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.
For May Day, we present our latest Five Book Plan: L.A. Kauffman, author of Direct Action, selects five essential histories of political organizing in the United States.
Black Panther women, West Oakland, 1970.
Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (ed. David J. Garrow), The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (University of Texas Press, 1987)
Many people know that Rosa Parks was a trained and seasoned political activist before the famous day when she decided to stay in her bus seat. But few are aware of the large, well-organized network of black women in Montgomery that transformed her arrest into a historic campaign of mass noncompliance. This engaging memoir by Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, a key initiator of the Montgomery bus boycott, reveals the behind-the-scenes work of local organizers who had long been waiting and planning for the right opportunity to challenge racial segregation in their city when Parks was arrested. In an era when movements rely heavily on the internet to mobilize participation, there's much to learn from the extraordinary tale of how black women in Montgomery sprang into action the moment Parks was arrested, secretly distributing more than 50,000 leaflets throughout their community in fewer than 24 hours, and thus launching the boycott without tipping off the city's white leadership.
It is 90 years since Cesar Chavez was born. In observance of his birthday, we present an excerpt from Frank Bardacke's Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of United Farm Workers, examing Chavez's earliest years as an organizer, working under the influence of Father Donald McDonnell.
Chavez and other members of the Community Service Organization. Courtesy of the César E. Chávez Foundation.
Cesar Chavez left the North Gila Valley with two other treasures besides his memories. Although he had not liked school, he had become a good, quick learner out of the classroom. One uncle taught him to read Spanish; another read him the Mexican newspapers. A classic autodidact, throughout his life he would suck up one subject after another, move from one enthusiasm to the next: the art of shooting pool, Catholic Social Action, the theory and practice of Saul Alinsky, the life of Gandhi, the history of unionism in the fields, the varieties of religious experience, the intricacies of labor law, printing, faith healing, the Synanon Game, theories of scientific management. His biographer Jacques Levy, who was also a dog trainer and helped Chavez train his two dogs, told me that Cesar was the most absorbed, committed student of dog training he had ever met. Chavez read, he questioned, he listened, he learned.
This transcript of Vincent Emanuele's interview with David Harvey appeared first in Counterpunch.
March from El Alto to La Paz, June 2011.
Emanuele: You begin your book Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, by describing your experience in Paris during the 1970s: “Tall building-giants, highways, soulless public housing and monopolized commodification on the streets threatening to engulf the old-Paris… Paris from the 1960s on was plainly in the midst of an existential crisis.” In 1967, Henry Lefebvre wrote his seminal essay “On the Right to the City.” Can you talk about this period and the impetus for writing Rebel Cities?
Harvey: Worldwide, the 1960s is often looked at, historically, as a period of urban crisis. In the United States, for example, the 1960s was a time when many central cities went up in flames. There were riots and near revolutions in cities like Los Angeles, Detroit, and of course after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968 — over 120 American cities were inflicted with minor and massive social unrest and rebellious action. I mention this in the United States, because what was in-effect happening was that the city was being modernized.