Militancy, Union Politics, and Workers’ Control
The articles in this section focus on the relationship between organized workers and union leaders, and specifically on the tension between rank-and-file concerns on the one hand and the demands of large labor organizations with national contracts on the other hand. The authors explore various kinds of militant activity ranging from wildcat strikes during World War II to recent demands for black power and health and safety in the workplace. In general more radical demands seem to be brought to the surface by rank-and-file workers, as the Black Lung Association and the Miners for Democracy did for the United Mine Workers union. Then rank-and-file insurgency becomes part of union politics. Union officials can see militancy from below as a threat or they can respond by introducing reforms and incorporating rank-and-file leaders into the organization.
In most of the cases described here union politics have been unresponsive to rank-and-file demands. On the other hand, as Stan Weir says in his discussion of worker movements in the early seventies, militants found it difficult to break out of their isolation and create alternative forms of organization. As the economic crisis worsened in the late seventies, labor union leaders, mainly at a local level, began to react more creatively to rank-and-file discontent. Dave Wagner and Paul Buhle explain, for example, how fairly traditional craft unions joined with other workers to collectively run a worker-owned strike newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. And in his concluding article David Montgomery describes how some local unions have sought to take over plants abandoned by their owners. He suggests that the struggle for control, identified in Section I, has taken on a new dimension as a result of plant closings. In addition to demanding collective bargaining rights and asserting the need for greater democracy and dignity on the job, workers now have to exert some control over investment decisions. If they do not, and their plants are moved to low-wage areas, all of their other struggles will have been fought in vain.
Clearly, the international unions and the labor movement generally have to be more responsive to the kind of struggles described in this section. At a time when experts are seriously discussing the “fall of the house of labor” and the eclipse of organized labor in the industrial states, it is time for radical departures from the conservative past. Instead of experimenting with new policies conceived and executed by top labor leaders, the union officialdom might do well to encourage the creative militancy erupting at the local union level. The AFL-CIO might also begin to see that workers’ struggles initiated outside the ranks of organized labor have the energy, solidarity, and sense of purpose the official movement lacks.