Striking Workers

Can Workers Strike and Win?

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1946 strikeOn February 11, 2009, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report on “Major Work Stoppages in 2008.”   The Federal Government defines a major work stoppage as a strike or lockout involving 1,000 employees or more that lasts at least one full shift.  The government data dates from 1947 to the present.  It is interesting to note that the government began collecting this data in 1947, as a result of the huge strike wave that hit the country in 1946 after the end of the Second World War

The statistics show that there were just 15 major work stoppages in 2008, down from 20 in 2006 and 21 in 2007.  The last time there were more than 50 major work stoppages was twenty years ago in 1989, when there were 51.  In 1981, there were 145 major work stoppages and 96 in 1982.  Since then, the number of such stoppages has not gone above 81.

Look at the data from the 1960s and 1970s and one can see many more large strikes.  Between 1960 and 1969, the year with the smallest number of major strikes was 1963 when there were 181 such stoppages!  1969 had the most major strikes with 412.  As for the 1970s, 1978 was the year with the least major strikes, with 219, and 1974 had the highest number, with 424 such job actions.

Some labor leaders and capitalist commentators might look at these statistics and draw the conclusion that strikes are a thing of the past.  The theoreticians of Big Business and their political leaders believe that workers should not expect higher wages and benefits, but must work harder for less. Unfortunately, the labor leaders echo their argument.  However, no class will give up its rights and privileges without a fight and this includes the working class.  The working class will fight back; but the question is not only how to fight back, but how to fight back and win.

There is no question that the huge reduction in strikes reflects the changes in U.S. capitalism and the class struggle during the post-World War period.  Due to the destruction caused by and production stimulated by the war, the Marshall plan, the expansion of world trade and other factors, the Great Depression of the 1930s came to an end and there was a massive 30 year boom in the wealthy imperialist countries. Since American Capitalism was expanding, it could afford to improve working conditions and increase wages and benefits for much of the labor movement.  In many cases, business expanded so much that they could pay the workers more in absolute amounts even when a larger share of the growing “economic pie” was going toward profits.

But even these higher wages were not gained without a fight. Organized labor came into the post-war period with many communists and socialists in the leadership and their militant tactics forced the capitalists to give concessions to the workers. This also translated into the collective bargaining process and how strikes were conducted.  In the post-war period, many businesses would not attempt to produce when the workers were on strike.  Since the capitalists did not try to run the factory or workplace with scabs, the idea of mass picketing and factory occupations (“the sit-down strike”) were no longer considered necessary. During the post-war period, the some of the formerly radical labor leaders adapted themselves to the post-war boom and much of the left was purged during the McCarthy period.

The post-war boom came to an end with the 1974 recession.  Since business was no longer booming, every concession made to the workers was considered too expensive to big business.  The “truce” was now over, at least from the bosses’ side. More and more, Big Business tried to break strikes using both temporary and replacement workers and automation to keep production and services flowing.

Although the economic situation had changed and the tactics of the employer had changed accordingly, most of the labor leadership continued to fight the employer in the same post-war boom manner:  small picket lines, filing complaints against the employer with the National Labor Relations Board and consumer boycotts.  The labor leaders are often insistent in adhering to the law, which was made to break the workers and help the employers. Since the strikes do not stop production and tend to drag on with many of the workers finding other employment, the employers either defeat the strikes or the employees cut a deal but accept cuts in wages, benefits and working conditions. It is therefore no surprise that the number of large strikes has greatly decreased since the 1960s and 1970s. Also, the recent increase in unemployment  tends to reduce strike activity.  The U-6 unemployment rate was 16.2 percent in March and workers know that the unemployed, desperate for income, can become scabs during strike battles.

Stella D'Oro strike supportThe example of the Stella D’Oro bakery in New York provides us some important lessons.  This factory has been unionized for many years.  Prior to 2007, every time the workers went on strike, the employer did not try to keep production going. However, the factory was sold to Brywood Equity Partners, and they want to destroy the unions. First, in 2007, they forced the Teamsters, who delivered the cookies to the stores, on strike. They broke the strike with scab drivers and then hired a non-union delivery service to deliver the cookies.  While this strike was on, production and sales continued.

Then, in August 2008, Brywood forced the bakery workers’ union out on strike, and this time the company has continued to bake cookies with scabs and deliver the products with non-union drivers. The workers have been solid in their support of the strike and not one has crossed the picket line in over 8 months of struggle!  However, the leadership of BCTWGM Local 50 has run this strike as any other strike and has not tried to stop production. The local has not mobilized its members from other factories to come down in support of the Stella D’Oro workers. There has been no mass picketing and the picket line is not even adjacent to the factory gates.

The main problem is that the BCTWGM International and Local 50 leadership has not made a public case to the labor movement to stop the factory from producing with scab labor. They could appeal to the largest unions in the City: the electricians, the teachers, transit and government workers. It could explain that if this factory continues to operate with scab labor, this will be defeat for all of labor in the city and weaken the entire movement.  Therefore, it would be in everyone’s interest to mobilize mass picketing until the factory stops production.

If the major labor unions in the city used their power in this manner, the mass picketing might not even need to happen. City Hall might be so fearful of mass pickets that they would find another reason to shut down production, such as some sort of code violation.

A victory for the Stella D’Oro workers would mean a victory for the entire labor movement. It would send a signal to NYC’s Mayor and the governor, who are implementing layoffs and want concessions from the public sector unions, that a united labor movement could stop them in their tracks. It would also send a signal to the construction contractors who are demanding pay and work rule concessions from the construction unions.  This could start the momentum needed to change the direction of the labor movement, from being on the defensive to being on the offensive.  Just look at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago last December.  A bold strategy of occupying the plant and labor solidarity led to an important partial victory in that battle.

Labor activists must study this situation and attempt to find ways to win.  In this process, we must build opposition caucuses in the unions to fight for new policies and strategies that will lead to victory.  The labor movement is powerful, but only if it uses its power.

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