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Is the Strike Dead?

June 28, 2012
By Marc Bussanich, LaborPress City Reporter
New York City was considered the strike capital for public employees back in the 1960s, which helped to spark public employee strikes all across the country, according to Joe Burns, the author of Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America. In the 1950s, public employees were more conservative, relying on lobbying to achieve their aims. But by the late 1960s, everyone believed they had the right to strike and violate the law.

Burns argues that the crisis in the trade union movement is deepening and the only way it can right itself is to make workplace action in the form of a strike, including secondary strikes and boycotts, the centerpiece of collective bargaining so as to escape from the current system of labor control.

Burns was a local president and then provided strike support for strikes against Hormel Foods, A.E. Staley Company and Detroit News, three of labor’s most contentious battles in recent history. He went on to earn a law degree at New York University and when he started writing the book the original topic was labor law. But as he wrote, the topic changed to trade union strategy and, specifically, the role of the strike.

Burns noted in an interview that there are different labor strategists who want to center the labor movement outside the workplace. For example, he believes that the people involved in social unionism are doing good work but he questions the effectiveness of the strategy, such as building alliances with local politicians to ensure workers earn a higher wage when economic development is publicly subsidized.

“You’re relying on local bodies of government that come and go, which is far different from relying on workers’ self-activity. You can’t reach that many workers in relation to the entire economy, and the bigger problem, where is the basis of trade unionism power and activity? In the old days, strategy was based in the workplace, in the strike. What has been substituted are coalitions staffed by union and non-profit staffers,” said Burns.

He continued, “I believe in social unionism, but it needs to be a fundamentally different version which is rooted in the workplace.”

He highlighted the Hormel strike as a case of true social unionism. In 1985, the Hormel Foods Corporation demanded a 23 percent wage cut from the workers. The response from the United Food and Commerical Workers Union, Local P9 was to strike, which was one of the longest strikes in the 1980s.

“By the end of the strike, in the conservative town of Austin, MN, the union hall featured a mural of Nelson Mandela and the South African struggle. There was also a billboard in the town showing the communities from across the country that donated money—that is social unionism, but it’s a social unionism produced through struggle,” Burns said.

Narrow forms of unionism will not help the movement either, Burns also argues. When one union takes action that it believes will benefit the interests of their members only rather than all union members, in the long run it’s a losing strategy “because once management is able to weaken, for example, public employee unions, they’re going to go back and mop up the remainder of private sector unions.”

He mentioned how the unions in the building and construction trades were extremely powerful back in the 60s, enabling them to win 20 percent benefits increases. But now there are initiatives all across the country where PLAs are the targets.

“Municipalities are passing laws forbidding PLAs and going after prevailing wage standards. It would be wise for construction unions to employ some solidarity and try to defend everyone’s interest,” said Burns.

Unions agreeing to no-strike clauses are also hurtful in the long run.

“You see it in every industry. In construction specifically, you see unions trying to do everything they can to get public work projects or they are undercutting their union standards in order to compete with non-union competitors. That’s a race to the bottom and ultimately defeats the purpose of unionization,” Burns noted.

“The bottom line is negotiating from a position of weakness is not working, and it’s not going to work because corporate America has an agenda to hunt down the remaining pockets of trade unionism. That’s pretty clear,” he warned.

In his book, Burns discusses one way the trade movement can creatively embark upon a new strike wave is to create “new unions to protect old unions.” Unions have legitimate institutional concerns because they own assets such as a treasury, property and equipment.

However, “To the extent we have a labor movement that’s more concerned about protecting assets rather than performing its historic mission, then we have a major problem.”

He noted that one union has spent almost $2 billion on organizing while another union possesses an $800 million strike fund.

“If they took just a fraction of those assets, they could set up independent unions with no buildings in D.C. free to organize and engage in strikes. In the early days of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, John Lewis of the United Mine Workers gave $500,000 to the steelworkers and autoworkers because he understood that in order to protect mineworkers, he had to organize these industries even if the workers wouldn’t be his members,” Burns said.

He added, “The point is—when you take the union treasury out of the equation, what power do the authorities have? What can they do, lock up all the trade unionists,” questioned Burns.

Burns provided an historical example when the American Federation of Teachers was striking in the 1960s.

“In Washington State, the authorities arrested the leaders. So every teacher in the district showed up to court and demanded they be arrested. The judge, in turn, told the school board they’d be arrested unless they negotiated a deal with the teachers!”

Burns is hopeful that the trade union movement will rediscover the strike, despite the majority of labor abandoning the strike over the last 20 years.  

“There are elements within the movement that are going to engage in struggle again. In the 1920s the labor movement was even more conservative than today, but a decade later there was an explosion of strike activity. Strikes happen because they stem from the basic employment relationship. There’s no reason to believe that so long as we have exploitative workplaces, that the strike is going to go away. It’s just a question of us helping to create the conditions for a new strike wave to happen.”

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