The workers’ rebellion of the 1960s

August 26, 2011

Depictions of American workers in the 1960s usually bring forth images of flag-waving construction workers busting up antiwar demonstrations. Even the most sympathetic portrayals don't stray very far from the model of Archie Bunker, from the popular sitcom All in the Family--a blue-collar bigot unable to cope wit the world changing around him.

But as Sharon Smith explains, the stereotypes misrepresent the 1960s decade, which culminated in the biggest, most militant labor upsurge since the end of the Second World War. In reality, the 1960s movements against the war and for Black Power led to the political radicalization of a significant layer of industrial workers. This article originally appeared in the December 1990 issue of Socialist Worker.

THE VIETNAM War combined with the movements against the war and for Black Power led to the political radicalization of a significant layer of industrial workers for the first time since the 1930s. This was especially true among young and Black workers.

Strike levels began to climb as early as 1965--and between the years 1967 to 1971, the average number of workers involved in strikes doubled.

But even more important than the number of strikes was the level of militancy on the part of the strikers. Many workers found themselves battling not only speedup and automation imposed by management, but also the inertia and misleadership of their own union leaders.

The U.S. emerged from the Second World War as the world's unchallenged superpower, and the postwar years witnessed an unprecedented economic boom. The expansion of U.S. capitalism led to a slow but steady rise in working-class living standards during the 1950s and midway through the 1960s.

But even as the much-touted "American Dream" became the aspiration for the mass of workers in the U.S., a number of factors mitigated against the dream ever becoming a reality.

The 1960s urban rebellions, like Detroit's in 1967 (pictured), provided the backdrop to the radicalization of Black workers
The 1960s urban rebellions, like Detroit's in 1967 (pictured), provided the backdrop to the radicalization of Black workers

During the years when wages were rising, working conditions were deteriorating. Employers made up for higher wages by negotiating higher levels of output into union contracts. And the labor leaders--seasoned veterans of business unionism by the 1960s--were all too willing to comply.

Time off in the form of vacations, coffee breaks and sick leave all fell victim to new work standards negotiated in the 1950s and 1960s, while automation, forced overtime and speedups allowed management to more than compensate for high wages.

During the period from 1955 to 1967, non-farm employees' average work hours rose by 18 percent, while manufacturing workers' increased by 14 percent. In the same period, labor costs in non-farm business rose 26 percent, while after-tax corporate profits soared 108 percent. And during the period between 1950 and 1968, while the number of manufacturing workers grew by 28.8 percent, manufacturing output increased by some 91 percent.

THIS POINTS to the contradiction inherent in the "American Dream"--higher wages and a better standard of living available only at increasingly extreme levels of exploitation. Even for the highest-paid workers, better pay couldn't make up for the dehumanizing and degrading conditions on the job.

Moreover, automation and speedup in the manufacturing sector coupled with low growth rates meant fewer jobs. For example, employment at Ford's River Rouge plant peaked at 100,000 during the Second World War, fell to 65,000 after the war, and then to 35,000 by the 1960s.

The union officials were only too eager to sacrifice shop floor conditions for wage and benefit increases in contracts that grew in duration. By the 1950, the norm of one- and two-year contracts had been replaced by three-, four- and event five-year labor contract.

But union leaders were guilty of much more than ever-weakening contract language. Companies were given free reign to break the contract agreement in order to increase productivity, while the grievance system all but broke down. In fact, in many cases, management came to rely on union officials to "police" the workforce--that is, to enforce productivity rates and shop floor discipline.

Many unions gave up the rights of workers to refuse overtime work and/or adopt no-strike pledges. Unresolved grievances piled up, leaving workers no recourse when management violated the contract.

Under these circumstances, the heightened alienation felt by workers wasn't limited to management but spilled over into a growing hostility toward the union leaders. This was particularly true in the auto industry, where automation had a dramatic impact on the work process. In the early 1960s, the growing disaffection toward union leaders was expressed in a number of ways.

