Workers’ Revolts of the 1970s

Against the Current, No. 152, May/June 2011

Steve Downs

Stayin’ Alive
The 1970s and the Last Days
of the Working Class
By Jefferson Cowie
The New Press, 2009, 488 pages,
$27.95 hardcover.

Rebel Rank and File:
Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s
Edited by Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner and Cal Winslow.
Verso, 2010, 472 pages, $29.95 paperback.

IN MY WORLD as a teenager becoming politically aware in Detroit in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the issues that mattered most were the war in Vietnam and race relations at my school. The events that shaped my high school years included fights between Black and white students, watching the families of white friends leave the city for Ferndale and Oak Park, the racially charged mayoral race in 1969, the election of the city’s first Black mayor in 1973, and my own increasing involvement in the movement to end the war in Southeast Asia.

I was vaguely aware of so-called auto “heat strikes” in the 1960s and couldn’t miss the 1970 GM strike but, since I didn’t have relatives in the plants; the world of the auto plants and the struggles taking place in them were alien to me. It took workers’ uprisings in Portugal, South Africa and Poland in the mid-1970s to open my eyes to the political and social importance of the organizing that had been taking place in the factories I’d lived near much of my life.

By the late ’70s, the struggles in the auto plants — and those taking place simultaneously in steel mills, coal mines, and trucking companies — had left their marks on me and set the course for my own political activity for the next 30+ years.

Two new books, Stayin’ Alive by Jefferson Cowie and Rebel Rank and File edited by Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner and Cal Winslow, revisit those times and places. From very different starting points, each shines a welcome light on what took place during “the long ’70s” and the lingering legacy of those years.

Stayin’ Alive

Stayin’ Alive is a sweeping social and cultural history of the ’70s. Auto workers, coal miners and Richard Nixon; deindustrialization, disco and Bruce Springsteen; all find a place in its pages. Cowie looks at the changes to the U.S. industrial economy — and their effects on the working class — to paint a picture of the decade that served as a transition from the optimism and liberalism of the 1960s to the 1980 victory of Reagan and the continuing conservative backlash.

The book’s subtitle is “The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class.” This actually refers to the white working class. As Cowie makes clear, by and large when politicians, the press and even union leaders spoke of “workers,” they meant (and often still mean) white male workers.

Cowie takes a look at what happened to that part of the working class in the 1970s and the implications for U.S. politics of such a limited and limiting understanding of who was in the working class. Specifically, he seeks to explain how white male workers traveled from an identification with the New Deal coalition and the Democratic Party to their current position as reliable voters for the GOP and supporters of some of its most conservative positions.

The key factors were race and recession, and Cowie show us step by step how the white backlash against the social movements of the 1960s created the basis for working-class support to the George Wallace campaigns in 1968 and 1972 which was, in turn, captured by Richard Nixon and largely held by the GOP ever since. Indeed, the chapters on these elections, their reminders of what people were prepared to fight for — and against; and Nixon’s successful campaign to change the class base of the GOP are worthwhile on their own.

Cowie argues that much of Wallace’s appeal came from his populism and his hostility to political and social elites. But it was a race-based, not a class-based, populism.

Wallace targeted “elites” not because they opposed unions or sent working-class youth to fight and die in Vietnam, but because they had adopted the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. They wanted to force schools and neighborhoods to integrate — that is, force white workers to live next to Black workers and send their kids to the same schools. Busing to achieve integration was, for these white workers, the final straw. These issues sealed the split of white workers from their Black working-class brothers and sisters.

These are not “cultural issues,” as some on the right claim. They are about race and privilege. The parents of my friends did not move their families to Detroit’s suburbs because they treasured neighborhood schools. They did it because they did not want to live in a majority-Black city. They did not want Black neighbors.

As Cowie makes clear, the end of prosperity, beginning with the recession that followed the oil embargo in 1973, greatly limited the potential gains of the social movements of the time. It pulled the rug out from under the industrial workers’ fight for greater control over their jobs. It made it harder for women to move into jobs traditionally held by men.

