Striking is the answer


What explains our labor movement’s gradual 50-year decline, and what’s the key to its revival? Labor leaders, academics, and lots of other people have spent a lot of time thinking about that question. So have I.

In my 25 years of searching, no answer has been more persuasive than the one I got from a guy named Joe Burns in 2011. Joe Burns is a veteran union negotiator for the Association of Flight Attendants. To hone his craft, he enrolled in the New York University School of Law. Reading legal decisions and dusty old collective bargaining textbooks, his eyes were opened: Labor law could be weak because unions were strong and didn’t need the law’s protection. And unions were strong because they had a power to win for workers. It was called the strike.

In the 1940s and 1950s, America had the world’s most strike-ready working class. In some years, more than 400 large strikes of over 1,000 workers took place. Up to a third of union members could be on strike in any given year. And when they won, they set standards for entire industries, not just their own employers. It’s no coincidence that we look back to that era as the most economically equal in our history, a time when employers were forced to agree to pensions, health insurance, and wages that gave the working class a ticket to a middle class lifestyle. 

Burns realized that collective bargaining, by which unions secure improvements, doesn’t make as much sense without the ability to strike, and strike effectively. Organized labor’s power comes, above all, from the strike. Because at the end of the day, it’s not clever union negotiators that deliver decent wages and benefits, job security, dignity; it’s management’s threat assessment. At the bargaining table, there’s an unspoken question: If the employer says ‘no,’ what are union members going to do about it? If the answer is “nothing, it turns out,” or “union staff will tell the media you’re mean,” that’s not a fearsome threat. 

Burns lays all this out in an a little bitty book, just 187 pages long, called Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America.

Strikes began to decline significantly in the 1980s, and have mostly continued to decline ever since. Their disappearance explains so much. 

To be clear, strikes come with risk, and require sacrifice. Sometimes, strikers lose, or it ends in a tie. But I’ve come to think it’s like the bully who comes after your lunch money. Even when you lose, sometimes it’s better to fight, because next time the bully thinks twice about shaking you down.

I’ve also come to think that until working people learn to strike again, and strike effectively, we’re not ever going to rebuild our movement. There will still be some wins, and there will be some exceptions, like building trades unions that deliver enviable wages and benefits by cornering the market for skilled labor in their crafts. But I don’t see the power of working people as a whole being restored until we relearn what our grandparents knew. 

I’m not at all the only one thinking this. From rank and file members to the highest union officials in America, I’ve been seeing renewed interest in the strike in the last few years. As I write this, there are plans afoot to create new cross-union strike relief funds. Public support for unions is at a half-century high. 

If Joe and I are right, and the ability to strike and strike effectively are the key to labor’s revival, then that leads to two conclusions. Working people need to be preparing to strike, organizationally, financially and psychologically. And whenever any of us strike, all the rest of us need to be ready to support them.  

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