A fresh look at a basic tactic of the labor movement

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Joe Burns, “Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America,” Ig Publishing (May 31, 2011), 224 pp.
Mainstream union officials in what remains the world’s richest country believe the strike is a quaint relic of bygone times, ineffective and even dangerous today. This reinforces their attempts to forge “partnership” with the employers.

Some even seek to convince the bosses that unions can provide “value added” to the corporate bottom line. Others more adversarial are also wary of the risks of major strikes in today’s climate and search for action substitutes such as one-day shut-downs, work-to-rule, and corporate campaigns.
In his new book, Joe Burns offers a refreshing counterpoint, advocating a revival of the strike as a centerpiece for resurgence of the now shrinking and disoriented union movement. It has quickly captured the attention of many, and class-conscious readers will find it useful.
Joe Burns is a union activist who went on to complete law school and has since served as a union attorney and negotiator. He set out to write a book about labor law, what he calls the “system of labor control,” and that is an important component of his new work. Key to this system is breaking down solidarity. He convincingly argues that even the 1935 Wagner Act—hailed as labor’s Magna Carta by those who perpetuate myths about a pro-labor New Deal era—actually defused successful organizing of industries through strikes for recognition.
The courts soon acted to clip Wagner’s wings. Wagner said workers could not be fired for engaging in legal collective action. In 1938 the Supreme Court reversed an NLRB ruling ordering Mackay Radio to reinstate strikers they had fired. The High Court established that employers could “permanently replace” employees engaged in an economic strike.
Perhaps the most effective strike tactic of all was the sit-down, occupying the workplace to prevent its operation during a dispute. The most famous was the 1936-37 occupation of General Motors plants in Flint, Mich., which led to recognition of the UAW by the then number-one automaker. Between 1934 and 1939 there were several hundred sit-downs in virtually every industry, mostly successful. But, again overruling an NLRB decision, the Supreme Court in the 1939 Fansteel case held the sit-down to be a violation of private property rights—leaving the sit-downers open to arrest for trespassing and discharge by their employer.
In 1947, in response to the greatest strike wave ever seen in this country, immediately following the end of the Second World War, the Wagner Act was supplanted by the Taft-Hartley Act. It sought to curb labor solidarity as never before. It outlawed mass picketing to block workplace entrances; hot cargo clauses that allowed transportation workers to embargo all goods entering or leaving companies on strike; and secondary boycotts used against suppliers and merchants continuing to do business with struck outfits. It also authorized states to outlaw union-shop agreements, and allowed the president to impose an 80-day “cooling off” period before or during a strike. One section, ultimately thrown out by the courts, required all union officials to sign a sworn affidavit that they were not members of the Communist Party.
As Burns prepared his book on labor law, his delving into labor history not only confirmed his notion that strikes had been the central focus of the development of this body of law in the USA. He was also struck by how far today’s labor movement’s skittish aversion to strikes strays from the basic principles around which unions were built for more than a century. He reckons that even the most conservative craft unionists of old, such as Samuel Gompers, would be shocked and puzzled by the timidity of contemporary labor statespersons when it comes to shutting down the source of the bosses’ profits.
Burns writes, “To traditional trade unionists, the point of a strike was to stop production or otherwise inflict sufficient economic harm to force an employer to agree to union demands. That simple, common-sense notion formed the basis of labor economics for the first 150-odd years of American trade unionism. By the 1980s, however, conventional wisdom had reversed, and stopping production had become a fringe idea. That, more than anything else, explains the weakness of the modern union movement.”
Burns deflates the exaggerated “common knowledge” that a social compact between the mainstream union bureaucracy and the top layers of the ruling class at the beginning of the Cold War ushered in a long period of labor peace that led to the flourishing of the “middle class.” Informal deals were indeed struck. The newly consolidated union bureaucracy kept their part of the bargain by giving uncritical support to American foreign policy, driving militants out of the unions, and quashing incipient movements for a Labor Party.
But while the bosses seldom tried to break established unions with scabs and strikebreakers during the Fifties and Sixties, they were hardly generous in negotiations. The great “middle class” wages and benefits that have now mostly been surrendered were initially pried out of very tight boss fists, often through long strikes. Even the Cold War bureaucrats still had to “deliver the goods” to their members and they understood at least an occasional strike was the way to do this. When Truman launched the Korean War in 1950 he got the patriotic political backing of the labor bureaucrats—but not the no-strike pledge that had marked World War II.
One of the statistical examples cited by Burns is strike figures for 1952—during the height of the Korean War, on the eve of McCarthyism. There were 470 major strikes involving 2,746,000 workers. Time lost to these strikes represented .38 percent of all work time in the U.S. that year. He contrasts this to the numbers for 2008: there were only 15 major strikes, involving 72,000 workers, with a barely measurable time loss of 0.01 percent.
These figures verify what Burns suspected—the vaunted “middle class” living standards once enjoyed by organized workers were won during a period of frequent and lengthy strikes and were surrendered during times of a historic low-point of strikes. There are, of course, numerous factors involved in the decline of U.S. working-class power, and Burns at least  touches on some of these. He doesn’t claim to have all the answers and we don’t have space in this review to even pose all the questions.
There is no one single tactic that will guarantee working-class transformation of society. American workers time and again have demonstrated creative innovation in devising new methods of struggle and modifying old ones to suit the relationship of class forces. Unions also have a proud history of being allies, even leaders, of a wide range of justice movements including the unemployed—crucial in the strike victories during the Great Depression—civil rights, and women’s rights. Today some unions play a generally positive role in the immigrant rights movement and even support opposition to shooting wars in progress. This too builds solidarity.
There are crucial challenges that go beyond the scope of our unions. The most militant strikes can do little to address the most contentious issues in collective bargaining today—health care, retirement, and job security. Even if battles here and there succeed in defying repressive labor laws those laws need to be eliminated. Such issues are political. The working class urgently needs a mass party of our own to oust the bosses from control of government As our only existing mass organizations the unions are the logical launching pad for such a game-changing labor party.
Such a perspective complements, and will thrive on, the success of reviving the strike tactic. We commend Joe Burns for rekindling interest in this neglected asset of our side of the class struggle.
> The above article was written by Bill Onasch.  It first appeared in the July 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.
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