Just as African Americans and Latinos began being elected to lead major cities, the recession, followed by deindustrialization, hollowed out the economies of industrial cities and reduced the resources available to the public sector. Overall, the new economic realities intensified the feelings of many white male workers that they were in competition with people of color and women over shrinking resources. This closed off the cooperation necessary to build a broad-based working-class movement for full-employment, healthcare for all, decent schools and full equality.

Rebel Rank and File

Where Stayin’ Alive takes a broad view of the economy and culture in the 1970s, Rebel Rank and File is a collection of essays that concentrate on struggles by workers at the workplace and the political and economic context in which they took place. It tells the stories of workers throughout the economy who organized themselves and fought for dignity, respect and control over the pace of work, as well as a higher standard of living.

The book opens with several essays that establish the context, particularly the economic, for the upsurge in rank-and-file militancy beginning in the mid-1960s. This period saw the beginnings of the employers’ drive to shore up profitability through avoiding unions and speeding up the pace of work — an offensive continuing to this day.

Workers felt strong, when production picked up as the economy came out of a recession, and began challenging management’s absolute control over the workplace. This willingness to challenge was strengthened by growing movements of people of color and women for equal rights bringing new demands into the workplace, as with the antiwar movement and increasing anti-authority sentiment among Vietnam vets.

As employers pushed for greater production and profits, workers pushed back. When their union officers failed to lead the fight against management, members built rank-and-file movements with which to resist, until mass unemployment set in with the recessions and the onset of deindustrialization. In hindsight, this period marked the beginning of the end for the U.S. industrial economy and unions that depended on it.

The heart, and soul, of the book are the chapters describing and analyzing farm worker organizing in the United Farm Workers; the uprising in the coalfields and Miners for Democracy; organizing among Teamsters and the founding of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the only organizational embodiment of the rank-and-file revolt to survive “the long 1970s”; strikes by teachers and their relationship to the drive for Black political power in Newark and New York City; the struggles that led to a national strike against AT&T; auto workers, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and challenges to the leadership of the UAW; and the rise of “workplace feminism” among flight attendants, clerical workers and domestic workers.

Although there are some surprising omissions from this list (for instance, the postal wildcat of 1970 and the movement among steelworkers that gave rise to Ed Sadlowski’s run for president of the United Steel Workers Union in 1976), every chapter is both thoughtful and inspiring.

Indeed, Frank Bardacke’s chapter on the United Farm Workers sets a very high standard for anyone writing a capsule analysis of workers’ organizations and struggles. In fewer than 25 pages, he presents a story of farm worker organizing that predates the UFW, includes the triumph of the grape boycott, examines the strategic and political reasons for the decline of the union, and explores the unusual structure of the union and its implications for its ability to achieve its goals and to function in a democratic way. All the while, he keeps the farm workers at the forefront of their own story.

Dan La Botz has written extensively about Teamsters for a Democratic Union over the years and readers of this magazine have had the benefit of his commentary on a number of subjects. What makes his contribution to Rebel Rank and File unusual is his frank discussion of the role members of the International Socialists (IS) played in TDU and the effect on the IS of the end of the rank-and-file insurgency.

Dorothy Sue Cobble’s chapter on workplace feminism was particularly interesting to me because much of the struggle by flight attendants took place within my union, the Transport Workers Union. During the commemoration of the TWU’s 75th anniversary in 2009, there was (not surprisingly) no mention of the TWU’s failure to address the concerns of these women members or the subsequent decision by flight attendants at several airlines to leave the TWU.

The chapters in this collection take the reader on a vivid journey through battlegrounds of the 1960s and 1970s where workers and employers clashed over the future of the U.S. workplace.

