Sunday, December 4, 2011

Important Book Review: Reviving the Strike

Over recent decades the right to strike  in Australia and elsewhere has been steadily eroded.   The consequence:  a lack of bargaining power for workers under pressure from aggressive employers and Conservative/neo-liberal governments.  In this latest 'Left Focus' article, life-long labour movement activist, Chris White reviews Joe Burns ‘Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America’ (2011 IG Publishing)  The implications of this review for Australian unions are obvious and important.

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A review by Chris White

Joe Burns has a stimulating analysis and conclusion in this readable and topical book on US strikes.

I conclude as well that we can revive the strike in Australia and working people can regain power and transform Australia.

Australia’s labour relations system differs historically and institutionally from the US, but working people experience the same repression of strikes (just recently Qantas, Victorian Nurses, Baiada Chicken etc) 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.

PM Gillard’s regime the ‘Fair Work Act’ retains the ‘Work Choices’ excessive legalistic penalising of strikes and the Building Industry Act (2005) with the ABCC severely threatens and penalises building and construction workers organising. (See arguments on my blog and put in search ‘ABCC’ and ‘the right to strike’.)

 After reading this book, the same arguments apply in Australia - that unions have to revive the strike weapon.

 US and Australia has experienced the near disappearance of strike struggle, although there are some recent struggles.

 The task is how the strike revival is to be done. 

This is a serious challenge for Australian unionists in this era of capitalist instability, corporate attack, a likely Abbott government and more repression.

Yet resistance grows, the Occupy Wall Street movements and strike waves in many countries against severe austerity and/or dictatorships and strikes to improve workers economic and social lives.

 More workers power

Burns argues that US history shows the working class became more powerful and improved their lives 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 though 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.”

Burns cites US labour relations scholars with stories 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.  Such strategies are to cripple economically the corporations and force management to negotiate until union demands are met.

From the 1930s unions organised militant strikes in response to management’s serious class war. Unions defeated employer solidarity. Industrial action ensured wage increases and standardisation.

Unions defied unjust anti-strike laws. Despite key defeats some worker control prevailed against management despotism.

From the 1980’s, with capital’s fierce attack on unionism, union leaders retreated from these strike tactics. Unions became weaker. The employers’ counter offensive cut wages and conditions.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in the early 1990s,

“Unions need their only true weapon—the right to strike. Without that weapon, organized labour in America will soon cease to exist.” (p20)

The US labour control system, like Australia, allows only a limited lawful strike.

Arbitrators and judges interpret labour laws within the acceptably narrow ‘free market’ enterprise bargaining. Orders are made for strikers to return to work and legal sanctions against industrial action deemed “unlawful” are enforced. Corporate lawyers with the state’s legal forces penalise strikers and their unions. Withdrawing your labour is risky and largely ineffective.

The effective picket?

Burns gives one illustration with the legal restrictions on the picket line - similar to Australia, e.g. at Baiada – see posts

 Due to the law, the picket as practiced is ineffective with protesting strikers having to walk around in a circle with placards, while watching scabs walk through taking their jobs.

Burns goes through the legal decisions that enforce for the employer the right to use ‘replacement labour’, scabs.

Pickets to be effective have to peacefully block all access for the strike to win.

But judges rule the effective picket line ‘unlawful’.  

In past strikes, winning meant defying 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 organizers today organize social campaigns with community support. But union leaders working within the system do not allow these organizers to plan industrial action to defy the law as being too risky.

Earlier, industry or pattern bargaining with mass strike pressure to make labour costs uniform was achieved. But this is union bargaining is also ‘unlawful’ and rarely attempted today – the same as in Australia.

The extreme Tea Party Republican Governors in 2011 passed legislation where the public service unions are denied the right to collectively bargaining at all, leading to mass protests such as in Wisconsin - but this movement, with some success, was channelled into community organizing for re-call ballots and Democrat politics, but not strike action. (See Wisconsin in ).

Solidarity strike?

Burns regrets the demise of the solidarity strike.  “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 with tactics of secondary strikes and industry-wide solidarity strikes.

 What’s 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 recognize 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 began in the 1970's through the Trade Practices law and remains a key part of the employers’ legislative armoury to weaken and penalise union solidarity actions. 

US labour control system

As I have a law degree and write on labour law, I learnt from Burns’ recounting the history of the US labour control legislation.  Burns discusses the Taft-Hartley 1947 Act know as the ‘Slave Labor Act’, the judicial cases against basic union organising such as allowing companies to move to defeat union drives and years of courts penalizing union action, such as employers’ rights to permanently replace strikers, see in Chapter 6.

The corporate lawyers and judges have indeed worked remorselessly to limit unions’ ability to have workers organize and win.

The US restrictive labour control shows how difficult it has been for unions getting workers to join - let alone assisting members to organize a successful strike.

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 contested conflict.

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 the AFL-CIO is strong rhetorically, the labour movement is trapped in no strike business 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. (p71)"

“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.”

