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Labor Revolts in the 1970s

Elly Leary (ellyleary [at] is a former autoworker and clerical worker. She is the former Vice President and Bargaining Chair in the UAW. Since retiring, she has worked with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Miami Workers Center, and POWER U, all lower-sector community organizations in South Florida.

Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner, and Cal Winslow, editors, Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and the Revolt from Below During the Long Seventies (New York: Verso, 2010), 472 pages, $29.95, paperback.

Has it really been forty years since we caused all that trouble? The world is certainly a different place since my radical comrades and I sank our roots into the working class by “colonizing” the workplace. But the world of work is not the only thing that has changed. The independent bookstore is another casualty of the ever-changing nature of mature capitalism. Thus, we need magazines like Monthly Review even more now to alert us to books we should read and keep on our bookshelves for handy reference. Rebel Rank and File is one of them.

Briefly, Rebel Rank and File is a collection of articles that surveys the building, heyday, and decline of rank-and-file workers’ movements in the fields, mines, auto plants, schools, trucking, and phone companies in the late 1960s and through the 1970s. Students, scholars, and participants of the labor movement will be familiar with some or all of the bottom-up struggles reviewed here. As Steve Early’s essay points out, the magazine Labor Notes kept monthly tabs on many of these union struggles for years at a time. Staughton Lynd covered many of these as well, mostly from the vantage point of the individuals connected with them. And others have been grist for the Ph.D. mill.

What makes this book different, and extremely worthy, in my opinion, is that the first half of the book is devoted to detailing the context of these struggles—the political economy in which they were set. As someone who spent her working life in the union movement, I cannot stress enough how important this is. In my experience, the domination of “pragmatism” (that is, the determination of what is possible by what is present, or the idea that short-term gain for an immediate constituency is all that matters), endemic in both the workplace and community-based struggles, has come at the expense of analysis, attention to politics, and a long-term strategy embedded in a bigger picture. All this makes a difficult situation worse. The hegemonic culture of pragmatism even upended more overtly political rebellions, like the Revolution Union Movements (or RUMs; an example of which was the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement or DRUM; see Keiran Taylor’s chapter, “American Petrograd”), initiated by black automobile workers. While not mentioned to the degree I think necessary in the context-setting portion of the book, this pragmatist feature of the U.S. labor movement, in the sense of closing off the future, was one of the consequences of the purges and anticommunism fervor (er, fever) of the 1950s and beyond.

By placing the context-setting chapters up-front, the editors are able to develop a number of interconnected themes, which then help the reader see the similarities of the different rank-and-file experiences, no matter the work or union. One should see these themes as forming a dialectical whole. They help us understand the well-known, basic operational principle behind the book: bureaucratized unions, with leaders hell bent on maintaining power no matter the cost, who serve as buck privates in the Democratic Party army, and who need a compliant base every bit as much as employers.

Foremost among the book’s themes is that unions emerged from the Second World War with only one strategic orientation—the same as that of the employers—perpetual growth. Thus, nearly from their beginning, the industrial unions of the CIO hitched their wagons to company growth, and thus capitalism. Even when confronted with employer counteroffensives caused by declining profit rates, the unions never wavered in this orientation. While the capitalists planned and schemed, the unions reacted. It was costly and continues to be.

A first practical consequence of this strategic orientation, and one that has been much discussed, has been that, in exchange for wage and benefit growth, management’s “right to manage” was taken off the table. However, the book shows this tradeoff to be part and parcel of perpetual growth—which allows readers (and troublemakers) to understand that challenging management’s right to manage will also mean challenging the growth imperative. A few examples tell it all. Paul Nyden’s fascinating chapter on the United Mine Workers illustrates how successive leadership teams—starting with John L. Lewis, who allowed management a free hand in mechanization, in exchange for pension and wages—set the stage for rank-and-file rebellion (176-78).

