Doing (and Making) History from Below

Doing History from the Bottom Up
On E.P. Thompson, Howard Zinn, and Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below

The title 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 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, whom Lynd recorded in 1970 describes our present labor malaise succinctly and points 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 American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), which appears to promote the direct action tactics that 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), which I am so familiar with, 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 insult 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 blowhards, 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 is a long-time activist in the UAW.  Now retired, he is the author of Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream.  He blogs at <>.