First of all, unprecedented numbers of local union officials found themselves voted out of office. In 1961 and again in 1963, fully one third of United Auto Workers (UAW) local presidents were voted out of office--the highest turnover in UAW history.

Secondly, workers fought speedups and loosely coordinated slowdowns and sabotage of equipment, as a way to slow down the assembly line without involving the union. As Martin Glaberman asked in this 1965 article entitled "Be his payment high or low":

Assembly lines have a way of breaking down--and who is to say that the bolt that jammed the line was not dropped accidentally? Who is to know that the warning lights which signal the stoppage of the line were not burned out but merely unscrewed to add a few minutes to the time it takes to repair the line?

BUT BY far, the most effective weapon used by workers to protect their working conditions was the wildcat strike--a weapon that was used with greater frequency as the 1960s decade wore on.

The Chrysler Corporation, for example, reported 15 unauthorized strikes in 1960. That figure jumped to 49 in 1967, and then peaked at 91 in 1968. And the number of wildcats in the manufacturing sector as a whole went from about 1,000 in 1960 to 2,000 in 1969.

The union officialdom fought back as they could to curtail the rebellions of unruly union locals. A Flint, Mich., local was laced into receivership when an entire issue of its newspaper was devoted to listing and exposing all the grievances waiting to be settled.

When Dodge Local 3 rejected the 1964 auto contract, the leadership resorted to underhanded maneuvers to get "democratic" approval. After the contract was rejected the first time, it was sent back for a second vote.

When the second vote also rejected the contract, union leaders sent it back for yet a third vote--at which point the contract was accepted--by a margin of 150 members out of a total membership of 4,000.

The relative youth of the labor movement in the 1960s, as the baby boom generation entered the workforce, certainly helped boost the mood of militancy.

By 1967, 14 percent of the labor movement was made up of people under the age of 21, and 40 percent of UAW members were under 30. Large numbers of workers in this age group were no doubt influenced by the antiwar movement, as larger and larger numbers of young people took an active stand against the war and against U.S. imperialism.

IN THE wake of the ghetto riots that erupted in the mid-1960s and the birth of the Black Power movement that followed, Black workers began to play a more central role in initiating and leading local struggles--a process that ultimately shifted the character of the rank-and-file movement to the let in the early 1970s.

In the post-war era, no pretense was even attempted that the "American Dream" would extend to the Black working class. While the vast majority of white workers saw their living standards raised, those of Black workers were dropping.

While the median income of Black workers amounted to about 60 percent of white workers' wages in 1950, it has fallen to 55 percent in 1955, and an appalling 53 percent in 1962.

Meanwhile, Black unemployment remained consistently double that of whites. Having railed to address the issue of racism within its own ranks, the AFL-CIO (which still allowed segregated union locals at its founding conference in 1955) failed even to go through the motion of supporting the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

George Meany, the head of the AFL-CIO, refused to endorse the 1963 March on Washington. And even the UAW, which endorsed the march, opposed the slogan of jobs programs for Blacks--a demand for what eventually came to be called "affirmative action" for Blacks, which was a central demand of the civil rights movement.

Yet the top leadership of the AFL-CIO and its affiliates remained lily white.

But the cast majority of Blacks held working-class jobs in the 1960s, which made class struggle a natural outlet for mounting frustrations. And a number of cities, like Detroit, were populated by a Black majority. In centers of auto production like Detroit, large numbers of Blacks held jobs in the auto plants of the Big Three in the 1960s.

It is no wonder that groups of Black auto workers, such as the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) in Detroit or the United Black Brothers at Mahwah, N.J., which led key wildcat strikes, set the political tone and demands of the most radical wing of the labor movement during this period--in an attempt to pull together demands against racism with economic issues as part of a singe struggle.

Accumulated bitterness that began to erupt in widespread struggle in the second half of the 1960s developed into full-scale rank-and-file rebellions within several key industries in the years 1969-73--rebellions directed not only against management but against the union bureaucracy as well.

But the stage for these struggles had been set much earlier--during the years in which the "American Dream" was shattered for so many.

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