In the latest edition of Against the Current, Steve Downs, a longtime rank-and-file union activist in the New York subway and author of the inspiring solidarity pamphlet Hell On Wheels, reflects on his own politicization and the legacy of labor struggles during the "long 1970s." Far from a simple book review, Downs' article draws from the essays in Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s to explain the current impasse of the US labor movement and the urgent need for democratic, bottom-up renewal.
As employers pushed for greater production and profits, workers pushed back. When their union officers failed to lead the fight against management, members built rank-and-file movements with which to resist, until mass unemployment set in with the recessions and the onset of deindustrialization. In hindsight, this period marked the beginning of the end for the U.S. industrial economy and unions that depended on it.
The dramatic decline of the US labor movement is linked to changes both in the global economy—the vicious assaults of neoliberal capital alongside outsourcing—and the inability of the labor movement to attract post-industrial or service-sector workers. As Downs correctly argues, the upsurges of the 1970s were "unique and will not be repeated." Today, unions and workers have to build movements that challenge capitalism in its current form.
In light of the ongoing right-wing assaults on labor in Wisconsin and other US states, Downs—echoing the lessons from Rebel Rank and File—argues that workers have continually outpaced union officials and politicians in their militancy and demands:
The dynamism of the struggle comes largely from the initiatives of the rank and file of the unions, and from students, not union officers or politicians.
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