What Can We Do

Labor Law for the Rank and Filer: Building Solidarity While Staying Clear of the Law (2nd Edition)

By Michael McGehee

Staughton Lynd was a professor at Spelman College where he helped organize activities with SNCC’s “Freedom Schools” and later went on to become a labor lawyer and peace activist.  Daniel Gross, an organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World, is the founding director of Brandworkers, a non-profit organization that works to protect and advance the rights of workers in the retail and food chain industries.  Labor Law for the Rank and Filer was first published by Lynd in the late 1970s but was republished in late 2008 with some updates and a new chapter by Lynd and Gross.

The republication of Labor Law for the Rank and Filer: Building Solidarity While Staying Clear of the Law just two days later the then US Secretary of Treasury, Henry Paulson, and some congressional leaders announced that a deal was made to “bail out” some big banks in the U.S. by Staughton Lynd and Daniel Gross on September 26, 2008 couldn’t have come at a better time.

One may wonder if leaving the working class’ welfare to the government will put our needs and concerns behind those of the companies and corporate executives who put us in this crisis to begin with.  As was demonstrated when the $700 billion fund that was created to bail out failing banks – while thousands of working class Americans had lost their jobs – had too little oversights.  Some in the media said the bailout plan was “partial nationalization,” but as the writer Naomi Klein has written: “American taxpayers have gained no meaningful control over the banks, which is why the banks are free to spend the new money as they wish.”

At the other end of the class spectrum we saw some of the most important features of the recently passed stimulus package gutted – nearly $80 billion in badly needed spending for things like state budgets, health care, school construction and food stamps were cut –  as economists like Dean Baker and Paul Krugman have pointed out.  Labor Law for the Rank and Filer is an important book for any of America’s workers who want to not only protect themselves in these times but to work together in solidarity with others to protect and improve their lot.

The first chapter of the book is titled “On Being Your Own Lawyer.”  In many instances it may not be necessary to hire a lawyer.  If a worker or group of workers has a good understanding of the law then they may be able to resolve their dispute and thus save time and money.  Lynd and Gross also write that “for the most part [lawyers] do not understand or sympathize with the experience of working people.”

The second chapter is devoted to where workers’ rights come from.  The book eloquently points out that, “The Constitution protects us only from action by the government.  It does not protect us from private employers… In the private sector, when you punch in you leave your constitutional rights in the glove compartment of your car.”

But that is not to say workers don’t have rights or protections in the private sector.  Between contracts with employers (even under “at will” agreements) and state and federal laws, workers do have some protection.  The book references many of such laws for the reader to become familiar with.  For example, the National Labor Relations Act.

When union workers at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago successfully occupied their factory over the company filing bankruptcy – because Bank of America (their lender who had recently accepted bailout funds from the federal government) refused to lend them money so they could stay in business – they made their case for their actions and their demands based on existing labor laws.  Also, after the employer took equipment from the factory, employees filed charges against their employer alleging violations of their collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act.  The lesson here is that it pays to know your rights, and chapter three is a good place to start with if you want to become familiar with them.

Chapter four is an overview of a Bill of Rights for workers.  It covers various “individual rights” and “communal rights.”

Individual rights will always be more protected if many people exercise their individual rights together… In contrast, “communal rights” are rights that workers can only use effectively when they act together.  A one-person strike, a one-person sit-down, or a one-person boycott, is unlikely to get much accomplished.

Some of the individual rights mentioned are the right to leaflet, the right to refuse unsafe work conditions and the right to be radical while some of the communal rights mentioned are the right to organize, the right to strike, the right and duty to not work over time when fellow workers are laid off, and the right to do something about companies trying to leave town.  These can prove to be helpful for Wal-Mart or Starbucks employees who may want to organize into unions.

As for the right to strike, Lynd and Gross write that though it can be successful the tactic may not always be appropriate or productive.  The authors go on to site the PATCO strike in 1981 where over 12,000 workers from the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization went on strike.  President Reagan fired them.  Workers should consider other tactics, Lynd and Gross suggest, like “working to rule, sitting down, and sitting in” because “you may get more accomplished… by choosing a form of strike unlikely immediately to get you fired or land you in the slammer.”

