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Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s

The hidden story of the 1970s insurgency from below, against employers and bureaucrats.

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.

Reviews

  • “Truly shines ... By uncovering the hidden history of the 1970s, Rebel Rank and File reminds us that there is another path to union renewal—a path firmly rooted in the workplace and motivated by visions of transforming society.”
  • “An important collection ... honest and thoughtful.”
  • “This is an unusually high-quality effort, with an all-star cast of authors, which should attract wide interest.”
  • “The chapters in this collection take the reader on a vivid journey through battlegrounds of the 1960s and 1970s where workers and employers clashed over the future of the US workplace.”
  • “Bracing and often electrifying ... A primer and a call to arms for a radical rank-and-file politics.”
  • “Extraordinary reflections.”
  • “[A] spirited volume ... a call to arms to today's workers and potential activists.”
  • “Page after page of the remarkable militancy of rank-and-file workers.”

Blog

  • “We Are Those Lions”: 5 Strikes and Riots that Shook Modern Britain

    “We have encountered already the drive-train, which, turned by agrarian advances, will spin the wheels of the Industrial Revolution. The race for productivity, the very basis of capitalist development, means the replacement of labor power with means of production, living labor with dead, variable capital with constant.

    Amid this arise General Ludd and Captain Swing, one leading sallies against the textile industries, the other in the agrarian theater of combat. Both movements described themselves in military terms, never better than in a letter “Signed by the General of the Army of Redressers Ned Ludd Clerk.” They took oaths, stocked arms.” Joshua CloverRiot. Strike. Riot

    ***

    Since the very first machines were destroyed during the Luddite uprisings of 1811-1813 culminating in a region-wide rebellion in Northwestern England, militant direct action has been a weapon of the working class and a form of resistance against their rulers. 

    ('Preston attack on the Military: two rioters shot’, Illustrated London News, 13th August, 1842)

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  • The Dynamics of Retreat: An Interview with Robert Brenner

    Bhaskar Sunkara’s interview with Robert Brenner, on the forces that made and unmade the American welfare state, was first published in Jacobin.


    (The Memorial Day Massacre: Chicago police attack Republic Steel strikers)

    Bhaskar Sunkara: When people think about the New Deal, there are two main accounts. In one of them, Franklin Roosevelt is the hero, leading a band of workers against the big capitalists who had just driven us into an economic depression. On the other extreme, there are those who make it seem like Roosevelt was acting solely in the interest of elites smart enough to want to save capitalism from itself. Which is closer to the truth?

    Robert Brenner: I would say that the key to the emergence of the New Deal reforms was the transformation in the level and character of working-class struggle. Within a year or two of Roosevelt’s election, we saw the sudden emergence of a mass militant working-class movement. This provided the material base, so to speak, for the transformation of working-class consciousness and politics that made Roosevelt’s reforms possible.

    Following the labor upsurge and radicalization that came in the wake of World War I, workers’ militancy tailed off, and the 1920s saw the American capitalist class at the peak of its power, confidence, and productiveness, in total command of industry and politics. Manufacturing productivity rose more rapidly during this decade than ever before or since, the open shop (which banned union contracts) prevailed everywhere, the Republican Party of big business reigned supreme, and the stock market broke all records.

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  • The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe—The Roots of The Crisis (Part Two)

    In the second part of his 1991 essay on the decline of the Eastern Bloc Robert Brenner provides a prescient analysis of the likely outcome of the political and economic crisis in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. He correctly predicts that the future for the region would resemble less the post-war experience of Western Europe and would more closely follow the trajectory of the nations of the Global South. The essay originally appeared in the March/April 1991 issue of Against the Current and is reproduced here for the first time. Read the first part of this essay on the nature of exploitation and accumulation in the Soviet and eastern bloc bureaucratic systems and the beginnings of its crisis.

    Brenner is the author of many important interventions in world economics including: 
    The Boom and the Bubble, Merchants and Revolution, and The Economics of Global Turbulence.


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Other books Edited by Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner, and Cal Winslow