episode-graphic.jpgThe first in a series of episodes we will be producing about the Vietnam war. Here we talk to historian and author of Strike! Jeremy Brecher about the strike wave which swept the United States during the Vietnam war in the 1960s and 70s.

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Get Strike! online here in our online store
Jeremy’s website is at www.jeremybrecher.org
His organisation, Labor Network for Sustainability, is at www.labor4sustainability.org

FOOTNOTES
– Vietnam war – this is a short history: libcom.org/history/articles/vietnam-war
– Montgomery bus boycott – this is a short account: libcom.org/history/more-seat-bus-danielle-mcguire
– This is an informative pamphlet about the struggles at the Lordstown plant: libcom.org/library/lordstown-struggle-ken-weller
– Jeremy and Tim Costello’s book which was the result of these interviews, Common Sense for Hard Times, is online here: libcom.org/history/common-sense-hard-times You can also purchase it here: amzn.to/2pqWNgg
– 1970 postal workers wildcat strike: libcom.org/history/national-us…1970-jeremy-brecher
– 1970 Teamsters wildcat strike: libcom.org/history/teamsters-w…1970-jeremy-brecher
– 1969 black lung strike – more info here: libcom.org/library/wildcats-ap…am-cleaver-zerowork
– 1968 Chicago transport workers wildcat strike – more info here: libcom.org/history/chicago-1968
– 1968 Memphis sanitation strike: libcom.org/history/memphis-sanitation-strike-1968
– 1973 meat boycott: more info about this in Common Sense, page 110, link above
– General Motors strike: libcom.org/history/union-manag…1970-jeremy-brecher

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
This episode was edited by Emma Courtland: www.emmacourtland.com/
The music today was Black Lung by Hazel Dickens, used under Fair Use: purchase it here: amzn.to/2O3Uv4i

Transcript

John:

As U.S. bombs rained down on Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960s, an anti-war movement developed at home and amongst the troops, while American workers began to ignore the calls for patriotism and war production and fight for better pay and conditions. Wildcat strikes broke out in key industries, like coal mining, truck driving, public transport, sanitation and postal services, while women struggled against the rising costs of living in possibly the biggest protest movement in the United States. This is Working Class History.

[Intro music]

John:

This is the first in a series of episodes we’re going to be doing about different aspects of the Vietnam War. Today, we’re speaking with Jeremy Brecher, historian and author of the fantastic book Strike, about the strike wave in the U.S. during the war. So Jeremy, to begin with, what was the official position of the American labour movement on the conflict?

Jeremy:

The American labour movement overwhelmingly supported the Vietnam War in the early stages. There were resolutions on the war and the statements by the AFL CIO were unanimous or close to unanimous in support of the war. There was a Democratic President who was regarded as fundamentally pro-labour, despite some quibbles and they wanted to support President Kennedy. More than that, they shared the world view that the Vietnam War came out of. People can argue about the details but the broad perception was that the struggle against communism was a struggle for freedom; that any place that communism was advancing, it was essential for the United States to fight against it. There were no nuances, like, ‘Well, isn’t there a nationalist dimension to the Vietnamese fighting for the liberation from colonialism.’ This was not part of a picture that people in labour officialdom, as in other important positions in American society, wanted to hear. They might say, ‘Yes, they’re fighting French colonialism and we’re supporting them in their struggle against it.’ This is the general perception. There’s a specific interest that war production was very much perceived as good for jobs and good for labour. I think you can say then that the American working class was very patriotic. They had won World War Two and they had supported American democracy against fascism. They felt that what the United States was doing in the world was probably good. There was some small opposition from traditionally left-wing unions, like the West Coast longshoremen, the New York hospital workers and a few other places but very, very little and very isolated and not reaching beyond groups that had a long-term critique of America’s role in the world.

John:

That’s a kind of macro look at the labour movement as a whole. Zeroing in on down to the kind of shop floor, what was the mood at the time like? In a previous episode we’ve done, talking with John Barker about the Angry Brigade some weeks ago, we talked about the growing confidence and assertiveness of the working class in the U.K. in this time period. Was that mirrored in the U.S.?

