FDL Book Salon Welcomes Joe Burns, Strike Back: Using the Militant Tactics of Labor’s Past to Reignite Public Sector Unionism Today
Community, community, community.
If you are looking for an overarching theme to Joe Burns’ Strike Back: Using The Militant Tactics of Labor’s Past to Reignite Public Sector Unionism Today, it would be the importance of communities in ensuring that a more militant labor strategy ends in success. I have blogged on this particular topic repeatedly, and I continue to do so because we must conceptualize the labor struggles as a battle between those who produce and those who take. Conservatives have already done this by turning the poor into “takers,” while those who sit on inheritances and use their elite connections in government and industry to amass more capital are somehow “job creators.” The best way to combat this destructive narrative is to engage not just the workers, but also their neighbors, families, and friends, and Burns lays this out in great detail. There’s the 1978 strike in San Francisco’s public housing authority where the workers had an agreement on the table but refused to accept it until the authority also agreed to the demands of the tenants who had gone on a rent strike in solidarity. There’s the sanitation workers’ strike in Atlanta where organizations rooted in the recent victory of the Civil Rights Movement came to the aid of the union and mobilized crucial support for the workers in their successful labor struggle. But as Burns points out, the failure of unions to assess and engage the community in their fight can lead to disastrous consequences. In the private sector, we have the UAW’s recent travails to illustrate that. In the public sector, the failure of teachers’ strikes in Florida and New York highlights the consequences of going it alone.
Resistance, resistance, resistance.
If you needed a second strain in the book, you can find it in the call to resistance that begins on the title page and continues through to the conclusion. Resistance to what, you might ask. There are a couple of things that public employees must resist in their efforts to bring back a more militant ethos to their movement. One is the resistance to privatization, which has decimated public schooling and the administration of social welfare to those Americans who are most in need. Another is the resistance to destructive labor laws, such as “right-to-work” provisions and the recent push to ban collective bargaining for public employees, that has been met with mixed success in the industrial Midwest.
Given those two things I just listed, you would never think that the biggest point of resistance would be to those collective bargaining laws. Why would public sector unionism be opposed to laws that provide a structure for them to negotiate with their employers and receive benefits? Yes, collective bargaining laws do provide this framework, but it often comes at a cost that is usually paid in the forgoing of a right to strike. In Michigan, public sector employees have been barred from striking since 1947; the original law sanctioned workers with immediate termination at the slightest sense that they were not working at 100 percent due to a labor dispute (this was amended drastically in 1965, eliminating the harsh penalties for workers but maintaining the ban on striking all the same). As Burns notes in Chapter 8, this was not an anomaly: every state in the country had bans on public employees striking until Vermont and Hawaii began loosening their restrictions in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively.
One might think that the unions would be greatly opposed to any curbing of their right strike, but as Burns points out throughout the book, one would be wrong. Strikes in the public sector are frequently turned into battles of political ideology by politicians from both parties, with elected officials finding it more politically palatable to bash workers than to come to the table and engage in negotiations. In response to this, which has been a trend for the past 40 years at this point, public sector unions decided to take weapons out of their own arsenal and either play down use of the strike as a bargaining tool or give strikes euphemistic names like “professional sanctions.” Burns rightly points out the wrongheadedness of this approach, and calls for a more defiant unionism that earns back the right to strike by, well, striking. He details the struggle for a right to strike in Hawaii and Minnesota where public employees engaged in waves of illegal strike activity and forced the hand of state lawmakers, who granted them their full complement of labor rights in response. These laws have unexpectedly led to less striking, as the unions would rather engage in arbitration and deal-making rather than risk backlash from the public that could tank the chances of a strike action’s success.
And that is where we come full circle. If we want a stronger public sector labor movement that engages in militant and broad-based social action on behalf of both its members and the people they serve, then a focus on engaging the community is a must. Joe Burns’ book provides some guidance on how we can do that in a way that remains rooted in the values of justice and equality in the workplace that the labor movement has stood for since those textile workers in Lowell, MA walked off the job in the early 19th century. These are values that my father, who came up as a nuclear marine machinist at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, instilled in me as a young boy, and that my grandmother, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, instilled in him all the same.
It is for that reason that I am honored to host this FDL Book Salon with Joe Burns, labor lawyer and comrade to the working class. If you want to enter the discussion, please leave your comments below.