Claudette Piper

Las Cruces, New Mexico

 I grew up in Durango, Colorado, where I read voraciously and trained and exercised horses. Like many kids of the era, I didn’t have much in the way of adult supervision, so I got into every available adventure and escapade. It was a free-range, wild-west sort of childhood.

 

Schools were mediocre, but I had some very fine teachers. Mr. Aretz specialized in levying thoughtful discipline designed to settle restless souls. One kid who yearned to be working on the family farm was seated to face a window. I was put in the corner with the encyclopedias and dictionaries. Another early teacher asked questions that made me think differently about the bigger world, and he encouraged me to ask questions of my own. I had been horrified by the Rosenberg executions and read the headlines in the Rocky Mountain News with a great deal of suspicion. But at home, following social norms, religion and politics were never discussed at the table

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Photo by Sam Struthers

My family generally voted Democratic, and in many ways, they modeled concern for all. But they did not like socialists because they (the very few in Durango) had not contributed to fundraisers for World War II—or so my family said. My first sense of connection to the movement was as a young teen in the 50s, wanting to sit in at the Woolworth’s. My parents would have killed me and so I didn’t. When I left for the University of Colorado, my brother, 12 years my senior, took me aside and showed me a list of organizations that I must not join. Included was the Young People’s Socialist League. Naturally I was at their doorstep when I arrived on campus. 

 

Press workers came from a variety of backgrounds. I married and moved with my husband to California and then Japan, where he served in the US Army and I taught English. In 1964 or so, the Chitose Army Base movie theater started running a video of flamethrowers in Vietnam while the audience sang the US National Anthem. Despite being military, much of the audience hated the violence. On the next occasion several of us wives decided to be silent and turn our backs to the flag, for which our husbands were chewed out and advised to control us. The following week the video was Joan Baez singing “This Land is Your Land…” I wasn’t sure whether to consider this a small victory or an example of co-optation. 

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This is the chain I saved, and an 8mm Allen wrench like the ones I always carried in a back pocket.

The following year, RESIST offered me a job in Cambridge and a seat on the board of directors. Working at the Free Press followed naturally. I began my time there in March of 1971, but according to old date books, I spent a few nights in October 1970 learning how to print. Charlie, who worked second shift, may have taught me, but I’m not positive. Susanna Cobb taught me to run and maintain the folder. I can’t recall everyone who worked at the Press when I was there. I remember Susanna, Charlie and Joanie, of course, and Don McKelvey, Suzy Q Groden, Tim Kiefer and Allison Berry. I knew Karen Townsend a bit, as well. As I remember, she traveled to California often. 

I spent a lot of time on the folder—running it, doing maintenance, and setting it up for new folds. As I think back, I am surprised at how mechanically inclined I was. Once, we had to hire a mechanic to replace gears on the Chief 20. To save Press money, I spent most of the night stripping the machine to its bare bones and solvent-cleaning every piece I removed, lining them up on a nearby table so the guy who came the next day could get in and out fast. I saved a drive chain and used it as a paperweight for many years. 

 

We called the 20 Sexy Sadie. The bigger one, the Chief 22, we called Proud Mary. I printed a lot on Sadie—mostly two-color posters, as I recall. I probably printed flyers and pamphlets also, but posters stick in my mind because of the time a German video crew came to film us at work. I couldn’t get the paper to feed correctly for the second color run, and I’m sure that every image was of me grabbing sheets out of the press and throwing them wildly—cursing all the while. 

Scissors always disappeared from the packing table. I wanted to chain them to the table, but I was outvoted. I was always trying to bring structure and efficiency to the Free Press, but I suspect others found this annoying. I remember a time analysis survey we compiled, with one section on repairing equipment, to which I added the category, Time Spent Looking for Tools to Repair Equipment. 

 

I loved the banter as well as the substantive conversations around the packing table. I loved receiving and filling orders, especially from smaller towns like the one where I’d grown up. Honestly, I liked everything about being in a print shop—about the skills and knowledge and political literacy I was picking up every day. I felt accomplished and productive and that we were making the world a better place—maybe even changing it

It was pure luck that the first job I found when I decided I did not want to be married was with the American Friends Service Committee in Baltimore.

 

There I met Phil and Dan Berrigan and went on to join the ever-growing ranks of those raiding draft boards and other federal and corporate institutions. It was then, too, that I met Joanie and Charlie.  On November 7-8, the Boston 8 liberated and destroyed 100,000 Selective Service records from six boards in four locations.  To my knowledge no one from the area was drafted for the duration of the war. The next week the Boston 8 “surfaced” (took public responsibility for an act of non-violent direct action) on the Washington Mall just as another antiwar march was gathering. No arrests were ever made.

