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STRIKE! Why Mothballing Labor’s Key Weapon Is Wrong

When the labor movement rises again, it will not be the result of improved methods of organizing house calls, the passage of legislation, or one-day publicity strikes.  Rather, it will be because the labor movement rediscovered the power of the strike.  Not the ineffectual strike of today, but an effective strike grounded in traditional union economics, tactics, and philosophy.

For generations of trade unionists and labor analysts, the strike was considered essential to collective bargaining and, as declared by economist Albert Rees in 1962, “by far the most important source of union power.”[1]  During the heyday of American unions, from the 1940s to the 1970s, workers secured real wage gains, pensions, and employer-paid health care through hard-nosed collective bargaining backed by a powerful strike.

However, after the employer offensive in the 1980s crushed striking unions in industry after industry, trade unionists largely abandoned the strike in favor of other strategies. Thus in 2008, there were only fifteen major work stoppages, compared to 470 major strikes in 1952.[2]  In place of the strike, unions developed less effective forms of struggle, such as the corporate campaign and the one-day publicity strike.  While innovative, these tactics proved unable to inflict sufficient economic pain upon employers to substitute for a strike that halts production.

Since the mid-1990s, trade unionists have embraced organizing the unorganized as the preferred path for trade union renewal.  However, despite massive outlays of union resources, labor’s strategy of organizing the unorganized failed to reverse, or even halt, labor’s decline. Labor actually lost over 1.1 million private sector members from 1995 to 2008, with the percent of private sector workers in unions dropping from 10.[3] percent to 7.7 percent during that period.[4]

While organizing is vital, basic labor economics dictate that the strategy will not be successful unless accompanied by a powerful strike.  To attract members, unions must be able to provide economic benefits to potential members. Despite employer repression against union organizing, one must assume workers are rational economic actors who, if they believed the benefits of joining a union out-weighed the possible negative or threatened consequences, would still join unions. In an era of union weakness and decline, workers have little incentive to join unions.  But when unions are on the march and demonstrate an ability to win improvements, history shows workers flock to them.

In 2008, there were only fifteen major work stoppages, compared to 470 major strikes in 1952.

Rather than addressing the economic basis of the inability to organize, many in the labor movement assume that the failure of the strategy is due solely to employer repression.  Clearly, employer repression is a major prob-lem.  According to Cornell University’s Kate Bronfenbrenner, “employers threatened to close the plant in 57 percent of elections, discharged workers in 34 percent, and threatened to cut wages and benefits in 47 percent of elections.”[5] However, this raises some important questions:  Is the main problem that employers threaten these actions or that they have the power to make good on such threats?  Is the main problem that employers tell workers that unions are weak or is the problem that unions are weak?  Indeed, the key arguments of union-busting employers draw upon the weakness of unions under the prevailing system of labor control.

As noted by Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin in Solidarity Divided, “Proponents of the organizing model focused, for either tactical or ideological reasons, on the symptoms of the larger problem—lack of organizing and the corresponding union decline—rather than on the problem itself: the existing structure and function of U.S. trade unionism ….”[6]  Advocates of organizing the unorganized fail to explain how the strategy, even if successful, represents the key to reviving union power. Stephen Lerner, a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) staffer, advanced the most developed argument for increasing union density as labor’s key strategy. Lerner argued “since union wages and benefits won’t make them noncompetitive, non-union employers have less ‘rational’ business reasons to resist unionization if their competitors are unionized.”[7]  However, this argument fails to articulate how unions, even with greater density, will extract bargaining concessions from employers.  Nonetheless, he was correct in noting that unions must look toward industry-wide solutions, which many unions failed to pursue in recent decades.

Advocates of organizing the unorganized fail to explain how the strategy represents the key to reviving union power.

In order to achieve upward equalization of wages in an industry, a union would need:  1) to organize a large portion of the industry (union density), 2) the tools to bargain for industry-wide or pattern agreements that equalize wages in the industry (e.g., multi-employer bargaining, secondary strikes, closed shops, pattern agreements), and 3) the tools to force the employer to agree to union demands (e.g., a strike without the threat of permanent replacement; mass picketing, or other strike tools which stop production; or secondary activity, including secondary strikes and boycotts).