Jeremy:

The 1960s are often remembered and thought of as a period of revolt but when the 1960s started, we didn’t know that we were going into the 1960s. The early 1960s, both in terms of the labour picture and more broadly, seemed very much like a continuation of the 1950s with the continuation of McCarthyism and of pressures for cultural conformity and a working class that had a higher standard of living than it had ever had before, especially those who were in the mainstream, central industries. Obviously, many of these generalisations apply less to Black workers, to women workers and to workers in marginalised industries and rural areas but the general pattern, even for Black workers who had made it into the central industries, was that these were good times. You could buy a house which you’d never been able to do. Maybe your kid wouldn’t have to work in the shop and maybe your kid was going to be able to go to college and have a nice white-collar job. You could definitely take a vacation and maybe you could even buy a vacation cottage. Although the discontents on the shop floor and in the workplace remained strong, their overall ambience was shaped by the economic prosperity of the era and the continuation of a generally conservative cultural trend. In that context, you begin getting what became the student revolt or youth revolt. It started with college students, largely, around a variety of issues and gradually spread to become not so college-centred but really a generational polarisation. It was symbolised by many, many different things; the hippie values; hairstyles; drug use; and above all, a questioning of solid, conservative, cultural values that pretty much pervaded American society. That gradually spread on a generational basis, so that the slogan ‘Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30’ really encapsulated the attitude. There was a converse attitude which was also very widespread of essentially ‘Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30’ that led to a generational polarisation. It was a very important feature right through to the end of the 1960s. The general conservatism and conformism of the 1950s was marked by a general absence of social movements of all kinds but you have the beginning of the Black freedom movement, the civil rights movement. In the southern states of the United States, you have what was known as Jim Crow which was practically a form of serfdom. Jim Crow laws segregated schools, public buses and all the other institutions of the South and it shouldn’t be considered that the Black resistance to oppression sprang from nowhere in 1954 and 1955. What you have is a sharp development of new forms. First through the Brown versus Board of Education decision which declared that separate but equal schools were inherently unequal and required that Southern schools be integrated and then the Montgomery bus boycott in which the entire Black population of Montgomery boycotted the public buses for over a year, demanding an end to the segregation of the buses. After a year, you had a new sense of ability to stand up to segregation and Jim Crow. Following that, you have sit-ins, and then freedom rides, and then getting into the ’60s you have great civil disobedience campaigns. All of that became an inspiration for all the social movements that are so often referred to as the ’60s.

John:

How did this sort of feeling translate into action of workers on the shop floor?

Jeremy:

As part of the pattern of growing discontent, that’s illustrated by the student movement, youth polarisation and the Black movement, it’s not widely recognised but there is very much a parallel development among workers, especially among young workers. It’s manifested in a lot of different ways and initially, ones that were not so obvious. For example, you started having a lot of trade union leaderships being voted out of office by opposition caucuses. You started finding an increase in wildcat strikes over what were sometimes called ‘local issues’ or grievances that the trade union leadership was not interested in trying to address. You can see quite amazing statistics about some of this. In the later ’60s, some statistics got out from General Motors that showed that there was something like five times as many hours lost to local issues and wildcat strikes as to national strikes. The various forms of resistance to authority on the job, specifically by young workers, became more and more pervasive and began to be recognised. For example, General Motors built a plant at Lordstown with a modern, state-of-the-art plant and they hired a young workforce. Workers would walk out and they would refuse orders. It just became big news in the New York Times and widely recognised as a phenomenon and it became increasingly the case through the 1960s. A friend of mine and I took a tour around the United States interviewing young workers and wrote a book about it. The stories we were told indicated a very high level of resistance and of people organising themselves to get time off on the job and quite an extensive use of sabotage. It wasn’t blowing things up type sabotage but, for example, in one case, workers from 50 different parts of an auto plant drew lots about who would stop production. When your number came up, you did something in your part that would stop work going forward where you were and hopefully, also stop it for the rest of the plant. It was this kind of form of resistance which had, of course, always been there in factory settings but it became much more pervasive. At the same time, you have a period where you have rising wages but inflation rising at a much faster level than wages. You have a very hard time with people keeping up with their bills and that, again, adds to the pressure cooker and that is also a result, very much, of the Vietnam War. There was a period when it was being blamed on the ‘movement of the anchovy’. The anchovies moved and therefore, the fish didn’t have anything to eat, so the price of fish went up and that was the cause of America’s inflation. I’m not kidding. I saw it on television [laughter] but it gradually became clear that it was the result of the war and especially because Lyndon Johnson had decided he would not have any kind of tax increase or welfare state cuts while they were increasing war spending. Therefore, inflation got higher and higher and reached a crescendo by the end of the decade which put enormous economic pressures on workers.

