As we veteran activists of the 1960s and early ’70s enter our años del retiro, it is time for reflection, summation, and most importantly sharing what we have learned with those reaching to grab the baton. Many of us, now grandparents, are getting questions from our grandkids and kids about our lives in the “golden age” of U.S. social movements. … Bill Gallegos has been an activist since the 1960s, when he became involved in Crusade for Justice, a revolutionary Chicano nationalist organization. He has since emerged as a leading socialist environmental justice activist, and is the former executive director of Communities for a Better Environment.
Many Americans who have failed to look deeply into the career of Martin Luther King, Jr. hold false assumptions about him. One is that he was a moderate solely focused on achieving civil rights for American Negroes (his terminology), and that he had a dream about a country where, as he said in August 1963, “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Another is that he held to this vision of working within the system and building interracial harmony—”let us not drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred”—until the spring of 1967, when for some inexplicable reason the train flew off the tracks. In his (in)famous Riverside Church speech on April 4, 1967, King came out forcefully against the war in Vietnam, defended the National Liberation Front as a voice for people seeking independence from forces like the United States (whose leaders he accused of saying one thing and doing another), and called for a “radical revolution in values” that put poverty and people ahead of “things.” By the time the sanitation workers struck in Memphis one year later, King seemed to have gotten back on track with a more or less traditional labor support role, albeit a critical one, as the spiritual motivator of the strikers.
Rebel Rank and File is a collection of articles that surveys the building, heydey, and decline of rank and file workers’ movement in the fields, mines, auto plants, schools, trucking and phone companies in the late 1960s through the 1970s. What makes this book so valuable is that the first half is devoted to detailing the context of these struggles—the political economy in which they were set. It begs the reader to look deeper into the basis of 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 the employers. The authors develop a number of interconnected themes: the single minded union strategy based on endless capitalist growth, parochialism, the private welfare state, pragmatism, anti-communism, influence of anti-war, black power and women’s movements—all of which then help the reader to see similarities of the different rank and file experiences, no matter the work or union.
Okay. Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way right now. I am a longtime fan of Mike Yates. A big fan. I have used his materials with community and labor activists, made some contributions to a few of his works, and answered his call to write for Monthly Review on other occasions. So it will come as no surprise that In and Out of the Working Class did not disappoint. This personal reflection and journey through the world of Mike Yates from the early 1950s to the present has made me an even bigger fan.
On March 8, 2005, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Immokalee, Florida won a significant victory. In a precedent-setting move, fast-food giant Yum! Brands Inc., the world’s largest restaurant corporation, agreed to all the farm workers’ demands (and more!) if the CIW would end the four-year-old boycott of its subsidiary Taco Bell. (Yum!, a spin off from Pepsi, includes Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, A&W, Long John Silver’s, and Pizza Hut franchises.) As United Farm Workers (UFW) president Arturo Rodriguez commented at the victory celebration, “It is the most significant victory since the successful grape boycott led by the UFW in the 1960s in the fields of California.”
There is no disputing that these are tough times for the working class and its allies (all those oppressed by capitalism). The working class lacks a political party; social services to assist us with the inevitable problems we face have been eroded; and even our few precious institutions, especially unions, seem overwhelmed by the relentless attacks
Balloons transformed Harvard Yard on May 17, 1988, the day the “servants of the university,” as workers were originally called, voted on whether to join the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW), an affiliate of AFSCME. “Ballooning” lightened the tension, but Kristine Rondeau, lead union organizer, had a grim warning for her staff: “You did a wonderful job. But we don’t have it … It’s very likely we didn’t win.”1 In fact, by a slim margin, they did have it. One of the most influential universities in the world had been outsmarted by some of its unknown employees, mostly women