Chapter five is on what Lynd and Gross call “solidarity unionism” which “stands in opposition to what has been termed ‘business’ or ‘service-provider’ unionism.”  The former includes organizing and direction action coming from below by the workers themselves and includes continued membership representation even if jobs are changed, while the latter is controlled from above and action is only used when it can be manipulated and controlled from above and while membership is lost if the worker leaves that particular workplace.

Many economists note that our economy has largely shifted from manufacturing to service providing.  This has had an adverse impact on unionism in America.  If you work in a call center, fast food chain, coffee shop, diner or retail store you may see labor organizing as dangerous because your job can more easily be replaced since the job doesn’t entail the same skill as someone who works in manufacturing, construction or assembly.  However, this is precisely why solidarity unionism could be beneficial because even if you quit or are replaced you are still represented.

Another interesting section of the chapter is titled “Working to Rule,” where the authors inform us that, “The boss seems to have more power than the workers.  But the worker knows better than management how to do the job, and oftentimes the foreman, if required to do the job alone, is helpless.”  Lynd and Gross go on to suggest that workers can use “the supervisor’s power against him” by following the employer’s instructions or safety rules to the letter so that production is slowed down. 

Other sections of the chapter highlight the use of “secondary pressure” where workers or organized consumers can put pressure on businesses to address various grievances with how a company operates; “saving fringe benefits” are issues where workers may be laid off before getting full benefits, or just retired members who see their pensions get slashed after retiring because the union “will inevitably tend to favor its due-paying active members” and Lynd and Gross suggest those affected to seek a solution by using direct action (i.e. how current retired NFL players like Mike Ditka are organizing around similar concerns); fighting against shutdowns include tactics like occupations and sit-ins like what we have seen in places like Chicago and Argentina – the latter has seen workers occupying workplaces following the nations bankruptcy in the early part of this decade; and finally, the last section is on “cross-border solidarity” where unions can organize in solidarity to resist international agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA:

[I]f General Motors workers in the United States contemplate a strike, why not approach Mexican workers for GM in Puebla, Mexico, and Canadian workers for GM in St. Catherine’s, Ontario, and consider striking for goals that are continent-wide?

Picture it: Baristas standing hand-in-hand with coffee farmers growing beans for Starbucks in Africa; or retail workers at the Gap carrying out strategic actions in solidarity with workers making the clothes in Asia.  Consider this globalization of worker solidarity the grassroots counter-offensive to the proliferation of corporate trade deals like NAFTA and CAFTA.

The last chapter begins its conclusion by stating:

The most important thing I hope you learned from this book is that working people must use their collective strength in direct action to solve labor’s problems.

The law can help. But the law should never be permitted to become a substitute for what working people can do, and must do, for themselves.

As was the case for the workers in Chicago and for ongoing IWW organizers like Gross and could be the case in future struggles.

In all, Labor Law for the Rank and Filer spans 110 pages and as unemployment continues to rise, which is currently at more than ten million, and if things continue to get worse it may become more and more essential for workers to know two things that will help them:

1. Our rights.
2. Working together provides, as the old saying goes, “power in numbers.”   

For those readers who want to strengthen workers rights and improve our overall quality of life, or for those who may see labor organizing as also a strategy to achieve not only the vision of a participatory economy but a participatory society as well then this book should definitely be in your arsenal.  Labor Law for the Rank and Filer: Building Solidarity While Staying Clear of the Law does a lot to answer what we can do, and we can easily look around to see why we should do something but one important question remains: What will we do?

Michael McGehee is an independent writer and working class family man from Arlington, Texas. He is also a Z Sustainer and recently established the Dallas/Fort Worth Project for a Participatory Society.  He can be reached at [email protected]

Back to Staughton Lynd’s Author Page | Back to Daniel Gross’s Author Page