Labor Law for the Rank and Filer

By Staughton Lynd and Daniel Gross; PM Press, 2008, 110 pp.

Staughton Lynd was a professor at Spelman College where he helped organize activities with SNCC’s Freedom Schools and later went on to become a labor lawyer and peace activist. Daniel Gross, an organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World, is the founding director of Brandworkers, a non-profit organization that works to protect and advance the rights of workers in the retail and food chain industries. Labor Law for the Rank and Filer was first published in the late 1970s and re-published in late 2008 with some timely updates and a new chapter by Lynd and Gross.

The first chapter is titled “On Being Your Own Lawyer.” If a worker or group of workers has a good understanding of the law, then they may be able to resolve their dispute themselves and save time and money. Lynd and Gross also write that, “for the most part [lawyers] do not understand or sympathize with the experience of working people.”

The second chapter is devoted to where workers’ rights come from. The book points out that, “The Constitution protects us only from action by the government. It does not protect us from private employers…. In the private sector, when you punch in you leave your constitutional rights in the glove compartment of your car.”

That is not to say workers don’t have rights or protections in the private sector. Between contracts with employers (even under “at will” agreements) and state and federal laws, workers do have some protection. The book references many such laws, for example, the National Labor Relations Act.

When union workers at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago successfully occupied their factory after the company filed for bankruptcy, they made their case for their actions and their demands based on existing labor laws. Also, after the employer took equipment from the factory, employees filed charges against their employer alleging violations of their collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act.

Chapter four is an overview of a Bill of Rights for workers. It covers various “individual and communal rights.” Some of the individual rights mentioned are the right to leaflet, the right to refuse unsafe work conditions, and the right to be radical. Some of the communal rights mentioned are the right to organize, the right to strike, the right and duty to not work overtime when fellow workers are laid off, and the right to do something about companies trying to leave town. These can prove to be helpful for Wal-Mart or Starbucks employees who may want to organize into unions.

As for the right to strike, Lynd and Gross write that though it can be successful, the tactic may not always be appropriate or productive. The authors cite the PATCO strike in 1981 where over 12,000 workers from the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization went on strike. President Reagan fired them. Workers should sometimes consider other tactics, Lynd and Gross suggest, like “working to rule, sitting down, and sitting in” because “you may get more accomplished…by choosing a form of strike unlikely immediately to get you fired or land you in the slammer.”

Chapter five is on what Lynd and Gross call “solidarity unionism” which “stands in opposition to what has been termed ‘business’ or ‘service-provider’ unionism.” The former includes organizing and direct action by the workers and includes continued membership representation even if jobs are changed.

Many economists note that our economy has largely shifted from manufacturing to service providing. This has had an adverse impact on unionism in America. If you work in a call center, fast food chain, coffee shop, diner, or retail store, you may see labor organizing as dangerous because your job can more easily be replaced since the job doesn’t entail the same skill as someone who works in manufacturing, construction, or assembly. However, this is precisely why solidarity unionism could be beneficial because even if you quit or are replaced you are still represented.

Another interesting section is titled “Working to Rule,” where the authors inform us that, “The boss seems to have more power than the workers. But the worker knows better than management how to do the job, and oftentimes the foreman, if required to do the job alone, is helpless.” Lynd and Gross go on to suggest that workers can use “the supervisor’s power against him” by following the employer’s instructions or safety rules to the letter so that production is slowed down.

Other sections of the chapter highlight the use of “secondary pressure” where workers or organized consumers can put pressure on businesses to address various grievances with how a company operates; “saving fringe benefits” suggests those affected to seek using direct action (eg, how current retired NFL players like Mike Ditka are organizing around similar concerns); fighting against shutdowns include tactics like occupations and sit-ins; and “cross-border solidarity.” where unions can organize in solidarity to resist international agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA.

As unemployment continues to rise, it may become more and more essential for workers to know things that will help them: For those readers who want to strengthen workers rights and improve our overall quality of life or who see labor organizing as a strategy to achieve not only the vision of a participatory economy, but a participatory society as well, then this book should definitely be in your arsenal. Labor Law for the Rank and Filer does a lot to answer what we can do and why. One important question remains: What will we do?


Michael M’Gehee is an independent writer and working class family man.