How do you get politicians living off legalized bribery to criminalize bribery? How do you persuade the corporate media to report on the interests of flesh-and-blood, non-corporate people? How do you take over a political party when the only other one allowed to compete is worse? These are not koans, but actual problems with a single solution.
It might seem like there are a million solutions: pass state-level clean election laws, build independent media, build a new party, etc. But the fundamental answer is that when the deck is stacked against you, you insist on a new deck. Power, as Frederick Douglas told us, concedes nothing without a demand. We cannot legislate our way out of plutocracy. Instead, we the people must seize power.
The problem of seizing power for non-billionaires is the problem of the dying labor movement. To many, this looks like an unsolvable riddle as well. How do you pass the Employee Free Choice Act to legalize unionizing when you have no aggressive unions willing to pressure Congress to do so? And if Congress works for corporate masters, do we need to apply the pressure there instead? But making a scene in a corporate lobby doesn’t hurt a corporation in an era of shamelessness, and we can’t unelect CEOs.
What to do?
Joe Burns has an answer in his new book “Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America.” Burns argues that for the last 30 years, since 1980, the labor movement has sought ways to succeed without employing the fundamental tool required, and that employing that tool is a choice available to the labor movement and to all workers immediately without waiting for anyone’s approval.
From 1930 to 1980, unions created ever improving lives for millions of workers, improving our economy and our politics in the process. And they did it by striking. They would have found the idea of unions that did not strike unimaginable. Congress and the courts have stripped away unions’ power to effectively strike, but so has corporatist ideology. When the anti-union assault intensified in the 1980s, and ever since, the labor movement has responded in a completely new and completely hopeless manner. Rather than halting production, unions set up picket lines that merely watched scabs replace union workers. And when unions are able to negotiate contracts, they no longer seek to establish standardized wages for a whole industry, but negotiate a variety of standards even at a single corporation.
To survive and succeed, Burns argues, unions must use strikes to halt production and impose their demands; and those demands must be industry-wide. Unions must use secondary or solidarity strikes and boycotts in support of other striking workers. A solidarity boycott is far more effective than the extremely difficult consumer boycotts that well-meaning atomized citizens are always dreaming about. Compelling a store to stop selling a particular product is far easier than persuading consumers to not buy that product.
The central tool that must be revived is the strike that halts production and imposes a cost on an employer. A strike is not a public relations stunt, but a tool for shifting power from a few people to a great many. The era of the death of labor, the era we have been living in, is the era of the scab or replacement worker. Scabs were uncommon in the 1950s, spotted here and there in the 1960s and 1970s, and widespread from the 1980s forward.
In the absence of understanding the need to truly strike, the labor movement has tried everything else for the past 30 years: pretend strikes for publicity, working to the rule (slowing down in every permitted way), corporate campaigns pressuring employers from various angles, social unionism and coalition building outside of the house of labor, living wage campaigns, and organizing for the sake of organizing. These approaches have all had some defensive successes, but they all appear powerless to turn the ship around.
“[T]he idea that the labor movement can resolve its crisis simply by adding new members — without a powerful strike in place,” writes Burns, “actually constitutes one of the greatest theoretical impediments to union revival.” From 1995 to 2008, with unions focused on organizing the unorganized, the U.S. labor movement shrank from 9.4 million to 8.2 million members. The Service Employee International Union (SEIU)’s famous organizing success is in large part the takeover of other unions, that is of people already unionized, and in large part the bribing of politicians (through “campaign contributions” and other pressure) to allow the organizing of public home health-care workers. What’s left of the labor movement is, in fact, so concentrated in the public sphere, that unionized workers are being effectively attacked as living off the hard-earned pay of private tax-payers.
The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), so much a part of candidate Obama’s campaign, and now long forgotten, might not fix anything if passed, in Burns’ analysis. To succeed, the labor movement needs the sort of exponential growth it has had at certain moments in the past. Easier organizing alone would not persuade enough workers that joining a union is good for them. But persuading them that joining a union holds immediate advantages for them would revive labor with or without EFCA. And EFCA might make things worse. EFCA tries to legislate the right to quickly create new contracts, to avoid employer stalling. But it does this by subjecting workers to the decisions of arbitrators. Rather than empowering a class of arbitrators, the labor movement we had until 30 years ago would have considered the obvious solution to be empowering workers to compel the creation of contracts through the power of the production-halting strike.
Striking does not require a union or majority support but is itself a tool of organizing and radicalizing, with a minority of leaders moving others to join in what they would not choose to do alone. Solidarity is the process as well as the product of a labor movement. And it is by building strikes with the power to halt entire sectors of the economy, not through bribes and emails and marches, that ordinary people gain power over their so-called representatives in government. “Imagine telling Samuel Gompers or Mother Jones or the Reuther brothers or Jimmy Hoffa that trade unions could exist without a strike. However, in the name of pragmatism,” Burns writes, “the ‘progressive’ trade unionists of today have fit themselves into a decaying structure. On a deeper level, they have abandoned the goal of creating the type of labor movement capable of transforming society.”
To turn this around, Burns suggests, we will have to change the way we think about workplaces. According to our courts, a man or woman can work for decades in a business and nonetheless have no legal interest in it, the legal interest belonging entirely to the employer. The employer can move the business to another country without violating a labor contract. The employer can sell out to another employer and eliminate a labor contract in the process. The employer can break a strike with scabs. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 might have looked good on paper, but its interpretation by courts and restriction by other legislation — notably the Taft Hartley Act of 1947 — have made clear its weaknesses. Labor has no choice left, Burns argues, but to repeal the NLRA by noncompliance.
There are recent examples to build on: the 1986 United Food and Commercial Workers Local P9 strike against Hormel in Austin, Minnesota; the 1989 Pittson Strike in West Virginia, in which workers used sit-ins and road blocking, as well as vandalism, to successfully resist concession demands; the 1995 lockout of workers at A.E. Staley and Company in Decatur, Illinois; the 2000 campaign to free the Charleston 5 in which a global strike in ports was organized to successfully oppose the prosecution of five picketers in South Carolina; the 2008 takeover of Republic Windows and Doors, in which workers in Chicago compelled an employer to pay them severance; and the 2011 pushback against union busting in Madison, Wisconsin.
The specific approaches used in a newly striking and solidarity-building labor movement will be invented as needed and vary with the circumstances. Burns proposes creating new start-up unions without the financial assets that are placed at risk in this country by exercising the international and human right to strike. Strike funds could be transferred to such “new unions created to protect old unions.” Employers have manipulated the law, creating new entities for every purpose under the sun. Labor needs to become equally aggressive about finding the way to create its vision of a just society.
But one comment in Burns’ book will lead away from the crucial path he has pointed out. Burns writes: “In many ways, violent resistance was the only means available to unions of the 1930s to stop production, particularly in the face of aggressive management tactics.” We have 80 years of additional global experience that demonstrates the dangerous falsehood of this claim. Nonviolent tactics (which will, of course, often be met with violence from the other side) are more likely to succeed and to do so at less cost, building greater solidarity in the process.