Rebel Rank and File: A review


The following book review of Rebel Rank and File (Verso) was submitted to Left Labor Reporter by Greg King

INSURGENT WORKERS AND THEIR LESSONS: A Review of Rebel Rank And File by Greg King

Rebel Rank and File, edited by Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner, and Cal Winslow, is a collection of writings about an insurgent workers movement in the US that took place from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. In the Foreword, Mike Hamlin a co-founder of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement writes that “If there is an axiom for revolutionaries, it is that you must study history and learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before. We failed to do that and paid a terrible price.” Aaron Brenner, a senior researcher at SEIU, in the Preface echoes Hamlin’s assessment of the damage caused by the insurgency’s decline, which he says opened the door to Reagan and the new right.

Rebel Rank and File tells the stories of the insurgency in order to learn from its mistakes. While Hamlin and Brenner may believe that these mistakes caused the sorry state we’re in today, I will argue that some respects, it has rarely been more hopeful; the labor movement today is rising like a Phoenix from the ashes.

In the book’s Overview, Cal Winslow, a professor at UC Berkeley, describes the era and the insurgent movement it spawned. Post-war full employment and rising wages gave the working class confidence and encouraged combativeness. “Nowhere was the new mood of rebellion seen more clearly than in the emergence of a black movement in the workplace.” This mood of rebellion was ignited by the assassination of Martin Luther King. Black workers across the country walked off the job to protest his assassination; some white workers joined them. The revolt of African-American workers was vital part of the overall fight back of the “long 1970s,” as this period is called.

During the 1930s, “Communists, Trotskyists, and socialists of various sorts successfully organized industrial workers, writes Robert Brenner, a professor at UCLA in the next chapter. They “called . . . for reliance on mass mobilization against employers, avoidance of the courts and the government, autonomy from the existing official union leaderships, and the fullest internal democracy.” The insurgent workers of the long 1970s continued this tradition, which Brenner argues contradicts the premise of Stayin’ Alive by Jefferson Cowie, who asserts that the problem with the US working class was that it was never able to break free of union leadership and bureaucracy.

McCarthyism and the purge of left-wing workers and unions is what defeated the working-class movement that began in the 1930s. During the rank-and-file insurgencies which came to the fore in the long 1970s, what held the workers back and ultimately defeated them was their inability, in most cases, to throw out entrenched leaderships.

Judith Stein, a City University of New York history professor, writes about the inflation of the 1970s, which took the gloss off rebellion for a lot of working people. Workers became more concerned about hanging onto their jobs at all costs; although, many still fought for wage increases to keep up with rising prices. Stein says Paul Volckers’s austerity measures, plus oil prices which began to fall somewhat cured inflation. President Reagan convinced the nation that his tax cuts, deregulation, and privatization yanked the economy out of the recession that Stein says was caused by Washington’s austerity policies implemented to fight inflation.

As a result, a new economic paradigm was replacing Keynesianism. Businesses, having banded together in the Business Roundtable, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, began to hold ideological sway, at least over the elite. This era saw the birth of the Reagan Democrat, and the slow, steady growth of culture wars and increasing economic uncertainty, which  drove many working people away from solidarity with one another and toward a reliance on the elite.

Kim Moody, a founder of Labor Notes, says that American workers were increasingly faced with speed-up and a worsening of conditions on shop floors. They had to do something about this themselves because union leaders had grown accustomed to cooperating with bosses. These workers had forerunners, whether they were aware of this or not, in the Montgomery domestic workers, the coal miners seeking Black Lung Disease benefits and the antiwar protesters. The black workers of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) led the way, with coal miners, farm workers and the long-haired young white workers of the General Motors Lordstown plant also leading the way.

In going back to the roots of rebellion, Moody tells us how the class solidarity of the 1930s and ’40s was undercut by all the individual labor leaders giving up on the brief postwar dream of an American social democracy and instead making firm-by-firm, union-by-union private welfare pacts with the managements. Also, big centers of production were broken up as corporations shifted production to smaller, more technically advanced facilities away from the old hubs of industry, moving production to the West and South, just as they would move production to China and Vietnam in more recent history. Much of the workforce in the South and West was not unionized, so when the rank-and-file rebelled during the long 1970s, industry-wide solidarity was no longer possible, and they could be picked off one-by-one.

