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Reviving the strike

Chris White

Joe Burns has a stimulating analysis and conclusion in his new book Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America (Ig Publishing, 2011). Australia’s labour relations system differs historically and institutionally from that in the United States, but working people experience the same repression of strikes and the decline of the strike. Our corporate and state rulers dominate the labour law system and, as in the US, deny workers and their unions any effective right to strike. Prime Minister Gillard’s regime, the Fair Work Act 2009, retains the ‘WorkChoices’ excessive legalistic penalising of strikes, and the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act 2005 severely threatens and penalises building and construction workers for organising.

After reading this book, the same the arguments apply, i.e., unions have to revive the strike weapon. As in the US, with our near disappearance of strikes, the task is how this revival is to be done -  a serious challenge for Australian unionists in this era of capitalist instability, corporate attack, a likely Abbott government and the Occupy Wall Street movements. Burns argues that the US working class became more powerful by winning strikes: By wielding the threat of a powerful, production halting strike, trade unionists forged a better way of life for millions of working class Americans during the roughly fifty year period from 1930 through 1980. …The strike is by far the most important source of union power…Collective bargaining made little sense unless it was backed by the threat of a strike that halted production. Citing US labour relations scholars, union strike struggles improved workers’ lives. Burns relates the history of union leader militancy, solidarity and secondary boycott strikes, industry-wide and pattern bargaining strikes, mass pickets to stop ‘replacement workers’, sit-down strikes and occupations - all forcing management to negotiate until union demands are met. In the 1930s, militant unions organised strikes in response to serious class war from management. Unions defeated employer solidarity and the law. Radical action ensured wage increases and standardisation, with some worker control against management authoritarianism. From the 1980s, again with a fierce attack by capital on unionism, the retreat from these strike tactics means unions are weaker. The employers’ counter offensive cut wages and conditions. In the early 1990s, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said that unions need 'their only true weapon—the right to strike. Without that weapon, organized labour in America will soon cease to exist'. The US system, like Australia's, allows only a limited lawful strike, orders returns to work and enforces legal penalties against industrial action deemed unlawful..In the US. arbitrators and judges interpret labour laws within the acceptably narrow ‘free market’ enterprise bargaining to ensure that withdrawing labour is risky and largely ineffective. With the state’s legal forces, corporate lawyers attack the strikers and their unions. Burns gives a key illustration with the legal restrictions on the picket line.This is ineffective with strikers walking around with placards, while watching scabs walk through taking their jobs. Pickets are supposed to prevent access to help the strike win. Judges deem the effective picket line ‘unlawful’. For the employer, legal decisions enforce the right to use ‘replacement labour’. In past strikes, winning meant defying anti-strike laws and judicial injunctions. Despite the strengths of today’s union leaders, Burns argues they do not use the strike to seriously challenge employer power - stopping production and work is a fringe idea. Young radical union organisers today organise social campaigns and get community support, but are not allowed to win a strike. With mass strike pressure, earlier industry or pattern bargaining to make labour costs uniform was achieved. But this union bargaining is also ‘unlawful’ and not attempted today (same as in Australia). The extreme T-Party Republican and corporate agenda in 2011 passed legislation where the public service unions are denied the right for collective bargaining. The union song 'Solidarity Forever' is indeed just a song. “Solidarity is the heart and soul of unionism—the only force capable of confronting power and privilege in society. To revive unionism, we must recover labour’s long-lost tools of workplace-based solidarity.' Today, union activists join each other’s picket lines and hold fundraisers for striking workers. While important, these acts of solidarity are largely conducted away from the workplace. In contrast, labour’s traditional forms of workplace based solidarity allowed workers to join across employers and even industries to confront bosses. Such tactics included secondary strikes and industry-wide strikes. What is a secondary strike? Say workers at a small auto parts plant in Indiana walked out. If they enlisted the support of the Teamsters to refuse to transport the parts, the United Auto Workers to refuse to assemble a car with the parts, and employees of car dealerships to refuse to sell the cars, their power would be multiplied. The original strike would be a primary strike and the others would all be secondary strikes. In the past, solidarity tactics allowed workers to hit employers at multiple points in the production and distribution chain. By impeding the flow of supplies into a plant, unions pressured the employer to settle a strike or recognise the union. Similarly, secondary boycotts pressured retailers to stop selling struck goods.Solidarity tactics expanded the site of the conflict, allowing workers to confront employers as a class. Burns documents how the US judicial system outlawed the secondary and solidarity strike. 