Why Strikes Matter

Mark Vorpahl

After the end (for now) of the strike against corporate giant Verizon, with 45,000 Communications Workers (CWA) and Electrical Workers (IBEW) participating, it would be timely to consider the significance of strikes and the role they can potentially play in organizing and politically empowering working people.

Strikes in Decline

Many in the labor movement consider the strike a relic from a bygone era that cannot win in today’s economic and political climate. Others consider it an extreme weapon, the union’s nuclear bomb, which should be avoided even if it means accepting a concessionary contract.

Reflecting the growth of such attitudes, the annual number of work stoppages involving at least 1,000 workers has been in decline since the 1980s. In 1949 2,537,000 workers either went out on strike or were locked out by their employers — a record number that still holds. In 2010 this had diminished to 45,000. This collapse in strike activity is not the result of fairer relations between workers and their employers. The decline in strike activity runs parallel with the decline of unions and all workers’ wages, benefits, and rights in general.

The near extinction of strikes is also not the result of more effective tactics. There are, of course, many tactics that unions should use short of strikes. Inside campaigns where employees assert their hands-on power over production by, most frequently, slowing it down and “working to rule” can be a powerful way of asserting control and eroding the profit-margin. Outreach to other union members and community organizations to bring public pressure down on vulnerable employers — a tactic designed to create worker solidarity — should be a standard operating procedure for any union facing stiff employer opposition. In addition, aggressive organizing campaigns to achieve union density in a given industry should always be a top priority for any union.

However, none of these tactics, either singly or in combination, is a substitute for the strike. Relying on these tactics alone without preparing for a strike is like coming to a dual with an unloaded pistol.

Strikes and Capitalism

This fact evolves out of the social circumstances workers must labor and live under. All goods and services are produced collectively, from a restaurant meal to a jet airplane. However, what is made and how is determined according to the profit of a few individual owners. Ultimately, the owner’s profit is increased by getting the workers to produce more while paying them less. As a result, the interests of workers and corporate owners are locked in conflict, sometimes hidden, sometimes erupting out into the open. What hurts one class benefits the other and any appearance of common cause is fleeting and deceptive.

Strikes are an inevitable and acute outcome of this situation. The goal of the employer is to maximize their profit by squeezing every last drop of labor their workforce can endure. Increasing profits is their sole preoccupation – the reason for their existence. The goal of workers is to maintain or improve their standard of living. While on strike, workers withhold their labor, the source of profit, in order to make the bosses wallet bleed.

A strike that completely shuts down production across an industry has the greatest chance of success since, not only are profits reduced to zero, but the employer losses money. While there are variations of a strike, such as sit down occupations, and many tactics that need to be employed to strengthen a potential strike, there is no substitute.

To win a strike, workers must be able to persevere beyond the corporate owners’ ability to do without their labor and the profit it generates. This is why the tactic of the one-day strike, without preparation to continue for as long as it takes, is so counterproductive. Employers can easily brush off such an effort with minimal damage to their pocket books. Rather than seeing it has a warning, they generally understand a one-day strike to be an admission of weakness on the part of a union. For the rank and file, a wave of demoralization usually sets in once they have made the exhausting effort to take such collective action but see no significant movement from their bosses at the bargaining table afterwards. If the union members have not been prepared to continue for as long as it takes, they will be compelled to settle for a contract that is far less than what they know to be fair.

Unions were born from strikes. During the 1930s many workers engaged in strikes with the single demand that the company recognize their union. While there have been changes to the economy since this birth, the diametrically opposed interests between workers and corporate owners remain as intact as ever. As a result, strikes are an inevitable consequence of this basic economic structure. The union movement will not be able to survive without them regardless of all obstacles.

Preparation is Key

To conduct a winning strike, it is not enough to hand workers picket signs and tell them to walk in line. The workers themselves must take a leadership role in conducting all phases of such an activity. Well in advance of the contract expiration date, all members must be educated as to why preparing for a potential strike is necessary and why their demands are fair and just. The members must decide on its strategy and timing, and reach out to other unions and community organizations to enlist support, etc. Halfway measures by a union only encourage corporate owners to stonewall at the bargaining table. If a strike is prepared in a serious way well in advance, it is less likely that a strike will be necessary for the union to win a good contract.

Union members must also be prepared to take on the obstacles the legal system will set up in the event of a strike. Many of the tactics that made the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) possible, such as sympathy strikes, have been outlawed. The courts function to protect the status quo, that is, the continued control of the employers over their employees. Court injunctions limiting the number of picketers as well as permitting police escorts of scabs are a common result of this rigged set up. Union members must be ready to work around these obstacles or openly defy them with the aim of shutting production down or, if that is not possible, disrupt it to the point where it inflicts maximum pain on the bosses’ bottom line and control.

Changing the Tide

The Labor movement’s hesitancy to resort to strikes has been at its own peril. Today, the lack of well paying jobs, the attacks on collective bargaining, and the growing inequality between the haves and have-nots, are testament to a one sided class war of corporate America against all workers that is, arguably, without historical precedent. Such extreme times demand bolder actions on the part of our unions. Labor must go on the offense and launch a movement that will militantly defend the interests of all working and poor people.

Such a movement can start with large mobilizations to build unity and demonstrate in an undeniable way that working people and the unemployed are united in their opposition to the direction in which this country is moving. It was these kinds of mobilizations that helped to change the political climate in the 1930s that made the general strikes in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Flint, Michigan, and the creation of the CIO possible. Mass demonstrations, strikes, and general strikes will, no doubt, have to be part of our arsenal if working people’s needs are to be addressed by a political establishment more at the service of Wall Street and the money it provides to fund the campaigns of politicians. There can be little doubt that the 45,000 Verizon strikers drew inspiration from the mass mobilizations in Madison, Wisconsin earlier this year. If unions are to survive and grow, they must take the lead in this struggle.

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Mark Vorpahl is a unionist and anti-war activist and writer for Workers Action. He may be reached at portland@workerscompass.org