Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Strike This! Workman-Like Book by Local Activist

“Reviving the Strike” by Joe Burns, 2011.

Joe Burns hits the nail on the head. A local activist and officer in many different unions, Burns recently got a law degree, and put it to work analyzing labor law and case law. After diligent study of the corpus of labor laws in the U.S., including various key decisions, he concluded that the only way for the labor movement to succeed in the present circumstances is to … break those laws. This advice, incidentally, was raised by the AFT initially. This is not advice you usually hear from a union lawyer. Of course he is not speaking in that capacity, as lawyers (including union ones) are for the most part taught to advise clients on how to minimize risk … not build a movement. Which is why any union that relies heavily on its attorneys is headed for the ash-bin, albeit slowly.

Essentially the AFT proposal was based on isolating unions from fines or jail by organizing strikes outside of the official union structure. I.E., there is no ‘leaders,’ no treasury, no by-laws, no union hall, no membership lists for the state to go after - nothing to lose, just a shadow organization.

Burns carefully goes through the various strategies that the labor movement has come up with to avoid breaking the laws that prevent effective strikes. The sorry list is familiar to anyone who was told or shown the ‘latest’ thing – work-to-rule, corporate campaigns, civil disobedience, organizing the unorganized, work centers, consumer boycotts, inside strategies, working for Democrats, organizing community-based organizations and campaigns, consumer mortgage-strikes, etc. Or, as seen this Thursday at the Capitol – labor vigils. Burns is not against any of these strategies, although he gently derides them as occasional middle-class sociology or closer to ‘bearing witness’ than class struggle.

By going through the history and opinions of even the conservative labor movement – people like Samuel Gompers and George Meany - he shows how these methods have replaced one method guaranteed to succeed, and that actually built unions in the first place – the successful mass strike that stopped production.

Burns shows how labor law – even the hallowed National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) of 1935, ultimately puts the government in control of defining the labor movement. Sit-down strikes themselves were outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1939. Burns spends much time on Taft-Hartley – the draconian anti-labor law passed in 1947 – which prohibited solidarity action. Wildcat strikes, jurisdictional strikes, solidarity or political strikes, secondary boycotts, mass picketing, closed shops (creating ‘right to work’ states), the right of the federal government to institute injunctions and anti-communist affidavits for union officials were all part of the Act. Labor called it a ‘slave labor’ law. Even Truman said it restricted the freedom of speech of working class people. It imposed, in essence, a barrage of laws against labor protest so stringent that no other kind of activity in the U.S. faces the same restrictions. John L Lewis denounced it as the ‘first, ugly savage thrust of Fascism in America.” (Lewis, speech to AFL Convention, October 14, 1947). Taft-Hartley was a spear pointed at the heart of the effective strike and the labor movement itself.

Burns points out that, while labor grew even after the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, as the labor movement in the 1950s was still strong, eventually the Act began to have its effect when the counter-offensive started in the early 70s. Judicial decisions built on the act had crippled labor in the courts. Burns has a section on how judges are from the upper-middle class, part of the ‘cream’ of the attorney strata, and most of them have never been in a union or workplace situation, and hence have no connection to the American labor movement, and no sympathy with it. Burns quotes one author who looked at many labor decisions and found that the hidden role of "property' was always primary, in spite of the fact that this 'force' was not even in the law. Just in the prejudices of the judges, the courts, the decisions, the lawyers, and eventually, the juries themselves.

Burns also clearly illustrates how the Democratic Party has played little role in defending labor. Many judges, especially liberal ones, enthusiastically enforce Taft-Hartley and other anti-labor decisions. A minority of the Democratic Party voted for Taft-Hartley itself. Truman himself, after panning it, used it 12 times. And can we forget that it was a Democratic governor, Rudy Perpich, who called out the National Guard on the Austin strikers in 1986, thus helping break the Hormel strike by escorting scabs past pickets? Or Jimmy Carter, who called out federal troops on the miner’s union in 1977? The Democrats recent tepid response to the card check is just the latest indication of where its real interests lie.

Burns calls capital’s laws ‘a system of labor control.’ He concludes that even when a law exists, if labor is strong enough, it can push past the law. Focusing on 5 recent strikes – the successful Republic Window’s and Doors sit-down, the Hormel and Staley strikes, the successful Charleston 5 solidarity actions and the successful Pittston strike, Burns hopes to draw lessons for a turnaround in labor, which he clearly admits is at a low point. Pittston, a strike lead by Richard Trumka, featured the union ignoring fines, at one point taking over a mine, engaging in mass civil disobedience, blocking roads with junk vehicles, sending masked roving pickets to other mines, and even tolerating random violence against scabs. The strike was won, leading to no concessions and an increase in health benefits.

Burns also clearly calls on an ideological change in American labor. The anti-communist clause in Taft Hartley – which John L Lewis refused to sign, and eventually did – is no accident. It is no accident that, de-fanged of socialist activists and ideas, labor is fighting with one – or eventually perhaps two - hands tied behind their back. The simple idea that labor and humans are not merely a commodity – which both Marxists and conservative labor leaders understood thoroughly in the past – is now no longer mentioned. We are instead told to sell ourselves to the highest bidder, like well-proportioned whores on parade. And indeed we are - until the concepts of real labor rights are renewed at the heart of the U.S. labor movement.

Burns makes a mention of how card check laws in Canada have stemmed the tide of losses in labor in some provinces there, but did not ‘revive’ labor there. However, the very fact of a card check law existing in Canada is a reflection of the New Democratic Party (“NDP”), a Party in which labor has a controlling stake. The NDP pushed for card check, and made it a reality in several provinces. Recently both Canadian postal workers and Air Canada workers staged large strikes shows that in Canada, like in every other country in the world, a strike movement is closely aligned to a strategy of labor political activity. It is no accident that in the U.S. labor is both virtually quiescent on the strike front and the political front, though events like Wisconsin shows this need not be the case.

And here is the main problem in Burns’ book. He makes, essentially, a syndicalist or ‘economist’ mistake – as Lenin used the term. Leaving politics (and law) to the bourgeoisie, and thinking that only militant strike activity is useful – actually hobbles the fight for an effective strike. The ‘30s are over – and one of the great failures of the 30s was the failure to create a political party based on the labor movement. If one had been created – not just in Minnesota but throughout the United States – the ease of instituting Taft-Hartley, of judges signing off on injunctions (80% of judges are elected - and who do you think is paying for their campaigns?), of political figures calling out police, of maintaining and increasing anti-labor laws, of a national debate where labor's needs are totally absent – would have been limited by a fierce fight in the political arena. Just using the ‘bully pulpit’ of political leadership to denounce anti-union, anti-labor laws will make them that much weaker and easier to break. Now we are relegated to the role of begging Democrats to be nice – a strategy that has clearly failed again and again.

Burns does point out that only two forces recently brought up getting rid of Taft Hartley in a mass way. The first was the Labor Party of the latter 1990s, which involved at least a 1/3rd of the union movement, including Trumka’s UMW – and the second, Ralph Nader, who always mentioned it in his speeches in 2000 and 2004. Burns has stated in talks that you ‘can’t get rid of Taft Hartley’ or engage in independent political activity – but then, the difficulty of ‘reviving the strike’ is equally significant. Somehow promoting one without the other makes little sense.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, July 5, 2011

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