Perhaps the most (in)famous example was in 1946, when United Auto Workers (UAW) President Walter Reuther, then the go-to guy of the CIO, struck a devil’s bargain with the auto companies (including the behemoth General Motors): management’s right to manage would go unchallenged, as long as workers shared in benefits of growth. With every passing year, management saw the green light to speed up and turn the screws. This is the context in which the RUMs developed, as well as the much talked-about Lordstown rebellion, both chronicled in the book. In the UAW, we tended to see the labor-management cooperation paradigm, introduced in the 1981 concessionary contract reopener, as a break with the past business union tradition of the UAW, but not as a continuation of an institutionalized strategy that tied union welfare to the company’s bottom line.

A second consequence of the growth-above-all-else-strategy is that the early mission of the industrial unions to be a beacon of the working class was replaced by the notion that a union is a “private welfare state.” The folks who would bring dignity to the workplace (the landmark agreement reached after the Flint sit-down strike was about dignity and respect, not wages or benefits) slipped by the wayside. Union leaders talked about the so-called “union privilege,” the fact that union members made more money and had better benefits. However, in case after case documented in the book, the rebels decided that such a limited strategy was not enough. The private welfare state also meant that benefits were accrued company by company, contract by contract, or in the best case, sector by sector, as in trucking, mining, and agriculture. Unions guided by such a regime could easily be painted by their enemies as “special interests,” not the organized army of the working class.

The “private welfare state” model also gave rise to a third outcome of the perpetual growth strategy: parochialism at all levels. Parochialism is not just about isolation or going it alone; it also implies a strong element of short-term thinking. It makes solidarity among and between unions and sectors hard to come by. Long-term strategic alliances with community forces are likewise a rarity. The chapter on teachers’ unions is a depressing tale about how, even with young, conscious, multiracial leadership, it was still unions versus the community because unions did not build long-term links with the community. This is being replayed today as governors—Republican and Democrat—are aggressively taking on seniority rights in the teachers’ unions.

In those few instances where unions, and rank-and-file rebels, have reached beyond parochial borders—the 1977-78 miners’ strike and the national grape boycott that ended in 1970—there were better outcomes. Not only did the workers make gains, but millions of everyday people, far removed from field and mine, also got a political education about working-class jobs. Outcomes might have been still better, had rank-and-file movements not been similarly cut off from each other. The inspiring case studies in the book make clear how each struggle was conducted solo—rebels fighting unions and companies. Imagine the power of these struggles if there had been an umbrella group/network/organization of the various rank-and-file rebels. We are still afflicted by parochialism. There is still no umbrella for rebels and leftists. Although there have been several attempts in the last decade to overcome this defect, none has lasted more than a couple of years.

The growth strategy’s close connection to the essence of capitalism linked it quite naturally to the virus of anticommunism, which played a devastating role, both inside the union movement and within the rebel rank-and-file movements. The “conscious element” has always been critical to successful movements, and the labor movement is no exception. The crucial role of reds and radicals in the formation of unions, especially those in the CIO, has been documented in many places. But as this volume makes clear, socialists and communists of all stripes have been at the heart of most of the rank-and-file movements of the 1960s and ’70s: the International Socialists in the Teamsters; black nationalist Marxist-Leninists in the RUMs in auto; and various radical forces inside the United Farm Workers.

Although unions had vigorously opposed the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, there is little evidence that they were especially concerned about the anticommunist provisions. They certainly fell in line once the Act passed, purging “red” members, writing anticommunist clauses in their constitutions, and raiding red unions (the UAW moved against the Farm Equipment Union, one of the few industrial unions to fight Jim Crow on the job). They also built “alternative” (dual) unions to crush red-led unions, as in the case of the International Union of Electrical Workers’ frontal assault on the United Electrical Workers. Naturally, this internal war could only benefit the employers and embolden corporation-aiding legislation at both the federal and state levels. The Right to Work legislation is an example.

Judith Stein’s masterful chapter, “Conflict, Change, Economic Policy,” illustrates how U.S. foreign, trade, and tax policies aimed at “containing the Soviet Union” ended up subsidizing U.S. corporate investment abroad at the absolute expense of domestic industry and workers. Indeed, such imperialist and anti-labor goals were the main object, hiding behind anticommunist rhetoric, and somehow taking the AFL-CIO for a ride. As Stein points out, no other government in the developed world pursued such a business-friendly agenda; nor, might we add, did their unions give such unqualified support to such actions. By the early 1970s, when the AFL-CIO woke up to the domestic consequences of foreign policy initiatives to “contain communism,” and proposed the Burke-Hartke bill, which would have established import quotas and made overseas investment less profitable, more than thirty years had elapsed. Parochialism on the part of the still enormously influential UAW, which opposed the bill because auto jobs were not threatened, only complicated matters.

