Ramparts of Resistance: Why Workers Lost Their Power, and How to Get It Back

Ramparts of Resistance: Why Workers Lost Their Power, and How to Get It Back

by Sheila Cohen

Hardcover(Library Binding)



Ramparts of Resistance examines the experience of British and US workers during the last three decades to offer a broad analysis of the need for a new independent politics of trade unionism. Recent years have seen great changes in the trade union movement, from waves of strikes in the 1970s to a battery of employer and state onslaughts, culminating in the anti-union legislation of the 1980s and 1990s. Looking at grassroots labour struggles, Cohen explores issues of reformism, trade union democracy and the political meaning of ordinary workplace resistance, and puts forward ideas for change. Ramparts of Resistance examines the failure of the union movement to rise to the neo-liberal challenge and calls for a new politics of independent unionism and an explicitly class-based renewal of "workers' power". Coming at a time when union activity and membership involvement continues despite the odds, this book is an inspiring guide to the direction that unionism should take.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745315348
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 10/23/2006
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.46(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Sheila Cohen has been involved in the trade union movement for more than a decade, as an academic and an activist. In 1990-95, she produced and edited a British rank and file union newsletter, Trade Union News, and during her time in the US was closely involved with the Labor Notes project. She recently returned to Britain, where she hopes to continue rank and file support work. She has taught courses on Labour and Trade Union Studies at London Metropolitan University and at the Center for Worker Education in New York.

Read an Excerpt


The Upsurge: 1968–74

This book begins at the postwar peak of 'trade union power', though few who used that phrase took much interest in what this 'power' consisted of, or who held it. To examine in detail one of the most tumultuous and even revolutionary times in living memory is to discover that this whole question of power was central in a way that the media pundits and Conservative speech-writers could scarcely recognise or understand. It is to the detriment of the movement that few trade union leaders – few even of the most militant of the rank-and-file activists at the front line of the upsurge – recognised or understood it either. To explore what was really going on in the first half of the 1970s, in Britain and America, this chapter will describe the actual events of the period, wherever possible from the standpoint of those who took part in them. We can then try to understand why what happened, and how it might have been different.


In many ways the workplace and wider trade union organisation of the late 1960s and early 1970s presented the features found in trade unionism of any other period – sectionalism, economism, sudden explosions of conflict triggered by last-straw pressures among previously passive workers, national or companywide struggles by more experienced and militant trade unionists. But above and beyond the standard fabric of trade unionism, the 1968–74 period demonstrated at least three key features that differentiate most of these years – and the 1970s in general – from subsequent decades.

The first and most obvious was the untrammelled militancy of the period, which has often been compared, at least in Britain, to the quasi-revolutionary strike wave of the World War I years. In the 1968-74 upsurge 'The number of strike days rose from less than five million in 1968 to 13.5 million in 1971 and 23.9 million in 1972 ... [It was] the greatest wave of industrial struggle Britain had seen since the 1920s ...'. A similar picture was evident in the US: between 1967 and 1976 'the average number of workers on strike each year rose 30 per cent ... while the average number of days lost to strikes increased by 40 per cent'.

The story in these pages will take us a lot further than statistics in examining the real fabric and 'smell' of this militancy, but for the moment it is simply noted as a central and historic feature of the late 1960s to early 1970s in both Britain and America. The militancy of the 1968–74 period, although in few cases guided by explicitly class-conscious ideology, raised the objective question of a significant revolt against capital through its very explosiveness, unpredictability and rank-and-file subversion of union bureaucracy. Until the latter part of the 1970s, at least in Britain, this was a decade in which the issue of 'trade union power' reversed itself to a significant and unprecedented extent in the direction of grass-roots union struggle rooted in the workplace.

