John Carico: What got you involved in social justice and labor organizing?
John Paul Wright: I got involved in social justice activism as a result of my mother going to college late in life. In my teens my mother went to the University Of Louisville and found herself. She joined an organization called The Progressive Student Leauge. I looked up to her new friends. They had organizing meetings in our home while they were fighting to have the university divest funds from companies that supported South African Apartheid. I joined a group at my high school called Youth for Peace at this time and also got involved in another group called Nuclear Free Zone of Louisville.
My union work started when I became a member of The United Transportation Union when I was hired on with the railroad. I grew up in a very union family. My father is an IBEW 369 electrical contractor and my grandmother worked at the union hall.
John Carico: What do you see as priorities in terms of securing a liberated and sustainable future?
John Paul Wright: Wow! What a question! I see as a priority a focus on human need to be at the focus of the what some are calling a just transition. Over a hundred years ago Upton Sinclair said this in his book Profits of Religion…
What I would like to say to young radicals–if there is any way to say it without seeming a prig–is that in choosing their own path through life, they will need not merely enthusiasm and radical fervor, but wisdom and judgment and hard study.
So, to move to a sustainable future, I think we as a people are going to need to study what has worked from the many movements and social shifts of the past. I think many times we as a people are looking for “new” ways to approach very complex issues, when many times there are plenty of examples of successes that can be drawn upon. Specifically, it is my experience in many a situation, basic communication skills seem to be where the problem lies when folks start to enter very difficult territory. For years language and culture has been born at the foot of a capitalist model that has taught people how to fight and take sides. Our media, that should be ours, has created a myth of who we are, our history has been re-written for profit and people make laws and decisions based on moral codes that are drawn from corporate entity myth makers. Media is owned by very large empires that have a culture package to sell… so I guess what I am trying to say is a liberated future depends on a very serious re-settling of how we see ourselves as a people. As inhabitants of a planet, members of communities, and free thinking compassionate individuals who have a real need of each other to exist. Especially in these days as the machine get closer and closer to being able to wage war by drones and computer driven models.
John Carico: What are some of your favorite labor stories?
John Paul Wright: The story of Joe Hill because of how much myth it has with it. There are so many stories about who Joe was as a person. What I like about his story is how important he really was to the process of culture and the I.W.W. Joe Hill was a journalist, organizer and songwriter. His skills at organizing are mostly myth or, one would have to do extensive research into the drives that he worked on. But his music is a very big insight to what he was thinking back in the 1910s. There were many writers that were writing the Socialist/Communist literature such as Upton Sinclair and Eugene V. Debs. We can only imagine how connected as people they really were, but their muckraking style was very similar. I also think Upton Sinclair’s EPIC (End Poverty In California) campaign is something very interesting.
As for labor issues today, without a doubt, the story about CORE (caucus of rank and file educators) and the Chicago Teachers Union rise of Karen Lewis, is one of the greatest labor stories of my lifetime. Especially as someone who has been very involved in many reform movements. What Labor Notes Magazine has done to keep a more radical element to the labor movement alive is nothing to shake a stick at either.
John Carico: What are your thoughts on Big Box Unions, Bernie Sanders, and reform politics?
John Paul Wright: Speaking as a member of the oldest craft union in the United States, The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, speaking as someone who by law, cannot join any another union under the confines of the Railway Labor Act, I see big box unions as a way for the railroad corporations to gain control, or as they say, “peace” in the industry. Eugene V. Debs taught us that craft unions in industry, are used for that purpose. The only other union that I am allowed to join, per law, is the SMART union, a.k.a the conductor’s union. So, speaking from a historical standpoint, big box unions are too big to fail. Big structures that depend on a top, become corrupted. Democratic principles are only as strong as the members involved with the structure. Speaking as a Rank and File Reformist and as a National Co-Chair of Railroad Workers United. I see reform politics in this same way.
I also look at unions as a culture, the We The People, suggestion of democratic principal, also has to include a robust care of the minority view. The changes the Rank and File Reformist are fighting for, in their respective unions, such as the Chicago Teachers Union, are to bring the union back down to the membership. To move the union, from the wishes of the membership. Big Box unions that move from the idea of a partnership with capital, have been infected with the same culture of capitalism. Divide and control, competition and aggression. So corrupted.
Realistically speaking in a time known as today and most likely in the near future, this is the state of the labor movement. They are only as powerful as the members. The leadership, made from the membership, has to realize the almost, spiritual moral purpose of the organization. The capitalist, industrial diseases of violence, greed and competition, have to be acknowledged and explored. Meaning, if we are going to accept democratic principles of government, in labor unions and politics, we are going to have to be nice to each other. We are going to have to listen to the minority view and respect it. Especially when we find out that the minority view, is only from a lack of power or control.
The political revolution that Bernie Sanders is calling for in my opinion, will need to understand the socialistic culture of community, void of capitalistic war. My opinion of Sen. Bernie Sanders is that he is telling the truth. The political revolution that he is talking about from his pulpit, includes people getting involved locally in their communities. This is the reform that I suggest. I also suggest a non-violent approach. I think Mr. Sanders as a leader has done a great job facilitating the message. The followers can almost by heart, repeat the platform as he speaks. So, as an educator, his resolutions are getting well known. To understand Sen. Bernie Sanders, you have to know that he is an ardent follower of Eugene Debs. Sanders has also recorded and produced, in 1979, a recording for Folkways Records, all about Eugene. So, me as a folk musician, no brainer .. the dude is a documented folk musician, and Utah Phillips said there is no “republican” folk music.
