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 an article for Counterfire, Kim Moody writes that the recent waves of worker demonstrations across the Midwest are ‘putting new ideas about class politics and power on the trade union agenda.’ Charting the emergence of a revitalised union movement in reaction to fresh union-busting legislation being put forward by newly-elected Republican governors, Moody argues that:
The laws were put forth by recently elected Republican governors in those and other states designed to destroy the power of public worker unions. The attack on public sector workers, often focused on teachers, is long standing, sponsored by big business and embraced by many Democrats as well as Republicans, from the Whitehouse to state legislatures and town halls across the country. The recent Great Recession provided a further opportunity for state governments facing growing deficits to propose the final coup de grace to public worker rights. The first sign of worker resistance came on Monday, 14th February when some 400 Minnesota union members filled the hearing rooms of the state legislature to oppose a bill that would undermine union security and cut wages by 15 percent.