hard to believe that in this day and age unions representing freight rail workers are having to threaten a strike because they cannot get paid sick days. It took an act of Congress to avert the strike, and still, they were unable to get the sick leave that is only a human right.

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 questions we asked Jon:

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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