Home / General / Are Strikes the Answer to Labor’s Woes?

Are Strikes the Answer to Labor’s Woes?



Shaun Richman thinks so.

Our challenge is to inspire even non-union workers to think about their power and how to exercise it using the tools we have on hand: a union movement with miniscule density in only a handful of service and public sector industries largely led by staff who have precious little personal experience with leading job actions. We should be clear about how deep this deficit is.

One of the most promising labor projects of the moment is Bargaining for the Common Good. This is an effort by public sector unions in Washington, Oregon, California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio to align their bargaining demands with each other and with community demands around progressive taxation, affordable housing, youth incarceration and government transparency.

These community demands fall well outside a union’s scope of bargaining and are therefore technically illegal. But as long as the unions also have demands that are within their legal scope (not hard to do when employers refuse to pay people what they deserve), then the unions can press the community’s case. This is a brilliant way of getting community to see unions’ fights as their own and of building worker and community power—and the next Chicago teachers strike will likely be the highest profile test of the theory this side of the Mississppi.

What follows could be bigger. A number of public and private sector unions in Minnesota have contract expirations in 2016. Their bargaining demands for the common good are focused not just on their individual employers but also on the largest employers in the state: Target and Wells Fargo. This is the potential for the closest thing we’ve seen in a while to a general strike (something Minnesota has a history of doing).

Another promising project is the Fight for 15. Some have dismissed the series of rolling one-day strikes for increases in the minimum wage and organizing rights as mere P.R. stunts. But there is something deeply radical and significant at play here. Workers who don’t even technically have a union are proving their value—and their power—to their bosses by withholding their labor. And the response from the general public is, at worst, a sort of patronizing “Well, good for them” but more often something a bit closer to “Go get ‘em!”

As I write my new book for The New Press, No Retreat, No Surrender: American History in Ten Strikes (first draft due in June, yikes!), I am musing on these questions a lot. And, as any good historian would probably say, it depends. The real lesson of studying strikes is that they can serve as a great window into their time. Sometimes they are aspirational, demanding and winning real changes in the lives of workers. The Flint Sit-Down Strike is one of these moments, where a small group of workers taking radical action can inspire millions to improve their own lives. Some of the IWW strikes like at Lawrence or the timber strikes in the Northwest serve some of these functions as well. Other strikes can be more consumeristic in content, such as the Oakland General Strike of 1946, where workers shut down the city for no radical purpose. They just wanted more money for themselves. That really helps us understand the consumer republic of the postwar period. Other times though, what strikes really tell us is that workers are desperate. The strikes become last-ditch efforts to save what they once had, whether the Gilded Age strikes of workers losing control over their own labor or the strikes of the 1980s like at Hormel or Phelps-Dodge that companies used to crush unions entirely. These incidents are more sad than anything else.

So this leads us back to the question of whether strikes are part of the answer for labor’s woes. I don’t know. The CTU strike was pretty inspirational, in part because Rahm is such a villain and in part because they did some great things. But it’s not like the CTU has beaten back Emanuel in the years since. That strike was defensive and CTU remains in a defensive posture today, just trying to keep teachers’ jobs and schools open.

On the other hand, it’s true enough that in the New Gilded Age, organized labor is going to have all their long-used tactics rendered ineffective by the Supreme Court, the Koch Brothers, and hostile Republicans around the nation. Friedrichs is just the latest example. There may be a time when a strike or series of strikes becomes that spark that shows a newly aggressive American working class.

In any case, we really need people who are thinking hard about how to express worker power in an era where they are seeing power stripped from them. Things like the Fight for $15 are great examples of how that power can be reclaimed, although actually winning some victories does have to happen at some point. Certainly whatever does bring worker power back in the United States is going to take some new strategies in combination with some traditional strategies. More analysis of these new strategies is necessary, which is why articles like Richman’s are important.

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  • cs

    That is some hat. I wonder if that was a costume worn for the occasion or if it was her usual going-out hat?

    • It was an era of big hats.

      • Thom

        We need a politician who will promise an era of big hats.

        • It would fit the New Gilded Age.

          • solidcitizen

            I have it on good authority that the “New Gilded Age” is a myth and the first Gilded Age was actually awesome for labor.


            • Joshua

              That’s a weird article. It’s saying we don’t have a New Gilded Age because… we didn’t have an Old Gilded Age. Oh and capitalists are actually okay because reasons.

              If anything it actually bolsters the case for this being an actual Gilded Age, perhaps one even more Gilded than the old one!

              • solidcitizen

                I only skimmed it because once I got to the “oligarchs actually lost the class war in the 1890s” idea I suspected that a close read was not healthy.

                • Joshua

                  It really is a bizarre article for so many reasons. He says that oligarchs were unable to increase profits at expense of workers in the late 19th century but figured out how to do at the turn of the 20th, as if the turnover from 1899 to 1900 is some grand epic period of time.

                  I’m really not sure why a publication that seems to strive for respectability would publish this. It looks like a draft of a piece that would end up on Powerline or something.

                • AdamPShort

                  “as if the turnover from 1899 to 1900 is some grand epic period of time.”

                  I noticed that too. It’s like if someone tried to win an argument about the Industrial Revolution by saying “aha! you fool! that didn’t happen until almost 1840!”

                  Well, OK. What’s your point exactly?