John:

What attitude did the official unions have towards these unruly young workers and all their wildcat strikes, their sabotage and whatnot?

Jeremy:

The official leadership of the labour movement was already quite senior. There was very little effort to bring younger workers into the structure of the labour movement. There was growing hostility by the established labour leadership to these young trouble-makers. They were making trouble for them, for one thing, and they were undermining their fairly cosy relationship with the employers. This was all aggravated by the generational conflict that pervaded the society, so they were often regarded as youngsters with too much piss and vinegar and no desire to work. This became compounded by more directly political issues as workers, especially younger workers, began turning against the Vietnam War and especially as African American workers became a larger part of the workforce. I remember interviewing young workers in Detroit and they said, ‘We all work on the nightshift because the foremen go home and don’t bother us.’ [Laughter]. This was a poor workforce and they didn’t have any pride in their work and they didn’t have any pride in their union. The only problem was there wasn’t a lot they could do about it because they needed the workers. There was a labour shortage that was part of the consequences and causes of the inflation, so they needed the warm bodies.

John:

In addition to these small, local disputes, some really large and significant local and national disputes broke out. What were some of the major disputes of the period?

Jeremy:

As you go from 1965 to 1970, you’re getting more and more economic pressures and workers are falling farther and farther behind. At the same time, the general spirit of revolt that we associate with the 1960s was coming into its own. What started out as small, localised actions, they began to express themselves on a much larger scale and because of divisions between rank and file workers and unions and union officials, which are always there to a greater or lesser extent, they became very, very pronounced by the time we get to the end of the 1960s. Because of that, many of the large strikes took the form of wildcat strikes. The first really big one, with tremendous impact, was by the postal workers. It was a wildcat strike and never supported by the unions. It was the largest strike of postal workers and, in fact, the largest strike of public employees that there had ever been. It started in New York with a few locals that decided to go on strike and then spread and became extremely widespread in New York. Within days, people from all over the country began calling in and saying, ‘We’re going out too. We’re going out too,’ and it became a strike that involved hundreds of thousands of people around the country. It grew out of near poverty conditions or actual poverty conditions that postal workers were facing, with many postal workers on welfare in order to get by which was regarded as something unacceptable if you were working. The union completely opposed it and order people to go back to work but they did not go back to work. The National Guard was sent in and ultimately, the United States Army was sent in and 25,000 troops occupied the post office in New York. There used to be an old saying when they sent the military in to force the miners back to work ‘you can’t dig coal with bayonets’ and so the postal workers adopted the slogan ‘You Can’t Sort Mail With Bayonets’. From what we were told, the army went into the post office and started sorting mail but it’s not clear that the mail was better sorted after they went to work than it was before they went to work. It was not a successful military operation from the point of view of just getting the mail out.

John:

Much like the Vietnam War itself.

Jeremy:

Yes, yeah. It might have been successful in that they got the troops into the post office but it was not successful from the point of view of getting the mail out of the post office. Essentially, there was a fake settlement that was worked out between the union officials and the postal service. The workers were told to go back to work and they didn’t. There then developed a complicated situation and I don’t want to go into the details but essentially, there was a tacit arrangement that negotiations would not begin until the workers had gone back to work but as soon as they went back to work, not only the postal service but the President and both houses of the Congress agreed that they would make a major raise for postal workers and meet many of the other demands. That’s essentially what happened. The postal workers went back to work but they created an independent organisation and told the union leadership, ‘If you don’t have this settled in a week or so, we’re just going to go back out and we have the organisation to do it.’ They went back into the post offices and Congress passed the legislation necessary to give them a raise and that put them on a decent footing for the future. It was not everything that they wanted but it made a huge difference in the power of the postal workers. There was a point at which the head of the federal employees’ union, AFGE, said he was being overwhelmed by telegrams and calls from local unions all over the country, who represented other government employees, saying, ‘If the postal workers can do it, why can’t we?’ and demanding that he call strikes for them. That was part of the reason that management and the government decided it had to settle fast with the postal workers because the damn thing was really threatening to get out of control. One of the most vociferous locals, he said, for demanding a strike was one that organised the logistics for the American war in Vietnam. That doesn’t mean that workers were striking against the war but it meant that the demands that they be patriotic and support the war had lost the power and credibility to direct their action.