'At a deeper level, modern labour law forces unions to bargain with individual employers rather than establish standards on an industry basis.' Australia’s outlawing of secondary boycotts, beginning in the 1970s through trade practices law and ending in WorkChoices and the Fair Work Act, has weakened union solidarity actions. As I have a law degree, I learnt from Burns’s recounting of the history of the US labour legislation, the judicial cases against basic union principles and judicial injunctions against unions’ industrial action.The US restrictive labour shows how difficult it has been and is for unionists unionising - let alone organising a successful strike. Years of courts penalising strikers are the history. But Burns makes this telling point: To be clear, the downfall of solidarity cannot be attributed solely to legal factors. Unions willingly agreed to no-strike clauses.Over the years, many focused on just the needs of their own members, failing to embrace a social unionism that looked out for the interests of all workers. In the 1980s and afterwards, unions often failed to defend their pattern agreements, allowing special deals for particular 'troubled' employers until the pattern was no more. And union officials all too often squashed rank-and-file attempts to join together across bargaining units, even at the same employer. What has occurred with current union leaders is an abandonment of the practice of the strike and class politics, although e.g. the AFL-CIO is strong rhetorically. The labour movement is trapped in business unionism and social unionism. Burns looks at inadequate union alternatives to the strike in chapter 4. With the production-halting strike becoming a relic of the past, union activists of the last 20 years have had to turn to other mechanisms to try to pressure employers during collective bargaining. Thus, we have seen the rise of strike 'alternatives' such as the one-day publicity strike, the corporate campaign and the inside strategy. Each strategy, while supposedly an attempt to revive trade unionism, instead adheres to a system that has been established over the past 75 years to guarantee labour’s failure. Without the traditional tactics of solidarity and stopping production behind them, none of these strategies had proven powerful enough to make an employer suffer economically. In many ways, these strategies are a reflection of the current state of the labour movement. Rather than putting forth bold ideas calculated to challenge the current system of labour relations in this country, contemporary trade unionists have instead adopted a philosophy of pragmatism, of making do with what the existing system offers, instead of trying to break free of that system, as traditional trade unionists once did. Nonetheless, in recognizing the limitations of these tactics, we must still acknowledge how creative and refreshing they have been in an era of union busting and decline. They have kept alive the fighting spirit in the labour movement, particularly in situations where a traditional strike would have meant crushing defeat. On one-day publicity strikes, says Burns: In a one-day publicity strike, the union informs management that its workers will be going on strike, but will return to work in 24 hours. Due to the short duration of the ‘strike’ and the advance notification of the return to work, there is no opportunity for the employer to permanently replace the strikers.However, due to their limited timeframe, one-day strikes have little impact on the operations of a company. Since the union announces its intention to strike in advance, the employer is typically able to make alternate arrangements to cover the work for the day that the workers are on strike.The main goal of the one-day publicity strike is, as the name implies, publicity, as the union tries to bring public and media attention to the grievances of its workers. Consequently, one-day publicity strikes have generally been used against employers who are susceptible to public pressure. Frequent targets have included hospitals, universities and public employers. The one-day protest strike was strong in the public sector and became the only strike action for many US unions, with some gains but where anti-union employers survive, as the economic pressure is not enough. 'The one-day strike supplies the illusion of struggle, distracting from the real problems facing the labour movement, which is the lack of an effective traditional strike.'