Rebel Rank and File

In a 1967 article, Stan Weir, the veteran labor socialist and militant, recognized that the labor movement in the United States was in the midst of an upheaval from below.  That upheaval came from two directions: (1) from members of industrial unions who were “faced with paces, methods and conditions of work that are increasingly intolerable [and T]heir union leaders who are not sensitive to these conditions.  . .” and  (2) “farm laborers, teachers, professionals, white collar, service and civil service workers, who were not generally reached by labor’s revolt of the 1930s, [and who] have demonstrated an adamant desire to organize themselves into unions.”

The unrest that Weir first recognized in 1967 evolved into a massive insurgency:  the strike activity of the 1970s reached levels not experienced since the strike wave of 1946; insurgent challenges occurred in most of the country’s major unions, including the United Mine Workers, the United Steel Workers, the United Auto Workers, the Teamsters, the United Rubber Workers and other unions; workers rejected contracts by their union leaders in record numbers; and previously unorganized workers, imbued with the social movement activism of the anti-war, civil rights and women’s movement, among others, pushed labor unions into organizing previously unorganized sectors.      

The authors in this volume follow the broad contours outlined by Weir—the upsurge of discontented workers within existing unions and workers who had been traditionally excluded from the House of Labor—and update his contemporary insights from the experience and hindsight of history.  Their perspective is also expanded with the inclusion of two broader pieces on the overall political economy by Robert Brenner and Judith Stein.

Overviews by Aaron Brenner, Cal Winslow and Kim Moody provide a wider interpretative analysis of rank-and-file movement. The first prong of the upheaval Weir suggests is analyzed in several pieces that focus on the rebellion in several unions.  Paul Nyden examines the rank-and-file opposition to Tony Boyle, the emergence of Miners for Democracy and culmination of the rank-and-file revolt in the great mine strike of 1977-78.   A.C. Jones (a pseudonym) writes about the extensive rebellion in the United Auto Workers, particularly in reaction to the Reutherite “ceding to management of sovereignty over working conditions on the shop floor” (p. 281), while Kieran Taylor looks more specifically at Detroit and the challenge to the UAW leadership from the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.  Aaron Brenner uses the fulcrum of the seven month strike in 1971-72 at New York Telephone (a subsidiary of AT&T) to demonstrate how the limitations of the rank-and-file rebellion in the Communication Workers actually reinforced the union bureaucracy it was rebelling against.  Dan La Botz analyzes the tumult that erupted in the Teamsters in this period and that was institutionalized in the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).  Notably absent from the collection is a treatment of the Steelworkers and the Ed Sadlowski Fight Back campaign.

Weir’s second prong is picked up by Marjorie Murphy who focuses on the effect of the anti-war, feminist, and civil rights movements among younger activists on reinvigorating the teachers’ unions, and Dorothy Sue Cobble who demonstrates the influence of workplace feminism in transforming airline, domestic and clerical work and unionism.  Perhaps the most compelling piece is Frank Bardacke’s examination of the United Farm Workers from the ground up which captures the power of the farm workers at the point of production in establishing a power base. This is set in relief with the union’s bureaucracy that developed an independent power base from the national, liberal support and financial backing generated through the boycott apparatus.

Although disparate, several themes unify the articles.  

First, the “long” 1970s, defined as the roughly the mid-1960s through the early 1980s, was a period of enormous rank-and-file unrest, particularly strike activity—indeed, the last great wave of strike activity in the United States. Significantly, at least one third of those work stoppages were wildcat strikes.  Rank and file workers also expressed their discontent by challenging their elected leaders for union office, and rejected contracts in unprecedented numbers.

Second, the rebellion was unleashed in reaction to corporate capitalism’s renewed assault on organized labor.  As Robert Brenner demonstrates convincingly, faced with limited productivity, decreased profitability and increased global competitiveness, employers unleashed a concerted attack to regain whatever control of production they might have temporarily and incompletely ceded to organized labor.