Rank-and-file representation

One of the central features of the 'rank-and-file rebellion' was, by definition, its distance from union leadership control. By the late 1960s, 95 per cent of all strikes in Britain were unofficial, expressing a dynamic of grass-roots organisation and resistance which became the central motive for anti-union legislative efforts by both Labour and Tory governments. A key factor in this 'unconstitutional' action was the production system itself; the piecework payment system still widespread in manufacturing was now used by stewards as a basis for enhancing earnings through setting workgroup production norms. This led not only to a marked increase in small sectional walkouts, but also to the notorious 'wage drift' – a growth in earnings well above the levels set by industrywide agreements. Such dangerous inroads into profitability attracted the attention of the Labour government and led to the setting up of a Royal Commission whose findings (the Donovan Report) were presented in 1968. Yet at the end of the 1960s British workplace organisation still retained an almost frontier-style character in which the mysterious character of shop steward activity, though probed and prodded, remained elusive to government or managerial strategies of control. The loyalties of most shop stewards were firmly with their members; they worked alongside them and, in the relatively rare cases where they were given time off for trade union duties, returned to (typically) the assembly line rather than to a separate office. In fact very few stewards had offices, or any kind of facilities at all.

In this context probably the strongest sustained workplace organisation in decades was combined with an unusually high level of grass-roots trade union democracy. Although members could by no means always be relied on to support their stewards – adding to the fluidity of the representational process – there was an essential match between stewards' and members' concerns and interests which spoke of a direct, participative form of democracy strongly distinct from the representative form favoured by the ruling class and the state under capitalism.

Pushing the boundaries

Another factor which allowed grass-roots struggle to expand and move forward to significant levels of 'upsurge' in the late 1960s and early 1970s was the increased confidence of organised workers in an era of postwar full employment. As with the higher level of workplace union democracy, this confident mood had the potential to enrich and advance class struggle. The 1968–74 upsurge in Britain has been compared to the 'New Unionism' of the late 1880s, when organisation and struggle among many previously unorganised sections gave the movement a renewed class character. In both Britain and America, the 1968–74 upsurge displayed a clear political component in its tendency to push against the boundaries of the system. The renewed confidence of the movement led to greater challenges to the economic structure through the extension of 'ordinary' trade union demands. During a period of resistance to the Labour government's pay policies, a contemporary journalist wrote: 'As the mass wages movement grows here ... the struggle deepens ... No longer is [it] directed only to prevent the effects of the incomes policy and the policy itself. It begins to attack the causes'.

This impulse beyond the 'economistic' came from the rank and file rather than the union leadership, which tended to reduce such 'qualitative demands ... "to an economic core" .in order to facilitate compromise in negotiations with employers'. In the US, also, despite the meshing of basic workplace organisation with highly political demands in plant-based movements like the autoworkers' DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement), 'rank-and-file struggles did not succeed in reorienting the unions to "qualitative" demands'. Yet widespread resistance to ever more onerous working conditions showed that 'large numbers of industrial workers are simply no longer willing to tolerate the conditions under which they are expected to produce the goods and services that ... maintain this society'.

Extension of organisation

Along with this broadening of class demands went an extension of class organisation into sectors which had previously been unorganised or 'out of the loop' of active trade unionism; public sector workers, 'professionals', white-collar and service workers, along with increasing numbers of black workers and women. This broader spread of organisation also brought the expansion of workplace representative structures previously most typical of manufacturing. Many new groups began to adopt the organising methods of more experienced workplace activists, consciously extending the 'shop steward' model to public sector areas. In particular, the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) and the National Association of Local Government Officers (NALGO) in Britain began to introduce shop steward structures in their workplaces from the early 1970s. In 1970, 38 per cent of NUPE branches lacked stewards; by 1974 almost half had five or more.

These organisational changes were part and parcel of growing levels of union density and strike propensity among white-collar and manual groups in the public sector and beyond, including semi-'professionals' like technicians, civil servants, nurses and teachers. In 1969, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) made an unprecedented call for industrial action; in 1970 it broke with 'professional' tradition by affiliating to the Trades Union Congress (TUC). The growing trend towards once despised trade union organisation among groups like clerical workers and technicians was shown in the rapid growth of unions like the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs (ASTMS) and the TGWU's Clerical and Supervisory Group (ACTSS).

