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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: In your book, you take “social unionists” to task for focusing on political advocacy and community partnership but saying little about strikes. Where do these strikes—which bring together unions and community organizations, across diffuse workplaces—fit into your thinking?

JB: Community ties are essential for the labor movement, in terms of being able to have allies if workers are on strike. But if you look at how the union movement has historically grown, it’s been through these massive upsurges of worker self-activity; it’s really been driven from below and driven from the workplace. That’s not to say that we don’t need to be a broad-based labor movement or we don’t need community allies. But it’s a question of where we’re going to center the labor movement.

The good thing about these initiatives—at Walmart, fast food and warehouses—is that they’re offering a different approach, a return to the workplace. At the core of it is organizing workers and helping them take the courageous act of striking these major corporations. These are some of the largest corporations in the United States that have traditionally been difficult to organize. Low-wage workers, a highly transitory workforce, easily replaced. Any strategy to really break the back of this industry and win unionization and change the wages of the industry is going to have to use all tactics that we’ve learned over the last several decades, including the ideas from social unionism and the idea of corporate campaigns. But I think they’re coming to realize that the center of workplace organizing is strike activity.

JC: What do you think it’s going to take for the “minority unionists” to organize new rank-and-filers?

JB: It seems like they’re doing a lot of it already in terms of success building upon success, in terms of workers being able to go out on strike and not be fired—that sends an example back to the other workers that they’re able to stand up. Some of the Walmart organizers were saying they went back into the workplace after the walkout and more people were wearing their buttons. I think that’s part of the process of building solidarity in the workplace and building courage.

JC: What about lighting a fire under the rest of organized labor?

JB: People within the labor movement should support the continued funding of these efforts. There needs to be long-term support for organizing in this particular fashion. There needs to be a lot more discussion about the legal impediments to this type of successful organizing, and how are we going to challenge that. Ultimately this strategy cannot win without challenging labor law. That’s not the role of just these organizers, but the obligation of the entire labor movement.

James Cersonsky is a labor and education reporter. He runs a youth action research program connecting high schoolers with neighborhood history. Find him on Twitter: @cersonsky.

 
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