Frank Bardacke, a farmworker organizer and later Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) chapter founder, explodes the myth of the docile, cowering, unskilled worker in his chapter on farm workers and the United Farm Workers (UFW) union. Farm work is highly skilled, and agricultural laborers were militant, often self-organized workers who put together their own work stoppages, slowdowns, and sabotage throughout their long history. But, Bardacke says, organization in the fields was ineffective because of the seasonal nature of the work and the high turnover of the workers themselves. The UFW was able to overcome this problem through their grape boycott campaign, reaching out and building support among consumers, students, liberals, Democratic party officials, and unions.

Cesar Chavez, while not some sort of savior or completely indispensable icon, nonetheless played a key role in the initial success of the UFW. At the time that Chavez began the 1965-1970 grape boycott, such a tactic was not popular among labor unions. Chavez revived the boycott as a tactic, and it went on to be crucial for many movements.

Chavez sent farm workers to Midwestern and Eastern cities to organize the boycott, and a lot of f liberal and religious enthusiasts joined the boycott movement in the northern cities; some became UFW staff members. Since those recruits to La Causa were allowed to become members of the union, this led to inevitable problems developing between paid staff and rank-and-file members, exacerbated by cultural misunderstandings.

Bardacke says there were “countless” strikes by farm workers throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but he is able to flesh out only six of them. In describing these strikes, he reveals some of the factors that led to the undoing of the UFW. Chavez and the leadership started concentrating on winning reforms in Sacramento to support these strikes. One side effect of this was that the union leadership lost their feel for what was going on in the fields among the membership. When Republicans came to power, they were able to undue some of the reforms implemented by UFW supporters like Gov. Pat Brown. Among other things the agricultural labor board was made ineffective, which gave some owners their chance to stop dealing with the UFW. Then union companies couldn’t compete and went out of business.

In the meantime, the leadership’s desire for control incensed many farm workers, who led walkouts from their conventions. The UFW was reduced to a combination advocacy group and family enterprise. A major reason for this was the leadership’s placing faith and trust in their liberal supporters, and not the militant farm workers.

 Paul Nyden, a reporter for the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia, writes the rise of Miners for Democracy in the United Mine Workers (UMW). Mechanization deals with the union in 1940s and 1950s resulted in the loss 300,000 jobs in the coal fields. But by the mid-1960s, employment had rebounded because of growing demand for electricity, much of which was produced in coal-fired power plants.

The growing demand for coal miners gave those who already had jobs in the mines a sense of job security, which emboldened them to start speaking up about conditions in the mines. Many of the new miners were fresh from Vietnam, too. Having survived the rice paddies, they had no wish to die in a coal mine.

 The result was a growing wave of strikes for better wages, concerns about health issues in the mine and mine safety. Eighteen thousand miners walked off the job in 1964, revolting against a bad contract signed by Tony Boyle, leader of the UMW. In 1966, 40,000 more miners struck in opposition to another bad contract. As 1968 began, 60,000 UMW members walked out in five states to show their displeasure with the arrest of picketing miners in Pennsylvania. In October of that year, 66,000 miners wildcatted.

The next month, 78 men were killed by an explosion at a mine in West Virginia, which led to the formation of the Black Lung Association in 1969. In February-March, 45,000 West Virginia miners participating in the Black Lung strike, called by Nyden “the most important political strike in modern labor history.” This strike brought about the first Black Lung compensation law in West Virginia.

Jock Yablonski began his run against Boyle in May of 1969. Yablonski called for an end to the Vietnam war and for the UMW to play a role in reforming social conditions in Appalachia. He lost the election in December 1969 and was killed, along with his wife and daughter, three weeks later by Boyle hired guns.

