Doing History from the Bottom Up
On E.P. Thompson, Howard Zinn, and Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below
By Staughton Lynd
Review by Gregg Shotwell
Doing History from the Bottom Up, not only defines the purpose and sets the direction; it lays down a challenge. The author, Staughton Lynd, uses the present continuous form of the verb “do,” which commonly means “to perform or carry out,” and which indicates that there is really no beginning nor end. Lynd challenges us to act rather than ideate, and he demands that the action proceed from the primary source; that is, the “bottom.”
Doing History from the Bottom Up turns standard academic method upside down, but there’s another component as well. Lynd told me, “Doing history is a term I got from Edward Thompson.” He didn’t think a person could do history and “do politics” at the same time. But I think we have to try to do both together. In this sense, “doing” is the present progressive form of historical research. The subject is living, and the practitioners of this “guerrilla history,” as Lynd calls it, learn as they teach.
“Oral history, like every other form of American history, proceeds from elitist presumptions,” Lynd contends. As a result, “Existing histories of the recent labor movement tend to be both thin and misleading.”
We are led to believe that social movements start at the top and are entirely dependent on leaders. Such theories are convenient to politicians, a category which includes union officials, whose object is control and manipulation.
A former steelworker, Jesse Reese, who Lynd recorded in 1970, seems to describe our present labor malaise succinctly and to point toward a different solution: “Today we have in our unions a pet dog —what you might call a pet company dog—led by the caretakers; and the caretakers are the leaders of our union. And the dog is being fed red-baiting and his teeth have been pulled out (that’s the no-strike clause) and your dog don’t bark no more for you. So the only thing you can get to win now is a cat, and it’s got to be a wildcat, organized as a blanket matter. You’ve got to use blanket cover to keep from being exposed.”
The predominant union history lionizes leaders like John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther. The analysis of history from below, however, reveals a stubborn rank-and- file resistance to autocratic rule disguised as democracy and a preference for direct action.
Business unionism shackled the rank and file with two cuffs. First, the management prerogative clause, which gives companies the unilateral right to close a plant and move work elsewhere. Second, the no-strike clause, which prohibits strikes and slowdowns for the duration of the contract. Union officials stripped rank-and-file members of the power to challenge management. It is no wonder that the dog doesn’t bark. He doesn’t have the teeth to back it up.
A concerted effort by government, business, and union bureaucrats to throttle direct action has bought labor peace, but the price has proved too steep for workers. Urgent need demands action. We can’t prove that radical alternatives to business unionism will succeed, but the present course—two-tier, three-tier, and temp workers—is a social and moral disaster.
Lynd contends, “The structure of hierarchical unions will not change simply by electing new people to run them.” Solidarity unionism is the alternative he recommends, but it must “be distinguished from a merely tactical rather than strategic or principled argument for solidarity.” Lynd cites as example, “The Inside Game,” a pamphlet put out by the AFL–CIO which promotes the direct action tactics which built the unions in the 1930s. The pamphlet invokes rank-and-file resistance, but the goal is to persuade management that dealing with professional union reps behind closed doors is preferable to the rabble. This is precisely what John L. Lewis did when the CIO was organized. Once Lewis was in control, he got rid of the radicals who organized the union.
The alternative, solidarity unionism, would retain the radicals, never concede the right to strike, and soundly reject the assumption that labor and management have “mutually consistent interests.” Lynd cites a real expert—rank-and-file steelworker, Ed Mann: “I believe in direct action. Once a problem is put on paper and gets into the grievance procedure, you might as well kiss that paper goodbye. When the corporations started recognizing unions, they saw this. They co-opted the unions with the grievance procedure and the dues check-off. They quit dealing with the rank and file and started dealing with the people who wanted to be bosses like them, the union bosses.”
Business unionism was constructed to stifle and control the rank and file. In the new United Automobile Workers (UAW), competitiveness—not solidarity—is the relevant buzzword. The labor management relationship is described as a partnership and adversarial intonations are muzzled. The result is two-tier; the ultimate indignation to anyone who believes in solidarity.
If we want to seek alternative forms of unionism we must be willing to do history from the bottom up, “to discern where solidarity unionism is beginning to happen, and to help it shape and sustain itself.” We will not recognize alternative forms if we continue to see the world from the prefabricated perspective of unions indentured to capitalism.