I also know that he is a politician. I live in the United States of America and we as a nation have a constitution and a bill of rights. Humans in the context of nature have always found ways to make borders. So, reform politics and all the other critical suggestions that seem to hover around the Bernie Sanders Myth, yep. He does need to deal with his Israel problem.
John Carico: What are your thoughts on Near Term Human Extinction v. Industrialization?
John Paul Wright: Humans need to see computers as a tool and put them away when they are finished using them. The industrial economy is violent and produces market control and domination. Fukashima is still leaking and we are at War with Terror? I can get pretty scared if I think about all the things that humans are doing on this planet. Sun Ra, the great thinker and Jazz musician said, “the history of the people of the planet earth is a bad truth.” To me, that is the real threat to human existence.
Unfortunately, humans have always fallen prey to their desires. So as a person who has studied Sufism, we are going to have to continue to fight to be human. Especially now as the computerized industrial / Millitary complex will be able to wage war for commodities and resources. I drive freight trains that are almost to the point of total computerization. We have ports that are being computerized and Google cars and trucks and drones. Humans need to gain control of the innovation. Hopefully in a way that will also allow us to not kill each other in the process.
John Carico: How do we combat sectarianism?
John Paul Wright: Hopefully not in a combative way, but human beings have always disagreed about strategy and how to get things done. We have also always had a problem throwing rocks at each other when we disagree. I think we as a people, like in a “movement” let’s say, the socialist movement, when we are discussing a great thinker in the movement, we are more inclined to suggest all the things that we don’t like about that person or their ideas. Personally, my mother, a Buddhist, suggested “we should take the good and leave the bad,” I know that is simple, but… I think we should talk about all the things we liked about something, before we dissect it in disagreement. If we as red thinkers, are going to have to figure out how to find common goals and work on them together, sharing resources, in essence, practice what we preach. If our movements are designed to bring power to the people, then the leaders are going to have to have deep principals and be governed accordingly by democratic, humanistic principal. Misuse of power? Triggers, and the folks who use the trigger card to gain control. I guess we should form an anti-sectarian group called the matriarchal committee? But, I digress. I admit, I am somewhat an Iron John (google Robert Bly). I also think now that we are living in the post #OWS world, are going to have to rethink out suspect of leaders. I would rather call them facilitators, real leaders show people the way and then get out of the way.
John Carico: What are your favorite labor songs?
John Paul Wright:
There Is Power In A Union – Joe Hill
We Will Sing One Song – Joe Hill
Which Side Are You On – Florence Reece
Aristocracy Forever – Judi Bari
I Hate The Capitalist System – Sarah Ogan Gunning
War On The Workers – Anne Feeney
Anything Utah Phillips
Anne Feeney is an awesome woman. I was honored to carry her guitar for her on the Joe Hill Roadshow Tour. I have a deep respect for labor musicians who have made it their career/job, to document and teach people how to tell their own stories through music. I wish the labor movement found value in us more.
John Carico: Tell us about your music:
John Paul Wright: My bio can be found at www.railroadmusic.org
My music is an attempt to document the working conditions on the American Railroads. Much of my music as of late has been about what it is like living on the front lines of a historical career known as a Locomotive Engineer. My writing is an attempt to escape from the plantation. Our bosses on the railroad are called “Train Masters” and “Superintendents,” so, being on the CSX main-line chain gang, Louisville to Nashville (L&N) is something that I do in reality.
My music is also about trying to suggest my connection to a sense of place. I drag other influences, like American blues and mountain music into my German / Lebanese heritage. The CD I am working on now; I am going to break from the traditional labor music formula that is my past 3cd’s to include some of the study that I have continued in my community. I am a trained West African Djembefola and have deep study in West African Ballet and Village culture. So.. that is the skinny on Railroad Music, The Thread In The Quilt That Is Americana.
John Carico: Any other shout outs?
John Paul Wright: Sue Massek and Family.
Sue is my banjo teacher and mentor, we just finished a Banjo / Folk life apprenticeship with the Kentucky Arts Council. I also have to mention Wendell Berry. I have fallen into that well very deeply. My wife and her entire family is from the same county in Kentucky that he is from, so much of his writing I can picture in my head. Because of some work that I had done with my Railroad Workers United organization, I was invited to meet with Wendell and his wife Tanya, at his home on the banks of the Kentucky River. I learned from his writings, specifically from an essay that can be found in his book called Citizenship Papers that I am somewhat of an Agrarian. We mostly shot the shit about the railroad and he told stories about my wife’s family. We did get to talk about organizer / Activist burnout. That is something that I and many of my “movement” friends and families have suffered from. I hope to talk about my experience with that more.
I have to say, our movements, call them what you want, need to remember to not burn out their workers. Our movements must find ways to rebel, against industrialism’s violent nature, be it in communication, ecological; or just learning how to not be competitive. The shift and reforms, call it what you want, are going to take time. I am sure people were freaked out when the nukes were dropped in Japan, I am sure the end seems near, but ultimately .. we all got to eat, sleep and wake up and go to work. Labor? Let’s find ways to make the work easy. So we can go home and raise our kids and have the time, to be with our families, or have the time to enjoy our commonwealth as humans on this Planet Rock!