Miners for Democracy (MFD) was founded at Yablonski’s burial in the first few days of 1970. The MFD was bolstered by the Disabled Miners and Widows and the Black Lung Association. The new organization turned the new fighting spirit in the mines into a campaign for control of the UMW. At the end of 1972 they put their own man, Arnold Miller, in as union president. The Miller leadership, almost from the beginning, demonstrated incompetence and started backsliding into the old ways.

With the renewed confidence and militant spirit of the rank-and-file miners, though, there were quite a few wildcat strikes. When the contract expired in December 1977, the UMW began a 110-day strike. Miners not only closed organized mines, they walked out of unorganized pits as well. Miller tried to ram through one proposed settlement after another. The first one was rejected by the bargaining council. The second proposed agreement was rejected by the membership by a vote of 77,292 to 33,751. President Carter invoked the Taft-Hartley Act, but the miners defied the back-to-work order. Unions inside and outside the AFL-CIO supported the striking miners. When they finally approved the third proposed agreement, it was because they had become dispirited by Miller’s constant sabotaging of the strike.

One thing the mining companies did in response to all this rebellion in the pits was to increasingly move their mining operations out West, where the mines were not unionized. Hundreds of thousands of organized coal miners lost their jobs, and the UMW was reduced to a shadow of its former self. However, as Paul Nyden says, the miners had demonstrated tremendous solidarity and fighting spirit that serves as encouragement for us all.

Dan LaBotz, a founding member of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), describes how TDU developed in response to employer offensives and the union leaders’ concession-driven responses. LaBotz details the sellouts by the corrupt, thug-ridden leadership of Jimmy Hoffa and his incompetent successor, Frank Fitzsimmons, and describes how the International Socialists (IS) cadres made the decision in 1969 to get jobs in industry, doing so in the Teamsters in the early 1970s.

If I might interject a bit of my own history here, I was a member of the Hawaii Vietnam Moratorium Committee in 1969 when Art Rutledge, then president of the Teamsters & Hotel Workers, Local 5 in Honolulu let us have free office space and the free use of a phone. I was a member of Local 5 as a dishwasher for the Hilton Hawaiian Village at about that same time, and found there to be quite a fighting spirit among my mostly Ilocano-speaking Filipino coworkers. Then, from 1975 to 1977, I was an international air courier, picking up and delivering bank and corporate documents throughout East Asia for Loomis Courier Service. We made three complete 7-to-9-day Far East circuits a month, every month. Then the company proposed making a bad schedule even worse. I was handed the union sign-up cards by the last coworker to try and fail. I succeeded in getting everybody to sign cards for the Teamsters, with the help of a fellow courier. Then the company fired us both for union-organizing. We sued them through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The Local 5 business agent, Earl Kim, really went to bat for us before both the company and the NLRB. We won reinstatement, back pay minus unemployment benefits and free tickets to LA, where the company had fled to escape the union. I organized them into the union again in LA. They fired me again. But the Teamsters in LA proved very different from those in Honolulu. They didn’t really fight for us, and we lost.

LaBotz says that Teamsters launched militant strikes, many of them wildcats, to fight against increasing control by the employers over their schedules and the work itself. Truck drivers had been fairly free of that for much of their history. TDU played a leading role in some of these strikes and in efforts to reform the union, culminating in the election of Ron Carey to the Teamster presidency in 1991, which LaBotz says led to the election of John Sweeney and his reformers to the leadership of the AFL-CIO in 1995.

The first really successful fight of a union in years, the UPS strike of 1997, followed. Then came the TDU-affiliated Seattle Teamsters alliance with environmentalists in the 1999 demonstrations there against globalization.

Over 30 years since its birth, TDU still thrives and fights for member empowerment in the Teamsters. LaBotz says that TDU has survived because of its commitment to rank-and-file control “on the shop floor, in the union, and in society.” What I would say about this is that they have faltered on the last of these. Failure to counter the brainwashing of American workers is not the fault of the TDU alone, however. Progressive organizations in general have yet to find a way of doing that successfully.

