Roots of a rank-and-file revolt

July 24, 2014

Joe Allen uncovers an important document about developments in the working class movement half a century ago--with lessons activists can apply today.

"THE RANK and file revolt against long-incumbent labor bureaucracies is now plainly visible. They broke into the open in 1964," declared labor activist and historian Stan Weir before an audience of the Bay Area Independent Socialist Club in 1966.

His speech that night had been originally titled "Recent Revolts in the Labor Movement," but he thought a better title was "A New Era of Labor Revolt: On the Job vs. Union Officials." This captured the spirit and actions of the events he had been charting for several years, he believed:

In five major unions in [1964]--the Automobile Workers Union, the International Longshoremen's Association (representing the longshoremen of the East and Gulf coasts), the Steelworkers Union, the International Union of Electrical Workers, and the Oil and Atomic Workers Union--the revolts broke out, but they did not register on the public consciousness. The press reported them as isolated phenomena. It took much more than that to bring the revolts to the public's attention and, as it turned out, by a much smaller number of workers--that is, the Airline Mechanics strike in the summer of this year (1966).

Members of the IAM rejected a contract recommended by union leaders, leading to a 1966 strike
Members of the IAM rejected a contract recommended by union leaders, leading to a 1966 strike

It's no surprise why this latter strike had a more profound impact on public consciousness: For five weeks in the summer of 1966, more than 60 percent of U.S. air passenger travel was grounded because of the walkout.

As Weir said, this "touched the lives of the entire American middle class. The rebel machinists defied not only their hapless president P.L. Siemiller, but U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, who publicly claimed credit for a deal with employers that Siemiller promised would be accepted, but was overwhelmingly rejected by the striking machinists. Johnson was very publicly humiliated.

But the rebel machinists went further than simply snubbing their noses at the president of the United States who had tried to screw them. According to Weir:

Not only did the airline mechanics reject the Democratic Party, the four presidents of the four largest IAM airline mechanic's locals on the Pacific coast--Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle--sent a telegram to George Meany, Walter Reuther, James Hoffa and Harry Bridges asking that "immediate action be taken to form a third political party that will serve in the best interests of labor."

How quickly the rebel machinists moved from demands for higher wages and better conditions--Robert T. Quick, the president and general chairman of International Association of Machinists (IAM) District Lodge 141, declared, "We're working under chain-gang conditions for cotton-picking wages"--to political demands for a labor party may surprise those looking back at the 1960s labor movement. Far too often, the potential of workers like the machinists to become radicalized is ignored, even by left-wingers or labor histories, who see them, at least in the 1960s era, as bastions of reaction or focused on immediate economic concerns.

Weir's speech, which was later published as a pamphlet, and in different forms as various articles, provides a very different view--and one that's relevant for understanding the working class movement today.

LIFE MAGAZINE, one of the most popular magazines in the U.S. at the time of the machinists' strike in 1966, didn't take a dismissive view of the walkout.

Life's cover story for its August 26 issue that year pictured a striking machinist holding two thumbs pointed downward, next to the headline "Strike Fever...and the Public Interest." Two subtitles captured the hysteria of the bosses and union officials alike: "Labor Leaders in a Dilemma," and "Rampant New Militancy." Likewise, Fortune magazine in November 1966 lamented the shift in the labor movement "from the familiar faces [of union leaders] to the facelessness of the rank and file."

This was the atmosphere when Stan Weir spoke before the ISC. He brought with him two decades of experience as a socialist and rank-and-file activist in a wide variety of workplaces and unions.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, he was a seaman in the Merchant Marine during the Second World War, a truck driver, painter, an auto worker and, most recently, a longshoreman in San Francisco--where he famously led a campaign against the entrenched leadership of Harry Bridges, the long-time Communist Party ally and president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

Weir's campaign earned the ire of the image-conscious Bridges by exposing discriminatory job practices--essentially a triple-tier seniority system--codified in ILWU contracts with the big shipping companies. These practices left hundreds of longshore workers in a non-union limbo for years on end--Black workers were hit particularly hard.

Weir spearheaded the campaign that sought to dismantle this system. He and many others had lost their jobs on the waterfront and were blacklisted from the ILWU. The campaign ultimately failed after many years of confrontations and lawsuits. Bridges himself became obsessed with Weir, who, according to one biographer he wrote off as "a Trotskyite, a Red-baiting phony."

Despite these gross slanders, Weir became a well-known figure in the labor movement and a mentor to a new generation of radicals emerging in and around the Bay Area--especially, the Independent Socialist Club (ISC), later known as the International Socialists.

The ISC had been founded two years earlier among leading socialists and activists at the University of California Berkeley, where the Free Speech Movement took place in the fall of 1964. The political inspiration for the ISC was the veteran revolutionary Hal Draper, author of "The Mind of Clark Kerr," an article about the president of the UC system that became the bible of the Free Speech movement.