. Working to rule keeps within employer boundaries and has limited success. On the job go-slows or the ceaseless rolling intermittent strikes, in and then out and return and effective bans  - again made illegal -. has greater force. Union strategists for decades have used anti-corporate campaigns, with a range of community and public lobbying tactics to pressure the employers and governments. Despite some wins, they are not as effective as the strike weapon. While Burns credits the organising strength of social unionism with union/community coalitions, union media and public pressure with successes, he argues that such a strategy, without the strike, has not seen the union renewal promised. Social unionism is not a replacement for direct struggle against employers. In social unionism, the strike is abandoned, and in the process, the central role of workers at the point of production is lost. Although appearing progressive, social unionism in fact represents a shift in power from workers to union officials and non-profit staff ... social unionists also sidestep the key economic concerns that must be at the centre of labor’s revival, namely that any trade union strategy must be capable of redistributing wealth and power. Organization and community ties alone do not lead to power. Burns’s criticism is levelled not only at the conservative and right wing ‘business unionism’ leaders but at the left unionists and progressive labour academics. The debate for strengthening unions relies on democracy where union members control the union and engage in the militant strike struggle. Burns takes us through key examples of past successful strikes with members’ democratic control. Chapter 5, 'Why organizing cannot solve the Labor crisis', is important for the debate on new strategies. Despite union leaders successfully shifting resources to organising the un-unionised sectors from the 1990s until now, Burns argues that, overall, this strategy has failed to revive unions. 'In fact, the idea that the labour movement can resolve its crisis simply by adding new members - without a powerful strike in place - actually constitutes one of the greatest theoretical impediments to union revival.' Burns does not reject the practice of increasing union density and organising in the industry of competitors. He argues that it is not sufficient without the effective industry or pattern-bargaining strike and the ability to have sufficient power at work to force the collective agreement. Unions may succeed at times with skilled or professional workers able to control the supply of labour. But with the low levels of unionisation continuing, union leaders - and I was one of them – just advocating organising the unorganised is not good enough. Even when union density increases, the power to beat the employer does not necessarily follow. In the US, the labour laws allow aggressive employers to wage successful anti-unionising drives and to defeat union elections. In Australia, employers similarly have many legal weapons to defeat unionism. Burns argues that even with the proposed labour law reform in ‘The Employee Free Choice Act’ making it easier for workers to unionise and bargain, such a reform is not sufficient for revival. In any event, President Obama - despite promising unionists - has failed to even look like delivering. Burns gives historical examples of militant strikes that had surges in workers joining unions. In 2011, during the Wisconsin struggles, many workers joined unions. Burns criticises the organising model goal of union reformers as 'abandoning the goal of creating the type of labor movement capable of transforming society'. I will not here go through the details in Chapter 6 on the US system of labour control.The corporate lawyers and judges have indeed worked remorselessly to limit unions’ ability to have workers organise and win. I add that Australia’s former arbitration system and now Fair Work Australia has a pro-management ideology designed to make the strike unlawful and impose penalties. Today, union leaders do not risk defying judicial injunctions against strike activity because of the penalties. But union leaders did so before, with some wins and some serious defeats, depending on the conflict.The details are instructive but the conclusion critical - rejecting the whole labour control system is necessary. 'Trade unionists need to envision a world where labor’s conception of striking prevails over that of management. Otherwise, labour can construct a solidarity grounded in weakness.' Today, with the power of giant US multi-national corporations, unions not only have to develop the ability to take strike action locally and nationally but internationally. International strike action occurs but is limited to day protest stoppages or across some regions cross-border industrial action collective agreements. In response, international labour solidarity has to challenge corporate power, and with the strike organised across countries. Chapter 7 has a valuable articulation of the principles of labour rights.'Labor must develop a working class perspective that establishes a set of principles that clearly justify the refusal to follow unjust and illegitimate restrictions on the right to strike', says Burns: 'it was labor’s agitation and the open and principled defiance of judicial orders, that won workers the right to strike and stop production.' Unionists use other key principles to argue the case - such as 'labor is not a commodity', 'labor creates wealth', 'the right to strike is a basic freedom that distinguishes us from the slave or bonded labour' and the progressive principles from socialists and those activists with a class analysis.These principles are not only returning, but have to dominate over management's ideology. The US constantly ignores international standards and so international labour rights from the ILO, but this is not taken up by Burns. In Australia, we agreed to the ILO standards on the right to strike, but in reality our Fair Work Act  breaches them. In Chapter 8, Burns argues that a labour movement in the US is possible, if we learn lessons. In Chapter 9, he asks where we go from here: After watching the labor movement—and the strike—wither over the past 30 years, trade unionists today need to answer several big questions if they wish to revitalize unions in this country. How should the labor movement deal with the current system of