Tribute to Don Stillman

Don Stillman is one of the luckiest men of his – and my – generation. I sometimes think we may have had the best seven decades in human history. Bliss was in that dawn of the 1960s to be alive and to be young was very heaven. Our fathers had gone to war, like their father before them. Our mothers had grown up in a world were women had to limit their femaleness in every way.
We made love not war. In fact, for the first time ever the ordinary Joe and Jane activist stopped wars especially the last great foolish war of imperial colonialism, the war of Vietnam.
Each summer I took one of my four children to Washington to stay with Don and Judy. I did so just before they got to age 12 and air fares went into adult prices. I wanted them to see, taste the US as early as possible and Washington DC is one of the most amazing tourist traps in the world with everything joined up, everything free, and since in those days I had a little pull, a free trip around the White House as well.
Don and Judy and Sarah and Scott made them all so welcome because as we all know underneath the tough highly political trade unionist and activist journalist lies an adoring papa who cannot do enough for any friend’s children.
Anyway to return to Don’s story, there I was with Laura 11, in front of Maya Lin’s Vietnam war memorial – still for my Euro the best war memorial ever. Laura’s grandfather was Vietnamese and will be celebrating his 90th birthday in France about the time Don is enjoying his 70th. As we walked along the black marble looking at the names of those brave men whose lives were sacrificed on the altar of the vanity of powerful men in Washington I was explaining to Laura the history of Vietnam and why there were two long wars against the two revolutionary republics of France and America she turned to me and knocked me out with her question.
“Yes, Daddy, but what was communism?”
What indeed? Her question ended the 20th century for me there and then and of course she might have asked “What was apartheid?” or “What were military dictatorships in South Korea, or Latin America?”
Don Stillman can answer those and other questions because he played a role, at times a significant role, in putting communist rule in Poland, or apartheid rule in South Africa, or military rule in Brazil or death squad rule in Guatemala into the dustbin of history.
But let’s not run ahead of the story. Don like me is part of the 1968 generation. Soixante-huitardes as the French call us. One number short of something else. Achtundsechsigers in German. If you can remember the 1960s you probably were there. Well I went up to Merton College, Oxford in 1966. We had to wear short-ass gowns, suits, white shirts, ties, the college gates were shut at midnight and woe betide anyone caught with a girl in their room. You’d have to ask an Old Etonian like David Cameron or Boris Johnson if there was a problem with boys. Warm beer and cheap Yugoslav wine were the mind-changers of preference. Oxford hadn’t much changed from the description in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
By the time I left in the summer of 1969, a revolution had occurred. You dressed as you wanted, the college doorkeeper sold very good quality dope, the gates never shut and you could have as many girls (or boys) to stay overnight as might be managed. Bill Clinton was there and no, he never inhaled. His asthma made puffing weed impossible. Ask however if he ingested as in hashcake and the great dissimulator might be troubled to find the right swerve-around words.
Tabs of acid were dropped to climb over chapel walls to gatecrash college balls at which the Stones or the Who played. With friends like Christopher Hitchens, who later became a big friend and fan of Don’s in Washington DC or Martin Amis we occupied the university administration blocks, sent coaches to London to add to the half million in Grosvenor Square saying No to the Vietnam War and read everything and anything except maybe the books our bemused professors thought were good for us.
Bob Dylan was the singer of choice. Last Thanksgiving 2014 Don and Judy took me see him in Washington. Oh dear. He has not worn well. The voice has gone. His new songs forgettable. There was one croaked-out “Blowing in the Wind” but it didn’t take me back.
Now the oddest thing about that 1968 generation that saw itself as a new left was that it gave birth to the long neo-liberal years of Reagan-Thatcher globalisation. Richard Branson and Bill Gates went off not to change the world but to make money. We poured into banking, the law, the professions, journalism and reinvented everything. But the triumph of possessive individualism, of accumulation grew dominant as the economy the 1968ers shaped grew more unequal.
There was one area where 1968 progressives especially those with a way with words could make a difference and that was in the labor movement. By 2020 in the US there will be more self-employed workers than men or women in waged or salaried jobs. If trade unions do not massively reinvent themselves they will dwindle in importance and relevance. Labor unions came in with the 20th century and historians may judge they went out with the 20th century.
