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.
“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 Clover, Riot. 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)
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.
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.