labor control? How should human labor be treated in relationship to capital? How can workers act as a class to advance their common interests? What are the best forms of organization to carry on the fight for workers’ rights? And finally, what is the role of the strike? The answers—or non-answers—to these fundamental questions will shape labor’s future in America. To point the labour movement in a new direction will require a large group of people willing to challenge the status quo, people who have the ideas, organisational skills and self-confidence to give voice to a workers’ movement capable of transforming America. This will have to start with the activists in the movement—shop floor militants, progressive union staffers and officers, worker centres’ activists, and friendly academics. However, the debate over the future of trade unionism must grow beyond this committed, but small group if the there is to be a true labour revival. So how does one build such a trend? Again, we can learn from labour history. In the 1920s and early 1930s, the labour movement was stuck in a narrow form of craft unionism that was unable to win gains from employers. Craft unionists only viewed skilled workers as deserving of union representation, and they rejected attempts to organise all workers into one union. However, a counter current developed that argued industrial unionism was the road forward for the labour movement. This trend toward industrial unionism was driven by the political left of the era (socialists, anarchists and communists), who had a program that, although varying in its approaches, shared one guiding principle: the strength of the overall trade union movement. Eventually, the years of agitation paid off as the idea of industrial unionism gained popularity, first at a grassroots level, and then broadly within the entire working class. Thus, when the economic crisis of the 1930s hit, workers were ready to embrace a new form of unionisism. The task today is to build such a broad-based understanding within the labour movement of the need to change the present system. How can this be done? During the decades-long push to establish industrial unionism in the first half of the twentieth century, industrial union activists repeatedly raised their issues at union conventions. Following their historical lead, trade unionists today could adopt the position that the system of labour control is illegitimate, and support efforts to break free from it. Just as it was once official AFL policy to disobey injunctions, trade unionists today could debate whether or not to comply with the different facets of the system of labour control. No matter the issues, reviving the strike — and by extension, the labour movement — will require a single-minded focus by trade unionists. Right now, the left wing of the labour movement lacks a common agenda, as it advances a hodge-podge of ideas about what it will take to save unionism in this country. If one agrees with the analysis in this book, then the one unifying factor that can achieve the myriad goals of the labour movement is the revival of the effective, production-halting strike. This must become labour’s primary focus. Additionally, if trade unionists ever decide to embrace a new militancy in order to smash the system of labour control, they will need the support of their union brothers and sisters.In the conclusion to his influential history of the labour movement, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton University Press, 2003), Nelson Lichtenstein lists the failure to support militancy as one of the major weaknesses of the modern labour movement. Discussing what the movement needs to succeed, Lichtenstein writes, The first is militancy. The union movement needs more of it, but even more important, American labor as a whole needs to stand behind those exemplary instances of class combat when and if they occur. The 1980s were a tragic decade for unions, not because workers did not fight, but where labor did take a stand ... their struggles were both physically isolated and ideologically devalued. Instead of being engulfed in the solidarity of their fellow trade unionists, workers today who choose to fight back often do so on lonely picket lines, with little support from the official labor movement. Without a broad trend that promotes effective tactics, striking workers are not exposed to ideas that can help them win strikes, nor are they supported when they engage in militancy. While the strike might seem like a relic of the past to much of the contemporary labour movement, as labour historian Peter Rachleff writes: it would be a mistake to leap to the conclusion that strikes are on their way to the dustbin of history. As long as the capitalist economy rests on the employment and exploitation of labour, the organized withdrawal of labor is bound to remain a central expression of working class protest and power. If working people are to regain power and transform the US and Australia, the strike has to be revived. I see more clearly past faults in my union practice. In this era of strikes in Europe and countries against austerity cutbacks on workers and strikes against dictators, reviving the strike debate is critical.


Chris White is a union blogger and was formerly the Secretary of the United Trades and Labor Council of South Australia. Visit Chris White: Blogging from a life long unionist.


Suggested citation White, Chris, 'Reviving the strike', Evatt Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1, December 2011<>


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