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Are Strikes the Answer to Labor’s Woes?

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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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