A Tribute to Philip Kolody: 1936-2022

Philip Kolody was one of the people who worked to create Working Class Party in 2016, and he was its candidate in Michigan’s 14th Congressional district in 2018 and 2020. In a candidates’ questionnaire he filled out for the “Patch,” he explained his reasons for stepping forward like that: “No other party has the understanding of the problems the working class faces, and no clear idea of them, nor intention of dealing with these problems.” He often expressed this conviction: “The only friend the working class has IS the working class.”

Born in 1936, Phil was the son of working class people; both his parents worked in auto shops. His mother was one of the first “Rosie the Riveters,” the women who went to work in heavy industry during World War II. Even though women were still a minority on the assembly line, his mother was elected shop steward at the plant, and he was particularly proud of that fact.

Educated in the Detroit public school system, graduating from Mumford High school, Phil was able to go on to the university, studying history at Wayne State University, the University of Michigan and the Sorbonne in Paris, earning several degrees along the way. Originally he wanted to pursue his studies in history. His aim was to teach history.

But the year he spent in Paris in 1968 coincided with the May-June general strike movement that enveloped the French working class. He had already been participating in the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights protests in the United States, and he was angered by “the lack of economic and social justice” that he saw around him – what he later called “the single biggest problem in capitalist society.” Caught up in the movement in Paris, he called it a turning point in his life: “I saw the potential for workers to assert their power and force the government to make concessions.”

Although he returned to the University of Michigan and began to teach, he soon looked for a job that might give him a way to have some impact on the lives of working people. He began to work as an investigator in the Civil Rights Department of the State of Michigan.

There he discovered, as he put it in several other questionnaires: “Piecemeal reforms can only fall short…. While some individuals may have been helped – usually only partially – too often legal technicalities limited effective relief.” His work there led him to conclude:

We need a complete transformation and restructuring of the whole social and economic order. That can’t be done overnight. It is a long term goal…. To talk about practical solutions, without the aim of transforming society, is just empty promises and electioneering slogans.... I’m willing to support all practical solutions, but expressions of good will are not enough to solve practical problems as serious as the ones we face.... Racism is deeply rooted in the capitalist structure of this country. Social justice will be achieved only through an attack on the capitalist structure of this society, which produces racism and many other social injustices affecting the working class.

He was active for many years in his union, the UAW, representing people as a shop steward and working on the health and safety committee in the offices where he worked. In his candidate statement, he insisted on the importance of unions, while recognizing their problems: “I am not saying unions have done a good job. In fact, they have done a poor job. But the way the establishment tries to weaken and destroy unions with right-to-work laws is proof of the importance of unions for working people. Today, they are the only organization of our class that enrolls many people.”

He was a voracious reader, and always willing to share with others the knowledge he had accumulated over a lifetime. At the same time, he was provocative, often able to find exactly the question that made you think more deeply about your own ideas.

Later in his life, he progressively lost the sight in his eyes, but this did not keep him from trying to keep up with what was going on in the world. Nor did it ever stop him from working to make the voice of Working Class Party heard. At the same time, he said that the loss of his vision gave him “a better appreciation of how people with disabilities have to deal with the world.”

He believed the key to the future comes through workers understanding the history of their own class. In his last speech at a Working Class Party meeting, he described some of the major mass strikes workers had carried out, then explained:

All of these struggles were incomplete because those leading them and maybe the workers themselves were willing to make compromises, thinking they couldn’t go any further and believing they had won permanent protection. Instead, after the compromises were made, the government carried out big attacks both on the unions and on the workers’ standard of living. Since then workers have lost more rights and the exploitation of workers intensified. The Working Class Party believes the goal for the working class must be to take power in this society and reconstruct this society. Anything less will mean piecemeal reforms and no permanent improvement…. Someone once wrote, history may not always repeat itself, but it may rhyme. We have to make sure not to repeat and be sure to find our own rhyme.

Anyone who ever attended a Working Class Party meeting will remember Phil for his quiet but incisive way of conveying the most important political ideas. Those who worked with him remember him as our comrade in struggle.

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