Brian Elam, A Revolutionary with Unshakable Confidence in the Working Class

By Geoff Mirelowitz

Brian Elam, next to the bust of the well-known revolutionary socialist and trade unionist Eugene Victor Debs. (Photo: Courtesy Matt Mortensen)

Brian Elam, a militant trade unionist, revolutionary socialist and determined fighter for the interests of the international working class died Friday, June 2 at his sister Mary Ellen’s home in Kokomo, Indiana. He was 71 years old. The cause of death was cancer.

Brian was an early supporter of World-Outlook and helped it become known among other workers.

Brian was a student at Indiana University in Bloomington when he met members of the Young Socialist Alliance in the early 1970s. He subsequently also joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). He was an enthusiastic supporter of the SWP’s decision in 1978 to focus its attention on the industrial trade unions. He was an active member of the United Auto Workers in Detroit and later other unions. At the time of his death, he was a retired railroad unionist.

Brian Elam (second from the right), Matt Mortensen (to Brian’s right), and fellow workers. (Photo: Courtesy Matt Mortensen)

Brian came from a working-class family. He often spoke to me proudly of his father who was also a militant trade unionist.

Brian and I were acquainted but did not know each other well in the SWP. (We both left it many years ago.) Like many others, we reconnected in later years through Facebook. In 2020 Brian reached out to invite me to join a study group he was putting together with other workers, primarily railroad unionists who were active in the union Brian belonged to, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWED). The union represents workers who build and maintain track, bridges, buildings, and other structures on U.S. railroads. Brian worked as a bridge tender in the Kansas City area.

Initiated study group

Brian and the other workers he knew were trying to find ways to strengthen their union, make it more democratic, and fight more effectively against the anti-labor policies of the rail bosses. Brian suggested reading and discussing Teamster Rebellion, the account by Farrell Dobbs of a historic 1934 strike in Minneapolis. Dobbs, a young worker at the time who became a central strike leader, was later the SWP national secretary.

Meeting regularly via Zoom the study group lasted for over a year. After reading and discussing Teamster Rebellion the group decided to continue with the three subsequent volumes written by Dobbs that continue the story of how the Teamsters union was transformed into a large, powerful industrial trade union from the small, ineffective craft union it had once been.

This is the first in a four-volume series on the class-struggle leadership of the strikes and organizing drives that transformed the Teamsters union in much of the Midwest into a fighting social movement and pointed the road toward independent labor political action.

Much of our discussion centered on what Dobbs described as “the skillful and considerate leadership of the workers by revolutionary socialists,” through the example they set in action and the strategy they advocated for the union. When we concluded that series, the group then read and discussed the two volumes of Revolutionary Continuity – Marxist Leadership in the U.S. (The Early Years & Birth of the Communist Movement, 1918-22), also written by Dobbs.

How successive generations of fighters joined in the struggles that shaped the US labor movement, seeking to build a class-conscious revolutionary leadership capable of advancing the interests of workers and small farmers and linking up with fellow toilers worldwide. First of two volumes.

Brian brought his decades of experience in the workers movement into those discussions. He had a knack for explaining the lessons he had learned in popular terms. He also had a good ear. He wanted to know what others, who were new to the material in the books, thought about the ideas Dobbs outlined. He encouraged others, reading the books for the first time, to speak and raise questions.

His own contributions to our discussions often focused on the importance of independent working-class political action. For decades Brian had worked to persuade fellow workers that the Democratic and Republican two-party system was a dead end for the working class. He was a strong advocate of the need for a truly independent Labor Party, one that understands that political action must be far more than running in elections but begins in the workplace, on the picket lines, and in the streets, fighting for the interests of working people every day.

On the news of Brian’s death some workers who participated in our study group, as well as others who had known Brian in the labor movement, shared their memories of him on Facebook. He had clearly made a deep impression on them.

“Brian Elam, you meant so much to me and it’s so hard to say goodbye,” wrote Matt Mortensen, president of BMWED Local 2403 in the Kansas City area. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today without you in my life. You taught me how to be a fighter for the working class and stand up for those who didn’t have a voice.”

Matt Weaver, a BMWED member in Ohio and a steering committee member of Railroad Workers United (RWU), wrote, “Rest In Peace Brother. A tremendous voice for the working class!! Far too early.”

Keon Liberato, a former BMWED member who convened each session of our study group, now a teacher in Philadelphia, wrote in an email, “This is extremely sad news. It is a big loss. Damn… Brian has had a huge impact on me.”

A fierce champion and mentor

Carey Dall met Brian when Dall was director of internal organizing for the BMWED. In a Facebook post he wrote, “The American working class lost a fierce champion yesterday. Brian Elam worked and organized in rail, auto, healthcare, and paper. An unbending revolutionary and working class intellectual, he was a mentor to so many.

“Brian’s last working years were as a bridge tender on BNSF in Kansas City. An early supporter of the BMWED’s (Teamster rail conference) internal organizing program, Brian was a significant force in moving member participation, education, and politicization across the country.

“You will be missed my Brother, my Comrade. We won’t stop the struggle you so patiently helped to birth in us. My gratitude is immense.”

Two Facebook groups of rank-and-file workers, BMWED Rank and File United and Organized MOW [Maintenance of Way] Solidarity First! also posted to honor Brian’s life.

Brian’s death was also marked by many who knew him at Indiana University decades ago and worked with him in the socialist movement in their years after college. Ann Riley Owens captured him well. “Brian was fearless and honest and smart on his feet,” she wrote. “He was such an asset to a team and could win people’s hearts easily.”

Ike Nahem, a roommate of Brian’s decades ago, also a retired rail unionist and a leader of the International US-Cuba Normalization Committee Coalition wrote, “Brian took his lifelong revolutionary ‘vocation’ seriously and educated and armed himself with the history of the international working-class movement and with the theoretical foundations of Marxism. And inspired many others to do the same.

“Brian hated with every fiber in his body all and every form of bigotry, prejudice, racism, Jew-hatred, homophobia, misogyny. He was a real mensch!”

Shortly prior to Brian’s death, Nahem organized a Zoom meeting with the help of Brian’s sister so that some of us could talk with Brian together. He was clearly weakened from the cancer, but his spirits were lifted by the chance to reminisce with old friends. The most important thing he wanted us to know was, “I’m still a revolutionary!”

On the opening page of Teamster Rebellion Farrell Dobbs wrote of, “The men and women who gave me unshakable confidence in the working class.” I believe Brian Elam shared that same confidence and acted on it throughout his life. As others have attested, his example made a lasting impact on many other working-class fighters. Truly a legacy to be proud of.

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