John:

I think it’s worth mentioning that in any wartime, the government and the media denounce any kind of strike as an attack on the nation and say that it’s putting the troops, the war effort and the country at risk. So it is a big thing to do because it is seen and reported as an attack on the troops and the nation.

Jeremy:

It’s certainly true, in the context of the Vietnam War, that the strikes were portrayed as unpatriotic and undermining the war effort by partially directly if they were producing things that were needed and also because inflation, the economic conditions and a high demand for labour meant that if people struck effectively on a large scale, they were actually able to win substantial wage increases. Those wage increases were then something that the government blamed inflation on. This, in fact, happened with the Teamsters’ strikes that we’ll probably get to here. It wasn’t just not producing what was needed for war but also adding to inflation and inflation was, of course, actually caused by the war but something that was portrayed as itself interfering with the successful prosecution of the war. The United States actually established wage and price controls in the latter stages of the Vietnam War as a way of trying to prevent wage increases above inflation.

John:

You mentioned some similarities with the Teamsters’ wildcat strike.

Jeremy:

The Teamsters’ Union was another case where the trade union leadership had been in cooperation with management to a very extreme extent [laughter]. The head of the Teamsters said, ‘The Teamsters will never tie up American trade with a nationwide strike,’ for example.

John:

Just for European listeners, Teamsters are truck drivers.

Jeremy:

One of the most powerful of American unions was called the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and they were usually known as the Teamsters’ Union. It went back to the era when people hauled freight using a team of horses and so they were known as ‘teamsters’. They were a very powerful union throughout the country and a very decentralised union. The local groups had a lot of control and were very important in terms of their numbers but also very, very important in the labour movement because of their ability to tie up traffic and to make the delivery of goods to factories difficult if they wanted to. Many, many strikes were won by auto workers and other kinds of industrial workers because Teamsters refused to deliver across their picket line and so they had a very important role in the labour movement and in labour solidarity. The union leadership negotiated a contract for, essentially, the central part of the country that was where all the freight for the entire country was in there and going across there. The workers rejected it and began going out on strike and doing truckers’ blockades. Essentially, somebody would be bringing a truck along and they would pull the truck in front of them like roadblocks in a wartime situation. The workers who were driving the trucks through might say, ‘Yeah, I agree with you. This is great,’ and join them or if they weren’t courageous enough to do that, they might go back to their boss and say, ‘I can’t go through there. They’re threatening my life. I’ll never see my wife and children again if you make me go through that truckers’ blockade.’ It wasn’t clear exactly what the balance of intimidation and support was but it was predominantly supported as far you could tell. The West Coast companies said, ‘We can’t get our trucks through,’ and the entire traffic between the West Coast and the rest of the country was largely cut off. This is an old tactic in American labour and it used to be called a ‘flying squadron’ and it came in with the introduction of cars in the 1920s and ’30s. You’d have a highly mobile team of workers and if somebody heard that somebody was trying to break a strike, they would go to the location and put up a picket line or they would go and talk to people and say, ‘Don’t you know that we’re on strike,’ and persuade them to join. This was essentially a revival of the roving picket line strategy and it was incredibly effective. The ultimate response was that the National Guard was called up in dozens of counties in Ohio and elsewhere in the Midwest to try to break the strike. It was very unsuccessful and they were just not able to get people to start driving again or to let the trucks go through. It ended up with the union going back and negotiating a new contract with several times as large a wage increase as had been negotiated previously. The truck drivers then went back to work. It was very much in violation of the federal wage guidelines and the impact of it was that other workers immediately began making demands for a similar kind of wage increase. Within a year, you had major increases in the average wages for the entire country, basically, because of workers who were emboldened by the Teamsters’ wildcats. It was a very interesting dynamic. Each of these is, in some ways, a unique situation as most strike situations are but certainly something that you could look at and learn some lessons from for the future.

John:

Transport is a key industry, especially during wartime, and another one, especially at the time, was coal.

