The New Rank and File.
Thirty years ago, Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers educated, inspired, angered, and awakened readers in academia and the labor movement with first-person accounts of union organizing, grass-roots victories, and staggering defeats in America's industrial wars. In contrast to the old institutional labor history, the Lynds, longtime labor activists themselves, featured flesh-and-blood workers who candidly talked about unions from the perspective of the shop floor, the coal mine, and the kitchen.
Rank and File was a critical contribution to the "New Labor History." That project was set in motion by an older generation of scholar activists including C.L.R. James, E.P. Thompson, and Martin Glaberman (who appears in this volume). The new labor historians helped shatter the field's habitual deference to union officialdom and the thesis of American exceptionalism, which posited that class conflict was alien to the United States. The narrators in Rank and File had little respect for the governing myths of the American economy, old or new. In a time when corporate bosses were lauded as the heroes of the New Economy (how quickly times have changed!), Wayne Kennedy, a former railroad worker and Rank and File informant opined, "It was obvious to me that the workers knew better how to run the railroad than the management. If the workers had had any say-so about the railroad, it would have been one hell of an efficient operation" (p. 232).
To say that The New Rank and File is a worthy successor to its forbear is an understatement. The Lynds go far beyond the scope of Rank and File to include testimonios, oral history interviews, and memoirs from male and female labor activists in Guatemala, Palestine, Mexico, and elsewhere. Herein, the reader hears the voices of immigrants, African Americans, and white women workers in the United States as they discuss organizing campaigns among agricultural workers, clerical workers, truckers, and in other occupations. The authors state, "The book is directed especially to two groups of readers: rank-and-file workers, and young people who are seeking long-term service in the labor movement" (p. 1).
The New Rank and File's broad scope makes it useful in a wide array of pedagogical settings. Instructors teaching courses or workshops on oral history, public history, working-class autobiography, new immigration, public policy, or community activism will find the book invaluable. Informants discuss the state of American democracy, industrial plant closings, occupational health and safety; they debate whether rank-and-file workers should be second fiddle to college students in organizing campaigns, and questions like "How do unions become concerned about the people who are outside the workplace?" (p. 221). The New Rank and File should become a learning tool in community and labor organizing schools and institutes for years to come.
Oral historians will appreciate the clear statement of method found in the book's introduction. The authors candidly admit that they selected activists, people who "walk their talk," to be the book's informants. In general, the Lynds used a life history interview format at the start of each session and moved into the specific areas of social action as the interview developed. Several parts of The New Rank and File feature group interviews with innovative, community-based organizations such as the Chinese Staff and Worker Association (CSWA) and the Coalition of University Employees at the University of California (CUE). Transcribed interviews were submitted to informants for corrections prior to publication. Each interview begins with an introductory header that provides historical context and valuable information on individuals, events, and organizations discussed in the chapter.
The activists featured in The New Rank and File approach unions, the labor movement, and capitalism from a wide diversity of ideological and experiential vantage points. Intriguingly, some narrators posit a distinct working-class culture that hinges on the values of solidarity and mutuality while other participants reject this idea as naive. As a jarring commentary on the state of democracy in America, none of the United States's informants place any faith in their government's inclination to protect their right to organize unions. At a time when his country is considering legislation to compensate investors for stock-market losses, Hugo Hernandez, a Teamster organizer, observes: "I'm twenty-nine years old. I have no clear vision of the future. Right now, it's really a gamble. I'm probably blackballed from every trucking outfit in Miami, maybe the country. I'm doing this just in belief, in faith, that something good will come from it" (p. 62).
The New Rank and File will inform debates about "globalization," deindustrialization, and the future of the labor movement. Some New Rank and File organizers focus most of their energy on rebuilding their unions from the inside while others have joined dissident reform groups or left-led unions like the Frente Autentico del Trabajo in Mexico that works to form alliances with U.S. workers. The activists in the CSWA explain why they have channeled much of their work away from existing labor unions into building community-based organizations such as the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS). Their vision for the labor movement is expansive: "The labor movement should not narrow itself to the purely economic," argues NMASS member Wing Lam, "We have to cut across all trades and sexes and become a class movement. Even the person that makes $20 an hour is still a slave, who has to change that. NMASS advances the right to a 40-hour work week at a living wage as a human right" (p. 253).
Staughton and Alice Lynd have given us, via the stories of a younger generation of labor activists, a classic text that approaches the global economic crisis from a democratic perspective grounded in the stuff of everyday life. "Workers have to deal with their own reality and that transforms them," observes Martin Glaberman (p. 201). Like the battered, immigrant Wobblies of old, the narrators of The New Rank and File urge a new generation of readers and workers to "Educate, agitate, and organize!"
Paul Ortiz University of California, Santa Cruz
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|Publication:||The Oral History Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2003|
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