The Rebels

Many of these same struggles are touched on by Cowie. In some respects Rebel Rank and File reads like a greatly expanded version of the first chapter of Stayin’ Alive. But while Cowie does not identify with the college radicals who took jobs in factories and trucking firms to promote class struggle or, for some, “the revolution,” the authors and editors of Rebel Rank and File do. Several write from their own experience building rank-and-file organizations. And they view the steps taken by workers standing up to their bosses at the workplace as having had the potential to provide an alternative way forward for the broader working class — including the white workers who chose the hoped-for advantages of being white over class solidarity.

Unfortunately this alternative, along with the rank-and-file upsurge that made it a possibility, was choked off by the 1970s recessions and the long decline of U.S. industry.

But what became of the shop floor activists who built the rank-and-file movements? What of the campus radicals who threw in their lots with the auto workers and truck drivers? In the final chapter of Rebel Rank and File, Steve Early considers the legacy of the rank-and-file upsurge of the 1970s.

Many of the activists, whether coming from campuses or not, did not survive the massive loss of jobs in basic industry. Some returned to graduate school. Others took positions on union staffs as organizers, researchers or business agents.

Still others,  hunkered down, dropped illusions that revolution was in the air, and built a base for a more militant version of unionism and (sometimes) more inclusive vision of the working class through, to quote Early, “their performance as dedicated and effective trade unionists.”

They helped remake unions from within by supporting democratic reforms; challenging the AFL-CIO’s subservience to the U.S. State Department on foreign policy; pushing organizing among previously ignored service workers; and advocating greater political independence from the Democratic and Republican parties.

They opposed the headlong rush of so many labor officials to embrace labor-management cooperation or “jointness” or quality circles. And they have continued to organize resistance to contract concessions.

Although they have long since recognized that dreams of revolution or of recruiting large numbers of workers to socialist politics and organizations must be put on hold, most leftists who stayed active at the workplace and in their unions remain committed to the goal of a socialist transformation of society. Many would argue that being socialists makes them better unionists.

Because they can envision an alternative to free-market capitalism, these veteran rebels are less susceptible to employers’ claims that workers have to accept cuts to raise profits and increase a company’s share price. However, few have been satisfied with simply being better unionists. In addition to working to expand the issues considered to be “union issues,” they have worked to build more democratic and more militant unions because history has shown repeatedly (mostly recently in Egypt) that fights by workers at their workplaces for better contracts and treatment can be the prelude to the involvement by workers and their organizations in fights for broader social and political demands.

Unfortunately, their efforts have not sparked a new upsurge. In the place of rank-and-file insurgency challenging the boss for control of the workplace and, potentially, redefining the nature of work, the last 35 years have witnessed a string of rearguard actions seeking to hold onto the gains made by an earlier generation of unionists and slow the forward march of capital.

An inescapable conclusion of both books is that the conditions that gave rise to these upsurges were unique and will not be repeated,  because U.S. capitalism will never again hold the dominant position in the world economy that it did for the quarter century following World War II.

This doesn’t mean that workers won’t fight to defend what they’ve got or to win improvements. It’s happened repeatedly since the decline of U.S. capital began in earnest in the mid-1970s (witness strikes against cuts or speed-up at Eastern Airlines, Greyhound, Hormel, Caterpillar, Staley, auto workers in Flint, UPS, for example). But as that brief list shows, most of these strikes have ended in defeat for the workers and the few victories did not spark a broader class-wide offensive.

Nor does the fact that the conditions that gave rise to the upsurge of 40 years ago were anomalous mean that there is no longer a place for rank-and-file organizations independent of the union leaderships.

The survival of TDU and the role of the New Directions caucus in my own union confirm that, under certain conditions, rank-and-file caucuses remain viable and vital. While caucuses can and do survive, the legacy of the ’70s upsurge can be found in many organizational forms within the labor movement.

Early argues that the drive by workers for greater control of their lives on the job, for dignity and respect, for democratic unions that can successfully stand up to the boss, expresses itself through different forms at different times. He points to workers’ centers; the Teamsters when TDU-backed Ron Carey was president; the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) in their fight with the Service Employees International Union to represent West Coast healthcare workers; and the Longshore Workers Coalition as inheritors of the legacy of the 1970s upsurge.

