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Edited by Staughton Lynd and Alice Lynd
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000
Review by Jeremy Brecher
In the 1960s, Staughton and Alice Lynd got the idea of going around with their tape recorders and asking rank and file workers about their experiences in the labor upheavals of the 1930s and 1940s. The results, published in their 1973 classic Rank and File: Personal Histories of Working- Class Organizers, presented a picture radically different from that found in the conventional labor histories of that time. It showed that, without regard to what was going on in union offices, workers had organized themselves on the job during the 1930s and 1940s to affect the conditions they faced.
The past quarter century has been tough for working people and the labor movement. Real wages for workers are substantially lower today than they were when the original Rank and File was first published in 1973. In 1995, the proportion of workers belonging to unions fell to 15.5 percent—the lowest level since 1936. Large strikes in the U.S. hit a 50 year low—one-eighth the number two decades before, many of them ending in devastating defeats.
Now the Lynds have produced The New Rank and File in which rank and file activists of the past quarter century discuss their experiences. It demonstrates that, under the surface, invisible to the media, in the workplace where most people spend so much of their lives, the class struggle continues.
The book reveals that what it calls a “tradition of working-class self-organization” continues in American workplaces. That tradition is perpetuated both by individuals and by transmission across generations. As the economy has shifted from an industrial to service orientation, the tradition has crossed that divide as well. (It is not unusual, for example, to find that an activist in a teacher’s union had parents or grandparents who were activists in the mine workers union.)
The New Rank and File opens with a woman who exemplifies that continuity. The original Rank and File included the story of a woman named Stella Nowicki who played a courageous role in organizing the stockyards in Chicago. In The New Rank and File we meet her again as Vicky Starr and learn that “Stella Nowicki” was an assumed name she used to avoid the packinghouse blacklist. After raising a family, she went back to work in the 1950s, ultimately ending up in a clerical job at the University of Chicago. In the late 1970s, she became involved in a clerical workers organizing campaign there.
Borrowing a page from older rank-and-file organizing traditions, the mostly female organizing group began operating as a union in the workplace long before winning legal bargaining rights. They elected acting stewards. They began representing workers on grievances. For example, workers in the library forced the rehiring of a worker who was fired, allegedly, for being overweight—although there was a supervisor who was far more overweight. When workers in one program were threatened with being laid off, “Stella”—now Vicky Starr—and her co-workers organized meetings, petitions, and ultimately a confrontation in a supervisor’s office demanding access to rehiring opportunities.
Rank and File includes a variety of such cases where workers act in an organized fashion on the job in the context of a union campaign but without formal union recognition. Hugo Hernandez, a worker at the Overnight terminal in Miami and a leader in the current organizing campaign there, describes how workers used direct action inside the workplace to establish a sense of courage and power in the workforce.
“When there was something wrong we would start going after it until we fixed it. One person’s problem became everybody’s problem. It wasn’t just one person any more. We gained a lot of respect that way.”
When supervisors began trying to split off one group of workers by means of differential treatment, the workers decided they had to act. “We decided to march in with the American flag. We made up some signs real quick that said, ‘Our Dignity, Our Honor Not For Sale’.” They started with a group of about 20 people. “Management was right in plain view. Our guys got weak in the knees. They said, ‘Oh, Hugo, we’re going to get fired. Let’s just do it some other time.’ I said, ‘No, these guys need us now. These guys can’t wait for tomorrow. The damage was done last night. We must act now.’ I took the flag, and I started to march. There were two guys who saw that I was going to do it alone, and instead of letting me go out alone, they went with me.
“The three of us proceeded down the dock, holding these signs, walking very, very slowly. We marched with pride, saying, ‘Guys, we’re with you. Stay strong.’ The guys were looking at us.... The guys in the trucks turned around as they were working. They smiled, and they applauded.”
On another occasion, a group of company big shots were standing on the loading dock. About 15 workers went up to them. “We formed a circle. We held hands—these were grown men— and we got our heads down. A Black preacher…started giving a prayer. The prayer was, ‘We need strength, God. Please Lord, give us strength to go through this’.” Ultimately they won the election in that terminal by a two to one vote.
Such direct action in the workplace also continues even in unionized workplaces. Ed Mann, a long-time activist at the Brier Hill mill of the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, described what happened when a worker was killed in the plant. At the time, Mann was recording secretary in the local union and a steward in the Open Hearth department. He had filed a grievance protesting more than 30 safety violations. One demand was for warning horns for trucks that were backing up. The company refused even to discuss the grievance. Then a worker, barely a week away from retirement, got run over and killed by a backing up truck.
“So I got up on the bench in the washroom and I said to the guys coming to work, ‘What are we going to do about this? Are we going to work under these lousy conditions? Who’s next?’”
The workers left the plant and marched up to the union hall. They called their friends on the night shift and told them not to come to work. Mann said to them, “‘Rather than get the stewards fired, let’s appoint a committee for each area and let’s start listing our demands on safety,’ bypassing the union structure. It worked. Every area—pit, cranes, floor— was represented.”
The company said it would only deal with the union departmental chair. Mann told them, “Then you’re not going to deal with anybody because this is the committee.” The committee refused to talk with the superintendent because he had rejected the initial grievance, so the company brought in the division manager. The company agreed to everything the committee demanded, and even asked the committee to meet with them on a regular basis about safety conditions.
The New Rank and File includes dozens of accounts of collective action on the job, embedded in the life stories of those who participated in them. It also includes a handful of similar accounts from workers in other countries, giving a taste of some of the experiences and modes of action that are shared by workers around the world. Far from seeing such worker self-organization on the job as irrelevant to the era of globalization, the Lynds describe it as an effort to “take hold of global problems at a local level.” The lessons people learn in their daily life struggles are unlikely to be passed on in schools, let alone in the media. Today, as in the past, they are embedded in the stories people tell about their experiences and actions. The New Rank and File helps pass on those stories, in the voices of the people who lived them, to those who might otherwise be excluded from this knowledge.
Jeremy Brecher writes on labor issues. He is the author of Strike! And Global Village or Global Pullag