A review of by Joshua Freeze of The New Rank and File by Staughton and Alice Lynd. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker #1630 (January/February 2001)
Review: The New Rank and File by Staughton and Alice Lynd
The New Rank and File by Staughton and Alice Lynd, ILR Press (Ithaca, NY), 2000. Available from IWW Literature Dept. for $15.95.
It's rare that a sequel exceeds the original, but in The New Rank and File, Staughton and Alice Lynd have at least equaled their 1973 Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working Class Organizers. In an inspiring series of pieces by rank-and-file activists and organizers from many sectors of the labor movement, the Lynds demonstrate the type of grassroots approach that the labor movement needs if we are to achieve the strength needed to win against a global, wealthy and well-armed foe.
Directed at two groups, rank-and-file workers and young people dedicated to service to the labor movement, the book directly takes on the ideology of business unionism. Condemning old guard and reformers alike, the Lynds write in their introduction: "These leaders are committed to what labor historians call `business unionism': the goal of signing collective bargaining agreements complete with management prerogative and no-strike clauses; the dues checkoff as the means of funding union bureaucracies; the protection of jobs in one's own nation at whatever expense to workers in other countries; and the capitalist system as the desired context of all of the above. Therefore the labor movement must find ways to be more visionary, more inclusive, more democratic, and more willing to take risks than the union movement can be expected to be."
The book is divided into four sections, each titled with a line from Ralph Chaplin's "Solidarity Forever." "The Union's Inspiration" shows stories of union organizing, both for new shops and to win demands, demonstrating the effect of direct action as opposed to primary reliance on labor law and government agencies. "The Ashes of the Old" examines the recent context of globalization, capital flight and disinvestment. "Anywhere Beneath the Sun" takes a look at unionists outside the US and the need for the labor movement to be transnational if it is to fight modern capital. Finally, "In Our Hands is Placed a Power" presents rank-and-file unionists fighting and winning battles by creating horizontal support networks either without or in opposition to the leadership of their business unions.
Those from the IWW school of unionism will see their reflections in the workers of this book. Far from viewing unions strictly as a tool to get better pay and benefits for their members, they show that solidarity and the vibrancy of working class culture is what makes a union, not the contracts or officials.
The story from Mia Giunta, an organizer for United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers in Connecticut demonstrates this best. UE organizers were not sent from place to place, but would set down roots in an area. "The organizer took part in the negotiations at the place he orshe had organized." She says "I was a better `organizer' because I was also a `servicer' and a better `servicer' because I was also an `organizer.'" At one factory she helped organize, they had a radically different response to a reduction in work. Instead of laying off the workers with the least seniority, "Somebody suggested, `we'll all work a few hours less each week. That way everybody can stay. Everybody can have health insurance.' And they took advantage of the vacation and maternity leave, and that became the tradition at that factory."
Ed Mann, who passed away in 1992, and to whom the Lynds dedicate this book, worked in steel mills in Youngstown, Ohio. He was a member of the IWW and of the Workers Solidarity Club, a militant retirees organization. Mann believed that workers have "too much contract." He believed the proper way to solve problems was direct action. "I think the first three months I was there [on the open hearth], they must have had ten wildcat strikes. `We want rubber tire wheelbarrows.' ... `We want a relief man.' ... `We want cold water.' ... `We need safety masks today.' `Hey somebody got burned. We want safety jackets or we aren't going to work on those furnaces.'
"The grievance procedure wasn't working. That's why we had wildcat strikes. We weren't going to get tied up in paperwork. The wildcats didn't last long: a day, two days at most, maybe eight hours."
An activist in the Hebron Union of Workers in the West Bank of Palestine provides a contract for one of their workplaces, that not only provides for certain rates of pay and workplace insurance, but also: "On the ninth day of each month, there is a general strike against the occupation. If on that day the worker can not come to work or is late coming to work, nothing will be subtracted from their pay," and "Transportation to and from work must be paid by the employer." This union has only volunteer executive committee members and, "in each factory the union deals with the employer, not by someone from here [the executive] going to discuss for them, but by a committee of the workers themselves."
Martin Glaberman tells a funny story from the Dodge Main plant in the 1970s: "There was a joke in Hamtramck, where the plant was located, that an optimist is a Dodge worker who brings his lunch box to work. Day after day, some department would wildcat, and by the middle of the day the plant was shut down."
And on and on, the worker tell their stories. They're not all victories and these rank-and-file activists do not have stars in their eyes about their work, but the stories do provide hope and a reminder that we are not alone in the class struggle. The Lynds have done a fantastic job of pulling together workers into a book that provides innumerable examples of strategies that work, not in someone's theory about organizing, but in actual jobs. If you want to read about the IWW's ideas, then read this book.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker #1630 (January/February 2001)