“Throughout his life Tom Fiske acted on the fact that the lessons learned in struggle through the 165 years of communist continuity are critical for the working class now, and that everything you do to build revolutionary communist parties in the United States and elsewhere today is decisive for the future of humanity,” said Socialist Workers Party National Committee member Norton Sandler at a spirited meeting here May 31 that celebrated the life and political contributions of a 50-year veteran and leader of the party.
Fiske, 71, died May 20 after a battle with cancer. The event took place two months after a similar meeting honored the life of Becky Ellis, a cadre of the SWP and Fiske’s longtime companion.
The 40 participants came from the surrounding area and from Omaha, Nebraska; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and New York. They included a former co-worker of Fiske and fellow union fighter from LSG Sky Chef at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, a nurse from the hospice where Fiske stayed shortly before his death and individuals who had worked with him defending immigrant workers. One of them, Jovita Morales, had organized a spot on her weekly Spanish-language radio show that morning saluting Fiske’s life and publicizing the meeting.
Helen Meyers chaired the meeting and read excerpts from some of the more than 25 messages sent from the U.S., Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
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“Tom was a leader with total confidence in the capacities of the working class, a proletarian internationalist grounded in the traditions of the Russian Revolution and especially the Cuban Revolution,” wrote Minnesota SWP leader Frank Forrestal, who was in Ukraine on a reporting trip for the Militant.
“Tom spoke calmly and confidently,” said Marty Knaeble, a ramp worker at the Minneapolis airport, describing working with Fiske and Becky Ellis in meetings to build support for the 2005 strike of Northwest Airlines mechanics. Knaeble was one of a small number of ramp workers who refused to cross the picket line of the mechanics, who were organized by a different union. “I wouldn’t have spoken up without the support of Tom and Becky,” Knaeble said, adding that Fiske told him “not to downplay the importance of what I and others had done by not crossing the picket line.”
“What made Tom the way he was?” Knaeble asked. “It was his party, the Socialist Workers Party.”
Fiske first became active in working-class politics amid world-shaking events, such as the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, the proletarian-led Black struggle and its deep impact on politics throughout the United States and around the world, and the movement against the U.S. war in Vietnam.
He grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and attended the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1960s. He moved to Boston to attend graduate school, where he joined the Young Socialist Alliance and, in 1967, the Socialist Workers Party.
In 1968 many young people were backing Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s bid for the Democratic Party nomination for U.S. president. The Communist Party actively promoted the Democratic Party “peace candidates.” The SWP argued for forging an independent working-class party based on the trade unions as a counter to “anti-war” candidates like McCarthy and others, explaining that they reinforced the two-party system that the ruling class manipulates effectively to maintain power, Sandler said.
Today the Bernie Sanders campaign for president is a sign we are going to see “more socialists and so-called independents, all reinforcing capitalism, not advancing an independent course for the working class that relies on our own power,” Sandler said.
When Fiske was in the Los Angeles branch in the early 1970s, he was assigned to the household of retired SWP National Secretary James P. Cannon, Meyers said. Andrea Morrell in Oakland, California, and Anthony Dutrow in Miami sent messages to the meeting describing working with Fiske in the Cannon house.
“Our assignment was to make sure Jim was able to keep writing and editing speeches and other materials that have since been published,” Dutrow wrote, explaining that the Los Angeles SWP headquarters had been bombed by Cuban counterrevolutionaries in 1968.
“Tom sat me down and explained the discipline involved in a 24-hour security effort like this,” Dutrow wrote.
Fiske and Ellis, who got together in 1974 while both were members of the Houston SWP branch, anchored many branches over the ensuing decades, Sandler said.
In the late 1970s, as growing resistance of union steelworkers and coal miners confirmed that the labor movement was again at the center stage of U.S. politics, the SWP decided to get its members into basic industry. Fiske got a job in a steel plant in Dallas. He was a leader of the party’s turn to industry from then on, Sandler said.
In 1980 in Atlanta, Lockheed carried out political firings of 15 workers who had been active resisting company speedup and unsafe conditions on the pretext of alleged “falsifications” on their job applications. All were accused of being members of the Socialist Workers Party or Young Socialist Alliance.
Led fight against political firings
“Tom, a machinist at the plant and organizer of the party fraction, who was not fired, led the fight against these political firings, charting a course of reaching out broadly for support,” Chris Hoeppner, one of those fired, said in a message to the meeting. The struggle “uncovered an elaborate network of company and government spies and political surveillance aimed at the union and at all unionists who held ideas the company disagreed with.”
Fiske ran for public office many times as an SWP candidate, including for governor of Minnesota, for U.S. Senate and Congress and for mayor of Minneapolis.
Messages from Becca Williamson in Omaha and Jacob Perasso in New York highlighted the collaboration they had received from Fiske while working at the Dakota Premium Foods meatpacking plant during the nearly decade-long struggle to establish and maintain a union.
“Tom worked at politics and pushed others to do so as well,” Diana Newberry, a leader of the Twin Cities branch of the SWP, told the meeting. “When the first big attacks by the U.S. government on the Somali community occurred here and explosive meetings and demonstrations took place, Tom led the party right into the middle of the actions, organizing discussions in the party and at Militant Labor Forums. He worked with others on getting articles on the fight into the Militant, and spoke out as the SWP candidate for mayor of Minneapolis.”
Newberry described her work with Fiske in recent years responding to the raids by the immigration cops and the protests that followed and the labor struggles by meat packers across the Midwest. “For Tom, revolutionary politics was pure enjoyment, whether meeting and discussing with workers at a demonstration, going door to door with the Militant or at a plant gate or on a picket line,” she said. “Other workers picked up on this. He always seemed to sell more subscriptions to the Militant than anyone else.”
“Tom reminded me of leaders from before, who keep fighting till the end, who are never negative, who always see the positive,” Pablo Tapia, a longtime fighter for immigrant rights and a leader of the Asamblea de Derechos Civiles, told the Militant after the meeting.
Confidence in workers’ capacities
Fiske’s confidence in the capacities of the working class was evident in how he worked with those attracted to the party.
“Like many youth, I was attracted to the Black struggle,” Arrin Hawkins wrote in a message. “Tom knew I would read Malcolm X on my own. So instead he directed me to Teamster Rebellion and For a Workers and Farmers Government in the United States and encouraged me to meet with him to discuss these books. I respected him for taking me seriously.”
Other messages highlighted Fiske’s work over the years defending the Cuban Revolution and explaining the necessity for workers in this country to organize a revolutionary struggle that will end the rule of the dictatorship of capital.
Fiske served 15 years on the Socialist Workers Party National Committee. Over the past five years, Sandler said, “Tom took on many difficult assignments that took him outside of the Twin Cities, and though some were not easy for him, he put great effort into them.”
Sandler said Fiske was “old school,” in the best traditions of the Minneapolis branch of the SWP going back to the party’s leadership in the Teamster battles of the 1930s. If a comrade on full-time assignment for the party came to Minneapolis, Fiske made sure he or she had food and gas money and a comfortable place to stay.
In discussions with Fiske in recent months, Sandler said, “Tom understood what was developing in the labor movement and the response of Black working-class youth in particular to cop killings and brutality. He knew that in the midst of this you had to hold the banner of the SWP high and set an example by speaking out and campaigning for a road forward for the working class.”
A collection at the meeting raised $1,031 for the work of the SWP. Participants stayed after the program browsing through the messages, looking at a display of Fiske’s political life and enjoying food and refreshments provided by supporters of the SWP.