Don Stillman played a key role in the late flowering of US industrial unionism. While the UAW, and other mid-century unions like the Steelworkers or Machinists, struggled inside America against Reaganism and globalisation, plus Republicans and their cheerleaders under ringmaster Rupert Murdoch, the 1980s saw an extraordinary reach-out by the UAW to support historic change around the world.
From Solidarity in Poland to Nelson Mandela and black trade unions in South Africa, the 1980s saw the twin evils of apartheid and Soviet oppression dismantled without any recourse to violence. In both countries, the trade union as a political organisation was pivotal. And the leadership of Don Stillman was essential in leveraging American support when it really mattered.
The US had a long sad, bad history of trying to steer developments in faraway nations in a direction Washington liked. It was not that the goal of regime change was undesirable. Nor was Soviet communism quite the cuddly Winnie-the-Pooh politics that its and its useful idiots in parts of global left proclaimed. But too often a crude red-baiting style or a demand that anyone Washington or the AFL-CIO was going to help had to sign up to ideological verities that made no sense to the local struggle meant that made-in-16th-St international labor activity produced resentment and was even counter-productive.
Luckily, the UAW had a tradition of internationalism shaped under the Reuther brothers, Walter and Victor, and maintained by UAW presidents like Doug Fraser and Owen Bieber that Don Stillman was able to articulate as the UAW point-man in so many key countries in the 1980s where trade union organisation and politics were crucial to vital change.
The details can be found in Don Stillman’s book “We Don’t Quit! Stories of UAW Global Solidarity” published in 2015. This is far more than just another labor self-glorification exercise. It is an extremely well-researched and well-written account of the many changes for the better in world politics in which the UAW played a significant role.
Of course, as the author, Don Stillman, cannot toot his own toot and of course due tribute is paid as it has to be to the wisdom and leadership of the UAW and its leaders. But at each stage of deciding what to do Don Stillman was there using his impressive writing skills to produce a paper, or just bullet points that guided UAW presidents to be on the right side of progressive history.
You all know Don – jokey, easy to like, ready with a story or a glass, putting himself out to be helpful. It’s called spreading bread upon the waters or what goes around comes around and so when Don needed a favour or a door opened or an introduction in so many far-flung corners of the world he had already made a useful friend.
He was there as Lula moved to end military rule in Brazil or Kim Dae-Jung did the same in South Korea. I will never forget being with Don in Durban for a May Day back in the eighties when a ugly Zulu boss-man called Chief Buthelezi had announced he was launching his own trade union as a rival to the progressive South African trade union, Cosatu.
The launch rally was due to be held in a soccer stadium in Durban and our taxi-driver refused to take us there as thousands of Buthelezi militia thugs in green fatigues carrying pump guns surrounded the stadium barring access to anyone opposed to the Chief’s pro-apartheid politics.
I was pretty sure that two guys, a Brit and an American, were not going to face trouble – I hate to say it but this was apartheid and we were white – and I told Don just to walk with me steadily towards the stadium entry, not to look left or right, and no backchat.
Like the Red Sea parting for Moses, the armed horde opened up and we walked through them to get into the stadium and listen to the ranting of hate against progressive anti-apartheid trade unions from Chief Buthelezi who today does not even merit a footnote in history.
I think we had earned ourselves a drink by the time we got back to the hotel. But later Don took Owen Bieber down to South Africa and one of his proudest possession is a dedicated signed photo of Nelson Mandela as Don Stillman deserves far more than a footnote in the story if how South Africa became free of apartheid rule.
For me he just became a friend, as did Judy. I got Sarah to wear a soccer shirt of my home town team, Rotherham United, and it was published in the team’s programme. Scott and Sarah were so kind to all me four children and to stay in 2007 Plymouth Street was to share a home from home and to be made as welcome as any other friends I have in my life.
I guess we will have to wait a while to write it all over again for Judy but all I can say what a couple! I am not the best organised when it comes to books, and papers, half-written sheets but the Everest of paper that is a Don Stillman office, or den, or study is something to be seen! Yet underneath the piles of yellow pads, conference bags, boxes of books, camera and computers lay an enormous breadth of reading. I think that’s why my Oxford pals, Christopher Hitchens, and the Guardian’s legendary foreign correspondent, Martin Walker, liked Don’s company so much because he had read as much, sometime more than they had.
