Seizing the Moment

Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s
Edited by Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner, and Cal Winslow
Verso, 2010

Reviewed by Matt Witt

Why have progressives been unable to take full advantage of historic opportunities—including the current economic transformation—to build a broad, sustained mass movement and win fundamental social change?

That’s the question provoked by Rebel Rank and File, a collection of essays by left-leaning academics and veteran labor activists. Their analysis concerns the largely forgotten workers’ rebellion that took place in America from the mid-1960s until the early 1980s, but many of their thoughts are relevant to the strategic choices activists face today.

Many younger activists know that during what the authors call the “long 1970s” national movements fought for civil rights, women’s liberation, environmental protection, gay rights, and ending the Vietnam War. But few know about the revolt among working people that would make the pro-union protests in Wisconsin this year look like a church picnic by comparison.

As Robert Brenner and Judith Stein explain in their chapters about the economic changes that set the stage for the workers’ revolt, Americans who grew up during the expansion that followed World War II had high expectations for living well and being treated with respect. By the mid-1960s, the economic expansion was slowing, global competition was increasing, and workers’ expectations clashed sharply with a drive by corporations to maintain profits by imposing unreasonable workloads and limiting pay and benefits.

Many of the Rebel Rank and File essayists’ thoughts are relevant to the strategic choices activists face today.

It may be hard for those who didn’t live through it to imagine the long 1970s upsurge illustrated in Rebel Rank and File by countless examples such as these:

• From the early 1960s to the mid-1970s, the number of illegal strikes (“wildcat” walkouts not authorized by workers’ unions) more than doubled, to about fourteen hundred per year. In industries such as auto, the increase was even greater. For example, wildcat strikes per year at Chrysler more than quadrupled during that period.

• In 1970 alone, there were 5,716 strikes (legal and illegal) involving more than three million workers—and one out of six union members in America. Examples include a 197-day strike by twenty-seven thousand construction workers in Kansas City, a sixty-four-day walkout by twentythree thousand rubber workers, a work stoppage by thirty-five thousand airline employees, and a strike by forty-two thousand taxi drivers in New York.

• More than two hundred thousand postal workers conducted an eight-day, illegal nationwide wildcat strike in which they had to overcome the deployment of thirty thousand National Guard troops.

• In 1972, young workers shut down the General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio for three weeks over a doubling of assembly-line speed—a struggle that the twenty-nine-yearold local union president called “the Woodstock of the working man.”

• Farm workers in California struck the major vegetable growers despite a disagreement over strategy with their union president, Cesar Chavez, who wanted them to rely on a boycott campaign among urban liberals instead.

• Coal miners shut down most of the mines in West Virginia in a political strike protesting rising prices at the gasoline pumps, and independent truckers blockaded major highways throughout the Midwest and East Coast over the same issue.

• Four thousand nurses in northern California struck forty hospitals and clinics.

• Longshore workers on the East and Gulf Coasts struck for 116 days. Three years later, their counterparts on the West Coast struck for 123 days.

• Nearly fifty thousand telephone workers conducted an illegal statewide strike in New York.

During this same period, state and local public employees, who were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act passed in the 1930s, demanded the legal right to collective bargaining, often engaging in illegal strikes to force politicians to act. Young insurgents in the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union (AFSCME) established some of the first public sector collective bargaining precedents that were then built upon by activist teachers. In 1966 alone, there were at least fifty-four illegal strikes involving almost forty-five thousand teachers. As a result of this upsurge, the National Education Association (NEA) grew by more than one million members by the end of the 1970s, and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) experienced a substantial increase as well.

Reform caucuses sprang up in many local and national unions as many entrenched leaders proved unable to respond to rank-and-file discontent. The conflict between old guard officials and courageous reformers drew national attention when Jock Yablonski, an executive board member of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), challenged the reelection of UMWA President Tony Boyle in 1969. Boyle was a leading symbol of “business unionism” who explained to Congress after seventy-eight miners were killed at an unsafe mine in West Virginia: “The UMWA will not abridge the rights of mine operators in running the mines. We follow the judgment of the coal operators, right or wrong.” After a campaign in which votes were stolen and reformers threatened with violence, Yablonski and his wife and daughter were murdered as they lay sleeping in their home in Pennsylvania. Boyle was eventually convicted of ordering the murders, and the rank-and-file Miners for Democracy slate won a government-super vised rerun election—an historic victory that inspired reformers in other unions.

The most sustained reform movement, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, began during the long 1970s, preparing the way for the eventual election of a reformer as president in 1991 and the groundbreaking national strike by 180,000 United Parcel Service workers in 1997 that directly challenged corporations’ strategy of converting good full-time jobs into lowerpaid, part-time jobs without benefits.