Jeremy:

In the coal industry, you had one of the most extreme cases of division and opposition between mineworkers and the union leadership. Tony Boyle and the top leadership of the coal miners’ union had effectively become agents of the coal operators and, essentially, forbade all strikes and wouldn’t authorise strikes even where there was the complete justification for it. The coal miners become desperately alienated from it and so there developed a very large wildcat strike wave where the miners would come out of the mine and spill their water which was necessary for survival under mining type conditions. That was the signal for a strike and when they did that, all other miners would honour picket lines. That was the kind of solidarity you had among workers in that industry. The miners greatest grievance was the growth of black lung disease which was a terrible industrial illness that essentially made it impossible for its victims to breathe. There was a group, started largely by doctors, called the Black Lung Association and it started doing studies of miners with black lung and found out that it was incredibly more prevalent than people had thought. It began setting up procedures for treating it and for identifying cases at an earlier stage. The union did nothing to support this and nothing to try to get workers’ protection against it. Eventually, they had a wildcat strike and shut down the entire mining industry for West Virginia. I believe they were out for more than a month and they were demanding legislation to provide protections and treatment for miners with black lung or incipient black lung. Ultimately, they won and the laws put a fee on every ton of coal that was mined and used that to put in technology to reduce the threat of black lung, and to allow miners who were developing it to get out of the mines, and those who already had it to have some kind of decent retirement. This was extremely unusual in the United States. Many countries have some traditions of general strikes and political strikes. The United States’ strikes have overwhelmingly been around industry workplace, wage an hour type issues but this shows that under certain conditions, American workers can strike around issues that are broader than that and where the target is not just the immediate employer but, in this case, the state legislature and state government.

John:

Around the same time period, there was also a big wildcat strike of, predominantly African American, Chicago workers on public transport. Famously, there was also a big strike of sanitation workers in Memphis. What happened there?

Jeremy:

The Memphis strike is, of course, most famous because it was supported very visibly by Dr. Martin Luther King and it was in the course of supporting it that he was assassinated after giving one of his great speeches. It’s remembered in American history as part of the story of Dr. King. It is a very fascinating confluence of organised labour and the Black movement that illustrates a lot of the themes of the time. The Memphis sanitation workers had repeatedly tried to get a union. They had support from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) but they were never, however, able to get a union due to the opposition of the government that employed them. They had notoriously terrible conditions. They were almost all Black and the conditions were, as you can imagine, unsanitary but also very unsafe and the wages meant that workers were living in poverty, even for jobs with lots of overtime. They had been trying to organise the union and the government had refused repeated but then two workers were killed in an accident in the course of doing their jobs. That brought things to a head and the workers had a meeting and decided that they would strike and about 1,500 almost entirely Black workers struck. Garbage strikes are kind of special because a lot of times, for workers who perform public services, it doesn’t really have that big an impact and people will go on with their business. With a garbage strike, it doesn’t take very long before the fact that the society is dependent on its workers becomes very olfactorily apparent as big piles of garbage were piling up on the streets of Memphis. The mayor of the city, however, refused to come to any kind of settlement and workers decided that they would have a sit-in. They had a sit-in and many of them were arrested. In the course of this, Martin Luther King was invited to come in and give a speech in support of them which he did and, at that time, he was in the course of organising the Poor People’s Campaign which was an attempt to create an interracial movement of the poor that would build on a campment in Washington D.C. and then would use that as a basis for challenging a wide range of the economic problems of all poor people. He decided that he should take part in the Memphis strike in a regular way as a basis for showing the idea that he was trying to promulgate of an interracial coalition that would challenge the economic problems of poor people and poor workers. When he first came into town, he looked around and saw the situation and said, ‘What we’re going to do is we’re all going to go on strike.’ He didn’t use the term ‘general strike’ but he had the concept of a general strike and said, ‘All working people are going to support this and go out on strike.’ That kind of died out but the strike became a national cause célèbre for wider and wider groups. For example, the clergy had originally stood very aloof from it but 150 local ministers came together and formed a ministerial support operation for it and similarly, with other sectors. There were big, mass meetings with tens of thousands of people and seemingly to be an irresistible movement. It was in that context that Dr. King was assassinated. The strike continued but the city was afraid that it was going to have massive riots, a violent response and upheaval and so were a lot of other people, including President Lyndon Johnson who sent a top sub-cabinet officer to hasten along the negotiations. Quite rapidly, the city decided it would negotiate and it recognised the union. It gave a substantial wage increase and laid the basis for, at least, beginning to turn the sanitation worker job into something with a degree of dignity, respect and remuneration. However, once they reached the agreement, it then began dragging its feet and the workers had to threaten to go out on strike again a few weeks later in order to force the city to keep its word. In fact, in the end, it did make a huge change in the condition of the Memphis sanitation workers and it had a huge impact to show both to Black and to white workers that they really had something in common. It wasn’t just a race issue but also a workers’ issue and labour rights’ issue and, at the same time, the special discrimination against African Americans that was such a deep part of American life was a fundamental aspect of what people could use – the labour movement – and use worker organisations and workers’ strikes and struggles to try to confront.

