Re: Strike Wave in the Private Sector?
There Is No Strike Wave in the Private Sector
BY JOE BURNS
The teachers' strikes of the past year and a half have been an inspiration. But we haven't seen a revitalization of successful worker militancy where it's desperately needed: in the private sector.
BASED ON a Bureau of Labor Statistics report showing that the number of striking workers is the highest since 1986, many have celebrated the return of the strike. With the wave of teachers' strikes over the past year, the successful string of hotel worker strikes by Unite Here, and most recently the Shop & Stop grocery workers' strike in New England, there are certainly many reasons to be hopeful.
Labor activists are by nature optimists. We must be — otherwise, how do you inspire workers to take action and move forward? Struggle feeds upon struggle, and the notion that striking is a good thing helps spur others to action, as it did in Arizona and Oklahoma after the West Virginia teachers' strike. So, talking about and promoting strikes is a good thing.
But optimism can't be a substitute for sober analysis. Truly reviving the strike is going to take some radical changes to labor strategy, given the depth of labor's crisis. It's important to take a close look at the numbers. And the numbers show that there was a substantial teacher strike wave accompanied by a modest strike activity in the private sector.
The key number cited by many trumpeting the new strike wave is that the number of individuals who went on strike last year is the highest since 1986. In 2017, there were 485,000 individual striking, a number not exceeded since the 533,000 strikers in 1986. That is an important number that shows something significant is afoot. By one estimate, last year 5 percent of US teachers participated in strike activity. This is one of the most important development in recent years, as detailed in Eric Blanc's excellent book Red State Revolt.
It does not, however, herald a generalized return of strike activity. Rather what we see is primarily a teacher strike wave combined with short duration strikes in the University of California system.
Of the 485,000 individual strikers last year 457,200 were teachers and other public employees. Of this, the vast majority of individual strikers were teachers in the West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Colorado. The other major group public employee group was a two-day strike of service workers at the University of California.
Isolating the private sector strike activity, we find nothing remarkable by standards of recent years. Almost 28,000 private sector employees struck or were locked out in nine major disputes in 2018. The most high-profile and largest numbers included strikes by hotel workers, members of Unite Here. These strikes are the culmination of years of strategic activity to line up local hotel contracts to take on giant hotel chains, the sort of strategic vision that is sorely lacking in most unions.
Comparing these numbers to historical averages, it is clear we have a long way to go in reviving the strike. In the 1980s, there were an average of eighty-six major disputes per year. In 1986, there were 11,000,000 lost workdays. And these numbers were down from the hundreds of major strikes per year in the 1950s and 1960s, representing tens of millions of lost workdays.
Simply put, there is no strike wave in the private sector.
State of the Strike in the Private Sector
You might ask, so what? It's good to celebrate that more individual workers struck last year than in any year since 1986.
Don't get me wrong. When I was writing Reviving the Strike over a decade ago, few in labor looked to the strike as the key ingredient in labor's revival. So the fact that more and more folks in labor are striking is a good thing.
The problem is that declaring the strike revived understates the depth of labor's crisis as well as the steps necessary to escape it. Reviving the strike is central. But declaring the strike revived ignores the conditions that gave rise to its decline as well as the roadblocks to effective strike activity. Most importantly, it dramatically underestimates the radical changes in the labor movement necessary to truly revive strike activity.
Many of the labor disputes cited by the BLS in fact point to the continued weakness of strike activity. The lockout of 1,200 Steelworker union members at National Grid, the prolonged strike at Charter Communications / Spectrum in New York, and the ongoing contract dispute at AT&T all point to continued difficulty for unions in the private sector.
None of this is to spread doom and gloom, but merely to be real: striking in the private sector remains difficult.
Not Simply a Question of Willpower
It is going to take more than willpower to revive the strike. When I was starting in the labor movement in the 1980s, heroic battles raged in almost every industry. Greyhound workers struck twice in the 1980s, Western mine workers waged a heroic battle at Phelps Dodge, and other groups including meat packers, airline workers, and paper workers heroically fought back against management's attempts to bust their unions. Workers in virtually every industry took a stand. These were prolonged, bitter fights to the death. But we lost more than we won in this period, including many, many bitter defeats.
Workers did not quit striking because they did not need or want to. Striking was abandoned because the current regime is set up for labor to fail. Employers are allowed to legally permanently replace striking workers, workplace-based solidarity is largely outlawed, and employers easily can get injunctions against mass picketing.