The union density model attacks only one of the factors necessary for union power: the percentage of employers unionized in an industry. And it is not the most important factor.  For if labor wielded the economic tools of solidarity and stopping production, the labor movement could achieve density while winning economic gains for workers. That is how the labor movement traditionally organized and it was far more effective than today’s methods.

Moreover, density among a group of employers does not equal density in a labor market. The relevant labor market is the pool of workers available to act as scabs. Except for the most highly skilled workers, persistent structural unemployment means that employers can tap a vast pool of unemployed or under-employed workers to serve as strikebreakers.  In these circumstances, even 100 percent union density in an industry couldn’t stop employers from hiring scabs to continue operations during a strike. Thus, we come to the necessity of preventing strikers from being permanently replaced by scabs and/or stopping production.

U.S. labor law outlaws the very tactics responsible for labor’s traditional success: stopping production and workplace-based solidarity.  In doing so, labor law imposes a free market, management-oriented view of striking which is diametrically opposed to traditional union theory and practice. To revive the strike, and thus trade union influence, the labor movement must break free from this legal and ideological straitjacket and utilize tactics rooted in traditional trade union economics.

According to conservative “free market” economics, a worker in a nonunion shop would go to her manager and request a raise.  If the manager believed the company could hire another worker without raising wages, the manager would refuse the wage demand.  The worker could then stay on the job at the given wage rate or quit and be replaced. The obvious weaknesses of this model have long prompted workers to form unions to increase their bargaining power.

However, today’s strike reflects the same “free market” approach to labor economics. Since striking workers can almost always be replaced by scabs, today’s strike has been whittled down to little more than a threat by the union to quit as a group.  A strike which fails to stop production represents a “free market” approach in which the price of labor is still primarily determined by the market.  Such a strike has never worked for the labor movement on a widespread basis. It should be no surprise that it does not work today.

Since striking workers can almost always be replaced by scabs, today’s strike has been whittled down to little more than a threat by the union to quit as a group.

Liberal and conservative labor economists have a better understanding of this economic reality than the modern labor movement.  In a book written during the 1980s, Power and Privilege: Labor Unions in America, conservative economist Morgan Reynolds describes the reasons that unions must stop production: “A union’s problem is painfully obvious: organized strikers must shut down the enterprise, close the market to everyone else—uncooperative workers, union members, disenchanted former strikers, and employers—in order to force wages and working conditions above free-market rates.”  In Labor Economics and Labor Relations, economists James Robinson and Roger Walker—discussing why the sit-down strike was vital to labor’s success in the 1930s—noted that “many industrial unions were engaged in organizing workers who possessed little or no identifiable skill.  As a result some technique had to be developed to effectively stop employers from replacing striking workers with unemployed laborers who were also unskilled.”[8]  By definition, a strike involves an attempt by the union to force the employer to pay more than the price of replacement workers on the open market.  Rather than ignore this economic truth, it is time for trade unionists to once again embrace it as a central component of union strategy.

For the first hundred years of its existence, the labor movement in the United States largely rejected the proposition that the employer had the right to continue production during a strike. Traditional union tactics included mass picketing to block plant gates, monopolizing union labor through the closed shop or control of training, the social ostracizing and punish-ment of scabs, and—during a brief but crucial period in the late 1930s—the sit-down strike.  Other union tactics, such as secondary strikes and boycotts, were geared toward impacting the employer’s distribution or supply chain by attacking related employers.  While traditional union tactics varied, the concept was the same: a strike must economically impact an employer.

From the earliest days of the union movement in the United States, workers also understood the need to expand beyond their immediate employers and unite with other workers in their craft to seek common standards. Whether by striking an entire industry, branding (and boycotting) employers who refused to live up to the union wage scales as unfair, or controlling access to skilled labor through union-established rules, trade unions historically sought to take wages out of competition.

Solidarity was the set of tools workers used to accomplish this wage standardization.  In particular, the labor movement developed powerful tools—such as secondary strikes and secondary boycotts—that allowed workers to act as a class when confronting employers.  This workplace-based solidarity was the heart and soul of trade unionism, and so effective that Congress outlawed it in 1947 as part of the Taft-Hartley Act.