Third, the rank and file activity documented by the authors, as summarized by Aaron Brenner in his preface to the volume, was “particularly striking . . . [because] the union workers aimed so much of their activity not only at their employers, but at their union leaders as well” (pp. xi-xii).  The primary reason for the targeting of union leaders, as several articles ably demonstrate, is because the so-called leaders of labor proved either unwilling or ineffective in challenging corporate capitalism.  As Kim Moody writes in his overview of the rebellion:  “It was the inability of the entrenched union officialdom to mount an effective response to an accelerating employers’ offensive that assumed ever greater breadth and intensity from the end of the 1950s, which provoked a rebellion of the rank-and-file that refused to accept either the untrammeled authority of management or the practices of business unionism” (p. 120).

Fourth, the same labor leaders who were too weak and vacillating to stand up to corporate capitalism acted with breath-taking audacity and stopped at nothing, including murder, to quell dissension in their own ranks.  Several of the pieces recapture this sordid history, and the heroic struggle to make unions more democratic and inclusive.  Perhaps the most noteworthy is Philip Nyden’s article on the United Mine Workers, which details one of the very few examples of a rank-and-file victory that transformed a corrupt international union in this epoch.   

Fifth, the rank and file rebellion of the long 1970s largely failed.  Although there is not unanimity among the authors regarding the cause of that failure, none argue that the rebellion, even in the United Mine Workers, succeeded on its own terms.   Certain factors emerge to explain the ultimate failure. Cal Winslow writes, for example, “of the raw power of American capital” and that “the large US corporations never really accepted trade unionism – it had been forced upon them by the rebellions of the 1930s.” At the same time the rank and file rebellion itself was limited; it “produced no center, no coordinators, no recognized leaders. The movement developed no coherent ideology, no conscious generalized mission.” (p. 31,33)

Because the collection is either the work of activists or those with a strong activist bent, it seems appropriate to consider the lessons learned from the revolt of the long 1970s and its meaning for today’s labor activists.

Specifically, was the 1970s upheaval the last gasp of labor as a movement?  

Perhaps the most direct response can be found in Steve Early’s conclusion tellingly entitled, “The Enduring Legacy and Contemporary Relevance of Labor Insurgency in the 1970s.”  For Early, the enduring legacy of the 1970s can be found in a variety of examples:  the great Teamsters UPS strike of 1997; the election of John Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, replacing the cold warrior Lane Kirkland; the model contract mobilizations of the CWA; and even the founding of our union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, in 2009 in opposition to the corporate unionism of Andy Stern and SEIU.  But Early also understands that the legacy is mixed and uneven.  He writes:  “The decay has become so advanced that some younger activists—unlike their counterparts of earlier eras—no longer consider organized workplaces to be promising arenas for ‘colonization’ and the revival of ‘class struggle unionism.’” (p. 362).

Reading page after page of the remarkable militancy of rank-and-file workers in this period, one is struck by how the entrenched union leadership was too weak, compromised and conservative to fight employers, and yet institutionally strong and motivated within their own organizations to either co-opt or ruthlessly squash the workers’ rebellion. How different might today’s labor movement look if Walther Reuther, Leonard Woodcock, and Douglas Fraser, to use the UAW as just one example, embraced the upheaval against speed-ups in the 1960s and 1970s and actually fought the Big Three for control of the shop floor?

Fast forwarding to today, the history of the rank-and-file rebellion of the long 1970s serves as an inspiration for those who doubt the capacity of American workers to take matters into their own hands to demonstrate in powerful, collective ways their opposition to corporate capitalism and union bureaucracy.  Many of the conditions that fostered the revolt in the 1970s are present today.  But as this volume also makes clear, to have a deeper, longer lasting impact, rebellion on its own may not be enough.

John Borsos is leading member of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). He was an elected administrative Vice-President of United Healthcare Workers-West until SEIU’s trusteeship. He has a PhD in labor history from Indiana University. 

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