Struck Out

Nearly 3 million workers went on strike in the United States in 1952. In 2008, fewer than 100,000 did. In his new book, Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America, veteran union negotiator Joe Burns writes that American strikes have changed from "a means to bring economic pressure to bear" to "a weak form of moral witness." He argues that the decline in the frequency and efficacy of strikes is a cause, not a consequence, of the decline of the American labor movement. The Prospect spoke with Burns about what's changed, who's responsible, and what labor should do about it.

Is the strike sick?

Strikes today are not very effective. The reason is that over the last 75 years, employers have been effective at pressing courts and Congress to outlaw effective strike tactics.

What kinds of tactics?

Between the 1930s and the 1970s, trade unions had a powerful form of strike which transformed the wage structure of entire industries. It employed two key factors. The first was solidarity: workers were able to strike a whole industry at once, and they could use secondary strikes and boycotts against related employers.

Second, a strike needed to stop production. Trade unionists believed that they had the right to engage in mass picketing to block plant gates, and to do sit-down strikes, where they refused to leave their work area. All these tactics were so effective that they were outlawed. Today, the pain is typically one-sided: The employer continues production, and the only ones suffering are the workers on strike. And employers can permanently replace workers, essentially firing them for striking.

Your book argues that the labor movement has erred in shifting its focus from making it easier for workers to strike to making it easier for them to win union recognition. Why?

Since the mid-'90s, many unions put tremendous resources into trying to convince workers to organize unions. And it made sense, because we need to get more workers into the union movement. But over that time, the unionization rate has declined, because it's hard to get workers to join a weak and declining labor movement.

In order to get workers to take all the risks that are involved in forming a union, you have to be able to show that there's a chance of winning a better life. And without a powerful production-halting strike, we haven't been able to do that.

Where striking workers are fighting multinational corporations that bring in the vast majority of their profits elsewhere, how effective could halting production at their own worksite be, as compared to attacking the company's global sales?

Just stopping production at one worksite of a large multinational corporation isn't effective, and it never has been. The constitutions of unions in the early 1900s said that if one part of the company goes on strike, workers needed to strike the entire company. Solidarity and stopping production need to go hand in hand. What we need is to get to a type of worker organization where we're striking these massive corporations all over at once, or entire industries all at once. In conjunction with that, we should use all of our other tactics.

Your book calls for unions to "repeal" labor law "through non-compliance," and to look to the examples of the National Rifle Association and civil-rights movement. What lessons should labor take from them?

The NRA believes that they have an inalienable right to bear arms and that government entities which infringe on those rights are not only wrong but violating their fundamental rights. The 1960s civil-rights movement held a widespread belief that the racist laws existing in this country were illegitimate, and therefore citizens had the right to engage in civil disobedience. Historically, the labor movement used to believe that labor-law restrictions were illegitimate also and that they violated workers' fundamental rights -- and because of that they engaged in strikes and activities that pushed beyond those laws. Whereas now there's this idea, even among progressive trade unionists, that unions should remain within the bounds of the law.

In the Pittstown Coal strike in the 1990s, which was led by Richard Trumka, who now heads the AFL-CIO, workers engaged in a fairly widespread campaign of civil disobedience in West Virginia: They sat down on highways, they impeded deliveries to plants, and 98 mineworkers and a minister took over a plant for three days. Finally, it became enough of a crisis that they were able to win.

How has the decline of strikes affected American culture and politics?

When unions were able to operate on a broader scale, they could impact the politics and economy of the entire nation. In 1946, you saw a great strike wave where workers at thousands of employers struck at the same time for basically the same set of demands and fueled a broad class-consciousness in society. We saw a real taste of that this year in Madison where what began as a narrow dispute became a battle about the nature of democracy and what's happening to working people. When the labor movement's at our best, that's what you see.

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