Not surprisingly, dipping a toe into the waters of 'industrial' organisation led to a new propensity towards industrial action, making 'the strike an increasingly common experience for an increasingly broad section of the labour force'. Such sections included local authority manual workers, who entered 1969 on a wave of strikes commemorated as 'the revolt of the lower-paid'; they provided inspiration to equally low-paid and inexperienced hospital manual workers who 'had thought their industry would never strike. Now they had been on strike for the first time in their lives'. Nor was the rebellion confined to the public sector. Traditionally 'deferential' workers in rural outposts like the South West of England plunged into action with a spate of strikes culminating in the three-year Fine Tubes strike; at the paternalistic, long-quiescent Pilkington's Glass Company, last on strike in 1870, workers walked out almost 100 years later in an explosion of anger over pay, local news about a £4 a week settlement just gained at the nearby Ford Halewood plant undoubtedly contributing to their determination.


The unpredictable explosiveness of rank-and-file resistance, the roots of struggle in concrete experience rather than abstract ideology, the class dynamic which thrusts workers, however briefly, into history; all these elements were part of the 1968–74 upsurge in both Britain and America. The year 1968 itself was a seminal one not only for the Prague Spring and the Paris cobblestones. In Britain, a strike by women sewing-machine workers at Ford sparked government moves towards a 'historic', if ultimately toothless, Equal Pay Actmore prosaically, the 1968 Donovan Report on industrial relations, which highlighted the 'informal' currents at the base of the movement, signalled the government's alarm at the extent and potency of workplace-based resistance.

In the US, a strike by black sanitation workers in Memphis weary of ceaseless racist exploitation launched a wave of struggle culminating, tragically, in the murder of Martin Luther King; in Detroit the same year, black autoworkers poured their anger into the formation of DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement), soon part of a League of Revolutionary Black Workers which, while shortlived, was an inspiring example of the potential of linked class- and race-based resistance. But the action didn't end there. In particular, the US strike wave of 1970, crested by postal workers' and Teamsters' national wildcats alongside an official, but highly conflictual, General Motors strike, continued to pose compelling evidence of the significance and potential of mass struggle.

They can't fire everybody ...

The remarkable national US postal workers' strike of 1970 was, like its companions, prosaic in its beginnings but highly political in its implications. In this case, the 'political' nature of the dispute was clear from the start; US postal workers, whose terms and conditions were set by Congress, were legally prohibited from going on strike. When postal workers in New York walked off their jobs on 18 March 1970, the action presented a challenge not only to the economy but to the American state.

The central issue which triggered the New York wildcat was pay, which was so low that many postal workers, particularly in the high-cost area of New York, were eligible for welfare – a factor lending irony to the media's sob stories about welfare recipients missing their cheques because of the strike. Almost as soon as the New York City workers walked out, their colleagues throughout New York State, New Jersey and Connecticut joined them; within a few days almost a quarter of a million postal employees in over 200 towns and cities had brought the US Postal Service to a halt.

Such action was unprecedented. The government moved swiftly, declaring a National Emergency and ordering the Army and National Guard to New York to 'scab' against the postal workers. Yet the soldiers themselves, 'infected by the militancy of the strikers ... sabotage[d] the mail they were supposed to move'. Just as dangerously for the government, the strike mood began to spread to other unionised federal workers. As one member of the American Federation of Government Employees put it, 'We've learned from the postal workers that if practically everybody strikes, then nobody is going to be hurt ... After all, they can't fire everybody'.