The labor movement’s traditional industry-wide approach was rooted in simple market economics.  Workers getting a wage increase at only one or a few companies within an industry would place those employers in a non-competitive—and therefore unsustainable—position, opposed to other employers operating at lower wage levels in the same market.  Today, in contrast, labor law forces trade unions to fight lonely battles against major corporations. While this article can only touch on the problems created by the outlawing of solidarity, the inability to equalize wages in an industry continually undermines union contracts and cripples labor’s ability to deal with issues of globalization, outsourcing, double-breasting, and contingent work.

In various books and articles, labor activists have proposed elements of a successful strategy, such as promoting broad alliances through social unionism, empowering regional labor bodies, forming global unions, and creating new forms of worker organization.  However, each proposal sidesteps the key economic concerns which must be at the center of labor’s revival, and none articulates exactly how unions can regain economic power without an effective strike—the centerpiece of trade union strategy for a century and a half.

Some may contend that globalization has rendered the strike obsolete.  Certainly, in many industries, unions face great pressures from global competition and threats of transferring jobs abroad.  However, globalization cannot explain union decline in landlocked industries relatively buffered from global competition, such as trucking, construction, and meatpacking.  Nonetheless, as Kim Moody points out, “To seek the heart of power, the unions will need to go beyond the comparative safety zone of the landlocked service industries, to the multinational corporations that dominate the economy…”[9]

What’s been proven ineffective is only the “free market” perversion of the strike.

In industries facing global competition, trade unionists can either confront global corporations—armed with powerful strike tactics—or remain passive victims of economic forces.  A series of illegitimate legal restrictions, including the banning of solidarity and limitations on the subjects of bargaining, enables outsourcing and the transfer of work overseas.  Only a labor movement willing to challenge these restrictions and engage in joint workplace-based actions with unionists around the globe will be able to resist the force of global capitalism.  In a great example of the power of such an approach, longshore workers in Charleston, South Carolina combined picket-line militancy with global solidarity—which threatened to interrupt the flow of goods worldwide—to stop union-busting in their port.[10]

Others may question how the strike can be placed at the center of trade union strategy when unions typically lose strikes nowadays.  We must remember, however, that what’s been proven ineffective is only the “free maret” perversion of the strike.  For over three decades, the labor movement has accepted a model of striking, collective bargaining, and trade unionism that makes no economic sense whatsoever. Standing on a picket line and watching scabs take strikers’ jobs has never worked for the labor movement. Of course it doesn’t work today.

As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka noted when he was leader of the United Mine Workers of America in the early 1990s, “the labor laws in this country are formulated for labor to lose.  And if you play by every one of those rules, you lose every time.”[11]  To win strikes, trade unionists must recreate an effective strike which draws heavily upon traditional trade union theory and practice.  In doing so, the labor movement will have to directly confront the system of labor control—a system of laws and court rulings specifically constructed to outlaw effective union tactics.

Admittedly, breaking free from the system of labor control will not be easy.  Union officers, staff, and members operate within a given context.  A set of established laws, trade union practices, and underlying values and assumptions of labor relations constitutes the “rules of the game.”  On a day-to-day basis, contracts are negotiated, advice is given, and decisions are made within this context.  For any individual trade unionist, breaking out of this system will be difficult.  That’s why the overall context—the “rules of the game”—must be changed.

Just as sections of the labor movement coalesced around organizing in the mid-1990s, or around industrial unionism in the early 1930s, trade unionists must develop an articu-late, broad-based trend within the labor movement that prioritizes effective strike tactics and legitimizes attempts to break out of the system of labor control.  Legal scholar James Pope and his co-authors ask a perceptive question: Where would the gun-rights movement be without the Second Amendment?[12]  Like the gun lobby or other social movements, trade unionists must develop a theory of fundamental rights; not to convince judges or politicians, but to “mobilize supporters, stiffen their resolve, justify confrontational and even illegal tactics, and signal elites that workers were fighting over issues of fundamental principle….”[13]

Not everyone within the labor movement will initially embrace this new militancy.  According to accounts of strikes in recent decades, conflict frequently develops between striking local union officers and international union officials over questions of tactics, leading some in labor to conclude that we must reform unions before we can strike. However, the strike is the vital source of rank-and-file power and therefore a necessary component of trade union transformation.

