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Workers' Greatest Power Over Owners and Bosses? The Ability to Stop Work and Walk Out

Author Joe Burns discusses this year’s electric fast food and retail strikes and what organized labor can learn from them.

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JC: A big theme of your book is what you call “labor control,” that is, a system of laws and managerial practices that have tightened the leash on worker organizing. What effect could these strikes have in unleashing worker power from this system?

JB: To truly succeed in terms of changing the wage structure of the industry and forcing these giant corporations to recognize unions, you need a variety of tactics, but a focus on solidarity—which includes secondary picketing [where strikers protest businesses connected with the principal target, like suppliers or contractors, to increase pressure]. You’d have to allow all the workers in the industry, broadly conceived, to be able to work together. When you look at the history of warehouse and retail in the 1950s, that’s how it was organized. Today, labor law basically outlaws secondary pickets. You’d need an industry-wide approach, you’d have to picket multiple employers at the same time. And that’s where you run into restrictions in labor law.

I would say that the current efforts are pointed in the right direction. Ultimately, and this is a question for the entire movement, we need to tackle the system of labor laws that prevents successful unionism. That means a number of things, including standing on our constitutional rights. These restrictions on picketing are restrictions on free speech. A picket sign is speech, but we rarely hear that in the labor movement.

You see this discussion within the AFL-CIO leading up to this year’s convention in LA. There are a lot of ideas being discussed about how to pull in worker centers and community allies, form alliances, and so forth. There’s been, so far, very little discussion of militancy and directly confronting the system of labor law in this country. Hopefully through these actions, the conversation [will change]. We have to go further and address these fundamental restrictions. That’s really how you test them, by fighting against them. That’s what you saw in the 1980s: A series of militant strikes, and out of those strikes came the push to change labor law and ban the permanent replacement of strikers [which is employer shorthand for denying workers their jobs after a strike, basically firing them for union activity, which is otherwise legally protected].

JC: The issue of permanent replacement looms particularly large under mass unemployment. Can you explain how the current strike wave has managed to avoid it?

JB: By conducting short strikes but also by striking over unfair labor practice charges, which is ultimately dependent on the National Labor Relations Board finding years later that it was a unfair labor practice. By structuring the strikes in this way, they’re able to protect workers. I think they’ve also relied on traditional non-labor board tactics to defend workers. There was a Wendy’s worker in Brooklyn who was fired and they had workers and community allies show up at Wendy’s to [successfully] reverse the decision.

JC: One thing that’s struck me about a lot of the discussion of the strikes is that so much of it is about low wages, rather than, say, justice for women or people of color, who do the lion’s share of fast food and retail work in big cities. In thinking about labor, how do you square the idea of worker power with the struggle for racial justice?

At the best times, the struggles have merged. Obviously, there’s a complex history where it didn’t do that. But if you look at the organizing of sanitation workers in the 1960s, these strikes were in the South and tied into the civil rights movement and the urban rebellion in the late ‘60s and early '70s.That’s a lot of where they drew their power. If you look at current efforts, they very much have a component of racial justice. Memphis sanitation workers from the 1968 strike traveled to New York to speak to restaurant workers.

 
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