The Extremely Offline
Too often lost in the onslaught of daily news is the perspective that enables us to make sense of political events as they occur. In this section, we connect the enduring ideas of the socialists who preceded us to the pressing topics of today.
Every year, on May 1st, leftists around the world gather, wave big red flags, and chant about our movement’s heroic past, its noble present, and its triumphant future. This kind of commemoration is important. It helps us refocus, beyond our short-term challenges, on the international working class as our story’s protagonist.
Unfortunately, many of our May Day traditions and symbols paint a long-faded snapshot of the working class. We share images of the eight-hour-day movement and Haymarket (1886), sloganeer about the Industrial Workers of the World (1905), and valorize the Flint sit-down strikes (1934). All of this is good and necessary; there are lessons to be learned about the gigantic achievements of our history. But too often we struggle to come up with more recent examples. How can we hope to connect with the workers of today using stories from before their grandparents were born?
The dearth of more contemporary examples makes sense. Since the 1930s upsurge and the 1940s strike wave (1946 had the most strike activity in the US of any year in history), the US labor movement has suffered the restrictions of Taft-Hartley, the purges of the Left from labor, the rise of “right-to-work,” neoliberalism, Reaganism, Clintonism, “free trade,” a precipitous drop in both union density and absolute number of union members, and more. Who wants to think about all that on May Day, when we’re supposed to be celebrating our movement?
But if we’re honest about the period we’re in, it’s not the newly industrialized 1880s or the insurgent 1930s. It’s a lot more similar to the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, where labor’s organized movements were weak, defensive, and even clumsy. What can we learn from that, and how do we take those lessons into our actually existing labor movement?
Two books, Knocking on Labor’s Door, by Lane Windham, and Rebel Rank and File,,edited by by Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner, and Cal Winslow, provide accounts of the labor movement just as the bottom fell out. They help us figure out where our mess began and what we might do about it.
One version of this story is familiar to us: in the 1970s, the twin movements of global recession and neoliberal austerity ushered in deindustrialization and the shredding of the welfare state. In response, many of our working-class institutions balked. But these two books tell a different version of the story. Where workers’ institutions stumbled, workers themselves took action, and transformed the union movement in ways that are clear now, decades later, in our teachers’ movement and beyond.
In an interview with Labor Notes’ Chris Brooks, labor historian Lane Windham details just how wrong many are to think of the 1970s–80s labor movement as an all-white-male movement in unmitigated decline. In fact, women and people of color were streaming into, and reviving, unions in these decades.
Part of this has to do with the rise of public-sector unionism starting in the 1960s. Women and people of color were less frequently denied access to public-sector jobs because of civil service regulations and the changing demographic composition of cities. As they streamed into public-sector jobs, they also built increasingly powerful public-sector unions. This shift didn’t just change the demographics of unions; it changed their collective consciousness. As Windham explains,
An entire new generation of union activists were coming of age in an era in which their consciousness of their rights had been dramatically expanded. The civil rights and women’s movements were fuel to the labor movement: if racism and sexism are no longer acceptable, then why should we accept the power of the boss?
This account challenges other narratives of how the civil rights and women’s movements affected the labor movement. Many see the 1960s and 70s as the beginning of the breakdown of a united labor-left into a fragmented constellation of “particularist” movements, mired in infighting and unable to act together. Instead, Windham puts forward a positive vision of how these movements reinvigorated labor, at exactly the time when the trade unions were under harshest attack.
This last point puts Windham into direct conversation with Rebel Rank and File, which takes a magnifying glass to different workers’ struggles in this period. The book is a series of essays on the dissident caucuses (Miners for Democracy, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, Steelworkers Fight Back, Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, and more) and grassroots rank-and-file organizing that emerged in response to the complacency of union leadership when challenged from below by social forces like the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement and from above by the “one-sided class war” launched by employers.
Windham and the essayists of Rebel Rank and File differ slightly in their assessment of unions’ defense against this top-down class warfare. Windham takes pains to demonstrate just how aggressive the employer offensive was, and how underappreciated the trade union fightback was. Historians, she argues, have ignored the scale of that fightback, burying accounts of the massive Solidarity Day demonstrations in 1981 or the aggressive private sector organizing that continued through the 1970s. In this context, she argues, it’s somewhat unfair to blame unions for the state they’re in now.
In Rebel Rank and File, there is more of a focus on the sense of decline felt among workers, both in their economic standing and in the integrity of their unions. It contextualizes the rise of rank-and-file organizing as a response to that urgent sense of decline.
These two accounts aren’t in total conflict. Rather, they balance each other out. If we’re going to build contemporary examples of working people’s struggle, we should know and learn from this history. It provides key lessons about how movements for racial and gender justice can reinforce the labor movement; how even as workers’ official institutions are attacked, workers themselves can still mount a collective fight; and what we can expect from capital on its side of the class war.