Rather, the fight for union democracy must go hand in hand with the fight against the employers.  As Mike Parker and Martha Grule note in one of the few books focused on the topic, “internal democracy is key to union power.”[14]  Some advocates of the flawed union density theory, including some of the Change to Win unions, argue that efficient bargaining requires centralization of power in the hands of Washington union officials. However, this position fails to grasp the fundamental fact that the further power is from the hands of workers, the less likely unions will embrace the confrontational tactics required to revive the labor movement.

On a practical level, unions that pursue this course would be subject to lawsuits and injunctions, which some critics may assert are insurmountable obstacles. In fact, disobeying injunctions is a very traditional union principle.  As Professor William Forbath notes, “principled disobedience to injunctions was official AFL policy” for decades.[15]  After all, as Stephen Lerner has argued, “if we continue the way we are going, we may save buildings and investments but our ability to fulfill our mission of organizing, representing workers, and improving society is zero. Big treasuries don’t help if we have no members.”[16]

However, any path toward militancy must come up with creative ways to protect union assets and trade unions as institutions.  During the debate within the AFL-CIO in 2005, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) proposed that successful organizing in new industries “may require creating new unions from scratch and even adopting unconventional tactics unencumbered by the restraints of cur-rent labor law.  Existing unions have much to risk and lose through the purposeful violation of Taft-Hartley (secondary boycotts and shutdowns, sit-down strikes, etc.); organizing committees of start-up unions with no accumulated treasuries or bricks and mortar would have substantially less to lose through the smart and strategic use of unconventional approaches where appropriate.”[17] Just as employers use the corporate form to shield their actions, unions must determine the best forms of organization to protect union assets, while promoting effective strike tactics.

There is no easy path to reviving the trade union movement.  But there is a path and it is centered upon reviving the strike.  As the labor movement contemplates its next moves, it does so under conditions of increasing economic hardship for millions of American workers and their families.  The labor movement can no longer afford strategies not based on sound labor economics.  Workers need strong unions capable of improving their lives; strong unions with an ability to stand up to the power of capital and reshape America. That means collective bargaining backed by a powerful strike.  Both economics and trade union history dictate no other conclusion.

Any ideas expressed herein are solely the author’s views as an individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of any union employer, past or present.  


[1] Albert Rees, The Economics of Trade Unions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 31.
[2] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table Work Stoppages Involving 1,000 or More Workers, 1947-2009,” economic news release, available at http://www. bls.gov/news.release/wkstp.t01.htm.
[3] See e.g., http://www.unionstats.com.
[4] Kate Bronfenbrenner, No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing (Washington D.C.: Economic Policy Institute, 2009), 2.
[5] Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Fernando Gapasin, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 61.
[6] Stephen Lerner, “An Immodest Proposal: A New Architecture for the House of Labor,” New Labor Forum 12, no. 2 (Summer 2003): 9-30.
[7] Morgan O. Reynolds, Power and Privilege: Labor Unions in America (New York: Universe Books, 1984), 48.
[8] James Robinson and Roger Walker, Labor Economics and Labor Relations (New York: Ronald Press Co., 1973), 173.
[9] Kim Moody, U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition (London: Verso, 2007), 225.
[10] Suzan Erem, On the Global Waterfront: The Fight to Free the Charleston 5 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008).
[11] Richard Brisbin, Jr., A Strike Like No Other Strike: Law and Resistance during the Pittston Coal Strike of 1989-1990 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2002), 129.
[12] James Pope, Peter Kellman, and Ed Bruno, “Free Labor Today,” New Labor Forum 16, no. 2 (Spring 2007):9-18.
[13] Id.
[14] Mike Parker and Martha Gruelle, Democracy is Power: Rebuilding Unions from the Bottom Up (Detroit: Labor Notes, 1999), 14.
[15] William Forbath, Law and the Shaping of the American Labor Movement (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1991), 143.
[16] Stephen Lerner, “Reviving Unions,” Boston Review (April/May 1996), available at http://www.boston- review.net/BR21.2/lerner.html.
[17] American Federation of Teachers, “Joining Voices: Inclusive Strategies for Labor’s Renewal,” American Teacher (February 2005), available at http://www.aflcio.org/aboutus/ourfuture/upload/aft.pdf.