Marjorie Murphy, a Swarthmore professor and author of a book on the teachers’ unions, writes about the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and how the urban rebellions affected it. Murphy says the AFT was the first major union to really integrate its locals. She recounts how they became a powerful, progressive union which launched numerous wildcat strikes. However, they ran up against the Black Power movement. This pitted basic union issues against community control. The conflicts which resulted, Murphy says, pretty well destroyed the lives of some of the leading African-American AFT officials and tore at the loyalties of a lot of rank-and-file teachers of color as well. The encounter with Black nationalism, and the conservative leadership of Albert Shanker, severely weakened the AFT and contributed to the growth of its major rival, the National Education Association (NEA).

Aaron Brenner writes about the Bell Workers Action Committee (BWAC), United Action (UA), the Telephone Revolutionary Union Movement (TELRUM), militant, rank-and-file groups that developed among the technicians and other workers at American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) and local Bell companies like New York Telephone and Western Electric. The groups mainly developed within the Communications Workers of America (CWA). TELRUM was an African-American group pattern after other Revolutionary Union Movements. There were an increasing number of Latino phone company employees as well. Besides the groups formed by people of color, SDS veterans played significant roles in these rebellious rank-and-file phone-worker organizations.

Fighting against both the racism and the sexism of the phone company, BWAC, UA and TELRUM made common cause with both the workers of color and the female telephone operators. They respected the operators’ picket lines, causing major disruptions in the routines of the phone company. The workers resisted increasing management encroachment on control over their work by a major strike in 1971. This proved a turning point in the almost-constant class war waged by the owning class against the rest of us. Management of NY Tel had been asserting its prerogative more strongly. The strike was a defensive action on the part of the workers, and the latter lost. The bosses’ victory in the ’71 strike left a number of stewards afraid to do their job. Insurgent rank-and-filers lost their jobs, although most of them were eventually rehired.

The institution of national bargaining agreements gave the union more power at the negotiating table, but it did nothing to renew strength on the shop floor. Some militant members continued resistance, but it was a shadow of its former self. The union had lost the power to have much say over the introduction of further automation, and many telephone workers lost their jobs.

A.C. Jones (a nomme de plume), an author and activist out of DC, writes about the United Auto Workers (UAW) insurgencies. At the time, the union leadership saw its role as cooperating with companies to maintain the extensive private welfare system built up over the years by its contracts with the Big Three auto makers. They looked the other way while GM, Ford and Chrysler increasingly cut into workers’ control on the shop floor and asserted management prerogatives. As the rank-and-file rebelled against this, the UAW leadership used strong-arm tactics to suppress worker militancy. But the membership fought back.

The General Motors Assembly Division (GMAD), brought into being in 1965, was charged with increasing the pace of work to increase profits for GM. Workers resisted the speed up throughout GM local lea tried to get the UAW bureaucracy to fight the speed up, to no avail. UAW allowed local strikes to allow workers to vent their anger but tool little action to support workers. ineffective.

Jones also mentions the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW), the subject of the next chapter in the book, and the United National Caucus (UNC), a rank-and-file dissident group made up mostly of skilled white workers. The UNC from recruited African-Americans and women and fought against racism and sexism. The UNC also sought more stewards, more democratic union voting procedures and a fairer grievance process.

The UNC and the LRBW were very effective for a time. Auto workers in general fought back during this period. The tide turned with the economic collapse of 1973-1975, however. With well over 100,000 auto workers laid off, the ones who still had jobs fought to hold onto them and their benefits. Concessionary bargaining tool its toll on the workers’ spirit, and by 1979, hundreds of thousands of auto workers had lost their jobs and quite a few production facilities had shut down for good. Foreign competition and lack of ingenuity had a devastating effect. The UAW leadership continued its propping up of its own jobs and those of the auto executives. As A.C. Jones says, the auto insurgencies had failed to divert the labor bureaucracy from its path of class collaboration.

Kieran Taylor, a University of North Carolina professor and author, writes about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW), writes that the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW) had its origins in the rebellion of Detroit’s African-American workers during the summer of 1967. Black workers battled cops, the National Guard, and the 82nd Airborne for control of the city over five days. Forty people were killed, 1,000 injured, and 7,000 were arrested. One of those who spent two weeks in jail was General Baker, one of the founders of the LRBW. While in jail Baker observed how the rage of his fellow inmates was growing into political consciousness.