 

In 1970 RESIST offered me a job in Cambridge and a seat on the Board of Directors; working at the Free Press followed naturally. I loved the banter as well as the substantive conversations around the packing table. I loved getting and filling orders, especially from podunk places like where I’d grown up. Most of all, I really liked everything about a print shop, about the skills and knowledge and literacy I was picking up every day. (I even grew to like the solvent smell.) I felt accomplished and productive and like we were making the world a better place—maybe even changing it.

I think each worker had a favorite publication, one they referred to in years following. Mine was a pamphlet containing "How to Spread the Word" and "Notes on Left Propaganda" by Leo Huberman. “Truth is on our side," Huberman wrote. "It is the job of the socialist propagandist to present the truth in its clearest and most persuasive form. It seems a pity to have to point out at this late date, that jargon and name-calling neither clarify nor persuade.” That concept guided all political work I’ve done since. I've also hung onto this poster from my Free Press days, and during Occupy, I reproduced it for use in my community

Some of my starkest memories of the Press are of the injuries. (If you’re squeamish, you may want to skip ahead a few paragraphs.) A woman whose name I don’t remember, but who may have been Allison Berry, caught her cleaning rag and arm in the Chief 20 one evening. I took her to the emergency room in Roxbury—the closest hospital. Her arm was a mess because her hand had been pulled into the rollers up to her wrist. Skin, muscles and tendons were smashed, and maybe some bones were broken. She was in total shock, and so was I. She got weeks (months?) of rehab and worker’s comp; I don’t know if she ever came back to work at the Press. 

 

I also remember a man, probably Dan Kiefer, who stapled his own finger in the stitcher. As I recall, it was a weekend night and kind of late, and knowing the Roxbury ER would be busy with more serious cases, I drove him to Harvard Community Health Center in Cambridge. Jim O’Brien has confirmed my dim memory that NEFP paid for medical insurance with them.

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Photo by Jack Eisenberg

Something else that comes to mind about the Press is the cockroaches. They were rampant. Forget to dump out a coffee mug at night and the next morning you’d find it crammed with drowned roaches. Once, I decided to clean out behind the fridge and water cooler, and when I pulled the cooler out, the back was wallpapered with hundreds of roaches that immediately ran every which way. I was so shocked that I jumped back, nearly falling onto the folder. 

 

The Press put a “bug” on everything we distributed. I knew almost nothing about unions then, and for a long time I thought our Movement Labor bug was a logo designed in honor of the resident cockroaches. Later I learned it was the logo used by subsistence-wage movement shops to proclaim affinity with union organizing (despite the fact that we were then too poor to join one ourselves). The NEFP officially joined the IWW after moving to Union Square. 

 

Another folder story: On April 15, 1971, the FBI came to the Press to serve me a subpoena to testify before the Federal Grand Jury in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I had been warned that nine men in three cars had been to my apartment earlier that morning, and I decided to put them off a bit longer, so I crawled under the folder to hide. I wrote a press release, and later that afternoon accepted the FBI subpoena from three huge men at the RESIST office. Six more agents waited outside, all doing their best to look intimidating. I laughed at them: Imagine needing nine agents to deliver a piece of paper to one small-statured woman.

 

One really notable thing about the Press was how many of us, particularly the women, stayed on in the trades or moved on to other traditionally “male” jobs. I left in 1972 to become a “real worker” in the in-house print shop at Boston Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Later, as a single parent who needed a better salary, I set up and managed the print shop at Abt Associates. Jill Goldstein worked there for several years, too, and then got a job with USPS. Hester worked in a carton-making factory after she left the press. Susanna Cobb became a cameraman (she was proud of that title!) and stripper at a print shop in Watertown, Massachusetts, and Berkeley, California. When Karen Geise left Union Square, her next job was in an auto repair shop. Meg Costello became a master electrician. And Karen Townsend/Mae became the first woman to become a member of the California Printers’ Union.

A final memory, this one also happy: On an oppressively hot day in August, the clouds suddenly opened and rain poured down. Spontaneously we all looked at each other, in our heads the unspoken, joyful thought. Hey, we own this place! We can do what we want! Someone pointed a thumb upstairs, someone else grabbed a bar of soap, and in unison we shut down our machines and ran to the roof, shucked our clothes, and showered in the cooling rain. In retrospect this story could work as a metaphor for success in a worker-owned cooperative. We worked really hard for subsistence wages, never missing a deadline. We did it because the work was our contribution to building a movement, and among the rewards was the occasional welcome rain when we didn’t have to answer to any boss.