One-day publicity strikes

“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. (p72)"

The one-day protest strike strong in the public sector became the only strike action for many US unions, with some gains, but anti-union employers survived, as the union economic pressure was not sufficient.

“…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. (p73)”

Working to rule keeps within employer boundaries but 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 - have greater bargaining force.

 Union strategists for decades used anti-corporate campaigns, with a range of community and public lobbying tactics to pressure the employers and governments. Despite some impressive wins, they are not as effective as the strike weapon.

 Social unionism ineffective

Burns supports the organising strength of social unionism with union and community coalitions, union media and public pressure on employers.

 But he argues 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 labour’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. (p81)”

 Burns’ criticism is levelled not only at the conservative and right wing ‘business unionist’ leaders but the left union leaders and progressive labour academics.

 As I implemented with other unions social unionism in Australia with many good campaigns, Burns’ arguments means I reconsider past practices.

Burns takes us through key examples of successful strikes with members’ democratic control of the union and the militant strike struggle. Strengthening unions relies on internal union democracy (p92). 

Organizing model not working

Chapter 5 “Why organizing cannot solve the Labor crisis” is important for the debate on new strategies.

Despite union leaders successfully shifting resources to organizing the un–unionized sectors from the 1990s until now, Burns argues 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 (p95).”

Burns does not reject the practice of increasing union density and organizing in the industry of competitors. He argues 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 in any industrial action.

But with the low levels of unionization continuing, union leaders - and I was one of them – just advocating organizing the unorganized is not good enough. I admit more clearly past weaknesses in my union practice.

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-unionizing drives and to defeat union elections.

Burns accuses the union reformers’ organizing model as “abandoning the goal of creating the type of labour movement capable of transforming society (p113).”

 He gives historical examples of militant strikes that had surges in workers joining unions. In 2011 during the Wisconsin struggles many workers joined unions.

In Australia, employers and particularly those powerful corporations that used AWAs under Work Choices still have in the FWA many legal weapons to weaken unionism.

 What about amendments to labour legislation?

President Obama promised unionists labour law reform ‘The Employee Free Choice Act’. Such a reform was to make it easier for workers to unionise and bargain. Burns argues that this is not sufficient for union revival. In any event, President Obama failed to even look like delivering.

Labour rights

In Chapter 7 Burns cites principles of labour rights.

“Labour 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. (p137) …it was labour’s agitation and the open and principled defiance of judicial orders, that won workers the right to strike and stop production.”

Unionists use key principles to argue the case - such as

“labour is not a commodity”,

“labour creates wealth”,

“the right to strike is a basic freedom that distinguishes us from the slave or bonded labour”

Regarding progressive principles from socialists and those political activists with a class analysis: these principles are returning.  But the struggle is to reform the labour relations system so these principles predominate over HRM ideology and employer power.

“Trade unionists need to envision a world where labour’s conception of striking prevails over that of management. Otherwise, labour can construct a solidarity grounded in weakness.”

International strike action

 The US government constantly ignores international labour rights from the ILO, but Burns does not take this breach up. Australia agreed to the ILO standards to protect workers’ rights to strike, but our FWA is in breach (see my posts).

With the power of giant US multi-national corporations, the unions challenge is not only to develop the ability to take strike action locally but internationally. International strike action is done but mostly limited to a day’s protest stoppages or across regions industrial action for collective agreements.

International labour solidarity has to challenge global corporate power. “The real question is whether a strike based on stopping production and international work-place solidarity could successfully combat global corporations.(p134)” Can the effective strike be organized across countries?

Where do we go from here?

 Burns in chapter 8 argues a labour movement in the US is possible if we learn lessons.

The details are instructive and the conclusion is critical - rejecting the whole labour control system is necessary.

I conclude by citing sections from Chapter 9  “Where do we go from here?” 

“After watching the labour 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 labour movement deal with the current system of labour control? How should human labour 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 labour’s future in America.”(p171)  

“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, organizational 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 in this country.”

 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 viewed only skilled workers as deserving of union representation, and they rejected attempts to organize all workers into one union.

 However, a counter current developed that argued that industrial unionism was the road forward for the labour movement. This trend industrial unionism toward 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 unionism…

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 of 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.

Historian Nelson Lichtenstein, in the conclusion of his influential history of the labour movement, ‘State of the Union’, 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 labour, 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 labour 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 labour 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 too 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 labour is bound to remain a central expression of working class protest and power.”

Remember that the strike is only a means and work resumes with greater strength for workers. Whether workers control prevails is another project.

With militant right-wing management attacking workers with the lock out, then workers have to also learn militancy by winning the strike. Such education will take years – such as the preparation in Australia in the 1960’s that defeated the then penal powers with the O’Shea national strike. We can do it again.

If working people are to regain power and transform the US and Australia, the winning strike has to be revived.

Chris White was the Secretary of the United Trades and Labor Council of SA and worked for unions for 30 years.  He now lives in Darwin. Read his daily Left Union blog on

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