Baker along with Mike Hamlin, John Watson and Marian Kramer, who were active in the revolutionary African-American student movement at Wayne State participated in the founding of the Inner City Voice, a newspaper, and a study group centered around it. The group included workers at Dodge Main auto plant, where most of the workers were African-American.

In the summer of 1968, African-American and white workers walked out of Dodge Main to protest speed up. Two of the leaders, one of which was General Baker, were fired and others were suspended. When the union leadership failed to support the fired and suspended workers, the African-American workers formed the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM).

DRUM soon spawned revolutionary union movements at other auto plants, UPS, and Blue Cross, and the Detroit News. One group ELRUM organized African-American workers at the Eldon Avenue Chrysler plant. It led militant actions against unsafe working conditions at the plant.

LRBW in addition to helping organize the revolutionary union movements, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers ran a bookstore and publishing house, made films about the movement, and engaged in other outreach work.

Differences over outreach efforts caused a rupture within the organization. Watson and Hamlin resigned, leaving Baker, Kramer and some others. The former were more interested in building alliances with broader forces in order to try to win social change. The latter wanted to rebuild the League, crippled by firings, among auto workers, but they had a narrower, more nationalistic outlook.

The League’s legacy was the many reforms the auto companies and the union were forced to make in response to them. The LRBW inspired a lot of other people of color as well as white radicals to immerse themselves in the working class and to remain there, keeping the ideals of the New Left alive, as Kieran Taylor says. But the bureaucratic morass that was the typical union swallowed many of them up. They gradually became more interested in their own careers and in preserving their particular union as an institution, rather than building, as Mao says, “reliable base areas.”

Dorothy Sue Cobble, a Rutgers University professor and author, writes about the struggle against sexism by flight attendants, clerical workers, and domestic workers. Flight attendants fought against the sexualization of their work. They demanded to be treated as people, not objects and to be judged by objective criteria such as job performance and experience, rather than their age or their weight. Clerical workers as well fought back against their traditional role of “office wives” and “go-fers.” They demanded respect, better pay and benefits and a clear definition of their work, so their boss could no longer demand of them whatever came into the boss’s head. Domestic workers sought similar goals. The traditional relationships they were part of in homes were not far removed from the days of slavery. They sought more modern, contractual relationships.

All these movements started in the late-1960s, early-1970s. Among flight attendants such organizations as the Stewardesses for Women’s Rights (SFWR) developed. This organization, while only lasting a few years, brought many airline women together and, through multi-faceted campaigns, laid the groundwork for the plethora of flight attendants’ organizations which were to follow.

With clerical workers, one of the most important steps toward improving their lot was the creation of 9to5, later District 925 of SEIU. After 9to5 laid the groundwork for much that was to follow, SEIU and other unions such as District 65 took up the torch.

Among domestic workers, groups such as the Detroit Household Workers Organization (HWO), the National Council of Household Employees (NCHE) and the National Domestic Workers Union (NDWU) fought hard in the 1970s for reforms which were eventually built into the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and codified in other ways into several states’ laws. Their legacy lives on in the professionalization of household work in all the “merry maids” type employment agencies, family-to-worker contractual relationships and the transfer of much of such work to daycare centers, hotels, school cafeterias, etc.

The flight attendants and clerical workers had built-in advantages, in this society, because they were mostly white and privileged, whereas the domestic workers were mostly black and poor. But all three groups fought for and won both recognition of their humanity and better wages and working conditions, as Cobble points out. She also tells us of how these movements reminded all those in the labor movement and the rest of society of how gender is so closely entwined with matters of race and class. What is already coming out of the struggles of these women workers is a new awareness within and among unions that economic issues are not the only ones: That respect and dignity are important, too.

