Cement plant Glacier Northwest Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons

Supreme Court Attacks the Right to Strike

On June 1, 2023, the US Supreme Court yet again ruled to limit the right of workers to strike. In the case of Glacier Northwest v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, eight of the nine justices determined that employers can sue the striking union and workers for “damages suffered” during a strike.

Glacier Northwest, a concrete company, claimed that when the Teamsters walked off the job, the concrete still in the mixing trucks was ruined. This concrete could not be sold later and therefore, the union and the striking workers should be held liable for this damaged property. The majority opinion stated, “In so doing, they [the union] not only destroyed the concrete but also put Glacier’s trucks in harm’s way.” The Supreme Court’s ruling basically allows the employer to try to make the case that when a union does not take “reasonable precautions” to protect the employer’s property during a strike, the union and workers can be sued for damages.

The ruling represents a vicious attack on the right to strike. Businesses make money by exploiting workers. It is human labor that takes raw materials and adds new value to it. Wages and benefits are paid out of the value created by the workers, but some of this amount, the surplus value, is kept by the employers. This is where profits come from.

The only power the workers have to battle the bosses is to withdraw their labor collectively, as in a job action or a strike. This slows down or stops the production of commodities and thus, no surplus value rolls into the owner’s pockets. It is not the workers’ responsibility to watch over the owner’s private property during an action or strike. Businesses can now argue that they have suffered property damages and can sue the strikers and their union, effectively weakening the right to strike.

Under capitalism, all the propaganda about “freedom” in the abstract is smoke and mirrors to cover the relations of exploitation in society. The only real freedom the Supreme Court is concerned about is the freedom of the capitalists to keep their property and exploit the working class.

Lesser-evilism is no substitute for class-independence

O’Brien also has not called for actions or asked for specific solidarity from the rest of the labor movement. / Image: Tgmod, Wikimedia Commons

The labor leaders have refused to mobilize the working class with independent class politics. Instead, they have argued that workers should vote for the “lesser of two evils,” i.e., the Democratic Party. They have often warned that if the Republicans win the White House and the Senate, the Supreme Court will be anti-labor. And yet, even a majority of the “liberal” judges ruled in favor of the bosses. In this particular case, two of the three Supreme Court Justices appointed by Democratic presidents voted with the majority. The labor leaders now have egg on their face.

The AFL-CIO has come out against the Supreme Court’s ruling, but has not called for any follow up action. This is a big mistake and shows weakness when strength is needed. Teamster President Sean O’Brien has said that this will not intimidate the Teamsters union and that is positive. However, O’Brien also has not called for actions or asked for specific solidarity from the rest of the labor movement.

As he put it in Labor Notes on June 1: “Today’s shameful ruling is simply one more reminder that the American people cannot rely on their government or their courts to protect them. They cannot rely on their employers.”

We should note that “their government” is not a workers’ government, but a bosses’ government, as is the courts. The logic that follows from the above would be for O’Brien to call for an independent party of the working class, and to pledge the Teamsters’ resources to help build it. Unfortunately, his discontent remains purely rhetorical.

Now more than ever, the working class needs its own political party. We can have no  confidence in either the Democrats or Republicans. Only a workers’ government can serve the workers’ class interests. And for a workers’ government to come to power, we need a mass, class-independent workers’ party.

How can workers fight back?

Political, economic, and social rights are not granted by pieces of paper like a constitution or by the courts. Rights are gained by the fight of the population against the rulers. It is part of the class struggle. When Jim Crow segregation was the law, many people broke the law by sitting at segregated lunch counters, or used bus seats or water fountains reserved for whites.

Sitdown strikers in the Fisher body plant factory number three. Flint, Michigan. 1937. Credit: Sheldon Dick, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
In the 1930s, the main body of the industrial unions were built by sit-down strikes. This included the Flint, Michigan GM sit-down strike, which ended in victory in February 1937. / Image: Sheldon Dick, Library of Congress

Originally, unions were considered illegal combinations trying to interfere with interstate commerce. Unions were formed anyway and fought for their right to be recognized as an organized force. In the 1930s, the main body of the industrial unions were built by sit-down strikes, i.e., workplace occupations. Workers occupied private property. There was the Flint, Michigan GM sit-down strike, which ended in victory in February 1937. This led to a wave of similar strikes. In 1936 and 1937, more than 1,000 such strikes unfolded, involving half a million workers. Police were only able to break up 25 of these strikes. During the period of 1934 to 1940, the labor movement tripled in size.

The working class must not give in to the whims of the ruling class. We cannot fight with the rules given to us by the bosses or we will lose. Strikes are sometimes necessary and an effective action must seek to shut down production. They may be able to sue us, but can they get blood from a stone?

The entire purpose of a union—the workers organized together—is to fight the boss and win. Unions should be seen as organs of solidarity and class struggle that can win better wages and conditions for all workers. To achieve this, they must be fashioned into lean, fighting organizations that can lead struggles to victory, no matter how many injunctions or cops are thrown against us. A paper union with lots of staffers and money in the bank is not our goal. To put it even more bluntly: a union that accepts the shackles of the system is not a real union.

Those unions and workers targeted by these lawsuits cannot be abandoned by the broader working class. The entire labor movement needs to show real solidarity. An attack on the Teamsters here means all unions everywhere must be part of a major fight back. If the unions mobilized mass protests against this ruling, the capitalist class would have to be more careful with their next steps.

The workers make up the overwhelming majority of the population. Building a class-independent leadership will help turn the labor movement around and the power of the working class will be felt.

twenty to thirty thousand workers pack warehouse district 1934 teamsters strike
The fight against these reactionary labor laws and court rulings is connected with the building of a Marxist leadership for the working class. / Image: public domain

The bosses want industrial peace and continuous production. But through their collective action, the workers can disrupt this until their demands are met. With real wages falling and inflation rises, an intensification of the class struggle is on the order of the day. As these struggles develop, the question will be posed: who is the real master of the workplace? The capitalist class needs workers, but the working class does not need owners!

The fight against these reactionary labor laws and court rulings is also connected with the building of a Marxist leadership for the working class. Most of the important unions in this country were founded or built by communists, socialists, and other radicals. This was the case in the 1930s. In meeting the challenge of the bosses’ courts and their state apparatus, the labor movement needs to return to its roots. This will be the path forward, the socialist path.

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