John:

I think it’s probably worth mentioning, at least as far as I’m aware, the Memphis strike was the only one of the period where there was a fatality. A young, African American teenager was killed by police during that dispute. That’s the only one of those from that time period that I’m aware of in terms of industrial disputes.

Jeremy:

That’s a good question. [Laughter]. There are so many in the rest of American history. The National Guard was called out scores of times.

John:

I think you cite hundreds of times they were called out.

Jeremy:

For civil disturbances, which were not at all labour disputes but a large number of them were. In many of the mass strikes, there would be ten workers killed or 20 workers killed in the course of the events. I’m not aware of any others in the United States in the Vietnam era but I wouldn’t bet on it. There certainly are plenty of killings of demonstrators, especially Black demonstrators and also anti-war demonstrators, famously at Kent State.

John:

And Jackson State.

Jeremy:

Jackson State which was mostly students who were predominantly African American. It was not an aversion to violence that is the explanation for the small numbers. In general, I think when you look at American labour history, when the National Guard or the police kill people for striking or demonstrating, in the long run, it normally backfires. It’s usually something that they avoid because the popular response is normally so powerful and the opprobrium that attaches, if not immediately but over time, to the institutions that did it. I don’t think that they’re always morally incapable of doing it but it’s often something where they think, ‘We’d better avoid it.’

John:

Most of the major disputes that happened were in predominantly male industries, like mining, truck driving and that sort of thing. What was the role of women workers during these struggles?

Jeremy:

The backstory here is that women flooded into industry during World War Two and then were largely pushed out again afterwards. There was an effort to return to the traditional male breadwinner concept of society and how the economy worked but, in fact, it didn’t happen. After they pushed back, they came back in larger numbers and by the mid-1950s, there was a higher proportion of women in the workforce than there had been at the end of World War Two. However, they were concentrated in a very small number of occupations that were overwhelmingly women’s work. The largest number who came in went to work in clerical occupations, in sales occupations, stores and wholesalers. The traditional women’s industries, like the garment and textile industries, were in decline in terms of numbers. There was huge discrimination against women in the heavy industry jobs that they had briefly filled but then been pushed out of. You had a growing number of women in the workforce but concentrated in low wage jobs but also in white-collar jobs that didn’t have traditions of labour organising and resistance and, in most cases, didn’t have the economic power that a steelworker or a garbage worker was believed to have. You have also a labour movement that is almost entirely male in its leadership and not interested, in most cases, in organising women workers. There are definite exceptions. For example, hospital workers in New York, social workers and above all, teachers, both male and female, were engaged in very militant strikes and lot of sit-ins but on a local basis because the industries were generally organised on a local basis. Nonetheless, they were the forerunner to the large organisations of public service employees and teachers that we know, today, are the largest unions with the largest numbers of workers in the labour movement. It didn’t manifest itself, by and large, in large strikes. However, the largest protest in American history was conducted by women who were, at that time, generally referred to as ‘housewives’ in the 1973 consumer meat boycott. I’ve talked about the inflation of that era and the biggest piece of inflation was in food or one of the biggest. That was largely concentrated in very large increases in the cost of meat. The idea of boycotting meat sprang up in a thousand places. For example, one woman who got outraged about it just started calling random numbers in the phonebook and asking people what they thought about the price of meat. Many of the women she talked to said, ‘It’s terrible. My family won’t talk to me because I can’t feed them meat anymore.’ They held a meeting in a local bowling alley in Staten Island but the same thing was happening all over the country. There was no national organisation, no call and no pre-existing network beyond the very local level and yet it became coordinated on a colossal national scale. There was a Gallup poll that was done immediately afterwards that asked, ‘Did you participate in the meat boycott?’ and 25% of families said yes which was about 50 million people at that time. There’s not really anything, that I’m aware of, in American history that compares to it. Richard Nixon, a free-market Republican, actually declared a freeze on the price of meat and that was supposed to stop the boycott. The boycott actually ended because it had made its point. It didn’t have a vehicle to go forward and have some kind of continuing impact and probably exhausted what could have been achieved with that tactic but it put the economic problems of American families and put what women’s responsibilities were at that time front and centre in the national dialogue.

