Often considered irredeemably conservative, the US working class actually has a rich history of revolt. Rebel Rank and File uncovers the hidden story of insurgency from below against employers and union bureaucrats in the late 1960s and 1970s.
From the mid-1960s to 1981, rank-and-file workers in the United States engaged in a level of sustained militancy not seen since the Great Depression and World War II. Millions participated in one of the largest strike waves in US history. There were 5,716 stoppages in 1970 alone, involving more than 3 million workers. Contract rejections, collective insubordination, sabotage, organized slowdowns, and wildcat strikes were the order of the day.
Workers targeted much of their activity at union leaders, forming caucuses to fight for more democratic and combative unions that would forcefully resist the mounting offensive from employers that appeared at the end of the postwar economic boom. It was a remarkable era in the history of US class struggle, one rich in lessons for today's labor movement.
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.”