If we want to predict the future, we must study the past, and with the knowledge gleaned examine the present. If our information is limited to documents supplied by leaders and filtered through the perspective of top-down research, we will learn what they want us to believe. If we are never allowed to view the situation from a different perspective, it will appear that there is no alternative.
Contrary to the pontifications of prevailing blow- hards, the seeds of a new future may be found by doing history from the bottom up, by exploring the vital, living history that surrounds us. I have work to do. I have to locate the old soldiers of solidarity and record their tales of shop-floor resistance, how they “trained the boss.” It’s not over. When we do history from the bottom up we will discover new alternatives. I’m excited. Things are looking up already.
Gregg Shotwell was a long-time autoworker, UAW member and author of Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream.
What Did You Learn At Work Today?
The Forbidden Lessons of Labor Education
By Helen Worthen
Hard Ball Press, 2014
Review by James Tracy
Drawing from a lifetime of experience as a labor educator, Helena Worthen’s book, What Did You Learn At Work Today? The Forbidden Lessons of Labor Education, is a critical contribution to progressive educational practice. At a time when workforce development is prioritized over worker’s development, the book is a welcome treasure chest of practical theory.
The strength of Worthen’s work is that she recognizes the ways that working people teach each other while on the job. This mentorship is a quiet yet powerful form of mutual aid. The knowledge of how not to get killed or injured on the job, use a tool, stand up for rights without getting fired, or survive working two or three low-wage jobs. She’s also acutely aware of role of power both in the workplace and in the classroom. Worthen also values the role of worker’s education programs in colleges and union training programs.
What Did You Learn At Work Today’s main accomplishment lies in Worthen’s ability to communicate theory in an accessible and practical manner. It is easy to dismiss left educational thinkers such as the Soviet Vygotsky or the Brazilian Freire because so many of their cheerleaders obscure their insights through dense academic jargon. Worthen distills Vygotsky’s thinking on mentorship and Friere’s dialogical/social methods in a way that any educator can engage with.
If the book has a weakness, it is that she doesn’t spend enough time clarifying the relevance of these two theorists to contemporary educators. The examples she gives seem to scratch the surface when she compares the inequality of early 20th century Russia or 1960s Brazil to the United States of today. Both of these eras had mass revolutionary movements shaping the character of educational theory. Worthen’s expertise would have been formidable in explaining how radical education crosses borders, movements, and generations. Much of that reconciliation is possible through studying the work of the Highlander Center’s Myles Horton, who receives short shrift in the book. Perhaps this is the subject of a well-deserved sequel.
Another place that this book shines is the eucamenical approach to prevalent educational theories. She compares and contrasts the insights of Kolb’s Learning Cycle (meaning and result based), Communities of Practice (group centered learning), Work Process learning (hypothesis based), and Activity Theory (learning through doing). She clearly illustrates not only the limits of these theories but how they complement each other in educational practice. This creates an indispensible resource for beginning adult educators.
Worthen’s rigor, near-perfect praxis (where theory and practice meet) and commitment to working-class education make What Did You Learn? a must-have for every adult education and union training program. It is a welcome antidote to the rote, routine, and apolitical approaches that frequent pass as education.
James Tracy is the author of Dispatches Against Displacement: Field Notes From San Francisco’s Housing Wars. (AK Press, 2014).
A Line in the Tar Sands: Struggles for Environmental Justice
Edited by Toban Black, Stephen D’arcy, Tony Weiss, Joshua K. Russell
PM Press, 2014
Review by Seth Sandronsky
Most contributors to A Line in the Tar Sands: Struggles for Environmental Justice (PM Press, 2014) are indigenous women. They bear witness to Trans- Canada’s bid to mine more carbon-heavy and planet-warming bitumen from tar sands in Northern Alberta, Canada (due north of Washington state). This is a toxic strip mine the size of Florida, prized for its energy goo, extracted with natural gas (to power machines) and water from clay and sand below the earth.
A foreword by Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben sets the stage, thematically, for the book’s three parts. First is the politics of the tar sands development: what they are, and why this epic battle is raging. Second is the communities, i.e., Lubicon Cree First Nation and Beaver Lake Cree Nation, resisting such energy development in Canada. Part three covers the prospects for enhancing the movements for climate justice.
