by Barry Weisleder, December 11, 2022
It is an honour to speak at this online gathering of the comrades and friends of Bill Onasch. (Bill Onasch lost a long battle with cancer on July 8, 2022). I am not surprised that so many fine folks loved and respected him. Being based in Toronto, I knew Bill Onasch mostly from afar. But over the course of several decades when I encountered him at socialist and anti-war conferences, mostly in the United States, I came to appreciate the dry wit behind the gravelly voice, the heart of gold behind the placid exterior.
Bill Onasch was a working class hero who awakened to the class struggle in the repressive 1950s. Bus driver, Litton Microwave factory employee, local union leader, Bill embodied the idea of the “organic intellectual of the working class.” Unpretentious to a fault, he personified the iron bond between theory and practice. His specialty was the quest for independent labour political action, which for a time appeared to take the shape of the short-lived Labor Party associated with Tony Mazzocchi of the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers’ Union.
Bill Onasch, Working Class Hero
Bill Onasch often quizzed me on what the labour-based New Democratic Party of Canada was doing. Earning pensions in parliament, I said. I told him that American workers deserve a much better labour party than the bureaucratic, reformist NDP. But we agreed that anything that could break the stranglehold of the criminal twin parties of Wall Street and the Pentagon would be a good step forward.
Comrade Onasch was an internationalist to the core. He gave me a button, long ago, that I still cherish. It reads “Solidarity knows no borders.” At a conference of Trotskyist groups in Winnipeg, Manitoba around 1985 is where I obtained that little trophy. What was Bill doing there? He was there to help us rebuild our fragmented movement north of the border. The Revolutionary Workers League / Ligue Ouvriere Revolutionnaire in the Canadian state, which once had 450 members in 20 cities, was reduced to a tiny sect by a botched ‘turn to industry’. It became a mere satellite of the American Socialist Workers’ Party led by Jack Barnes, suppressing dissidents and casting fragments in all directions.
The Winnipeg conference was an in-gathering of the relatively healthy fragments. The aim was to forge an alliance, leading to a party. Of political differences, there were many, including about what kind of organization — a loose, self-effacing network, or a confident, democratic-centralist party. Bill, who lived in Minnesota at the time, just nine hours down the road, spent the weekend with us and made the case for the kind of party that James P. Cannon led – patiently explaining to all who would listen. Bill, and especially Jeff Mackler, played a very important role in helping lay the foundation for the Alliance for Socialist Action, and for today’s Socialist Action Canada / Ligue pour l’Action socialiste.
Bill Onasch, Stalwart Revolutionary Socialist
The last time I saw Bill was in August 2016 in Kansas City. My partner Elizabeth, and I, flew down to attend a convention of our sister party, Socialist Action USA. Bill picked us up at the airport. Later he introduced us to Kansas City bar-b-q ribs and the local special sauce.
He was slowing down, not slowing his driving speed mind you, and his wit was as sharp as ever. Wearing his tell-tale baseball cap, poking fun at the Blue Jays, defending the Royals, scanning for a labour party on the political horizon, Bill is fixed in my mind as the grassroots, middle America, staunchly internationalist, worker Bolshevik. We miss him greatly. Let’s build the revolutionary party that will do him proud.
Long live the socialist working class legacy of Bill Onasch!