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Staughton Lynd
and Alice Lynd

Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 2000


Review by
Jeremy Brecher


In the 1960s,
Staughton and Alice Lynd got the idea of going around with their tape
recorders and asking rank and file workers about their experiences in the
labor upheavals of the 1930s and 1940s. The results, published in their 1973
classic Rank and File: Personal Histories of Working- Class Organizers,
presented a picture radically different from that found in the conventional
labor histories of that time. It showed that, without regard to what was going
on in union offices, workers had organized themselves on the job during the
1930s and 1940s to affect the conditions they faced.

The past
quarter century has been tough for working people and the labor movement. Real
wages for workers are substantially lower today than they were when the
original Rank and File was first published in 1973. In 1995, the
proportion of workers belonging to unions fell to 15.5 percent—the lowest
level since 1936. Large strikes in the U.S. hit a 50 year low—one-eighth the
number two decades before, many of them ending in devastating defeats.

Now the Lynds
have produced The New Rank and File in which rank and file activists of
the past quarter century discuss their experiences. It demonstrates that,
under the surface, invisible to the media, in the workplace where most people
spend so much of their lives, the class struggle continues.

The book
reveals that what it calls a “tradition of working-class self-organization”
continues in American workplaces. That tradition is perpetuated both by
individuals and by transmission across generations. As the economy has shifted
from an industrial to service orientation, the tradition has crossed that
divide as well. (It is not unusual, for example, to find that an activist in a
teacher’s union had parents or grandparents who were activists in the mine
workers union.)

The New Rank
and File
opens with a woman who exemplifies that continuity. The original
Rank and File included the story of a woman named Stella Nowicki who
played a courageous role in organizing the stockyards in Chicago. In The
New Rank and File
we meet her again as Vicky Starr and learn that “Stella
Nowicki” was an assumed name she used to avoid the packinghouse blacklist.
After raising a family, she went back to work in the 1950s, ultimately ending
up in a clerical job at the University of Chicago. In the late 1970s, she
became involved in a clerical workers organizing campaign there.

Borrowing a
page from older rank-and-file organizing traditions, the mostly female
organizing group began operating as a union in the workplace long before
winning legal bargaining rights. They elected acting stewards. They began
representing workers on grievances. For example, workers in the library forced
the rehiring of a worker who was fired, allegedly, for being
overweight—although there was a supervisor who was far more overweight. When
workers in one program were threatened with being laid off, “Stella”—now Vicky
Starr—and her co-workers organized meetings, petitions, and ultimately a
confrontation in a supervisor’s office demanding access to rehiring
opportunities.

Rank and
File
includes a variety of such cases where workers act in an organized
fashion on the job in the context of a union campaign but without formal union
recognition. Hugo Hernandez, a worker at the Overnight terminal in Miami and a
leader in the current organizing campaign there, describes how workers used
direct action inside the workplace to establish a sense of courage and power
in the workforce.

“When there was
something wrong we would start going after it until we fixed it. One person’s
problem became everybody’s problem. It wasn’t just one person any more. We
gained a lot of respect that way.”

When
supervisors began trying to split off one group of workers by means of
differential treatment, the workers decided they had to act. “We decided to
march in with the American flag. We made up some signs real quick that said,
‘Our Dignity, Our Honor Not For Sale’.” They started with a group of about 20
people. “Management was right in plain view. Our guys got weak in the knees.
They said, ‘Oh, Hugo, we’re going to get fired. Let’s just do it some other
time.’ I said, ‘No, these guys need us now. These guys can’t wait for
tomorrow. The damage was done last night. We must act now.’ I took the flag,
and I started to march. There were two guys who saw that I was going to do it
alone, and instead of letting me go out alone, they went with me.

“The three of
us proceeded down the dock, holding these signs, walking very, very slowly. We
marched with pride, saying, ‘Guys, we’re with you. Stay strong.’ The guys were
looking at us…. The guys in the trucks turned around as they were working.
They smiled, and they applauded.”

On another
occasion, a group of company big shots were standing on the loading dock.
About 15 workers went up to them. “We formed a circle. We held hands—these
were grown men— and we got our heads down. A Black preacher…started giving a
prayer. The prayer was, ‘We need strength, God. Please Lord, give us strength
to go through this’.” Ultimately they won the election in that terminal by a
two to one vote.

Such direct
action in the workplace also continues even in unionized workplaces. Ed Mann,
a long-time activist at the Brier Hill mill of the Youngstown Sheet and Tube
Company, described what happened when a worker was killed in the plant. At the
time, Mann was recording secretary in the local union and a steward in the
Open Hearth department. He had filed a grievance protesting more than 30
safety violations. One demand was for warning horns for trucks that were
backing up. The company refused even to discuss the grievance. Then a worker,
barely a week away from retirement, got run over and killed by a backing up
truck.

“So I got up on
the bench in the washroom and I said to the guys coming to work, ‘What are we
going to do about this? Are we going to work under these lousy conditions?
Who’s next?’”

The workers
left the plant and marched up to the union hall. They called their friends on
the night shift and told them not to come to work. Mann said to them, “‘Rather
than get the stewards fired, let’s appoint a committee for each area and let’s
start listing our demands on safety,’ bypassing the union structure. It
worked. Every area—pit, cranes, floor— was represented.”

The company
said it would only deal with the union departmental chair. Mann told them,
“Then you’re not going to deal with anybody because this is the committee.”
The committee refused to talk with the superintendent because he had rejected
the initial grievance, so the company brought in the division manager. The
company agreed to everything the committee demanded, and even asked the
committee to meet with them on a regular basis about safety conditions.

The New Rank
and File
includes dozens of accounts of collective action on the job,
embedded in the life stories of those who participated in them. It also
includes a handful of similar accounts from workers in other countries, giving
a taste of some of the experiences and modes of action that are shared by
workers around the world. Far from seeing such worker self-organization on the
job as irrelevant to the era of globalization, the Lynds describe it as an
effort to “take hold of global problems at a local level.” The lessons people
learn in their daily life struggles are unlikely to be passed on in schools,
let alone in the media. Today, as in the past, they are embedded in the
stories people tell about their experiences and actions. The New Rank and
File
helps pass on those stories, in the voices of the people who lived
them, to those who might otherwise be excluded from this knowledge.
                    Z

Jeremy Brecher writes on labor issues. He is the author of Strike!
And Global Village or Global Pullage?