[sixties-l] Re: SDS FILM 'LABOR & THE LEFT'

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Thu Apr 05 2001 - 22:29:07 EDT

  • Next message: Marty Jezer: "[sixties-l] public financing/McCain-Feingold."

        Date: Wed, 04 Apr 2001 01:37:07 -0400
        From: portsideMod@netscape.net
    Subject: Re: SDS FILM 'LABOR & THE LEFT'


    [continuing discussion -- See portside posting of March 31, which
    contained the initial discussion from the H-Net Labor History
    Discussion List <H-LABOR@H-NET.MSU.EDU> . Below are some of the
    responses which draw on personal experience, review of historical
    materials and documents, related to the relationship between the 60s
    Left, mainly the "New Left," and the labor movement. - Moderator]

    1. Exclusive to portside, from Jim Williams (April 01)

    I am not subscribed to the H-Labor list, but would like to add my .02
    about labor and the new left.

    There is an interesting book "The New Left and Labor in the 1960s" by
    Peter B. Levy (1994) University of Illinois Press, Urbana, that has a
    lot of good information about SDS and labor. The author never spoke
    with me, and consequently, some factual information was omitted.

    The UAW gave SDS the money to set up ERAP, the Economic Research and
    Action Project. The original purpose of this grant to do education
    among students about labor and economic issues. I was approached by
    Todd Gitlin to be the director of this effort--but declined since I
    was actually trying to graduate from school.

    However, I later became director of SDS PEP, the Political Education
    Project of SDS, which was funded by a grant from the Industrial Union
    Department of the AFL-CIO. PEP was actively distributing anti-
    Goldwater materials during this period, and we published a number of
    pamphlets ranging from my "Goldwaterism: What it is and how to fight
    it", and Robb

    Burlage's "Lyndon Johnson with Eyes Open." Steve Max and I worked
    with Jacob Clayman who was then director of the IUD.

    I left SDS's employ to work for the IUE. AT this time SDS had
    discovered the disestablished poor and had no interest in working
    with labor.

    But, the Southern Student Organizing Committee (SSOC) was interested
    in working with labor. Peter Brandon (an SDSer) was doing a lot of
    student and labor organizing in the Carolinas with Textile Workers
    and later with workers at Duke University. SSOC worked closely with
    Jim Pierce of the IUD and the National Sharecroppers Fund. SSOC
    published a number of pamphlets about labor, sponsored conferences on
    students and labor.

    In many ways, I see the anti-sweatshop and anti-WTO movements today
    as continuations of the work Steve Max, Peter Brandon and myself
    attempted during the 1960s. This kind of stuff doesn't fit the
    "party line" according to Helen Garvy and The Really Cool People who
    now constitute the SDS "canon."

    It was good to see that Al Lannon and Marv Rogoff are writing about
    Washington Labor for Peace. I was active in this as well. Hardly any

    the commentaries at that time mentioned it, including a small book by
    Phil Foner on Labor and the Vietnam War. (Although the CPUSA was well
    aware of our activities. )