The uniqueness of the 1970s does imply, however, that, if unions and the broader working-class movement depend on a strong U.S. economy and a dynamic U.S. capitalist class in order to make any gains, they are doomed. Having no replacement for the strategy of winning gains within the context of an expanding economic pie that raised the standard of living for millions of workers during the 30 years between World War II and the mid-1970s, which also made possible many of the social programs won by the movements of the ’60s and ’70s, unions and workers have lost considerable power at the workplace and in society and will continue to do so.

In weaving together economics and culture in the 1970s, Cowie moves from the auto plants of Detroit in the early part of the decade to the discos of a near-bankrupt New York City at the end of the decade. Those cities no longer exist. Both have been remade by globalization and the shift from an industrial to a service economy. Just as cities across the country have been remade, so has the working class that lives in them.

New Contours of Struggle

As this review is being written, workers in Wisconsin are engaged in an epic fight to defend the collective bargaining rights of public employees. This fight highlights the extent to which the center of gravity for the labor movement has shifted to the public sector. Also, the mass actions taken by workers and their families — from mass rallies, to walkouts, to occupying the state capitol building — both confirm and challenge the assumptions of the generation of radicals who have been working for three decades or more to transform unions into effective tools of class struggle.

The confirmation comes from the fact that unions and their members are taking up the challenge posed by the right-wing politicians who hold office in Wisconsin. The dynamism of the struggle comes largely from the initiatives of the rank and file of the unions, and from students, not union officers or politicians.

The challenge comes from the fact that this movement did not grow out of fights at the workplace over wages, benefits or conditions. It is a movement that, because it challenges the state legislature and governor, immediately had to fight about politics, not just contracts — even though it does not yet have a political alternative to offer to the joint commitment to austerity shared by Democrats and Republicans.

Indeed, as exciting as the events in Wisconsin are, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that most unions there have agreed to accept the higher costs for pensions and health benefits that the governor is insisting on. The fight to defend collective bargaining is welcome and inspiring, but rebuilding the labor movement will require that we use our collective power not only to insist on the right to bargaining over which cuts we will accept but to reject the austerity being promoted by both Democrats and Republicans.

The struggle in Wisconsin has already inspired workers and union activists across the country to support not only the Wisconsin unions but to resist more aggressively the anti-union, austerity-loving politicians in their own states.

The political struggle over the state budget and the existence of unions in the public sector has opened a new dimension into the decades-long effort to build strong, dynamic and democratic unions. Hopefully, this will feed organization and struggles at workplaces and in communities after the political crisis passes.

Cowie provocatively concludes, “The chapter of the modern working class has closed; the page of imagination is open; and the future is unwritten.”

The authors collected in Rebel Rank and File would probably not agree with the first clause of that statement. But they probably would agree with its underlying assumption — that the working-class cannot be understood (if it ever could) to be white and male. It has, in the words of Kim Moody (a contributor to Rebel Rank and File) been “pulled apart and pushed together.”

The working class has been (is being) transformed. It will adapt some old forms and develop new forms of organization to go with this transformation. I think they would also agree with Cowie’s conclusion:

“Whatever working-class identity might emerge from the post-modern, global age will have to be less rigid and less limiting than that of the postwar order, and far less wedded to the bargaining table as the sole expression of workplace power. It will have to be less about consumption and more about democracy, and as much about being blue collar as being green collar. It will have to be more inclusive in conception, more experimental in form, more nimble in organization, and more kaleidoscopic in nature than previous incarnations.”

Taken together, these books make a strong case for the pivotal nature of the 1970s. Both deserve a wide audience in labor studies programs, among union activists, and with anyone who is trying to figure out how workers can halt the long decline of the U.S. working-class movement.

ATC 152, May-June 2011