In almost thirty years of labor activism, I have found that getting a group of workers to fight has never been the problem. The real question for folks risking their jobs, their pay, and their health care is whether there is a real strategy to win. It is not a willingness to fight that's the problem, but a lack of tools to win under the current regime.
Truly reviving the strike in the private sector will require radical action of a type not seen in the labor movement for decades, involving a wholesale repudiation of existing labor law, a rejection of employer property rights, and a commitment to organize the key sectors of the economy through militant tactics.
This gigantic task will not likely be done by isolated groups of workers but will require the support of national unions. Engaging in the type of militancy needed will require restructuring unions, figure out ways to protect union assets, and a type of grassroots militancy unknown to most unions. None of these issues are even on the radar for the labor movement.
Clearly, the teachers' strikes are pointing us in the right direction. Rather than pretend the strike is back, let's have the far more difficult discussion of how do we apply the lessons of the red state revolt to the private sector. The ingredients are all there: member-driven mass mobilization, courage and solidarity, a willingness to violate labor law, and a sharp class stand that draws lines between the people and the establishment that does not serve our needs. So, let's celebrate the strikes that did occur, and start strategizing for those that are about to.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joe Burns is a veteran union negotiator and labor lawyer and the author of Strike Back and Reviving the Strike.
Kevin Lindemann and Cathy Campo wrote
This article, with its emphasis on reviving the strike, especially in the "private sector," gets us not one flea-hop closer to any resolution of the barriers to working class organization. Referring to the "private sector" as some kind of monolithic entity is one problem. There are virtually countless divisions within private sector employment and moreover within the working class generally, including the workers whose labor cannot be shipped offshore; and there's the obvious, but completely overlooked in this article, move of capital to cut costs by shipping more and more production jobs to low-wage areas. And what's also blindingly obvious is that this cries out for worker organizing and solidarity globally, not just locally, and an end to pitting national divisions of labor against each other. As far as the author gets is: "isolated groups of workers...will require the support of national unions."
There's the long-established, structurally entrenched practice of labor leadership aligning with capital, behind workers' backs and against workers' interests; and as well, the virtually undisguised state support of capital against labor, through repressive labor legislation and stacked mediating bodies set up by government.
There's the fact that almost all areas of labor are increasingly subject to automation, artificial intelligence, digitation, unforeseen permutations and spin-offs leading to further ways capital can displace human labor, if and when the cost of labor is perceived to be greater than the cost of the dead labor/constant capital which can replace it. There's the threat that this furthers invidious distinctions among fully-employed, partially employed and unemployed workers, and the threat of increase in the reserve army of labor, adding to the effectiveness with which wages are kept below subsistence, and augmentation of the pool from which labor is easily replaced.
There is the undoubted fact that workers in the privileged regions of the world, and within national boundaries, are separated by jealously guarded distinctions from workers in lower-wage areas. This is reinforced by nationalism, racism, anti-immigrant bias, invidious job description and feelings of cultural superiority. It would seem, at least for now with worker power decimated, as if the only discernible way out is through a growing downward spiral of wages in dominant privileged areas toward global wage equalization.
There's the growing recognition by capital of its global positioning, and of its need for closer, more sophisticated, more authoritarian combination among segments of world-wide capital - facilitated through international organizations such as the IMF, World Bank, WTO, ILO, NAFTA, CAFTA, EU, G7 and G20, instrumentalized UN organizations, Davos, Bilderberg, Trilateral Commission, World Economic Forum.
It does not so much as mention any of these impediments to worker organization, let alone any discussion of the blindingly obvious need to kick over the whole vicious, treacherous, dangerously destructive system of capital accumulation.
One thing going for us, which calls for a wholly expanded discussion pro and con, is the diversifying global supply chain, where work stoppage in any sector of these channels can impede over-all profitable production in multiple areas. Another is the shrinking opportunities for profitable return on productive capital entailed in the dwindling market for commodities and services, and the growing spread of cheapened machinery, as an increasingly unemployed and inadequately employed world population can no longer buy these commodities.
There's much more wrong with this piece, but the foregoing is a taste of the woeful, sophomoric level of analysis produced here.
Kind of appears that this article typifies the orientation of Jacobin. Who vets selection and quality, and who is presently on the board?
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