Many, if not most, in the labor movement were deeply disappointed with the results of the Wisconsin uprising, from which the anti-labor establishment has emerged almost entirely victorious. A few months after the uprising began, Joe Burns, a labor lawyer and former union president, published Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America, to critical acclaim. In the wake of that struggle in which strike tactics were shied away from, the book argues that the only way to reverse four decades of labor’s decline is by bringing back the militant tactics that built the labor movement to begin with — notably, industry-wide strikes with disregard for unjust labor laws.
As Waging Nonviolence’s new “Wildcat Winter” series indicates, we seem to be at the precipice of a revival like the one Burns called for. Chicago teachers struck in September, followed by nearly half a dozen teachers’ strikes in suburban Chicago, the Walmart strikes up and down the supply chain, the just-settled longshore clerks’ strike on the West Coast, and now the striking fast food workers in New York City. I talked with Joe to hear from him on this ongoing Wildcat Winter.
In the past few months, we seem to have seen an upsurge in successful strikes. What is the significance of this?
Clearly we’ve seen a change in the past couple of months in terms of strike activity increasing. In labor history, workers tend to strike in waves, because the power of example leads other workers to strike. First, with public employees and teachers, the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike. They had overall a very successful outcome. So other teachers unions have decided to strike. Second, you’ve seen other places where workers are striking to defend themselves, with very aggressive employers demanding concessions. In California, the ILWU is using a strike to defend decades of gains made by workers. The third thing — and this is a real shift — is the use of the strike as an organizing tool. That’s a big change over what has been happening over the past couple of decades. Fast food and Walmart workers are using the strike as both a tool of organizing and demanding improvements from employers.
In the past new union organizing has been seen as slowly building on one-on-one discussions, and this is really different because if you look at the history, when we’ve made real gains it’s been when we’ve shifted to a strike-based model.
How do you think the wave can be expanded?
It’s going to have to be expanded, but it’s going to be difficult because the rules of the game are so tilted in favor of employers. Employers have a lot of advantages under the system of labor law. What organizers will run up against is that we’re going to have to directly confront what I call the system of labor control — the set of labor laws that have been put into place to make it difficult to win strikes. For now organizers have been embracing this tactic, so we’ll see where it takes us.
To take a historical example: In the 1960s, millions of public workers joined trade unions, and they did it through strikes. Starting with the New York teachers, we saw this incredible strike wave, and that’s really how public workers won their unions. This was the power of example, unions refusing to obey unjust labor laws, and it was a grassroots rebellion. And, as I discuss in Reviving the Strike, it was a very similar pattern in the 1930s.
Many of these recent strikes, especially with the fast food and Walmart workers, occurred among what many theorists of labor have labeled the “precariat” — that is, people doing types of work that tend to have low job security and high turnover, and which are often part-time and subcontracted. For many years, unions avoided organizing these kinds of workers due to the difficulties of organizing such a disparate workforce. How do you see victories as possible with these new tactics?
A couple points. One is that, in a lot of industries in the 1930s, the organizational work was very precarious, and it became one of the main demands of the unions to make jobs permanent, with job security, and full-time. This was something they were able to change through struggle. If you look at longshore workers in the 1930s, you had to be called for work. Auto work was very intermittent and high-turnover. Trucking was the same thing. What unions did is they disregarded the rules that employers had set up and as a result made major gains. For the Teamsters it was a question of whether you had a union card, not whether you were an employee or contractor. That’s the key part of it — it could be changed.
If you jump forward to today, the same thing holds true. Employers are able to use their advantages under labor law to structure work in a particular fashion, and it’s the responsibility of unions to fight against this.
Could I sum that up like this: Unions need to organize work, not employees?
The Justice for Janitors campaign is the best example of this. SEIU confronted an industry that had subcontracting, and if you started to organize they would just hire another contractor. But they took the entire industry on — and that’s what you see with groups like warehouse workers and more geographic organizing of the restaurant workers in New York City — rather than the traditional shop-by-shop organizing that has been foisted upon unions by traditional labor law.
About 10 years ago, activist and scholar Dan Clawson wrote The Next Upsurge, which argued that labor movements emerge as part of broader surges. Do you see what’s happening now as potentially the precipice of the type of movements we saw among workers in the private sector in the 1930s?
I think it could be the beginning of one. Certainly the conditions are there, and there’s an understanding among unions and organizers that how they do things needs to change. That’s really been the key to the recent breakthroughs: new kinds of organizing.
We can’t push this forward, however, without confronting the system of labor control. Labor laws are so stacked in favor of employers that it doesn’t necessarily matter how creative we are, we’re always going to come up against the limits of a rigged system. If we’re going to move forward we have to figure out both the necessity and the ways of being able to violate these unjust labor laws. If we look at labor history, that was clearly a necessity both in the 1930s and the 1960s, the two greatest upsurges of the last century.