John:

With regard to these disputes that broke out, I think most of them had one feature in common in that they were wildcat strikes which were against the unions almost as much as they were against the employers. I guess an exception being the Memphis sanitation strike, although there, the union was not yet established. I think we’ve seen that elsewhere, where unions will support militant action if it’s to get themselves a recognition agreement to get themselves at the table but then once they’re at the table, it’s a different story. What do you think these struggles say about the relationship between workers and unions?

Jeremy:

The relationship between workers and unions is always a complex one and it’s different at different times, for different unions and different groups of workers.   I think it’s a mistake to try to make some broad, universal generalisation about it. The 1960s is distinctive in that almost all the major strikes and labour struggles took place as wildcats and in opposition to union officialdom. There’s one big exception, which we haven’t mentioned, which was the General Motors’ strike and that was a situation in which it was just about universally recognised that the purpose of the strike was for the union and the company to knock this wind out of the workers to get them to be less feisty by making them be on the street for a month or two. It was essentially a strike by unions and management against the workers [laughter]. If this seems bizarre to you, you’re right but it’s thoroughly documented in articles in the Wall Street Journal and a book called The Company and the Union at the time which leaves no doubt that this was what was going on. Let’s learn from it that the relations between rank and file workers and unions can become truly antagonistic. Clearly, there are situations at the opposite pole and even in the 1960s, the campaigns by teachers, social workers and hospital workers involved a much more synergistic and positive relationship. There are always going to be tensions in any organisation between the leadership and the rank and file but that shouldn’t be confused with a situation where interests and practices have become completely opposed. There is a set of structural endemic problems with organised labour. I can only speak about the United States with any serious knowledge and other places may be different in various ways. In the United States, the principal orientation of unions, starting from the beginning of the 20th century, has been to establish collective bargaining with their employers and to establish a stable bargaining relationship. That has been reinforced by the rise of labour law starting in the 1930s which was designed to allow workers to organise and bargain collectively but also designed to create a structure that limited the extent to which workers were able to act on their own and pursue what they perceived as their interests as opposed to operating within a tightly defined legal and institutional structure. The reason that you get wildcat strikes and where you have workers opposing their union leaders is primarily because unions, either because of their own structure and leadership or because of governmental laws, regulations, institutions and policies or a variety of reasons, the unions are functioning in ways that workers don’t perceive as following their interests and they don’t have an institutional handle on electing new officials. Things like that prove not to be effective as a means of dealing with that situation. When you get that kind of conflict of interests between workers and their concerns and the union leadership officialdom and institutional structure, then you get a situation where workers either have to suck it up and accept the status quo or they find they have to organise themselves outside the union or quasi-outside. They do this by operating at one level of the union in order to oppose another level, make connections with workers elsewhere that are distinct from the ones that are mediated through the union officials, find ways that they can utilise what they still have which is a degree of power over production and use those things to meet the needs that are not being met or are even being opposed by the union.

John:

I think that’s a really important point that if workers can be organised, at least semi-independently of the union, then it does mean they have the ability, as recently shown by teachers in West Virginia and elsewhere in the American South. It was similar to some of these disputes in that the union came up with an agreement that wasn’t very good and ordered people back to work but the workers were able to say, ‘No, we’re staying out.’ That independent organisation is really important and I think, like you’ve also said, taking over getting elected to positions in the union leadership is not sufficient for that. I guess, in this time period in some of the unions, like the autoworkers’ union, people of the Left had been elected into positions in the leadership but then they had acted in similar ways.

