Strikes Are Stronger Than Laws
There’s a simple reason why the government can’t win unless you let it.
When people get frustrated and petulant, they lash out. So too do governments. When labor unions are looking a little too powerful, governments often throw tantrums, like spoiled children momentarily denied their lollipops. The natural response of childish governments is to try to pass laws to deny workers the ability to strike, taking away their most powerful weapon. It is important, in the midst of these threats, to keep in mind a simple fact: Strikes are stronger than laws.
As we speak, the UK is experiencing its most momentous strike wave since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister in the 1980s. Nurses, transit workers, postal workers, and a slew of other public employees have walked out of work in the past month, and the actions show no sign of letting up. These strikes make people yell at the government, which is the point. Now the government is so mad! Argh! As a result, prime minister Rishi Sunak said that he plans to push for legislation that would outlaw such strikes in what he deems vital sectors — healthcare, schools, railways, border security and elsewhere. His bill would have workers fired and unions sued if they failed to maintain a “minimum level of service,” which is another way of saying that strikes would be impossible.
This sort of spasm of governmental overreach is not uncommon. Strikes are an act of power totally outside the control of politicians, and therefore can make political officials go a little haywire. Just a few months ago in Canada, the premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, made a similar proposal to criminalize strikes and impose a contract on strike teachers, only to back down in the face of credible threats of a general strike. U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision in November to force a contract on America’s railway workers, though not dependent on a new piece of legislation, was a similarly brazen act of government denial of the right of working people to decide whether or not a contract offer is good enough for them.
It takes a lot of courage to go on strike even in the best of circumstances. To hear the most powerful elected officials in your country threaten to outlaw your strike and cause you to lose your job and see your union bankrupted can be intimidating. But a proper understanding of the power dynamics at play in these circumstances should make workers feel better. Think about the government’s position in these cases: They are scared of the disruption in services that happen as a result of strikes. They want to keep these public services up and running, because they know that it reflects badly on them if things aren’t functioning. Above all, they don’t want the public yelling at them because their stupid government isn’t providing the services that it’s supposed to provide. Setting aside the underlying causes of these strikes — poor working conditions, which are the direct responsibility of the stupid government itself — the primary goal of panic-stricken governments during strike waves is just to get all the workers working again, as fast as possible.
Now, consider the method they employ to achieve this goal: They propose to make the strikes illegal. They propose terrifying penalties if the strikes continue. Okay. Let’s play this out. Suppose the striking workers reasonably say “fuck off” to a government that tries to bully them back to work, rather than solving the actual problems that made the workers upset enough to strike in the first place. Suppose they defy these laws and carry on with illegal strikes. Suppose the government responds as promised, by firing all the striking workers. Then what? The government then finds itself less able to restore services than it was before. It will take even more time to hire and train thousands of new workers than it would have taken to settle the strike at the bargaining table. The public will be more outraged at the greater chaos and the government will get more unpopular as a result. The very goal of passing laws against strikes, in other words, is unlikely to be achieved by passing laws against strikes.
It’s a bluff! Outlawing a strike is like telling a roomful of people that if they don’t become your friends, you will beat them up. It is a tactic that is fundamentally incompatible with its goal. On top of that, the bigger a strike wave is, the more impervious it is to this sort of government oppression. Ronald Reagan could flex his muscles by firing 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, but if they had been accompanied by striking pilots and TSA agents and flight attendants, he could not have fired them all. The idea of a government winning a labor battle by firing all of its teachers or nurses or people qualified to operate railroads is patently absurd. It cannot happen. The very act would represent the ultimate failure of the government itself. A president might as well set off a nuclear bomb in the capital and stand on top of the rubble while declaring that all problems have been solved.
None of this means that strikes are easy. But it does reveal the basic truth of the labor movement’s oldest insight: Solidarity is power. Attempts to break strikes by passing laws can only succeed if they scare workers enough to get them to give up. “Divide and conquer” is the only thing that these incompetent, infantile politicians can hope for. As long as workers stick together, they will eventually be able to force concessions from the government, sure as hell.
It doesn’t matter if strikes are illegal. The decision to strike should be made on the basis of what is necessary to achieve a job that doesn’t make you miserable and a life that is worth living. Strikes carry their own power — they don’t ask for permission to be powerful. Organized labor should resolve, as the unions of Ontario did, to respond to attempts to take away the right to strike with bigger strikes. If you are a worker pulled into one of these strikes, have faith. Politicians can try to outlaw rain if they want, but the clouds aren’t listening.
Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.