by Bill Onasch
A Striking Comparison
The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released their annual report on major strike activity in the USA. It opens,
“In 2014, there were 11 major work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers and lasting at least one shift, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. The 11 major work stoppages beginning in 2014 were down from the 15 major work stoppages beginning in 2013, and equaled the second lowest annual total (11 in 2010) of work stoppages since the series began in 1947. The lowest annual total was 5 in 2009.”
Since I doubt this is a new era of worker job satisfaction, these numbers sound and are grim. 2009 was the low point of the Great Recession but last year saw the biggest job growth since the Clinton administration. This strike stagnation during recovery is contrary to historical trends.
Important core components of America’s unions were forged during the Great Depression that was marked by mass unemployment from 1930 until the government directed war mobilization of the economy took hold in 1942. But it was not a flat line. Within the Depression were several ups-and-downs and the ebb and flow of strikes—with an initial primary objective of union recognition—closely followed these curves.
Last July I attended an impressive series of events commemorating the eightieth anniversary of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes. Along with similar concurrent semi-insurrectional battles in Toledo and San Francisco, these “three strikes that paved the way” were the first high profile labor victories in a modest economic upturn during tough times. They revived the confidence of a demoralized working class and also spurred a section of the officials in the conservative craft union dominated American Federation of Labor to launch a new dynamic federation that became known as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
This past week I received an e-mail message from the UAW reminding members it was White Shirt Day. During another uptick in 1937, workers occupied key sections of the then vast General Motors complex in Flint. After forty-four days of the most famous of the sit-down strikes GM agreed to a six-month national contract and a ten cents an hour raise—justly considered a big victory to build upon. On their first day back at work UAW members wore white shirts to demonstrate they were now on an equal footing with their white collar foremen on the shop floor.
Flint inspired a wave of copy-cat sit-downs not only in manufacturing and meat packing but waitresses in diners, and sales clerks in dime stores as well. Many of these were spontaneous, with the workers contacting a union only after they had occupied their workplace. These powerful challenges to the private property rights of the boss were defused only by a Supreme Court ruling that effectively outlawed them.
At the onset of the labor upsurge during the Depression union density was no greater than the paltry share claimed today. Even during the relative upturns, real unemployment remained much greater then than now and few states provided unemployment benefits or welfare. Most workers had considerably less formal education in the Thirties and, of course, didn’t have television or the Internet.
With so many obstacles more formidable than those we today confront how did they accomplish a sea change in living standards and dignity on the job?
Certainly there are many factors involved but the overarching advantage of our ancestors was their much higher awareness of class and the need for class solidarity. The seminal victories in Minneapolis, Toledo, San Francisco, and Flint were led by class conscious radicals of various persuasions. They gave the unions a broader character of a social movement fighting for the class as a whole. This enabled them to break down the color, gender, religious, language, and craft divisions cultivated by the bosses. And they were able to win the sympathy, sometimes even active support of the unemployed who just a decade earlier might have been likely recruits as scabs.
The continuing validity of this strategy is confirmed nearly every day. Class inequality is greater now than at the depths of the Great Depression. But most of the bureaucracy that sets atop the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, and the very independent Carpenters and NEA, go to great lengths to avoid even uttering the words “working class.” Altering our baptismal records we are rechristened “working families” or “middle class.” While sometimes divided over shooting wars abroad nearly all of these labor statespersons abhor class war. They seek peaceful junior partnership with the employer class and the political parties and government bodies controlled by the bosses. They promote non sequitur “win-win” solutions.
In my opinion, reclaiming our stolen class identity is a precondition for substantial enduring advancement of the interests of those who work—or seek work–for bosses. This will require more than the patient pedagogy offered in the Week In Review. It will mostly be learned in action. As Frederick Douglass famously said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
While most union bureaucrats try to ignore class struggle that struggle doesn’t always ignore them. Appeasement of the class enemy only postpones combat. Dissatisfaction with concessions sometimes leads to changes in leadership promising to battle.
