America’s Great Strike Waves Have Shaped the Country. We Can Unleash Another.

Erik Loomis’ “A History of America in Ten Strikes” is a powerful reminder of the need for worker militancy.

Shaun Richman October 1, 2018

Young workers wear signs supporting the September 1934 textile strike, in which nearly 500,000 workers from Rhode Island to North Carolina struck for 22 days. (Photo by Keystone-France /Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Work­ers’ pow­er is root­ed in the work we do and our occa­sion­al refusal to do it. But, until recent­ly, that refusal had become rare: Work stop­pages have declined to his­tor­i­cal­ly low lev­els over the past four decades.

Strikes are once again a strategic option for some unions—and that could become contagious.

There were 187 major strikes in 1980, involv­ing 795,000 work­ers. In 2017, there were just sev­en, with 25,000 workers.

How then do we revive the strike when so few work­ers have seen one, let alone participated?

For one, that may be chang­ing. Teach­ers in West Vir­ginia shut down all of the state’s pub­lic schools for nine days in Feb­ru­ary and March, win­ning a 5 per­cent pay increase, stop­ping pro­posed health­care cuts, and inspir­ing statewide teacher walk­outs in four more states and Puer­to Rico. Four­teen thou­sand AT&T tech­ni­cians then walked off in May, fol­lowed by strikes by thou­sands of oth­er telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions work­ers against Fron­tier in Vir­ginia and Spec­trum in New York. There are ongo­ing one-day strikes staged by the Fight for $15, and pris­on­ers across the coun­try waged a 19-day strike for bet­ter con­di­tions and against slave wages this past sum­mer. As we go to press, 6,000 Chica­go hotel work­ers are stag­ing the industry’s first city­wide strike in a century.

If the cur­rent pace con­tin­ues, 2018 will see the largest num­ber of strikes by U.S. work­ers in the 21st cen­tu­ry. Strikes are once again a strate­gic option for some unions — and that could become contagious.

Still, this is not what a his­to­ri­an would call a strike wave” — yet. Strike waves involve hun­dreds of thou­sands of work­ers across thou­sands of work­places. In his clas­sic text, Strike!, Jere­my Brech­er explains that peri­ods of mass strike — of which there have been only six or sev­en in our nation’s his­to­ry — go beyond wage-and-hour demands and often chal­lenge cap­i­tal­ist deci­sion-mak­ing author­i­ty. That in turn threat­ens the fun­da­men­tal rules of capitalism.

A time­ly book by pro­fes­sor and blog­ger Erik Loomis, A His­to­ry of Amer­i­ca in Ten Strikes, details strike waves of pre­vi­ous eras, recast­ing U.S. his­to­ry as a con­tin­u­um of work­er protest. Dri­ving both inspi­ra­tion and lessons from this his­to­ry is essen­tial to turn­ing the cur­rent upswelling of strikes in a wave.

Take the gen­er­al strike of slaves dur­ing the Civ­il War, recount­ed by Loomis in chap­ter two. As soon as the Con­fed­er­ate Army mobi­lized, as many slaves as were able escaped to Union lines to offer sup­port. Those who remained behind stopped work­ing for their absent mas­ters and turned plan­ta­tions toward food pro­duc­tion for their own needs. This self-eman­ci­pa­tion is a his­tor­i­cal frame­work first sug­gest­ed by W.E.B. Dubois and only recent­ly embraced by a new gen­er­a­tion of his­to­ri­ans. (Brech­er, for exam­ple, did not include it in Strike!) It puts the human agency of work­ers who gained their free­dom front and cen­ter. Sud­den­ly revealed is the great­est strike wave in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, hid­ing in plain sight!

The most sto­ried strike wave is the surge of sit-down strikes of the 1930s that com­pelled the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to inter­vene with new labor laws that made unions a fact of eco­nom­ic life.

But even that win con­tained the seeds for our cur­rent age of inequal­i­ty. In the 1938 Mack­ay v. NLRB Supreme Court deci­sion uphold­ing the con­sti­tu­tion­al­i­ty of the new legal pro­tec­tions for strik­ers, the Court breezi­ly hol­lowed out that same right. If an employ­er had not oth­er­wise bro­ken the law, the Court invent­ed the right to pro­tect and con­tin­ue his busi­ness [while work­ers are on strike] by sup­ply­ing places left vacant by strik­ers” and to put scabs ahead of the line for jobs when the strike is over.

Under the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion, cor­po­ra­tions weaponized the Mack­ay Doc­trine. The era’s most noto­ri­ous strike may be the 1981 air traf­fic con­trollers strike (which Loomis cov­ers), but its impor­tance was most­ly sym­bol­ic — Reagan’s sig­nal to cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca that it was game on for union-bust­ing. It was the 1983 Steel­work­ers’ strike at the Phelps-Dodge cop­per mine in Ari­zona that actu­al­ly cre­at­ed the mod­ern blue­print for cor­po­rate union-bust­ing, set­ting the stage for our cur­rent slide in work stop­pages. The com­pa­ny bar­gained the Steel­work­ers to impasse over pay cuts, reduced ben­e­fits and weak­ened job secu­ri­ty, basi­cal­ly forc­ing them out. Phelps-Dodge got the Nation­al Guard to vio­lent­ly remove the strik­ers from its mine and then bused in scabs from out of state. When enough time had tran­spired, the scabs vot­ed to legal­ly decer­ti­fy the union.

This shred­ding of con­tracts to dare unions out on eco­nom­ic strikes remains the basic union-bust­ing play­book. This year’s Spec­trum strike in New York City, for exam­ple, has its ori­gins in March 2017 when the com­pa­ny tore up the IBEW con­tract it inher­it­ed from the pur­chase of anoth­er cable company.

Work­ers’ right to strike needs to include the right to return to work after­ward. That means chal­leng­ing the Mack­ay doc­trine, start­ing with demand­ing that the labor board enforce the actu­al stan­dard — that the deci­sion to per­ma­nent­ly replace strik­ing work­ers can­not be moti­vat­ed by anti-union ani­mus and must be nec­es­sary to pro­tect and con­tin­ue” busi­ness. A $64 bil­lion cor­po­ra­tion that shred­ded its work­ers’ col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment fails both tests.

The Rea­gan and H.W. Bush labor boards took a dive and nev­er seri­ous­ly inves­ti­gat­ed cor­po­ra­tions’ union-bust­ing motives and finan­cial bot­tom lines, which should have deter­mined whether each instance of per­ma­nent­ly replac­ing strik­ing work­ers was just. Unions haven’t pressed for Demo­c­rat-appoint­ed labor boards to revis­it the rules. Any time that an employ­er adver­tis­es for scabs, the union should file an unfair labor prac­tice, demand­ing that the employ­er prove the eco­nom­ic neces­si­ty of hir­ing per­ma­nent replacements.

Unions should start doing so now, antic­i­pat­ing the Trump labor board will dis­miss every com­plaint. We must make this a con­tro­ver­sy so the next Demo­c­ra­t­ic labor board knows it must restore work­ers’ right to strike and then return to their jobs.

We have to use these strikes to shore up the very pow­er to strike. Only that will ensure strikes aren’t rel­e­gat­ed to the his­to­ry books.

Shaun Rich­man is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer and the Pro­gram Direc­tor of the Har­ry Van Ars­dale Jr. School of Labor Stud­ies at SUNY Empire State Col­lege. His Twit­ter han­dle is @Ess_Dog.
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