Can Labor Strike Back?

Joe Burns.  Strike Back: Using the Militant Tactics of Labor’s Past to Reignite Public Sector Unionism TodayBrooklyn, NY: IG Publishing, 2014.  ISBN: 978-1-935439-89-9 (paperback).

Many conservative whites today lament — and you can see this exploited by the Tea Party — that nobody cares about them: people care about Blacks, about Latinos, about women, but they don’t give a damn about “regular Joes” (ordinary workers, in their vision, are almost always white and male).  We’ve heard this claim over and over again.  Some progressives dismiss it almost automatically — “they’re just whining” — as just a simple reaction against the victories of the civil rights, feminist, and other social movements.  Yet, hidden beneath the lament is an element of truth distorted by the reaction.

The one movement that has supported “regular Joes” is the labor movement.  It has urged working people to join together, to create collective organization, to build solidarity and to fight for their rights, for their wellbeing, and, in the best cases, for a better society for all.  Yet the labor movement today is in deep shit: only 6.6 percent of the private sector today (2014) is unionized, though 35.7 percent of the public sector still is, making the total unionization rate of all non-agricultural workers a weak 11.1 percent.  And worst of all, there is no powerful vision, at the top of organized labor, of how to restore the labor movement, how to get working men and women of all colors to unite and fight to rebuild their movement.  In other words, the one movement that could allow white workers to channel their discontent in a progressive direction is in disarray.

Joe Burns suggests there is a way out of this mess.  In Strike Back, he argues the importance of public sector unionization.  (His previous book, Reviving the Strike, focused on the private sector.)  He notes the tremendous attacks being mounted against public sector unions.  He knows things are bad.  However, he believes that there is a solution and that we need to turn to labor’s history to uncover the solution: we need to return to the militancy and obstinacy of public sector workers in the 1960s and 70s.

Burns argues that labor activists have long ignored the efforts of public sector unionists in that era, using instead the upsurge of private sector industrial workers in the 1930s and 40s as the lodestar.  Yet he points out that the 1930s are closer in time to the Civil War than they are to today.  And as he demonstrates in this short but eminently readable book, there is a lot to learn from the 1960s and 70s.

Burns doesn’t do this, though, to glorify previous struggles — he does it so we can learn from and use it to prepare for battles today and tomorrow.  And the battles have been escalating since 2011 in Wisconsin, in Ohio, in Michigan — and they are about to hit Illinois big-time with Governor Bruce Rauner.  Burns highlights what is at stake: “public workers are being forced to fight for their existence against forces who want not only to destroy their unions, but to dismantle the public sector itself.”  Again, Burns wants workers to return to their roots: “Public employee unions were born of struggle, of membership mobilization, and the self-activity of workers.”

Of public workers, teachers have been among the most militant.  He writes about the United Federation of Teachers in New York City in the 1960s and teachers in Washington State in the 70s.  And then he reports on “A Quarter Century of Strike Activity in Chicago.”  He talks about strikes and the threat of strikes, and their results: “Through strikes real and threatened, the CTU [Chicago Teachers Union] was able to raise teacher salaries 90 percent between 1966 and 1974.”  He notes: “Over the next fifteen years, the CTU would strike eight more times.”  And then he reports that the union came under conservative leadership and abandoned the strike until the 2012 strike.  After discussing other struggles, he gets to the main point:

Rather than fight back, the predominant response of many teacher unions has been to attempt to appear reasonable and “negotiate for change”.  The problem of that strategy is that there is little reason to believe that corporate education reformers are actually looking to improve public education.  Instead, their real goal is to privatize the educational system, destroy the autonomy of classroom teachers, and most importantly, get rid of unions.

Interestingly, while he lauds the CTU and its willingness to strike in 2012, he criticizes what he describes as a “fuzzy” version of social justice unionism that “has emerged today as the main alternative to the work-place based, struggle-oriented unionism the labor movement once had, and so desperately needs again”:

Proponents of this modern form of social unionism have to varying degrees replaced workplace activism with community ties, arguing that unions must work with community groups to engage in campaigns for issues like living wage statues or increasing the minimum wage.

This is one of the few differences I have with Burns.  He counterposes workplace militancy to working with community organizations in an “either/or” approach, as if we must choose one or the other.  Elsewhere in the book, though, he says that public sector strikes have succeeded because of support from the larger community.  I think he — and union members — would be better served with a “both/and” approach: our trade unionism cannot be confined just to our workplaces and must address community issues as well.  But we have to get this combination right: I argue that the emphasis should be on developing organization in the workplace, but that this unionization must embrace community issues.

There is much in this book: Burns makes a strong argument that we need to revitalize our public sector unions, and that this must be made by the workers therein.  He bemoans the passivity of labor and the unwillingness to challenge unjust labor laws, especially injunctions.  Basically, he argues that union members must change our attitudes — that we need to change from collective “begging” to collective bargaining — but that we can only succeed if we have the willingness and determination to strike and win.  As he shows, militancy encourages unionism and gets people to join, because the issue is power: unions are seen favorably when they use their power to make working lives better and when they use that power to better their respective communities.

Personally, I think every member of public sector unions should check out this book — and they should demand their unions purchase it in large quantities.  There’s a lot to learn, and Burns writes in a way that is clear and easy to understand.  A reinvigorated labor movement would be the greatest blow against the Tea Party: get more and more workers, including those who are conservative now, involved in fighting for a better future, and the spell cast by an imagined past will inevitably break.

Kim Scipes is the Chair of the Chicago Chapter of the National Writers Union, UAW #1981.