As retired Communications Workers staffer Steve Early writes in the conclusion to Rebel Rank and File, the insurgents of the long 1970s laid the groundwork for change in some unions “through the institutions they created, the reforms they won within unions, the continued participation of many of their militants, and the continuing relevance of their ideas” (p. 358). The increased emphasis by some unions on helping nonunion workers organize, the AFL-CIO’s gradual shift in its positions on immigration and war, and some increase in diversity in the ranks and leadership all had their roots in the long 1970s rebellion.

But as researcher Aaron Brenner points out in his introduction, “The rank-and-file rebellion of the long 1970s did not in the end halt the employers’ offensive, transform the bureaucratic torpidity of the official labor movement, or reverse the downward trend in private sector union density” (p. xiv).

The reasons for the rebellion’s limited success are explored by a number of the contributors to this collection. Dan La Botz looks at rank-and-file movements in the Teamsters. Frank Bardacke traces the history of the United Farm Workers. Kieran Taylor considers radical black organizing in Detroit’s auto plants. Paul Nyden analyzes Miners for Democracy. Marjorie Murphy describes tensions between AFT leaders and black activists seeking community control of the schools, and Sue Cobble examines feminist movements that emerged among flight attendants, clerical workers, and household workers.

Across these analyses, three principal reasons emerge for the rebellion’s dissipation—all of which remain relevant today. The first has been explored thoroughly by many other analysts: what Brenner calls “the sheer power and ferocious opposition of capital” (p. xv) that moved jobs to the mostly nonunion South and abroad, undermined workers’ rights with sophisticated union-busting tactics, and financed the growth of a powerful right-wing political force to implement the corporate agenda.

The second argument also will be familiar to many readers. The rankand-file insurgency failed because, as Brenner puts it, “it could not overcome the bureaucratic business unionism that emerged during World War II” (p. xv). Union leaders’ desire “to preserve both the unions as institutions and their own positions at the helm of those institutions drove them to accommodate employers’ requirements for profits, on the one hand, and eliminate opposition from the membership, on the other” (p. xvi).

Reluctance to rock the boat contributed to “the unions’ failure to create and sustain an independent class-based political party, and their embrace of the Democratic Party instead,” Brenner writes. “This dependence on a party dominated by business and still heavily influenced by its largely racist and conservative Southern wing helps explain why the official labor movement failed to give much support to the mass social movements of the period, leaving both the labor and social movements weaker” (p. xvi).

The third reason for the rebellion’s limitations—the “debilitating weaknesses” of the rebellion itself—has not been written about as much, making it the special contribution of this volume to today’s strategy debates. One weakness was that reformers accepted the basic framework of labor relations and the political system. Thousands of rank-and-file workers, elected leaders, and union staff worked hard to make collective bargaining and the contract grievance procedure work better, to help a few more workers organize, and to elect Democrats who were marginally better than their opponents, but none of that challenged basic power relations in the workplace or within society at large.

A second weakness was that reformers accepted, in contributor Kim Moody’s words, the “fragmentation and disunity” built into the labor movement with its “maze of jurisdictional boundaries” (p. 144). Even well-developed reform movements within individual unions had little organizational contact or connection, so “the various forms of rebellion never became a single movement like the civil rights, women’s, or antiwar movements” (p. 141).

A third weakness, writes Brenner, was that “the rank-and-file struggles and groups that emerged in this period mostly failed to build material alliances with the era’s social movements” (p. xvii). They weren’t able to build a unified progressive movement that went beyond challenging a single employer or industry to consistently and effectively articulating a vision and fighting for broad social change.

Today, all but the richest Americans have lost economic security and vital public services as a result of unregulated greed on the part of Wall Street and other corporate special interests. The time is ripe for unions and other progressive institutions to offer a collective alternative vision and program. This would include production jobs that promote sustainability and reduced energy use; universal health care; public education that prepares students to think and to participate in society; affordable housing; efficient and fair public services; a foreign policy based on the mutual interests of working people around the world; and much more.

Some unions are involved in these larger issues in mostly token ways. But for the most part, unions’ human, financial, and organizational resources remain focused on negotiating contracts, handling grievances, fighting off budget cuts, and slowing the erosion of benefits—all understandable activity, but no more likely to reverse the corporate agenda than similar efforts in the long 1970s. This constricted definition of institutional purpose is not unique to unions, of course; many other public interest groups continue to conduct business as usual in their own silos, pursuing worthy but narrowly defined issues and trying to attract enough grant money to stay afloat.

The question that lingers, from the long 1970s through today, is where the leadership and resources will come from to build a united movement capable of winning progressive public policies comparable to or better than those enjoyed in most other industrialized countries. What should we do so that thirty years from now, a similar collection of authors, producing a book about our era, won’t write that in a time of potential upheaval, a lot of us worked really hard and with great sincerity for the particular organization, issue, leader, or party that was our focus, but we failed to build a united movement that could challenge Wall Street and global corporations and change the course of history?