We need the right to strike!

We need the right to strike!

An article written within the context of the Detroit newspaper strikes about the obstacles facing effective strikes. Originally appeared in Battleground Detroit (October 1997), a publication of the Action Coalition of Strikers and Supporters (ACOSS). Reprinted in the Industrial Worker #1607 (December 1997)

As with Gannett and Knight-Ridder in Detroit, employers everywhere are increasingly resorting to lockouts, production by scabs during strikes, and the permanent replacement of strikers.

Anti-labor laws like the Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin Acts are unjust. They outlaw the measures we need to make strikes effective (including mass picketing, workplace occupations, secondary boycotts, solidarity strikes, and general strikes) and help shift the balance of forces in favor of the corporations.

The labor movement needs to win the right to strike by forcing the government to repeal the Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin Acts and all the other anti-labor laws and to prohibit any interference in the right of workers to strike, picket or occupy our workplaces, on our own behalf or in solidarity with other workers. We need legislation that will guarantee the right to strike, and prohibit employers from hiring scabs as temporary or permanent replacement workers or operating their businesses during a strike.

One way to accomplish this is to mobilize direct action by the unions to make the anti-labor laws unenforceable, particularly organizing political strikes as necessary to back off the government.

Corporate attacks on workers

Corporations like Gannett and Knight-Ridder have tried to maintain their profitability by automating, speeding up and laying off workers in the industrial centers, gutting health, education and social welfare programs, attacking the legal rights and social position of women, racial and national minorities, and immigrants, and shifting production to low-wage regions like the southern US and low-wage countries like Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Korea and China, where repressive governments often add to the "favorable business environment."

A central problem for the labor movement is that the corporations have again made strikebreaking and union-busting key elements of their strategy, not only in poor countries and regions, where this has always been the case, but also in the industrial centers. Driven by their own competition and taking advantage of the competition among workers, the corporations increasingly are trying to crush all resistance.

In the U.S., the corporations, with government support, more and more often reply to strike threats with lockouts and to strikes with continued production by scabs and the permanent replacement of strikers. From PATCO to Hormel to the Decatur "war zone" of Staley, Firestone and Caterpillar to the Detroit newspapers, strikebreaking and union-busting are becoming the norm for U.S. labor relations.

Militant tactics still can win

There are exceptions to this pattern. Where workers are able to stop highly profitable production, even a very large corporation may decide that a lockout or strike is not worth the cost, as in the recent UPS strike and the UAW strikes at GM and Chrysler. But in most cases, if the corporation is big enough and determined enough, the traditional strategy of withholding labor in a particular bargaining unit, even supplemented by a consumer boycott or "corporate campaign," is not enough to win.

The labor movement is still quite strong, however. Key components of industry are still organized, and the unions have tactics that can win against even the biggest, most determined employers. These are the tactics that built the industrial unions in the 1930s and 1940s: mass picketing, workplace occupations, secondary boycotts, solidarity strikes and general strikes to back off the government when it tries to interfere.

If the Staley workers had been able to stop the scabs with mass picketing, occupy the Decatur plant, threaten Tate & Lyle with secondary boycotts and solidarity strikes at all its operations worldwide, and block government interference with the threat of escalating general strikes, they would have won within 72 hours. The same applies to the Detroit Newspaper strike.

Not surprisingly, all these tactics are illegal. Having been forced to make major concessions to the unions in the 1930s, reflected in the 1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act and the 1935 Wagner Act, the employers moved as soon as they could to outlaw the unions' most potent weapons. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and the 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act codified their key victories, supplemented since then by a stream of court decisions, administrative rulings, and arbitration awards tracing the labor moment's retreat into business unionism.

Unions today must win the right to strike by nullifying the anti-labor laws and redressing the balance of economic forces. We must learn from the employers. Their method is to divide and conquer by bringing their concentrated economic, legal, and police power to bear on separate groups of workers. They begin with the more vulnerable sectors of the working class: African Americans, Latinos, women, youth, the unskilled, the unorganized, and the unemployed. When they take on the unions, they try to limit the conflict to one bargaining unit at a time, although behind that employer stands the corporate empire of which it is part and behind that the employing class as a whole and the government that serves it.

The unions must overcome the divisions the employers exploit by organizing the unorganized, starting from the current base of industrial, government and skilled workers and reaching out to workers in the South, service workers, the unskilled, Black and Latino workers, women workers, youth, and the unemployed. We must rebuild the labor movement from the ground up, with a strong presence on the shop and office floors and active democracy in the union halls. And we must bring the power of all the unions and all the workers to bear in any struggle, making a reality of the principle, an injury to one is an injury to all.

The right to strike will be won first of all on the picket lines and in the streets. The bosses will not give up their power voluntarily. Workers will win their rights only by exercising their power. The labor movement must free itself from the illusion that it can overcome unjust laws by obeying them.

So long as the employers and the government can keep the unions fighting bargaining unit by bargaining unit and obeying the anti-labor laws and injunctions, they can continue to inflict defeats which rob us of the public support we would need to repeal the laws and end the injunctions. The unions will repeal Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin and end injunctions only by making them unenforceable.

Originally appeared in Battleground Detroit (October 1997), a publication of the Action Coalition of Strikers and Supporters (ACOSS). Reprinted in the Industrial Worker #1607 (December 1997)