Teachers on strike in America’s heartland. Internet workers, journalists and university professors organizing into unions. The New York Times puzzling over white-collar workplace discontent. After decades of decline, the labor movement is back — but its members look radically different from the hard-hat-wearing, Nixon-and-Reagan-voting men in factories who drove the union power of yore.
In fact, today’s white-collar labor agitation has emerged from a purposeful rejection of that image of midcentury labor. It’s fueled, in ways rarely acknowledged, by ideas that burst onto the scene in the 1960s as New Left activists turned away from the mainstream labor movement in a quest for jobs that delivered personal fulfillment and civic worth alongside living wages and decent benefits.
To be sure, culture work and professional unions existed before the 1960s, but it was in that decade when the old credo “eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will” fully gave way to new ideas about achieving fulfillment on the clock.
This new ethos appeared in many places, but nowhere more colorfully and surprisingly than during a largely forgotten strike in the spring of 1968, when hippie disc jockeys and engineers at KMPX-FM, the first underground rock radio station in the United States, walked off the job. The KMPXers wanted increased pay and better equipment. They also wanted greater “artistic freedom,” as one of their fliers demanded, and opportunities to advance “the living idea of a loving group of people,” as another put it.
As if to symbolize their different kind of labor protest, the DJs not only formed a picket line (hoisting funny signs featuring cartoon characters or psychedelic drawings), they also staged a psychedelic rock concert. The first night of their strike, the Grateful Dead, Blue Cheer and Creedence Clearwater Revival performed in the streets outside the KMPX studio in downtown San Francisco as a light show swirled through the Bay Area fog.
The KMPX strikers were a motley crew, including dropouts from commercial AM radio such as station manager Tom Donahue and free-form innovator Larry Miller, as well as young women such as Dusty Street, Rachel Donahue and Sue Henderson, who had overcome the rampant sexism of the hippie scene to gain technical skills (and eventually broadcast a pioneering women’s radio forum). Dissatisfied with how they were being treated by the station’s owner, the staff members never hid the fact that they wanted more pay, but they also wanted more control so that they might expand radio’s potential beyond commercial purposes. Individual and communal transformation were their goals.
Longtime San Francisco Chronicle music critic Ralph Gleason described the KMPX walkout as the world’s first “hippie strike.” And some avid listeners, such as New Left activist Michael Rossman, picked up on the staff’s dream of the station becoming a liberated medium for individual creativity and enhanced community. “The station’s changes,” Rossman argued, “were somehow linked to the changes of an emerging community trying to find and shape its identity; and KMPX began to serve many as a community Voice.”
Rebuffed by more traditional unions, the KMPXers decided to form their own association, which they named the AAFIFMWW, or the Amalgamated American Federation of International FM Workers of the World, North Beach Local No. 1. The FM stood for both Frequency Modulation and Free Men. It was a name at once ridiculous and rich with historical reference to the Wobblies and their more anarchic, bohemian tradition of unionizing in America.
The response to the strike was, for many, as crucial as the walkout itself. A letter of support arrived from the Rolling Stones, and festive benefit concerts occurred throughout the Bay Area. It seemed like the outline of a nascent alternative, countercultural economy was bursting forth from postwar American mass consumerism. “Because of the benefits and the need for help and the general situation of being on the street and visible,” music critic Sandy Darlington wrote, “all sorts of force lines are reaching from the striking group out into the community and back.”
Soon, however, disagreements began to dampen the excitement. KMPX’s original rock DJ, Larry Miller, decided to cross the picket line, slowing the strike’s momentum. Donahue, the station manager who sided with the strikers but whom some accused of using the strike to wrest control of the station, eventually persuaded the staff to follow him to a new station, KSAN, which was owned by Metromedia, a national corporation.
As a result, things went precisely in the opposite direction from what the strikers and their supporters had hoped: away from a liberated community and toward corporate control. The irony serves as a warning to today’s unionizing professionals. Corporations have often been effective at accommodating and appropriating more expressive demands for self-realization and vague feelings of intensified community.
Nonetheless, even at KSAN, the KMPX crew carried forward the initial spirit of the 1968 strike. Now members of a very traditional trade union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the staff still engaged in labor activism on its own terms. “Wild and weird discussion of economics — philosophy, politics, broadcasting — this is a labor negotiation!” wrote Metromedia’s director of personnel during meetings in 1972. The unruly ethos lingered, even as it settled uneasily into a more conventional corporate structure.
Seen one way, then, the KMPX walkout was a failure, absorbed into the very system it seemed to oppose. But seen in another way, it presaged shifts in the labor movement of the 1970s toward more organizing among professionals. Even more traditional industrial workers began to demand creative and fulfilling work lives during disputes such as the auto strikes in Lordstown, Ohio, in 1972.
The KMPX strike is a good example of how the counterculture was never merely about stoned hedonists. As its styles and sensibilities proliferated throughout American society, its followers were often driven by the urge to pursue what historian David Farber describes as “right livelihoods”: more authentic, ethical and purposeful modes of work that generated richer senses of selfhood and community.
That new direction for the labor movement — the rising tide of union activism among professionals — has drawn mixed reviews. In the Atlantic, Alana Semuels argues that it could actually harm the efforts of working-class labor activists, while others, such as Harold Meyerson and Alex Press, contend that it signals a revitalized labor movement. Either way, the lost labor history of hippies suggests that there’s some faded tie-dye on the white collar. And while we have largely forgotten its history, the lurking legacy of what the tie-dye represents — a dream of labor that is infused with personal satisfaction and civic value alongside a living wage and decent benefits — remains potent in American culture and politics.