The undeniably gloomy big picture BLS report while accurate is somewhat incomplete. The potential power of the working class is our ability to control the flow of production of goods and services. The BLS restricts its findings to conventional walkouts of a thousand or more.
There is currently one such strike in progress that will be counted next year—eleven USW-organized oil refineries that was a major topic in the last WIR. This important strike is so far a departure from the norm for two reasons. It is an “offensive” action seeking to break new ground on health and safety issues. And it has won allies from environmental activists—including those who want to replace oil with clean renewable alternatives. It deserves our active solidarity and, if not soon settled will likely escalate to a total shutdown of all union facilities.
(There is also a major strike by Canadian Teamster engineers and conductors on the Canadian Pacific. Though outside the province of the BLS, it will have a major impact on both the U.S. economy and American rail unionists.)
But the BLS radar failed to detect hundreds of smaller, shorter strikes last year carried out by Fast Food workers fighting for Fifteen and a Union. Big Macs may not carry the same weight as oil in our economy but the Fight for Fifteen, sponsored by the Service Employees International Union and supported by Jobs with Justice, is the most inspiring example of mobilizing class solidarity in worker communities in quite some time.
Neither a strike nor a lockout has yet been declared in the 29 West Coast ports represented by the ILWU. Yet, somehow, there is gridlock on the docks and long lines of ships anchored at harbor limits impatiently waiting for a berth. The President can’t issue a Taft-Hartley back to work injunction because no one has walked off the job. But he has sent his Labor Secretary to try to get goods moving again. Another example of a permutation of conventional strikes that don’t get counted.
While we shouldn’t shrug off the bad news from the BLS neither should we buy the assertions in the boss media that the strike tactic is good as dead. Nor should we accept their wishful thinking that our unions are also mortally wounded. The decisive battles lie ahead.
A Grand Alliance
President Obama has long sought a Grand Bargain with the Republicans to impose austerity measures that would slash social benefits and useful public services. He used his executive authority to begin on his own to gut the US Postal Service.
This past week American Postal Workers Union president Mark Diamondstein, who I came to know in the Labor Party, announced the launching of a Grand Alliance—to save and support our Postal Service. You can learn all about it and how you can help at the Alliance website here. And be sure to watch a powerful two minute solidarity video by Danny Glover here.
There are blogs dedicated solely to the reactionary, mean-spirited antics of loony right Governors. There’s currently a lot of them, some with ambitions of taking up residence in the White House East Wing. I find them as stimulating as Methodist punch and am happy to limit my exposure to video clips on the Daily Show. It takes something truly outrageous to get a mention in the WIR.
It is the Governor of Kansas, the state where I was born and spent my early childhood that’s broken away from the pack. Oh he’s done all the usual like running up a state deficit of over 400 million dollars after tax cuts for business and the rich. He champions putting creationism on an equal foot with natural selection in Kansas schools. He’s slashed unemployment benefits and refused Federal money to expand Medicaid. A late convert who became more Catholic than the Pope—especially the current one—he has waged unrelenting holy war on birth control and sex education. But it takes more than this ALEC boiler plate to tip the scales for me.
A previous Governor, Kathleen Sebelius—also a practicing Catholic, though pro-choice—issued an executive order banning all forms of discrimination against LGBT state employees. Last week Governor Sam Brownback revoked that order. The net effect of this move is to signal open season for hunting by homophobes, targeting open or suspected LGBT workers. Top that, Scott Walker!
This unique twist of bigotry from the top should also be a warning to workers without papers considering the narrow tortuous path to citizenship touted in President Obama’s executive order approach to immigration “reform.” “Coming clean” today might well put you on the round up list for no return transportation across the border on the next President’s watch.
There were many other stories that were posted on our companion Labor Advocate blog that were worthy of comment. I plan to say something next time about the latest UN climate action draft document.
That’s all for this week.
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