The 1st of May marks International Workers' Day, a festival of working-class self-organisation stretching back over 130 years. It was originally inaugurated to commemorate the "Haymarket Massacre" of 1886 in Chicago, where a bomb thrown during a worker's strike kicked off a police crackdown followed by a period of anti-labor hysteria.
In 1890, the first internationally co-ordinated demonstration for an 8-hour day was held, in commemoration of those killed in the massacre, and those eight anarchists executed on trumped-up charges after the event.
Here, Verso staff present "A Reading List for May Day", looking at the radical history of the festival in the European and North American labor movements, and how that spirit lives on in grassroots workplace struggles.
On ZNet, John Borsos begins his review of Rebel Rank and File with the prescient observations of militant labor activist Stan Weir, who noted in a 1967 article that “the rank and file union revolts that have been developing in the industrial workplaces since the 1950s are now plainly visible.”
Borsos finds in Weir’s article a foretelling of the revolts that followed:
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.
Not only did Weir’s article signal “labor’s new era” of rank-and-file militancy, but Borsos finds in the article the seeds of the book Rebel Rank and File, which covers those days of “insurgencies from below.”
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.
In his review of Rebel Rank and File for In These Times, Joe Burns commends the new collection for "bringing to life [a] fascinating period in labor history," and for pointing the way to "another path to union renewal" at a time when "organized labor's strategies are not working."
Long before today's quieted labor movement came the turbulent 1970s, with its militant picket lines and industry-wide strikes. During this often-ignored period of U.S. labor history, workers tenaciously fought back against employers committed to eroding hard-won union gains. In contrast to today's staff-driven labor movement, workplaces teemed with radical rank-and-file caucuses and wildcat strikes.