Lethal leaks and spills from tar sands development harm humans, nature and wildlife. Tar sands extraction, distribution and consumption is a recipe for a “climate bomb,” according to NASA scientist James Hansen. That bombing will cook the planet, propelling humanity past a tipping point of runaway climate change. Thus leaving the tar sands in the ground is paramount to climate justice activists.
One contributor is Winona LaDuke, the Ojibwe activist, economist and vice-presidential candidate with Ralph Nader on the Green Party ticket in 1996 and 2000. She joins Melina Laboucan-Massimo and Crystal Lameman. Theirs is a way of life that presents us with a sustainable, anti-capitalist, solution to what TransCanada is delivering. That is tar sands development destroying people and tribes to maintain profit margins and market share.
As the GOP takes control of the House and Senate in January after a low-voter, high-dollar, midterm election last November, the battle against the northern leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline, to transit such dirty energy some 2,000 miles to Gulf Coast refineries for refinement and shipment to China and India is gaining strength. Activists groups mobilizing to prevent this pipeline development write about their efforts, in and out of the courtroom, to prevent damage to the Ogallala Aquifer under the Great Plains, i.e., native lands and farmland.
In this book, we read how groups such as 350.org, in unity with local and global campaigns, are strategizing to disempower the private firms and the public officials upon which Trans-Canada depends. Big Energy has the capital, but its opponents have humanity, to put matters starkly.
Contributors share the process of growing the roots and branches of resistance from ordinary people. What draws them together (think cowboys and Indians) is their lives and livelihoods in harm’s way from tar sands. The past and present relations of these people at-risk suggests that capital is a force to, potentially, unite the masses divided so a few can and do rule. A thread that runs throughout the book is the court of public opinion. The business interests driving tar sands expansion are mobilizing the forces of PR to wage the battle for public consent, employing Edelman, the world’s biggest PR firm. Edelman is leading the charge to “manufacture consent” for TransCanada’s tar sands project.
The Royal Bank of Canada is also driving the ecological nightmare of tar sands extraction and transportation. Joshua Kahn Russell (a Jewish-American, anti-Zionist), global trainings manager at 350.org, and a co-editor of A Line in the Tar Sands, knows about successful strategic campaigns to critique via satire to shape and spotlight RBC’s role. This approach can and does sway public opinion. Echoes of past social movements exist in the present moment. Environmental activist strategies borrow in no small way from the history of the U.S. black freedom movement. Part of this approach features dialogue to identify active and passive supporters and opponents. Know thy ally and enemy alike, indeed. In this way, climate justice proponents effectively advance, Gramsci-like, against corporate interests profiting from ecological destruction.
Greg Albo and Lilian Yap analyze the power and reach of global monopoly finance-capitalism. Their critique of fossil fuels to power capitalist society’s dovetails with the contributions of Angela A. Carter and Randolph Haluza-DeLay. Jeremy Brecher and the Labor Network for Solidarity contribute a vital piece on unions and the environment. Russell’s interview with Harsha Walia casts crucial light on the links among and between migrant labor and tar sands development. Meanwhile, industry PR aims to divide and sub-divide the working class, native and immigrant, setting up a false binary of jobs or the environment. It is if life on a cooked planet heated by the “carbon bomb” of extended tar sands mining is not the ultimate “job-killer.”
Lively trial-and-error informs the active dissent in this timely collection. The ideas and practices of Paulo Freire, the activist Brazilian teacher and writer, loom large. Mapping out a spectrum of allies and foes, following in the footsteps of Bayard Rustin, a civil rights icon, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, informs the methods of current climate justice activists. Stephen D’Arcy, one of the book’s co-editors, drives this process home in his piece, examining the challenges of asymmetry via identifying “soft spots” in Big Energy, or “secondary targeting” of support institutions, in this case, TransCanada.
In all, moving more people to resist carbon-fuelled climate change to destroy Mother Earth’s clean air, land and water is the book’s direct aim. Theory matters. So does practice. A diverse union of people in solidarity makes the movements to decarbonize the planet grow. This book opens the door to imagining and producing an ecological civilization. Rock on.
Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento-based journalist.