In southern Europe and in South America, arguably the two places in the “West” where the labor movement is the most vibrant, there seems to be a much greater cognizance among working people that they are locked in a struggle with capitalism. Do you think that that has to be replicated here in the United States?
Successful trade unionism necessarily requires confronting capitalism. The reason that’s the case is because effective unionism challenges the ability of capital to operate. You’re basically interfering with the sale of human labor, which is the key component of capitalism. That’s what I talk about in my book; even if we think about conservative American Federation of Labor officials of 100 years ago, their underlying philosophy of human labor as not being a commodity was actually quite radical. What’s happened over the last 60 to 70 years in the labor movement is that we’ve embraced fairly conservative ideas which allow us to have unionism but only within a framework that respects and allows the ability for capital to operate freely.
What do you think needs to come next?
It’s very hopeful that we’ve seen a turn in the labor movement back toward the strike and back toward grassroots activism and workplace-based activism. We’ve had a lot of other ideas that we’ve tried in the last 20 years, but returning to a very traditional and proven strategy is really our only hope.
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Great interview, thanks for this. I’m reminded of the piece that George Lakey wrote this past summer about how the Wisconsin uprising was co-opted from a class struggle into a party political struggle: http://dev2.wagingnonviolence.org/2012/06/the-score-in-wisconsin-1-percent-3-99-percent-1/. I’m hoping that’s not the case in Michigan after the recent “right to work” laws passing there, that organizers don’t allow their energies to flow into institutional/political channels. Because as Burns points out, the institutions, electoral politics, and the labor laws are rigged against workers in the first place. After all, the 99 percent never got anywhere playing by the 1 percent’s rules.
In his book, Joe Burns argues that the way to reverse the downward slide of unionization and the labor movement is by returning to the the tactics of a production-halting strike. He explains that over the past sixty years, laws have been passed which favor Capital, or in other words, the business owners. He fails to acknowledge that these laws were passed when Labor was at it’s pinnacle of political power in the United States. That labor failed to prevent or overturn laws which were harmful to the long-term survival of the Labor movement gives us a hint that perhaps there is some fundamental error in Union Labor Theory.
From the beginning of the labor movement in this country, Unions have relied on threats, coercion, and violence to achieve their goals. Look at the cover of the book; the main graphic features a clenched fist. They use these tactics against “their enemies” (employers), and they also use these tactics to keep their own members in line. They invented the “closed shop”, where you have to join the union in order to work for an employer. This guaranteed the Unions survival, but the cost was an erosion of commitment within the Union membership. No one likes to be forced to do anything. Force can only ever lead to resentment.
Unions have spent the past century mainly fighting with Capital over money. What they should have been fighting for is ownership; a share of the businesses in which their members work for. Small, incremental gains in ownership, through stock transfer or an ESOP, decade after decade, would have eventually made the workers collectively equal to the other shareholders of the businesses.
But the Unions didn’t really want that. What they wanted is exactly what they achieved: Perpetual WAR between workers and Capital. That workers eventually grew weary of being conscripted soldiers in a never ending ideological war is hardly surprising.
Unions actually work against class struggle. Joe Burns uses the term “Scab” sixty-six times in his book. Unionist hatred of scabs is systemic and pervasive. “Scabs” are workers; they do not own the means of production; they are are part of the working class, yet unionists vilify them. This is exactly what the Capitalists want: A divided workforce. When unionists focus their anger and hatred at scabs, it diverts attention and focus from the real problem: The organization that hires them.
Ask any unionist about scabs, and you will have a definitive example of bigotry. As they currently exist, unions are virtually useless. It’s time for a radical shift in union tactics and philosophy; union militancy (which is what Burns advocates in his book) is not the answer. An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.
There are so many falsehoods in this comment that to account for all of them would take considerably more time than I have available. Suffice it to say, if you fail to understand that the violence in our society originates with the capitalists and not with the workers or their organizations, your commitment to social justice is deeply flawed. As to your defense of scabs– people who cross picket lines destroy the ability for workers to improve the lives of everyone. Certainly, scabs must be organized as well, but to defend those who willingly sell out others is simply foolish.
I presented some observations, and made some rational arguments to support some non-traditional ideas. Your reply does not include any rational counter-arguments; you simply declare that I am wrong, not-committed, and foolish. You excuse yourself by saying you don’t have enough time to answer my post.
A thing can’t be fixed until the true problems are identified. Hiding behind decades-old union theory and rhetoric is exactly why the labor movement has failed.
Look at the pathetic response in Michigan to the passage of the RTW legislation. It’s time to take an honest look at where we are at, and chart a new course. Advocating for more of the same flawed strategies of the past is pointless.