    Jim Williams

    2. From: Melvyn Dubofsky <dubof@mailbox.cc.binghamton.edu> (March 31)

    However right Kevin Boyle and Jeff Cowie are in their observations,
    and I think that they are on target, I fear that Heather Thompson
    draws the wrong conclusions from their suggestions. She seems to
    suggest a split in the working class between liberated and rebellious
    younger workers and other workers, who I assume were "older," and
    right-ward drifting labor leaders. Certainly, there were younger
    workers in the 60s and 70s who wore their hair long, consumed drugs,
    soft and hard, and became "dead-heads." But not all of them were
    politically "progressive" or open-minded on questions of race and
    gender. As Kevin Boyle's first book suggests, the UAW leaders rather
    than pulling their members to the right along with themselves often
    found themselves besieged by rank and filers who thought the leaders
    were too far ahead of them. And those famous Lordstown young rebels,
    who challenged their stodgy "business unionist" bureaucrats, were, in
    many respects and ways, supported by their union leaders who played a
    complicated game. Bound by a legal contract that limited what actions
    the UAW could take against GM's newly aggressive management, the
    leaders more than tolerated the rebellion at Lordstown for it
    strengthened their hand in bargaining with GM. The notion that union
    leaders are a drag on their more "progressive" rank and file is a
    romantic example of what that old red, V. I. Lenin, called "infantile
    leftism," illustrated best in Paul Buhle's recent book, TAKING CARE
    OF BUSINESS. I remember well the summer of 1988 when I was involved
    in negotiations with the Teamsters' Union research and education
    department, a time when Michael Dukakis, the AFL-CIO's official
    choice in that year's election, was way ahead in all the published
    polls. The Teamster officials told me that polls of their own union
    members showed a substantial majority in favor of Bush, which was why
    the IBT was one of the few unions not to endorse Dukakis.
    Increasingly after 1968, did a majority of white union members and
    their families come to vote Republican because their leaders were
    drifting right and tying themselves more tightly to the Democrats,
    1972 excepted. And speaking of 1972, were most white union members,
    especially younger ones, sympathetic to McGovern yet misled by big,
    bad George Meany? Isn't it conceivable that Meany was led to
    neutrality in the 1972 election (even an implicit endorsement of
    Nixon) because he feared the impact of McGovern's candidacy on the
    coalition between labor and the Democrats? And what of the voting
    tendencies of nonunion white workers, young, middle-aged, and old,
    since 1968, if not earlier? Last year's election shows that they are
    perhaps the strongest anti- Democratic, pro-Republican bloc,
    especially if they are Protestant. Our correspondent from the Iron
    Range in Minnesota paints for us a different working-class reality
    than Heather. Frankly, we are dealing with an extremely bifurcated
    working class in which the distance between white workers and
    nonwhites seems to widen rather than narrow. And it might be well to
    point out that in the 1960s and 70s the working class was
    considerably "whiter" than it is today. So, yes, as Kevin and Jeff
    suggest, let's stop revisiting and revising the relationship between
    the student left and the labor movement and examine more closely
    where most workers were, and, even more important, not assume that
    long hair, drugs, ear rings, or tattoos signify a rebelliousness that
    promises "liberation." Some challenges to "authority" only strengthen
    the system, whether you want to call it the world-capitalist system
    or simply capitalism. And that complex subject merits a long and
    separate discussion of its own.

    Melvyn Dubofsky, Distinguished Professor of History and Sociology
    Binghamton University, SUNY

    3. From: John Holmes <jholmes@OCF.Berkeley.EDU> (March 31)

    Jeff Cowie wrote:(on March 29):

    > Kevin Boyle's posting struck me as particularly important.
    > Decentering Berkeley, Columbia, and Ann Arbor, and examining blue-
    > collar communities on their own terms will be the only way to
    > understand the sixties "in factories and office buildings, in their
    > neighborhoods, in their families, in their churches, at the Moose
    > Lodge." Bravo.
    > Going one step further, I suspect that "the sixties" as we're
    > describing them (questioning of authority, upheavals in gender and
    > race relations, the war) didn't really happen in those places IN
    >the sixties. I would argue that these issues did not hit most blue
    > collar communities until the seventies and did so in different and
    > unintended ways. The many questions posed by the New Left were
    > done so in the midst of a successful economy, but most working
    > people struggled to come to terms with those issues in a different,
    > and shrinking, world of economic opportunity. The search for lofty
    > goals such as participatory democracy, authenticity, legitimacy of
    > authority, and racial equality seemed very different under the >
    > weight of the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression.

    The problem with the above posting is that it commits an all too
    common error about "the sixties": treating the student New Left as
    its central phenomenon.

    Actually, the central event of "the sixties" was the civil rights
    movement in the South in the early sixties, and its essentially
    unsuccessful extension to the North in the middle sixties, whose most
    important form was the brutally suppressed "ghetto rebellions."

    The student New Left was essentially a reaction to this basically
    working-class movement, and to the war of course.

    The basis for the New Left's dismissal of organized labor was of
    course (1) the white backlash among many white workers against their
    black fellow workers' movement, and (2) labor support for the Vietnam

    It also does need to be pointed out that the tremendous upsurge of
    "wildcat" strike activity during Nixon's presidency certainly did
    have overtones of New Leftist influence, despite the lack of any
    direct connections.