Unfortunately, postal workers' leaders were less impressed by their members' intransigence. While soldiers were sabotaging the New York Post Office in support of the strikers, the letter carriers' president Rademacher and union officials were urging the strikers back to work. New York postal workers voted en masse to defy their leadership, 'branding their national union leaders "rats" and "creeps" ... Signs behind the rostrum ... read "Hang Rat-emacher" and "We won't take rat poison" ...'. The New York strikers' fury at their leadership's betrayal extended the fight. Their rejection of the 'back-to-work' demand spurred action throughout the country, causing so much disruption that the government was rapidly forced into conceding a settlement which awarded workers an immediate 6 per cent pay rise, rising to 14 per cent within the next four months. 'The 1970 Post Office strike won in two weeks what postal workers couldn't get in years of begging'.

The risks the strikers took were considerable; striking against the government was a felony punishable by fines and imprisonment. At times their action, particularly combined with support from soldiers and government workers, posed a serious threat to the state. Yet the strikers had not taken this objectively subversive action out of any explicitly 'political' stance; they were propelled into it by their material circumstances. 'When postal workers struck in 1970, when they risked fines, jail sentences, loss of jobs, seniority and pensions, they did it because they had no choice'.

'Open warfare': the Teamster wildcat

At almost the same moment, thousands of rank-and-file Teamsters walked off the job after their National Master Freight Agreement (NMFA) contract expired without agreement on 1 April 1970. Within a day, wildcat strikers shut down trucking companies across America. When Teamster president Frank Fitzsimmons agreed a disappointing $1.10 per hour increase, truckers began preparing to go back to work. But in Chicago, a crucial hub of national freight movement, two groups of workers held out – the members of dissident Local 705 and the independent Chicago Truck Drivers Union (CTDU).

This reversed the back-to-work trend; the wildcat strike spread across the country to San Francisco, where Teamsters followed a parallel air traffic controllers' action and organised a massive 'sick-in'. Meanwhile, the ongoing action in Chicago stopped shipments to cities all over the country. When the Fraternal Association of Steelhaulers (FASH), a dissident rank-and-file caucus, started its own wildcat on 6 April, the truckers' action was strengthened by thousands of drivers refusing to carry steel.

Like the FASH strike, the truckers' wildcat was almost completely based on rank-and-file initiative, coordinated and led by local activists. Predictably, the Teamster leadership saw sinister forces at work, claiming the strikers were influenced by 'outside goons' and 'Communists'; but the tens of thousands of Teamsters who stormed out of their 'barns' did not give the impression of having been indoctrinated; there were simply too many of them. Two thousand Toledo truckers who shouted down the officials ordering them back to work on 10 April were hardly the dupes of outside agitators; nor were the 16,000 Ohio Teamsters who defied a similar order, 500 of them marching through Cleveland in an anti-leadership demonstration. By this time even Fitzsimmons' own local, Detroit 299, had joined the wildcat, which ended in clear victory that July.

Employers and the government were well aware of the political implications of the action: 'Coming on the heels of a successful Postal wildcat, a totally successful Teamster wildcat might have sparked off a long period of worker militancy throughout the country'. Lamentably, the labour movement failed to make the same connections; as in Britain, no effective cross-class leadership arose to coordinate such struggles. Yet a lasting gain of the 1970 wildcat was its outcome in the dynamic, member-led reform caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), which eventually unseated the union's corrupt and undemocratic leadership. While TDU was not fully established until 1976, its industrywide, grassroots network of activists was clearly rooted in the 1970 wildcat strike.


Excerpted from "Ramparts of Resistance"
by .
Copyright © 2006 Sheila Cohen.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Focussing on the Rank and File
Part One: What Happened
1. The Upsurge: 1968-74
2. 'How Little It Asked' (The Working Class): 1974-79
3. Gone With the Wind: Thatcher, Reagan and the early 1980s
4. Against the Stream: 1894-9
5. The Workers' TINA: Class Warfare in the 1990s
6. Into the 2000s: Seattle ... and September
Part Two: What to Make of It All
7. Unions & Unions
8. Punctuation Marks: A Story of Class Consciousness
9. Transitions and Transformations: Which Side Are You On?

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