Unrest in Wisconsin, help from Egypt and the Rebel Rank and File.

Rebel Rank and File brings out a hidden part of labor history and sheds light on this week's events in Madison, WI.

It’s been a wild and woolly week in Madison, Wisconsin, where public sector workers facing the elimination of their collective bargaining rights have protested, and, in the case of teachers, held several days of “sick outs.”

Labor opponents and supporters of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who has largely cast the labor rights issues in the context of budget cuts, have had their say, too. There were dueling rallies at the state’s capital earlier today.

It is no secret that the past few decades have not been kind to organized labor.  The ranks of unionized workers in the private sector has dipped into single digits from a high of about 35 percent, with public sector workers also seeing a drop in their ranks.

Rebel Rank and File, a collection of essays edited by Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner and Cal Winslow, a labor historian and father of one our interns at the Reporter, brings out the fact that the years from 1965 to 1981 saw an upsurge not just in strikes in general, but in wildcat actions taken by workers seeking to more directly influence their destiny.

The volume is informative in providing valuable background material to the conflict in Madison and in giving examples of previous struggles.

Rebel Rank and File grew out of a 2005 conference in UCLA, and moves from providing a number of general essays about the economy’s up and downs, and the surges and declines in union activity in the pre-1965 period.   The book then has a series of pieces about particular industries.  We learn about revolutionary auto workers in Detroit, coal miners in Appalachia, and teamsters members throughout the country.  We also read about categories of workers like women or, in a piece that resonated with me because of my earlier career and the week’s event’s about teachers.

Although their sympathies are clearly with the workers in their struggles against management and their leaders, the authors in the work generally are frank and clear-eyed about the successes and failures of the various campaigns they discuss. In his essay, Frank Bardacke does some myth-busting of the United Farm Workers of America. Specifically, he takes aim at the notion that farm workers were passive recipients of abuse before Cesar Chavez came along and singlehandedly liberated them.  Other essays look at the limited impact some of the grassroots radicals had, even as they contributed to organizational changes like, in the Teamsters’ case, the 1991 election of Ron Carey and the 1995 election of John Sweeney and his New Voice slate.

Steve Early fans who have not yet read the final chapter of Embedded with Organized Labor or his new book, The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, can gain a taste of his SEIU critique in the final chapter of this work.

Early’s piece also looks at the legacy and lessons from the rank and file upheaval.

One of the clearest lessons that emerges from the work that he did not discuss is the importance of matching tactics with the moment.

For that, a picture in Egypt may hold a clue to how the Wisconsin workers can succeed.

Dear friend Dan Middleton sent me the image below of people in Egypt, whose citizens just have utilized technology and social media to great effect, voicing their support for the workers in Wisconsin.

While it is unlikely that a single sign will have much impact, the fact of the interconnection made possible through the Internet and sites like Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, which I wrote about earlier this week, creates all kind of unprecedented opportunities for meaningful trans-border organizing and social action that was literally inconceivable in its current form at the time the book covers.

I  very much enjoyed the book, the second of Winslow’s that I have read, and appreciate its contribution to increasing my knowledge of organized labor’s history in our country.  I hope that people interested in these issues and who have a stake in the Madison struggle consider giving it a read for its thoughtful analysis and reminder of a prior period of people working for their rights.

At the same time, I also hope that more thought and action goes into exploring the possibility represented by the photograph taken half a world away and sent to me by a college friend that show once again geographic boundaries are less and less an impediment to statements of transnational solidarity.


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