    > Interestingly, the seventies (unlike much of the previous decade)
    > did see a resurgence of workplace issues (from federal legislation
    > to strike activity to commercial pop culture), but when the answers
    > came, they were not pleasant.

    Nixon's wage controls were intended to put a halt to the explosion of
    strike activity during his presidency. They essentially did so,
    except for the 1978 coal strike. The interest in working class
    "culture" on the movie screen and even the boob tube that was indeed
    noticeable in the '70s was, I think, an outgrowth of the flare-up of
    what one might call working-class New Leftism under Nixon.

    And, of course, said flare-up did indeed attract the interest and
    attention of the bulk of those ex-New Leftists who did not succumb to
    the apathy mood of the '70s, resulting in all those ex-New Left union
    activists -- and labor historians -- noted in other postings.

    John Holmes, grad student, UC Berkeley union activist and would-be
    labor historian

    4. From: John Russo <f0036238@cc.ysu.edu> (March 31)

    I too have enjoyed the discussion on "What we did in the Sixties." I
    would join both Heather and Jeff in arguing on the side of complexity
    and moving away from a preoccupation with the SDS and labor issue per

    After talking to autoworkers at Lordstown plant for over 20 years,
    the schisms and the lessons of the Sixties are not always obvious for
    those who were for or against the war. Two remarks from autoworkers
    about their participation in the Lordstown strike of 1972 seem
    particularly helpful in looking at the relationship between the war
    and labor issues. Briefly, one antiwar person who was drafted and
    served in Vietnam said to me: "Why would we be scared of GMAD [know
    for their abusive management style]. After all I had 500,000 Vietcong
    trying to kill me." Another vet said " What we learned from Vietnam
    is that if you don't fight you don't win."

    It seems apparent to me that we have only begun to scratch the
    surface in reviewing this period. But this is good time to start.
    While autoworkers are still passionate and often have painful
    memories about their involvement or defiance of the Vietnam war,
    enough time has passed to permit discussions among autoworkers and to
    have them consider of what was gained and lost.

    5. From: Keith Gallagher <Kbgall@aol.com> (March 31)

    The posts of Kevin Boyle, Jeff Cowie, Heather Thompson and others
    seem to hit the nail on the head. The SDS was peripheral to many
    folks activism, including working-class activism, during "the
    Sixties"--as before and since. SDS was an outsider, by and large,
    though some active in that organization did make an effort to create
    solidarity of purpose. Sure SDS wanted to see itself as an
    enlightened vanguard, yet the evidence doesn't indicate that. Heather
    Thompson's suggestion that we look at many sites, with hard-hats and
    otherwise, will reveal plenty of people who wanted to participate in
    charting social arrangements-- for better and worse. Many are still
    active, and in no need of a self-glorifying video. They continue to
    confront many of the same issues that boiled to the surface in the
    60s, most of their efforts off-post.

    6. From: Gabe Gabrielsky <scottshuster@msn.com> (March 31)

    In a previous posting, Mark Lause suggests that there were no
    American analogies to the great working class upheavals in France,
    Poland, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in the industrialized world in
    the 1960's. Perhaps not direct one to one analogies, but the era was
    full of rank and file insurgencies in the United States, though most
    were not consciously political, and certainly not radical, and most
    escaped prominent news stories and therefore the notice of the
    public, including radical students and other workers.

    Rank and file insurgencies in alliance with a restive secondary
    leadership displaced the top leaders of half a dozen international
    unions in the mid 1960's. Only a few years earlier the conventional
    wisdom was that the old line leadership, most of whom had come to
    power during the hey day of the CIO were deeply entrenched and
    virtually unremovable. Among the most notable of these changes were
    in the IUE and the Steelworkers. The modern union democracy movement
    has its birth in that era and before in historically corrupt unions
    such as the ILA and the San Francisco painters union whose reform
    leader, Dow Wilson, was the victim of an assassination. Years before
    the advent of the consciously radical League of Revolutionary Black
    Workers wildcat strikes ripped through the auto industry in the

    What the rank and file movements of the 1960's typically lacked was a
    radical vision that looked beyond the replacement of top leaders and
    immediate shop floor issues. By the late 1960's, even a crisis
    ridden SDS was reexamining its earlier skepticism of the working
    class as an agency for change, and by the time of its collapse many
    former SDSers entered or had already entered both blue collar and
    white collar industries in which labor discord was highly visible.
    Indeed, a substantial number of both rank and file militants and
    staffers in the labor movement today got their primary political
    educations in SDS, though after its collapse they often joined more
    explicitly socialist organizations.

