How Unions Lost the Right to Strike (RE: Is John Sweeney a Socialist?

Nathan Newman nathan.newman at
Sun Jan 30 20:49:46 PST 2000

On Behalf Of Rakesh Bhandari
> > I agree with some of the criticisms
> > voiced against Sweeney and disagree with others.
> What do you agree with? That by giving up rights to strike for collective
> bargaining, workers are left mired in bureaucracy and powerless against
> the discretionary power of capital which the union leadership then
> must itself protect as a matter of its own survival

Okay, Rakesh, let's blame the victims of rightwing labor legislation and court decisions for their own legal restraints.

Unions did not choose to give up the right to strike-- the Congress and then the Courts imposed that condition on them. The labor movement was built in the 1930s on wildcat strikes and sitdown actions which continued at various times for years.

World War II did bring in no-strike pledges for the war effort. In that case, it was the Communist Party, not the business unionists, who led the charge for agreements not to strike in the name of fighting fascism. However, after the first year or so of war effort, despite those no-strike pledges, unions were involved in a wide range of wildcat strikes, a rather phenomenal number in 1943 considering they were in defiance not just of employers but of the US government war effort.

With the end of the war, a massive strike wave broke out, including general strikes in places like Oakland. THe strike wave was so massive, including massive wildcats in the coal fields led by John L. Lewis, that the rightwing return of a Republican Congress in 1947 was able to pass the Taft-Hartley law. For the first time, labor agreements were declared enforceable contracts that bound unions to honor them or face legal sanction.

To avoid being dragged into court continually, unions turned to binding arbitration to keep disputes with employers from being controlled by the courts. Unions still engaged in wildcats when this method failed, but increasingly courts would issue injunctions to force unions back to work, culminating in the 1970 Supreme Court decision, Boys Markets Inc., which essentially overturned the Norris-LaGuardia Act and reinstated federal labor injunctions as a weapon aimed at strikes during a contract. Note this decision did not involve contracts where unions had agreed to give up the right to strike. EVERY CONTRACT with any kind of arbitration agreement, even if the union had not agreed to give up the right to strike, was declared by the Supreme Court to have an "implied" agreement to give up the right to strike.

Which turns us to the consequences of the arbitration-collective bargaining system that evolved under this legal regime:

-- thereby enforcing
> social control at the worksite through, among other things, aiding in the
> identification of the most radical workers and rationalizing both layoffs
> and capital's aribtrary, albeit purposefully divisive, job hierarchies--
> given what would be the bosses' otherwise absolute intransigience to
> any collective organized worker power since the threat of any true
> proletarian radicalism has already been rendered idle by the waiving of
> rights to autonomous strikes or wildcat, boycotts, secondary strikes.

Okay, a packed paragraph of what I consider bad history and more blaming the victims of legal oppression.

Taking the last part first, again there was no "waiving" of rights-- rightwing laws like Taft-Hartley, followup legislation and NLRB/court decisions stripped unions of any legal right to conduct secondary strikes, "hot cargo" actions, slowdowns, "partial strikes" or almost any anti-employer action other than a duly authorized strike against a primary employer. Anyone involved in any other kind of action could be fired at will by the employer with no legal protection and any union that sought to strike to keep their job could be threatened with legal injunction. NLRB decisions made it illegal for workers to even say nasty things publicly about their employer if it was not related directly to the labor conflict (this is one of the few areas were courts have recently expanded labor rights based on first amendment grounds.)

The conservative regime of collective bargaining punctuated by periodic strikes at the end of contracts was not the choice of unions but an imposed legal regime. You can bemoan the results but it is simplistic not to recognize the political/legal regime that made business unionism an outcome of other forces, not merely a voluntaristic "choice" to waive anything.

Now, arguing that job hierarchies were "purposeful" just goes against history. Unions had to fight tooth and nail to create job differentiation specifically to defend workers against arbitrary power by employers. Job descriptions helped prevent employers from speedups, undercutting pay through switching work around arbitrarily, and protecting workers, including radical workers, through seniority systems. Some writers argue otherwise, but most of them strike me as never having been near a real labor contract fight where employers spend most of their time trying to tear job descriptions apart and workers spend their time defending them. Note that analysts you respect like Kim Moody attack "team" systems like Saturn specifically because they collapse job descriptions and leave workers less protected and more subject to discipline and speedup. I would recommend Sanford Jacoby's EMPLOYING BUREAUCRACY as a good history of union fights for job descriptions as a tool to fight managerial power.

It may not have been the ideal tool and it had its downsides, but it was not a tool to suppress workers but to protect them given the legal realities.

Okay, that said, what's worth criticizing in the post-war union movement. Plenty. The collaboration of conservative unionists in the suppression of left unions was a betrayal of the worst kind, with a foreign policy that was appalling to an extreme. While the legal regime severely restricted labor rights, the leadership became even less creative than the uncreative range of legal options at their disposal. Most damaging, most unions essentially stopped organizing, letting whole industries like the electronics industry and whole regions like the Southwest grow non-union, leaving the whole union movement vulnerable to the massive corporate counterattack in the 70s and 80s.

But the fact remains that even the best, most leftleaning union leaders were able to do very little to fight the imposed legal regime of collective bargaining.

But in the context of this terrible legal regime, Sweeney has spent the last couple of decades pushing its limits as hard as any union leader. Where the law made it nearly impossible to organize subcontractors, he has used civil disobediance, boycotts and community coalitions to push the organization of the lowest-income and immigrant workers, ranging from janitors to home health care workers. Where unions were devoting less than 5% of their budgets to organizing, he committed more than a third of SEIU's national budget to new organizing.

When he took office as head of the AFL-CIO, he ran on a platform publicly of being willing to "block bridges" if necessary to fight for workers, upped the organizing budget of the federation, and fired the rightwing hacks in the AFL-CIO's foreign policy department.

Folks like Cockburn and others can take their shots, but proof is in the results. We have not seen massive organizing waves, but in the context of a movement that was plummeting towards numerical extinction, Sweeney's regime has seen a stabilization of union numbers which has required new organizing numbers not seen for decades. 600,000 new union members last year is not all that is needed, but it is a large start in the right direction. The alliances with the student movements on campus in the form of anti-sweatshop campaigns is bringing a whole new generation into contact with the union movement, just as the labor-environmental alliance on the WTO and other issues is building new alliances in other areas. Living wage campaigns and other city fights are building local power by unions that had decayed over decades. And while you can disagree with who is being supported, the electoral campaigns of the AFL-CIO have switched from check-writing passivity to massive volunteer-driven turn-out-the-vote endeavors that are mobilizing massive numbers of the rank-and-file.

Sweeney no doubt could be more aggressive in a number of areas and his record on union democracy is hardly sterling. He has been unable to forge a multi-union commitment to broadbased regional and industrywide organizing, which has left unions largely struggling to organize workplace by workplace.

But Sweeney is doing a hell of a lot to reverse the worst failures of conservative unionism of the post-war period, against legal odds that are pretty unbearable. You may be nostalgic for the Wobblies -- hell, I am a lot of the time -- but I do find a lot of the more extreme criticisms of Sweeney to be long on theory and pretty short on realistic grappling with the legal hell that is union organizing in the United States.

-- Nathan Newman

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