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.”
According to Borsos:
The authors in this volume follow the broad contours outlined by Weir—the upsurge of discontented workers within existing unions and workers who had been traditionally excluded from the House of Labor—and update his contemporary insights from the experience and hindsight of history.
Indeed, several authors featured in Rebel Rank and File cite Weir’s 1967 article as they cover different aspects of the labor insurgencies that emerged throughout the long 1970s.
Borsos makes special note of one chapter in particular:
Perhaps the most compelling piece is Frank Bardacke’s examination of the United Farm Workers from the ground up which captures the power of the farm workers at the point of production in establishing a power base. This is set in relief with the union’s bureaucracy that developed an independent power base from the national, liberal support and backing generated through the boycott apparatus.
And if Borsos found Bardacke’s contribution to the book compelling, he will surely be pleased with the nearly 800-page exposition on the UFW by Bardacke, Trampling Out the Vintage, to be published by Verso in September.
Borsos also wonders whether the hidden history uncovered in Rebel Rank and File can be revived:
Because the collection is either the work of activists or those with a strong activist bent, it seems appropriate to consider the lessons learned from the revolt of the long 1970s and its meaning for today’s labor activists.
Specifically, was the 1970s upheaval the last gasp of labor as a movement?
Perhaps we can return to Stan Weir for an answer, but with an essay not directly relating to the labor struggles. In 1989, following the death of his friend James Baldwin, Weir wrote:
Death doesn’t end relationships. The living keep on talking to friends who have passed and continue to get insights from them long after the obituaries.
Indeed, Rebel Rank and File is no obituary for a lost era of bottom-up militancy, as the book’s authors situate the lessons learned into the present, with contributions such as Steve Early’s finding a lineage that extends to today.
In such context, Borsos finds in Rebel Rank and File both a history, a guidebook, and a caveat:
The history of the rank-and-file rebellion of the long 1970s serves as an inspiration for those who doubt the capacity of American workers to take matters into their own hands to demonstrate in powerful, collective ways their opposition to corporate capitalism and union bureaucracy. Many of the conditions that fostered the revolt in the 1970s are present today. But as this volume also makes clear, to have a deeper, longer lasting impact, rebellion on its own may not be enough.
Visit ZNet to read the review in full.