    Certainly by the late 1960's the cultural revolution and the
    generation gap of the period had penetrated industry and long haired
    hippies were as prominent in an auto plant as they were anywhere else
    in our culture, though for the most part working class hippies were
    as alienated from union politics as they were from the rest of
    "straight" culture.

    Gabe Gabrielsky Shop Steward, HERE Local 54

    7. From: NORMAN MARKOWITZ <MARKOWIT@cac-gen3.rutgers.edu> (April 01)

    While I have always had great respect for Mel Dubofsky, he seems to
    either underplay or wholly miss a great many important points in his
    suggestions that conservative worker attitudes shaped trade union and
    Democratic party politics over the last thirty years. First of all,
    what is unique about U.S. politics, even when compared to many third
    world countries, is that the majority of eligible voters don't vote,
    and those who don't vote are overwhelmingly low income, although not
    necessarily trade union families, since trade union membership in
    percentage terms declined from its postwar peaks and the of course
    plummeted in the 1980s and 1990s.

    The Meany leadership wasn't interested in organizing the unorganized.
    I don't think that this was necessarily true of union members, even
    the "silent majority" [tory] workers who were both demonized and
    glorified as representative of the white working class. Even counting
    for racist attitudes among white workers, the Meany leadership's
    attempt to avoid serious integration of minorities and women in labor
    went along with its exclusionary business unionist outlook. The
    Teamsters of course had a long history of backing Republicans under
    Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa, even though Dan Tobin was the AFL's token
    Democrat on the Democratic National Committee before Beck assumed
    union leadership.

    My major point, though, at issue with Mel who sounds here like a
    right Hegelian, to remember an old idealist non-Red, and those he
    criticizes, who sound more like left Hegelians, critics of
    conventional wisdom for the sake of advancing the dialectic, than
    infantile leftists, is that neither the conservative leadership of
    the AFL-CIO, generally considered the most politically conservative
    leadership of any labor movement in any developed country at the
    time, and the Democratic party, which, even in the age of Tony Blair,
    is still the most conservative mass party representing workers and
    the "left side" of establishment politics in the developed world, had
    any inclination to reach out and unite their own limited
    constituencies with either unorganized workers or low income non-

    That "old red" Lenin, who towers above Sam Gompers and George Meany,
    not to mention the politicians the AFl-CIO supports as lesser evils,
    made the point long before the Russian socialist revolution that
    workers through their unions could only fight for economic gains,
    without a struggle by "advanced" class conscious activists to educate
    workers about the necessity to empower themselves by struggling for
    socialism. Lenin's opponents in the Second International, rejecting
    his revolutionary vanguard party thesis, stood for building mass
    unions and mass labor based socialist parties and having each
    strengthen the other, in enacting and sustaining working class gains,
    and eventually, transforming those quantitative gains into a
    qualitative transformation, socialism.

    If you have de facto business unions, which is what the Meany and
    Kirkland leadership of the AFL-CIO represented, a Democratic party
    living on the political capital of the New Deal and trying briefly,
    to extend in through the Great Society, which it in the Clinton years
    abandoned, and no principle, much less socialism, to identify with
    except continuing the cold war and increasing consumerism, which only
    George McGovern seriously challenged in the Democratic party as a
    presidential candidate, the flexibility and the militancy needed to
    adjust to changing conditions simply can't be there, however
    grassroots struggles may continue to exist and however "pragmatic"
    leadership may continue to support right moving Democrats over
    Republicans who develop a whole new base of strength in the old
    segregationist white South , where Taft-Hartley made unions largely

    Peoples empowerment, participatory democracy, Black liberation,
    women's liberation, naming and fighting the system were the ideas
    that shaped the struggles of the 1960s. Historians might compare
    them to the ideas which motivated the Democratic party and AFL-CIO
    establishments Where labor gained, it was largely by piggy-backing
    off the social movements of the time, which opened up the space to
    create OSHA, increase social security benefits, expand public
    assistance to reduce competition among workers, and civil
    rights/affirmative action policies, which reduced the power of
    employers to discriminate among workers.