Steve Early, long-time labor activist and journalist, closes out the book with a chapter on lessons to be learned from the labor battles of the 1970s. He says on the surface the fight backs of the 1970s appear totally disconnected from what was a quiet labor scene nationally these days, until Wisconsin woke everybody up, I might add. However, he says many labor activists who cut their teeth on the struggles of that long decade have continued their militancy through the years since.

Early mentions his own labor activism with the United Mine Workers (UMW), the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). He writes of how rigid labor bureaucrats in all three unions were all those years ago, and how the rank-and-file movements in which he participated made them more fluid. He says the struggles against labor misleaders were in a way fights against corporate bosses, because without responsive union structures it was impossible to fight the employers.

What neither the AFL-CIO nor Change to Win (CtW) has managed to deal with is the steady decline in union membership, as Early points out. He says organizing and links between the members, not just the leaders, of different unions are what’s needed to start the process of rebuilding, along with less reluctance to use civil disobedience as a tactic. A number of labor movement veterans with roots in the “long 1970s” have started addressing just these issues, according to Early.

Early underlines the importance of Labor Notes in bringing activists together and keeping them in touch with each other and up on the latest news. He also goes into the formation of Change to Win, with Andy Stern’s SEIU in the lead. Early continues with a history of that union’s battles with UNITE HERE and its internal battles with United Healthcare Workers West (UHW) and its leader, Sal Rosselli. He recounts for us the sorry history of the placing of UHW under trusteeship and the beginnings of its wars with SEIU in the former’s re-incarnation as the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

Early describes the sad descent of SEIU from a union which relied in large part on the rank-and-file in its Justice for Janitors (JFJ) campaign, to one which all-too-often relies on backroom deals with employers for the privilege of representing their workers. SEIU under Stern cared little for democracy and a lot for “market share” of workers in particular industries and the weight of campaign contributions in electoral politics. My hope is that the new SEIU, under Mary Kay Henry, will re-emphasize empowering the membership.

Early also describes recent rank-and-file successes in the New York City Transit Workers Union, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), Local 1422 of the International Longshoremen’s Association of South Carolina, which successfully fought its corrupt, thug-ridden international, and the attorney general of South Carolina.

Early tells us about the successful defense of health benefits by his own long-time employer, the Communications Workers of America (CWA). He also mentions the union’s desire to form a federation-wide strike fund, balked at by other union leaders and then made hopeless by the split between the AFL-CIO and CtW.

Early says that learning the lessons of the long 1970s gives us reasons to reconsider the establishment of gargantuan locals and growth for-growth’s-sake and think seriously of ways to make democratic practice more feasible and give the rank-and-file a chance to empower themselves. Strengthened membership control can give the union movement a chance to grow again with the aid of member-organizers.

With what’s happening in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, New Hampshire, Maine and a host of other states, working people are waking up to the fact that we’ve got to take a stand or it will be too late. We can learn from the struggles of those who dealt with the beginnings of what we face today. Then, it was a growing assault from the Right. Now, it’s a full-blown fight-to-the-death. They smell blood in the water, with private sector unions now at 6.9% of that workforce and public sector unions still at 30% of the government sector. Now that we’re almost extinct in the world of business, they want to tear us to pieces in the realm of government as well. With nobody from among the working people able to fund Democrats or even an alternative party, their only source of funds will be Wall Street and corporate America. The rich will have no opposition to their anti-people, pro-Almighty-Dollar policies. That’s why we’ve got to learn from those who’ve gone before.

I am like a number of those folks referred to in Rebel Rank And File. I’m a veteran of the antiwar movement and struggles over ethnic studies and land use in Hawaii. I’m a long-time labor activist of a Left persuasion. I’ve been a rank-and-file member of SEIU for 22 years, more recently a shop steward. I know what we working people can accomplish if we join together and fight hard for our rights and livelihoods and those of our sisters and brothers. We have already started fighting back now, all across the country and a good chunk of the world. Here we will re-orient our country’s priorities away from incredibly wasteful wars and runaway-shop subsidies, from tax breaks for the rich and cutbacks “for” the poor, and toward spending and priorities that support, not negate, human life. We will continue fighting till we win.


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