Jeremy:

That was frequently a problem. By and large, you didn’t have a pattern. You had a number of caucuses that might be called rank and file caucuses, like a caucus for a democratic union and that kind of thing, that attempted to address the situation by running candidates against union leadership. In cases, at least for a time, they were able to have leaderships that were more effective on behalf of workers but they were not able, by and large, to break out of the fundamental limitations that the institutional and legal structure imposed.

John:

With the strike wave and the Vietnam War, what was the relationship between the struggles and the war itself? Were there anti-war strikes or was it more complex than that?

Jeremy:

Initially, they are definitely not anti-war strikes and the working-class support for the war, in 1963-1965, is actually very widespread. Sometimes, there was militant support for the war. There were union-led demonstrations and occasional instances of violence against anti-war protesters by, so-called, ‘hard hat’s, a term usually used for construction workers. This was not large scale mass violence but there definitely were physical attacks on anti-war demonstrators. As the war went on and as we get into 1966-1968, there is a deep change in public attitudes about the war, a significant turning against the war and a huge increase in the scale of the anti-war movement. By 1970, you’re having demonstrations with so many millions of people that I couldn’t even count them. They were the so-called ‘moratoriums’ which were, incidentally, originally conceived as general strikes, although, that was toned down a bit. There was a lot of what was called confrontation politics with demonstrations that skirted the edge of violence and a steady turning of the population against the war. This started, first of all, with students and then very rapidly with Black, militant organisations like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee which was one of the first to take a position against the war. That spread very much through the rest of the Black community. The attitudes about the war were very much shaped by the military manpower policies that were used by the government and by the military. Essentially, with previous wars, there was a strong sense of pride that America’s elite sent their sons to the war and that the working class went to war but also the elite went to war and shared the risks and the burdens. Vietnam was a very, very different story. Primarily because of the student deferment policy of the draft, students who were at that time overwhelmingly people of a middle-class background were deferred. They didn’t have to go. Whereas, working-class people and especially poor and African American young people were drafted in huge numbers. This had multiple effects. Originally, it fed into the patriotism traditions, like, ‘My son’s in Vietnam and I support the war,’ but over time, this changed. This happened first very much in the Black community and then with other parts of the Black leadership, like Martin Luther King, coming out against the war and taking a leading role in opposing it. There was then general disillusionment by everybody, including the white working class, especially after the Tet Offensive. As all these working-class kids, who had gone to Vietnam, began coming back, they had concluded that it was a shuck and veterans who opposed the war, who were overwhelmingly working-class, began telling their families and their communities, ‘This is not what you heard. This is not about protecting them. This is about all kinds of horrible things that we’re doing to these people.’ That had a powerful effect on working-class communities. By the time you get to the early 1970s, you have overwhelming opposition to the war among the majority of the population. At certain points, the opposition among working-class people was actually greater than all groups, except ethnic minorities. The officialdom of the labour movement supported the war from the beginning and gradually began peeling off, especially after 1967. Some unions joined the anti-war movement and formed Labour Against the War which was a fairly broad alliance. However, the official leadership continued to support the war, opposed democratic candidates who opposed the war, even though they had a traditional alliance with democrats and George Meany, head of the AFL CIO, was still lobbying for financial support of the war after the last American troop had been withdrawn. One of the lessons we can learn from the Vietnam era is if we’re going to start a new labour movement, let’s do it in a way that frees us from some of those constraints because we’re going to have to act in ways that go outside institutional and legal constraints anyway, as the teachers’ strikes have shown us. If we’re going to have anything but individual, isolated workers dominated by powerful employers and we’re going to have any kind of collective response and ability for workers collectively to affect their conditions, we’re going to have to go outside the constraints of American labour law and the established institutional patterns of trade unions.

John:

We would agree wholeheartedly with that and that seems like a good note to finish on. As always, we’ve got links to further reading and to get hold of the new edition of Jeremy’s book Strike in the show notes below. We would highly recommend that book as it is one of the best books ever written on the American workers’ movement, in our opinion. More episodes on the Vietnam War and lots of other things coming soon, so watch out for those. Thanks to all of you for listening. Thanks to Emma Courtland for editing this episode and special thanks to all of our Patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. If you would like to support us, you can do that at patreon.com/workingclasshistory where you also get other benefits like exclusive early access to episodes, bonus audio, free merchandise and more. We’ve recently started doing our Instagram account properly, so if you’re on Instagram, give us a follow @workingclasshistory. Catch you next time.

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