    Today, the Sweeney leadership of the AFL-CIO is much better than its
    predecessors in both its positions and its active commitments to
    organizing and a revived social unionism, while the Democratic party
    leadership is, if anything, worse even than the old cold warriors who
    sacrificed their liberalism to the next military buildup and
    containment war. If we are to contribute to the development of a
    "usable past" for labor, understanding post world war two labor
    history in terms of political culture, conflict between cold war
    establishment leadership and new social forces, and the contradictory
    relationships between labor and the Democratic party provide the most
    useful framework.

    8. From: Heather Thompson <hathomps@email.uncc.edu> (April 01)

    Because I agree with many of Mel Dubofsky's points, I fear that he
    misunderstands those that I was trying to make. No... one should not
    assume that the stylistic or cultural trappings of the 1960s, or
    "youth" for that matter, necessarily connote progressive politics in
    the work place or anywhere else. But the evidence from my own work
    suggesting that Sixties radicalism, and even its revolutionary
    movements, were a integral part of many urban American workplaces is
    not at all based upon such superficial trappings. To be sure there
    were many workers in auto who simply wanted to tune out and get high,
    but the record shows that there were also those who were committed to
    eliminating racism and sexism from the workplace. In auto that ranged
    from various grassroots caucuses such as the National Committee for
    Democratic Action (NCFDA) and the United National Caucus (UNC) to
    various revolutionary union movements (RUMs). I was simply pointing
    out that such groups did exist in the workplaces of the late 1960s
    and early 1970s and, therefore, we should not assume that the
    "Sixties passed the labor movement by."

    On a slightly different note, I am glad that Mel has called our
    attention to the situation at Lordstown during the GMAD battles. I
    have argued in another piece that the interesting thing about
    Lordstown is precisely that the union leadership DID embrace a
    militant grassroots struggle of young, rural, even hippie-looking,"
    white workers at the very same time that it refused to stand by black
    workers in inner city Detroit who were leading a remarkably similar
    biracial fight against speed-up, forced overtime, etc. So, what was
    the difference? Perhaps the arrival of "sixties politics" to the shop
    floor were alot more threatening to union leaders when, in addition
    to targeting management's abusive line practices, these radical
    workers in Detroit were simultaneously speaking out against racial
    discrimination WITHIN the union.

    Anyway, yes, the working class is and was divided and bifurcated. But
    yes, the sixties still touched it in ways important.

    9. From: Gabe Gabrielsky <scottshuster@msn.com> (April 01)

    I agree with Professor Dubofsky that union leaders very often are
    more "progressive" than the ranks on social issues. One obvious
    reason for this is the more cosmopolitan life styles that the
    leadership leads. They interact with other union leaders, corporate
    managers and politicians at the state and national level and with
    labor intellectuals at university labor ed centers. On the other hand
    workers, particularly in menial and repetitive jobs, tend to be
    organic Luddites. I say this not out of any scientific statistical
    analysis, but as a participant observer. Often workers might
    articulate an ideology of intense company loyalty, but there is a
    cognitive dissonance and they ACT quite differently, if only for the
    sake of survival, to fight speed ups, arbitrary work rules, bad
    contractual arrangements, etc.

    Also, while union democracy issues are hardly a mass movement at any
    level of the labor movement, to the extent that ideas for democratic
    unionism have any audience, it is more likely among the rank and file
    than within the staff, whose positions might quite likely be
    threatened by any serious union democracy movement. The US labor
    movement has the largest per capita paid staff of any labor movement
    in the industrialized world. This is an awfully big target for any
    serious reform movement. My experience is that it doesn't take long
    at all for full time union official and staffers to completely lose
    any appreciation or even understanding of the day to day experiences
    of the rank and file. Fortunately this is not a universal phenomenon
    as the sensibilities of many (though not all) radical academics would
    attest. I experience this almost daily from full time business agents
    who certainly understand the mechanics of the work place, but seem to
    have lost all empathy with how everyday work life is palpably
    experienced by the people whom they are supposed to represent.