Draper is better known today as the author of another article that served as the basis for the pamphlet The Two Souls of Socialism, one of the most important contemporary introductions to socialism and Marxism. In it, Draper popularized the term "socialism from below," which captured the revolutionary democratic spirit of Karl Marx's belief that socialism could only be achieved through the "self-emancipation of the working class." "Socialism from below" was a quick and clear phrase to distinguish revolutionary socialist politics from the "socialism from above" of Social Democracy and Stalinism.

It was this mutual commitment to the "self-emancipation of the working class" that led Weir into a close collaboration with Draper and the ISC.

Joel Geier, a co-founder of the ISC with Draper, remembers that Weir's 1966 presentation at the ISC forum was:

very powerful and had a big impact on us, but it wasn't our largest meeting. Most of our forums on the labor movement weren't [large] at the time. For many new radicals, the labor movement was not of central concern. Radicalism was the civil rights and Black Power movement, not what was happening at the workplace. Remember this was before the historic events of 1968 and the big strike wave of 1970. Stan was already picking up on the trends that would shape politics in just a few short years to come.

WHAT WERE the origins of the rank-and-file rebellion? Weir later recalled that he began preparing his analysis "almost unconsciously in the early 1950s, when I began to read more and more accounts in various magazines by intellectuals, social critics and labor journalists who were very critical of unions of the workers who were members of those union."

Weir was referring to the spreading belief that the militant working class of the 1930s and 1940s--the source of the sit-down strikes and the foundation of the big industrial unions--had been tamed by the 1950s because of economic prosperity and cultural changes like television. As Weir summarized the argument: "Having achieved a share of the affluence of this society, they had shut up, laid down and quit fighting for anything beyond their own immediate and selfish goals. Furthermore, the unions were said to be monoliths of conformity, and the ranks were cited as the major cause of the union's degeneration."

Weir didn't dispute that the contours of U.S. working class life and the labor movement of the 1950s was different--even dramatically so--from the previous two decades. "Part of the criticism was and is correct," Weir declared. But, he went on, "I found myself...defending rank and file unionists from the part that was not true: that workers had not and were not resisting the bureaucratization of their unions and no longer capable of struggles that would benefit the entire society."

For Weir, this was not an abstract observation. "The workers described by labor's liberal critics and rejecters," he said, "were certainly not the workers I had been working with since 1940--and, in fact, had very little in common with them." Weir's experience as a shop floor socialist meant he could detect the small shifts in workers' attitudes that could potentially have larger political implications.

One such sign was a campaign in 1957 by a little-known rank-and file leader named Donald C. Rarick against David McDonald, the president of the United Steelworkers of America, one of the largest and most powerful unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which had merged in 1955.

McDonald became one of the most obnoxious symbols of "tuxedo unionism"--the phrase used to describe former militants who had become remote figures, enjoying the company of the rich and powerful, rather than their own union members. One critic of McDonald captured his public persona this way:

He often appeared vainglorious and deceitful, masking his lack of contact with rank-and-file workers and his shaky grasp of conditions in the mills with boastful orations and alcohol-enhanced bonhomie. He bullied or cajoled wildcat strikers, sweet-talked government officials and corporate executives, and appeared endlessly at rallies, bond drives, broadcasts, and press conferences.

Rarick was a political conservative, who, according to the New York Times, was "unknown outside his own local until he assumed leadership of a committee to fight an increase in union dues." Rarick had no wider program for the problems of steelworkers, but the rank and file, which had waged two difficult strikes against the steel bosses in 1952 and 1956 with the reluctant support of McDonald, were hungry for change.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, the Communist Party (CP) had hundreds of staffers in the USWA, but the Red Scare had pushed the CP into a weak and irrelevant position. It was left to a right-wing crank like Rarick to challenge McDonald. "Union militants," declared Weir, "couldn't vote for Rarick with enthusiasm or on a principled basis. His candidacy was used to record opposition to McDonald."

Rarick beat McDonald among Pennsylvania steelworkers, but ultimately lost the election nationally. Still, not just McDonald, but the whole leadership of the union was under pressure from the rank and file. The incumbent vice president of the union ran unopposed, but 150,000 steelworker members chose not to cast a vote for him, leaving his name unchecked on the ballot. "In effect, Rarick disappeared after the election," Weir said, "but the vote he received alarmed the leaders of the union."

It took another eight years, but the steelworkers finally did get rid of McDonald. And he wasn't the only victim of rank-and-file discontent. "James B. Carey was deposed from the presidency of the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE) in 1964," Weir says. Weir argued that Carey's ouster was due to his failure to lead a militant fight against the huge General Electric and Westinghouse Corporations over working conditions. "That same year," Weir continued, "O.A. 'Jack' Knight of the oilworker's union retired three years early rather than meet a fate similar to Carey's."

