Red and Black Notes review of Greater than the might of armies, edited by Staughton Lynd & Alice Lynd.
Greater than the might of Armies
Staughton Lynd & Alice Lynd (eds.) The New Rank & File (Ithaca: ILR Press, 2000)
The election of John Sweeney and Rich Trumka to leadership of the AFL-CIO in 1995 as a "reform" opposition to the moribund organization's existing leadership led to a flurry of books, publications and statements from the left- labour community filled with a cautious optimism. A letter published in the New York Times after Sweeney's election and signed by more than forty leftist intellectuals, described the election as "the most heartening development in our nation's political life since the heyday of the civil right's movement." The effects of whatever substance the authors of that letter were abusing appear to have worn off and all now know what was clear to many at the time: had Sweeney been qualitatively different from his predecessors he would never have been elected.
That many would have been taken in by Sweeney is a reflection of the way that many view the trade union movement in the United States and Canada; as something which is essentially a democratic means of defending workers rights and working conditions, but with a bad leadership. Sweeney is only the latest in a long line of leftist- supported labour leaders who turned out to be bureaucrats once, and in many cases before they were elected to national office. Ed Sadlowski, Arnold Miller, Ron Carey and of course Walter Reuther are only a few of the dozens who could be mentioned. Even in the cherished rank and file strategies of various and sundry leftists are tainted
by myopia. National rank and file organizations such as New Directions in the UAW and Teamsters for a Democratic union remain loyal oppositions. It is not without reason that the Labor Notes grouping, perhaps the most successful advocates of a rank and file strategy, has been called "bureaucrats in waiting."
An alternate approach, even to the rank and file strategy, is present in the oral history anthology "The New Rank and File" edited by Staughton and Alice Lynd. The first volume of Rank & File, which is still available from Monthly Review press, was published in 1973. In the 1970's the world appeared to be a very different place for workers' struggles. A militant working class waged a war employing such tactics as wildcats, walkouts, sit-ins against their employers and their own unions in a massive "revolt against work." Three decades later capital appears to have temporarily overcome the terrifying spectre of Lordstown and similar insurgencies. Significant defeats like PATCO, Caterpillar, Staley, and P-9, downsizing, plant closures and relocation, have all contributed to this malaise. Classical workers' struggles seem to have disappeared in favour of an underground guerilla war. Yet the essential condition of capitalism remains: As long as there is class, there will be class struggle.
The new collection of interviews takes as its cue four lines from the old Wobbly hymn, "Solidarity forever." : ‘the union's inspiration,' ‘the ashes of the old,' ‘anywhere beneath the sun' and ‘In our Hands is placed a Power.' While a few of the interviewees were members of ostensible revolutionary organizations such as the International Socialists or with former Maoists, most of the people interviewed belonged only to their union organizations. Some came from union families, some not. But what was common to all was a developed radicalism that came as a product of their everyday lives. The New Rank and File is essentially that: Workers telling their own stories. The tradition of oral history is one that is often neglected. This is unfortunate, because stories that are told by intellectuals or professional historians often reflect the biases of the academic.
A number of themes emerge from this book. One is what Rick Fantasia elsewhere called "cultures of solidarity." Workers in a similar workplace tend to develop an identity of interests and bonds with other workers in the same workplace. Mia Giunta, an organizer with the United Electrical relates how when an apartment building collapsed with workers inside, other workers dug through the rubble in the cold April air while their hands ran red with blood until all the bodies were recovered. Life long friendships were established which overcame the racism which had existed. From that tragedy came the beginnings of workers memorial day, commemorated every April 28 to mark the deaths of workers killed on the job.
Yet a more telling picture which emerges beyond this solidarity is that of defeats. Even the most pro-union worker cannot be struck by the number of times the story ends in failure. Not because of the violence of the bosses but often because of the actions of the workers ‘leaders.'
In a revealing telling story Andrea Carney, a member of SEIU local 399 from which the famous Justice for Janitors campaign sprang, explains that when she first ran for office in 1992 the union told other workers she was a Communist who hated Mexicans. In case the red-bating and slander was insufficient, ballot stuffing on a wide scale was employed. Several years later Carney tried again as part of a group called Change 95. They purposefully did not run a candidate for President in order to avoid overly antagonizing the national leadership, but targeted every other executive position. They were 100% successful. Yet within a week of their victory the local was put into trusteeship by . . . you guessed it, workers ‘ hero John Sweeney. In Marshall Ganz's account of the struggles of the United Farmworkers in the seventies, he concluded that Cesar Chavez was an amazing leader, but the more successful he was, the more he heard only what he wanted to hear and became isolated from the union he had built.
It would be easy to ascribe workers' continued allegiance to the unions as a form of grandiose "false consciousness, " but this is too simplistic. In his contribution to this anthology Martin Glaberman notes that workers "have to deal with their own reality, and that transforms them." When workers deal with that reality then the possibilities for truly radical change move from the impossible to the eminently practical. For a glimpse of that alternative readers might consider reading another collection edited by Lynd We Are All Leaders.
Dave Elswith/ April 2001
First Published in Red and Black Notes #13, Spring 2000, this article has been archived on libcom.org from the Red and Black Notes website.