Patricia Cayo Sexton (1924-2012) died peacefully in her sleep on August 11, after a lifetime devoted to advancing the rights of wage-earning women and men in their workplaces and communities. Her death deprives the Dissent circle of a true stalwart. With her late husband, Brendan Sexton, she was an active member of the United Auto Workers in the Reuther generation of the union?s founding. Their home was for many years a gathering place for social democratic talk and action. Her books and essays continue to offer invaluable insights into the relentless attacks on labor and the working class, even while they document the possibilities of democratic action. At Dissent meetings and other gatherings of social democrats, Pat Sexton was an active listener who saved her comments for their timeliest moment in the debate. She was sharp, attractive, and plainspoken, as were so many of her generation who had spent time in the car shops and union halls of industrial America.
Pat was a regular voice in Dissent, especially after joining the editorial board in 1972. She wrote memorable pieces for the magazine on labor, urban poverty, women in education, and finance capitalism. A faculty member in sociology and urban education at NYU, her highly acclaimed book Spanish Harlem (1965) was a close-up account of life and social conditions in what was then still a relatively new racial and ethnic community, the Puerto Rican Barrio of Harlem. As an urban sociologist, Pat was known particularly for her work on urban poverty and education. Her work on labor and capital are especially notable for their continuing relevance to current controversies. Her book The War on Labor and the Left (1992), analyzes the exceptional anti-labor virulence of segments of the American ownership class. The book challenges the notion accepted by many liberals and progressives of the time that in the new social contract of post-war labor-management relations, the trade unions would have a secure place at the bargaining table.
Pat?s first-hand knowledge of labor history and labor politics was formed in the battles in Detroit and elsewhere to create the United Autoworkers Union. She had worked alongside her mother, who was also an autoworker, in the finishing and upholstery department at the huge Dodge Main plan in Hamtramck, a separate industrial town within the greater Detroit area. Pat emerged as a leader on the shop floor. She was elected as a shop steward from her assembly line. Since she knew the workings of the union from the ground up and was always close to its leadership, she also knew that the corporations and their allies had never given up on their commitments to attack union power. Yet as a sociologist she was also trained to look critically even at organizations she cherished. Here is how she began an assessment of the UAW for Dissent on the occasion of the union?s fiftieth anniversary in 1986:
Having closely tracked the UAW for more than forty years of its fifty-year history, through two auto worker parents, three years on a Dodge Main assembly line, a decade of working for it, and a husband with thirty-five years as member and staffer, I am convinced that the spirit of Walter Reuther is still alive in the UAW and that, despite some ups and downs, the union, which celebrates its fiftieth birthday this year, has held to the standards of performance set during the long Reuther years, though Walter’s brother, Victor disagrees.
Even as Pat wrote this 1986 anniversary piece, the union was suffering from losses of membership. The UAW still had over a million members, but it had lost over 500,000 members in the previous decade. (Today it has less than half a million.) Corporate owners were moving shops to the anti-union South or offshore. The boom decades following the great wars, when Americans invested in massive infrastructure projects like the interstate highway system, space exploration, and expansion of public higher education, were winding down. Foreign car makers were insisting on non-union regimes, and communities in anti-union states made lavish offers to attract their new American operations. Automation was increasing worker productivity while reducing jobs.
Pat witnessed the agony of union locals and national UAW leaders who faced constant demands for concessions on wages, benefits, and working conditions. She realized that Victor Reuther was correct to a degree: concessions and give-backs were weakening union solidarity, although the union leaders were in untenable situations as they desperately sought to protect their members? jobs. On the other hand, she argued, the union remained democratic and remarkably free of corruption because of its strong culture of solidarity and egalitarian fellowship, and remained an essential institution in the continuing struggle to promote the values and goals of social democracy. But the ?race to the bottom? for American working people was underway, and Pat was one of the first to document its origins among anti-union business owners.
Pat also wrote in Dissent about how finance, rather than industrial, capital was distorting the domestic and global economies. In ?Con Games and Gamblers on Wall Street,? a prescient 1999 essay, she warned:
?the market is far from being the real economy?s sugar daddy. Instead, its function more nearly resembles that of the casino or a Ponzi scheme than that of a corporate helpmate; and ?gambling? is more descriptive of what goes on in its chambers than ?investing.? As in the casino, luck is the reigning source of rewards. Every six months the Wall Street Journal treats us to a stock-picking contest between darts thrown at stock tables and the picks of a top team of investment professionals.
As with all her writing, this essay demonstrated Pat?s ability to use the experience of working people and their families in a more far-reaching analysis of the economy. She devotes a good deal of attention, for example, to the likely consequences of the private sector?s retreat from mutually funded pension plans to 401ks and similar worker-funded schemes. Aside from their lesser value as pension plans, she warned that placing responsibility for managing these funds on individuals and families with little investment experience could have disastrous consequences. Irresponsible and poorly regulated stock manipulators could too easily fold these vital family resources into dangerous, unregulated gambling schemes. Events of the next twenty years would only prove how right she was.
Patricia Cayo Sexton was never satisfied that her essays could garner a ?she told us so? response from readers. In her writing as in her political activity, she continually sought to help build grassroots opposition to the power of corporate capital. She encouraged her students and political allies to keep organizing. In preparation for her death, she asked that instead of other material tributes, mourners think of donating to Dissent. Pat had been attending editorial board meetings even as her illnesses silenced her voice. She was fully aware that the magazine was recruiting young women and men with writing talents who shared her social democratic convictions. All of us who knew her at Dissent are honored by her generous gesture and by the example of a life dedicated to struggles for social justice.