Another theme in the book is that the rank-and-file rebellions were enormously influenced by three social movements of the day: black freedom, antiwar, and women’s liberation. Workers entered the workplace in the 1960s and ’70s with these “counterculture” influences. Standing up, speaking out, and acting up were accepted, even expected, behaviors. It was no longer as simple as workers against bosses. Internal contradictions that had always existed could no longer be swept under the rug for the sake of “unity.” As case study after case study details, union leaders were firmly committed to hanging on to power at all costs. The delicate balance between meeting members’ material needs and delivering quiescent workers geared to boosting the bottom line left leaders isolated and insulated from the rank and file. They usually met these challenges to their authority with repression or, every so often, with co-optation.

As Frank Bardacke brings out in his must-read chapter on the United Farm Workers, César Chávez was unable to deal with the influx of migrant Mexican workers—documented, undocumented, or bracero—into the fields formerly worked by Chicanos and Filipinos. His personal tendency toward self-promotion only hardened into a bizarre cult of personality. The UAW, from its inglorious moment of standing against the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, met the demands of black workers with brutal repression. Teachers’ unions, even those with women of color in leadership, were unable to find common cause with community activists concerned about their children’s education in schools that were chronically underfunded and under-resourced. Flight attendants fought tooth and nail against their union leaders and against the company policy that made them sex workers in the sky. Workers returning from Vietnam were in no mood to go along to get along—and they didn’t. During the period covered by the book, there were more work stoppages overall than at any time in U.S. history.

The point of history, of course, is to learn from it. What lessons can we draw from these experiences? The interlocking themes (growth at all costs, pragmatism, parochialism, anticommunism) certainly give a clue. We have to find a way to break the cycle. The key, I believe, rests on two fronts. First and foremost, the union movement must abandon the growth paradigm. This is an issue larger than unions, as our planet is on a collision course for extinction, and the growth imperative can be found at the center of this disaster. Second, the union movement must squarely face white supremacy and heterosexism. Timidity in the former was one reason why the CIO’s southern strategy known as Operation Dixie—the best hope we have had to organize the South—failed.

This failure is especially serious, in that the South is now the center of U.S. political economy. In the United States, a country whose political economy was constructed on the enslavement of African peoples, no progress can be made until we take on this challenge. “Workers, unite” is not sufficient, although there are glimmers of hope that the highly compromised AFL-CIO is taking steps to put the brakes on the private welfare state and focus on the working class at large. And, of course, this leads us to the biggest needs—to embrace the rank and file and develop their leadership. Everyone can be and should be replaced.

As I put the final touches on this piece, revolutions continue in North Africa and the Arab world for democracy, equity, and fairness. Corruption, tyranny, and crony capitalism (even of the state variety) have pushed a wide cross-section of society, from factory workers to unemployed, university-educated thirty-somethings, to take action. While the outcome is unclear, the working class, especially unions from sectors as diverse as textile, port, and tax collectors, have played a critical role.

Here in the United States, we are glued to our media to keep up with unionized public workers in Wisconsin and other rust belt states as they fight for the very same issues. They too have found nonunion allies and now talk, not just of preserving the union, but also of preserving the public good. Two recent polls show deep support for union representation in the workplace. Maybe this will be the beginning of a working-class resurgence; maybe unions will look outward and become the standard bearers for those seeking relief from tyranny in the workplace and in their communities; maybe more sectors and areas of the country will be moved to challenge the right-wing public policy that shifts income upward, removes any barrier to capitalist growth, and leaves a devastated world in its wake. Rank-and-file rebels of the 1960s and ’70s have laid the groundwork for today. Their stories are worth reading. If you cannot run out to that leftie or independent bookstore, just hit the “buy” button. You will not be sorry.