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History -- of the Inspirational Kind.

A great deal of labour history written over the past 20 years has sought to rescue working-class activists from what British historian E.P. Thompson called "the enormous condescension of posterity." (Indeed, that is likely the most quoted of Thompson's witticisms.)

Whether it was called working-class history or labour history, such work contained an implicit rebuke to the great-man school of history and to the view that the only sort of history that mattered was political history. (I've always thought it ironic that most military-history buffs don't snap up labour history, since the history of North American labour movement is rife with examples of the troops being called out. The downtown military armory is a legacy from those days.) When aimed at a popular audience one of the goals of this sort of history has been to remind working people that their ancestors were historical actors, and to encourage them to walk out onto an historical stage that was part of their legacy.

But I have often wondered if some of this history does not immobilize rather than inspire.

It is hard not to read the story of the Winnipeg General Strike or the Industrial Workers of the World and feel that, once upon a time, giants walked upon this earth. This is a sentiment that invites the lamentation that, "We'll not see their likes again." When one reads in 2001 that, in 1919, half of the Winnipeg workforce went on strike to support the demands of a small group of skilled workers, it is hard to believe that one is living in the same city, let alone on the same planet.

In this, as in most North American cities, it seems that solidarity is rare and the impulse towards sacrifice is weak. We may have always known we were in the soup, but after imbibing a little working-class history, one also feels burdened with the sense that we have betrayed our ancestors.

Which is a long-winded way to lead to an appreciation of The New Rank and File, a recent book by Alice and Staughton Lynd. The Lynds are historical figures. Both were strong opponents of the Vietnam war -- indeed, Staughton Lynd's opposition to the war lost him an academic appointment. Staughton left academia, took a law degree, and began acting for rank-and-file union members in their battles with their union, their employers and their government. Alice trained as a para-legal and also fought in this labour-law guerrilla warfare.

In the process, the Lynds got to know many of the pioneers of the U.S. industrial-union movement. They organized events where these people spoke about their history and tape-recorded these talks. In addition, they interviewed them singly and in groups. The result was the 1973 book, Rank and File, which tried to bring the story of one generation of working-class activists to another generation, in that generation's own words. It became a cult classic and has gone through numerous editions and publishers over the last 28 years.

Which means there is a new generation of activists whose lives and accomplishments need rescuing from posterity's relentless condescension. Happily, the Lynds have obliged us with The New Rank and File.

Like the original Rank and File, this is an oral history, with all of that genre's virtues and vices. One hears the stories of women who built clerical unions and warehousing unions, who fought to keep the U.S. steel industry alive, and who found a way to be union activists into retirement. This book also looks beyond U.S. borders: as Mexican auto workers, Central American cooperative organizers and Margaret Keith and Jim Brophy, who have worked to keep the occupational-health movement alive in Canada, tell their stories. One is reminded of the personal prices that activists pay, the networks they develop, and the resources that they must draw upon for strength.

As with the original book, the title is a bit of cheat: these are not rank-and-filers, although most of them started out in the rank and file. And at times the oral history technique leaves one begging for a bit more context or background or even another side of the story. But these are minor quibbles -- nobody expects oral history to be comprehensive history.

It is dishonest to take pride or comfort in the accomplishments of others, but as this inspirational book reminds us, it is equally dishonest to claim that the radical moment has passed and that all the workers have now made their peace with capitalism. With Rank and File and The New Rank and File, the Lynds reminds us that we owe a debt to both to the past, and to the people in the trenches today.

Doug Smith writes from Winnipeg.
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Title Annotation:The New Rank and File
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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