                  Also, I always have to chuckle at rebuttals from fans of oligarchy that include the claim that wealthy people lacked “social power.” If you scratch that very strange claim it turns out to mean “we own everything, but people don’t seem to like us very much.”

  • MacK

    An App – with QR reader and using GPS mapping technology … that allows you to ask, or set it to tell you if a retail premises/chain pays fair wages (or is being slated for not doing so), if goods are from companies that are for example owned by the Koch brothers.

    • That is a start, but when the app writers turn their ire on the issues in the smartphone supply chain, don’t expect that app to stay available in the itunes or the google app store for very long.

  • Matt McIrvin

    These days it seems to me as if non-union workers mostly respond to strikes by resenting the strikers, rather than by reconsidering their own bargaining position. It’s “I don’t have a union, I don’t get whatever benefits they’re striking for, so why should they ruin my day to get them?” and the first part of the syllogism is just taken as an immutable fact of nature.

    • Joshua

      Well, few of us are unionized these days (~7% of private employees if I recall) and very few people are going to risk their jobs to unionize. A lot of people also, quite frankly, don’t want a union, especially upper middle class knowledge workers (programmers, accountants, etc.), and unions haven’t done a good job of telling them why they are wrong. Or even tried, really.

      I think it also doesn’t help that many of the strikes that could happen would come from public employees, thus shutting down a much-needed service we rely on. If teachers or subway workers strike, it puts a real non-material hardship on many peoples’ lives. It’s tough to find sympathy for strikers when you need to find a babysitter last minute for your kid because you have to go to work.

      • AdamPShort

        “Well, few of us are unionized these days (~7% of private employees if I recall) and very few people are going to risk their jobs to unionize.”

        I have a lot to say about this but I can’t really discuss it. Which is kind of the point.

  • the ordinary fool

    Recently I’ve seen a few people argue that tweaking unemployment benefits to make it easier to get them if you choose to quit. The goal being that this would improve workers lives and strengthen the position of labor (people who’ve quit wouldn’t need to get a new job as quickly, people experience a little less coercion to stay in shitty jobs, labor benefits from a slightly tighter labor market presumably making the threat of strikes more effective, etc.). Not really likely to happen anytime soon, but any thoughts?

    • At best, something like that would slightly tilt the field back toward workers, but like an expanded EITC or something like that, tweaking unemployment benefits is nothing more than a tweak and would by no means change the fundamentals. A good thing though in principle.

    • Matt McIrvin

      I can only imagine the screaming if someone actually attempted to do this. Most people in our society are still convinced that civilization is decaying because people are too lazy and want something for nothing.

      • AdamPShort

        “[C]ivilization is decaying because people are too lazy and want something for nothing.”

        Well, I think this is probably true. Wealthy people want to stay wealthy forever without doing anything, down to their grandchild’s grandchild. They rightly believe that in order for that to work everyone else needs to work really fucking hard.

        I guess that’s not what most people mean by this sentiment, though.

    • AdamPShort

      Well obvs. this is a hobbyhorse so, everything’s a nail and all that, but if the federal government had a program where they hired anyone willing and able to work at some reserve wage it would accomplish the same thing without allowing periods of unemployment to degrade people’s private sector employability as much.

      Whether it’s politically viable or not is unknowable until someone tries to implement it. I have a feeling people would like it.

  • Nick

    Wasn’t the Oakland General Strike of 1946 mainly about the use of city resources — namely, the police — to force scabs through the picket line at Hasting’s Department Store in order to bust the union? The main drive of it was to fight back against the entrenched, Republican (anti-union) hold on City Hall, which was backed up by the conservative owners of the Oakland Tribune and the Chamber of Commerce.

    I guess it might be a matter of whose motives you’re looking at. As you said in the This Day in Labor History post you link to, the Teamsters weren’t in it for that, and the AFL unions might have had different motives, as well. As always, ascribing motives to a group of tens of thousands of people can be complicated.

  • manual

    Yeah, I need to think about this more.

    But the position that the maximalist, radical position is always the most prudent is not the case, and is usually written by people who do not suffer the consequences.

    I recall the Occupy crowd trying to force the ILWU to strike just because and claiming they were insufficiently attuned to working people because they wouldnt. This put aside what the ILWU’s members want, what their contract says and that a non-economic or ULP strike would cause that union lots of problems as they were looking outward toward an extremely contentious contract renegotiation.

  • Gareth

    Sounds great. Would you like to join my strike for a ban on partial-birth abortion?

  • Yankee

    “Strike” is a violent word, and labor strikes have in the past opened doors to widespread violence. So depending on how you feel about that in an America with ubiquitous small arms. I think it would be more peaceful if labor could put on its consumer hat and work from the boycott side. Oh Class Consciousness, where art thou?

    • AdamPShort

      “Strike” is a violent word, and labor strikes have in the past opened doors to widespread violence.

      This is some graduate-level newspeak right there.

  • Peterr

    I’m pondering this in light of the threatened strike by the Mizzou football team last fall that was the straw that broke the back of the campus chancellor and the system president, forcing them both to resign. Similarly, it was the threat to simply organize a college football players union at Northwestern that forced the NCAA to begin to take more seriously some of the things that college football players had been asking to at least be talked about — 4 year scholarships, better medical coverage and health issues, etc.

  • Joe

    Childcare workers appear to have the leverage to attract attention, especially in metropolitan NYC, Washington, and Los Angeles.

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