IN EACH of theses cases and many others to follow, the great source of the rank-and-file revolt, according to Weir, was the "failure to protect or improve working conditions, settle local grievances and maintain contact with the rank and file."

In his speech, Weir pointed out that the "revolts gathered momentum in 1965," but that one of the most important went largely unnoticed. "Twenty thousand pulp and paper workers of California, Oregon and Washington, working in 49 mills, and whose labor accounts for 90 percent of all pulp and paper production on the West Coast, disaffiliated themselves from their aged AFL international and set up their own called the Association of Western Pulp and Paperworkers," Weir said.

The new union went on to put out a newspaper called The Rebel and began an organizing drive. "Too few labor journalists reported this revolt," Weir said, "but it commanded the attention of labor leaders nationally."

1965 also saw revolts in two of the largest and most important unions historically: the Teamsters and the United Mine Workers.

The power of the mineworkers had been significantly weakened by automation following the Second World War, with the union losing nearly 300,000 members. But it remained strong in the coal industry in the eastern U.S. Working conditions were horrendous in the mines, and anger among the rank and file reached a boiling point in the summer of 1965, when four miners refused to work in a small mine in Moundsville, W. Va. and were fired for their action. Weir described what followed:

Immediately, there was a strike of that mine, and within one week, the strike spread to include all of West Virginia, Ohio and southern Pennsylvania. Roving bands of pickets driving all over the countryside shut down mine after mine...The main reason for this wildcat strike was the jam of unsettled grievances in union mine after union mine.

Meanwhile, in the Teamsters, General President Jimmy Hoffa was "unable to restrain the rebellion of the Philadelphia Teamsters" in the latter months of 1965. Freight drivers in Teamsters Local 107 had long opposed Hoffa's leadership, along with his local minion, Ray Cohen. Hoffa was forced to demote Cohen because of the deep hatred for him among the rank and file, but little changed.

In June 1965, at Roadway Express, one of the largest trucking companies in the U.S. at the time, an 18-year-old dock worker and son of a steward refused to work under conditions he believed were dangerous. Roadway fired him, and in response, an anti-Hoffa caucus in the local calling itself "The Voice" proposed a general strike of all Teamsters.

According to Weir, "To insure that the strike was totally general, the Teamsters patrolled the streets, stopped trucks and made out-of-town drivers get off their trucks." Despite a vicious police attack on one of the picket lines, Teamsters continued to battle the cops for several days. They were eventually forced back to work, but Weir argued in his speech that the Philly Teamsters were "working under better conditions. None of their gains have been contractualized, but they gained strength for fights to come."

THESE ARE only a few examples of the rank-and-file rebellion that Weir documented and analyzed in coming to the conclusion, in his speech for the ISC, that a new era of labor militancy had begun.

Of course, the revolt was still at a stage where it didn't usually grab national attention--and so the image of the U.S. working class as fundamentally conservative and focused on narrow self-interest persisted, thanks to the propaganda of the media, as well as the mistaken impressions of left-wing activists and writers who dismissed the importance of the working class as an agent for social change.

Weir's November 1966 speech was published as a pamphlet by the ISC. In later edited versions, Weir titled the piece "USA: The Labor Revolt"--it was republished in a wide variety of outlets in this form. This version is available today in Singlejack Solidarity, a compilation of Weir's writings from Singlejack Books, a publishing company he started (you can click here to download a pdf of Singlejack Solidarity).

What Weir identified was the culmination of changes at the molecular level among the working class--changes that would dramatically altered and reshaped by the radical social movements of the 1960s and '70s, especially the Black Power movement. The combination and interaction of these two factors was what gave the much more widespread rank-and-file rebellion of the late 1960s and early 1970s its distinctive shape.

In focusing on discontent with unions, including some of the seemingly most conservative, Weir was also making a plea for the new radicals of the New Left to take struggles at the workplace seriously, and discard some of the trendy ideas that the working class was no longer a force for social change.

Much of the New Left went in a different direction. For example, in 1966, Students for a Democratic Society, the largest radical student group in the country, met for its convention in Clear Lake, Iowa, during the militant machinists' strike--and voted for a working perspective of "student power" that didn't take account of the examples of rank-and-file upsurge.

But for a section of socialists, including the ISC, Weir's focus on the rank and file of the labor movement as a potential source of militancy and radicalism shaped their perspectives as they attempted to build a presence in the organized working class.

Weir's insights remain important today, half a century later--in providing a way to understand what has happened in the working class movement, and how socialists can play a part in turning the tide.

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