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How We Talk About Strikes

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It looks as if the labor dispute between the longshoremen’s union (ILWU) and west coast ports is about over, as Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez has been working hard to find a solution.

Like so many strikes, the concern trolls have come out in great numbers, complaining that the ILWU is selfish and won’t sacrifice for the rest of the American working class, such as this USA Today editorial. Of course, it’s not as if when these workers aren’t striking the media elites are trying to help the working class. But when workers do anything that might inconvenience anyone, no matter how justified the reason, the media blames them. Like Kristof claiming that he now supports union despite some stagehand making $400,000 a year, USA Today pulls out the age-old card of complaining that these blue collar workers make so much money that they are the problem, without stating what it thinks is an appropriate wage for workers.

And it isn’t just the media, this is common throughout society. Remember the BART strike in San Francisco, when supposedly liberal residents turned against the union because it took a labor action. Why is it that labor solidarity only goes one way–labor sacrificing for the general public and never the other–the general public understanding the necessity of the occasional labor struggle that will raise standards for the whole working and middle classes of an area. Instead, as a society we almost always only talk about strikes in terms of greedy workers causing problems for me, ignoring the benefits of good union contracts for all of us.

Mark Brenner counters:

Newfound concern for workers across the economy has everyone from the FedEx CEO to the Editorial Board of USA TODAY howling over port congestion. They blame unionized workers for everything from dwindling auto parts supplies in the Midwest to french fry shortages in Japan.

It’s a depressingly familiar bait and switch. Pay no attention to the billions in profits shippers are raking in, or the fact that it’s the port operators bottlenecking cargo by cutting shifts and closing ports for days on end. Instead, blame the workers laboring in this difficult and dangerous occupation because they still carry a union card and their wages don’t hover around the poverty line.

Longshore workers on the West Coast earn $26 to $41 an hour, and they have excellent health care and retirement benefits. In short, they have the kind of jobs we need more of — jobs that allow working-class men and women to buy homes and send their kids to college free from crushing debt.

These standards aren’t the result of enlightened corporate decision-making. They are the product of struggle. Longshore workers have fought for 80 years to get a fair share of the fruits of their labor. Today’s standoff is just the latest battle.

With the new labor agreement, I’m sure USA Today will now dedicate itself to improving the lives of the American working class to meet the good wages and benefits of the ILWU….

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