    Certainly, there is little necessary correspondence between cultural
    radicalism and what is traditionally understood as "class
    consciousness." Nevertheless, the statistics are quite plentiful
    demonstrating the difficulty that most young workers have learning to
    be disciplined members of the work force, just as young drivers have
    a difficult time learning to drive safely at speeds roughly
    approximating the speed limit. In times of affluence, when another
    crummy job is just up the street, the lessons of work place
    discipline are learned with even greater difficulty.

    Gabe Gabrielsky Shop Steward HERE Local 54

    10. From: Sjaak van der Velden <s.vdvelden@hetnet.nl> (April 01)

    I followed the tremendously interesting discussion at H-Labor. Here
    in Europe we had the Revolution of '68 (ten million French workers on
    strike and occupying their companies), the autunno caldo in Italy,
    die Septemberstreiks in Germany and even here in Holland the strike
    wave of 1970. Not being a student of American Labour history I
    nevertheless calculated an index on strike activity in the United
    States during the late sixties. The results are as follows: 1965-56;
    1966-63; 1967-82; 1968-84; 1969-81 and 1970-100 (in this index the
    number of strikes, number of strikers and number of working days lost
    are related tot the total wage-earning labour-force). Apart from
    these bare statistics my perspective on American working-class
    history of the sixties and seventies is also formed by booklets like
    Berry Millard, Wildcat Dodge Truck june 1974, Detroit...

    Of course many of the long-haired, pot-smoking radicalists thought we
    were a better kind of human beings and many of us looked down upon
    the working class. Still the workers were also on the move.

    Most workers didn't have highstanding expectations about socialist
    democracy like so many radical students did. But by taking their fate
    in their own hands the working class battled its way up to higher
    wages and a more pleasant way of life. Power shifted to the

    On the downward wave of capitalist crisis, management regained
    control and was able to change things for the worse. Now that things
    ARE worse the leading ideologists accuse the activists of the sixties
    and seventies of this worsening.

    But despite all this, the western world nowadays is a better place to
    live in than the western world of the fifties. Therefore I think that
    no radicalist should feel guilty about what he or she did in the

    11. From: David Nack <DAVIDNACK@aol.com> (April 01)

    I see nothing in Norman Markowitz's comments that negates Professor
    Dubofsky's observations. It is a fact today that many union leaders
    struggle against opposing currents, particularly in the white working
    class. Abortion rights, the NRA, racism, sexism, bigotry, religious
    zealotry, ignorance, etc., are very real factors that currently
    exist, and hold sway in large pockets of the working class (even
    among people of color). As someone who until very recently was
    engaged on an almost daily basis for the past quarter century in
    trying to break through these attitudinal barriers with rank and file
    union members, and has the scars to prove it, I fail to see the
    relevance of Norman's use of Hegelian terminology. There are many
    union leaders at all levels who would like to be able to take their
    members further than they are willing to go in regard to important
    social and political issues. Of course there are other labor leaders
    who are conservative or even reactionary, but that hardly contradicts
    the previous observation. I know Norman fairly well, and he does some
    good work at Rutgers, but he simply doesn't travel enough among
    labor's rank and file.

    David Nack, School For Workers, University of Wisconsin-Extension

    12. From: Melvyn Dubofsky <dubof@binghamton.edu> (April 02)

    Yes, I misunderstood a part of Heather's comment, which she clarified
    in her response. And, yes, I agree with her that the 60s had an
    enormous impact on workers, especially younger ones, though perhaps
    less so on most official labor leaders. As Gabe Gabrielsky points
    out, a real gap, more positional and situational than political and
    ideological separate officials and rank and filers. Most union
    democracy movements do indeed originate below and appear as threats
    to leaders, which is why officials tend to frown on local
    insurgencies, and why as our Dutch brother points out, such
    insurgencies in the 1960s displaced old-style leaders in a number of
    unions. This would probably explain why the UAW reacted differently
    toward Lordstown rebels and angry African-American workers in the
    Detroit area; the former threatened only GMAD, the latter the "union
    bureaucracy" as well. And, by the way, doesn't John Sweeney's role in
    the 2000 election and initial response to W's presidency show
    persistent tendencies in the AFL-CIO style.

    Melvyn Dubofsky, Distinguished Professor of History and Sociology
    Binghamton University, SUNY

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Fri Apr 06 2001 - 01:13:10 EDT