Don’s period as a visiting fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford, the most prestigious and stylish of all the Oxford colleges was a mark of respect that the elite professors of Oxford who specialise in labor relations held him in.
Luckily after I went into the House of Commons and became a Labour government foreign minister there were plenty of reasons to come to Washington or for Don and Judy to visit London. Luckily his sleeping-waking hours fit the UK clock perfectly so there was often time for long telephone talks on US politics where Don’s insights together with his network of 1970s mineworkers’ campaign activists like Frank Greer and Ed James were invaluable as they helped me tell Tony Blair and others what really was going to happen in US politics.
It was thanks to an August 1999 stay in Plymouth Street and meeting with some of his network that I felt confident in writing a memo for Prime Minister Tony Blair entitled “Why George W Bush Will Be the Next US President”. Not what I wanted but the left gets nowhere if it fails to understand what the right is doing in real time and real terms not just in the condemnatory columns of The Nation.
To put it mildly I have had ups and downs in my life, sometimes bad, very bad moments. But Don has always been there with great advice on how to handle a problem and true friendship and solidarity when I needed it.
When my daughter, Laura graduated from McGill three years ago we came to Orcas and there up on the front wall was a huge congratulations “Well Done, Laura’ poster with the McGill heraldic shield in the centre.
I love visiting Orcas and the way Don has returned to his north-west roots and built this extraordinary home in this extraordinary place is something to be marvelled. Cost and time make it not as easy to reach as Washington DC but definitely as the Michelin guide might put it il vaut le détour.
And of course one of my strongest bonds with Don is love of cooking and good food. I hesitate to reveal all the great meals eaten on the shore of Lake Geneva where Don found a special hotel at Coppet, a lakeside town down the road from Geneva where I worked for the International Metalworkers Federation to which the UAW was affiliated.
It is probably better in these prim abstemious days not to dwell on great restaurant meals eaten on expenses and in my case the less said about expenses the better. But with Don cooking you know you are going to get a great dinner and the best barbeques I’ve had have come from his decking in Plymouth St or Orcas. For years my bottle was Chablis or Sancerre and Don’s was Jack. Until at one restaurant in Marseilles just after I was elected an MP in 1994 there was no more Jack. I admired that change of direction as I saw in friends like Christopher Hitchens and other 1968ers just where an alternative path might lead.
For Don, Judy, Sarah and Scott were all the mattered and I admire his decision to forget Jack in order to be a strong father and writer as well as an important UAW official.
Now of course with Don there is so much laughter, so many jokes, so many stories and as Gibbon said when he switched to Latin in “Decline and Fall” when describing a very salacious tale of Roman decadence it may be necessary to draw the veil of antiquity over what happened in order to protect more innocent, unformed readers.
My son Benjamin celebrates his 21st birthday in mid-August at the same time as his Vietnamese grandfather holds a 90th birthday party at the family home in France so I will be there and not in Orcas. But I hope there are many more Orcas or DC trips to come and any lawyers reading who can do pro-bono advice on US visa rules, please give me a call.
I am just back from Greece after 3 weeks of the most intense pressure-cooker politics I can remember since being in Poland in 1980-1981 or with Don in South Africa 30 years ago (Christ 30 years?! It was only yesterday!).
The struggle goes on and I am proud to have marched with Don Stillman in the ranks of those ready to take big risks and make big sacrifices to change the world for the better. He never forgot that while he and I could always get a plane back there were trade unionists staying udner condition of great risk. And while Wall Street and Forbes or Fox worship at any instance of exploitative capitalism Don Stillman has been there to point out that in China and other countries the doors of prison and gulags slam shut on those who carry the torch of freedom, democracy and social justice. La lotta continua.
There has been loads of laughter and the love of family and friends en route but the core of Don Stillman’s life well-lived is that desire – almost a sense of duty – to leave the world a better place than how he found it.
I am proud to have known Don Stillman and drawn so much from our friendship. In the Benedictine school I went to the toast for a monk on his birthday was Ad multos annos (Many more years). In Polish, the tongue of my long-dead father, the birthday toast is Stolat – May you live 100 years.
So Ad multos annos and Stolat to Don Stillman and see you soon.

Denis MacShane London July 2015

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