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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.

Fast food workers are utilizing one-day strikes to highlight low wages, unfair labor practices.


In the early hours of May 30, Seattle residents looking for a late-night chalupa fix were rebuffed by a sign outside the Taco Bell on Broadway: “We apologize for the inconvenience but we will be closing at midnight tonight due to short staffing.”

Taco Bell’s minimum wage employees had walked off the job.

That night, Seattle became the sixth city this spring to host a multi-shop strike among fast food workers. In New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Seattle, workers have staged one-day work stoppages, demanding $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. In some cities, retail workers have joined fast food workers under the same demands. Workers have the joint support of community groups, ranging from the ACORN-offshoot New York Communities for Change to local clergy allied with workers at individual stores, and established trade unions, most prominently the Service Employees International Union.

Who would think to organize fast food? In Seattle, workers only shut down a handful of shops, and insomniacs could take their munchies to other joints down the road. The strategy is “minority unionism,” where a slice of the workforce pressures the boss on behalf of the rest—with the hope of bringing other workers into the mix. So far, no workers on record have lost their jobs as a result of the strikes. As low-wage, precarious, thankless McJobs become the national norm, especially for women and people of color, the Taco Bell workers are the face of a new labor movement.

They’re also the newest practitioners of an ancient tactic. In the US, strikes have dropped precipitously—from 350 major strikes per year in the 1950s, to 20 per year in the 2000s. This season’s insurgencies, which have hit perennial labor-squeezers from fast food to Walmart, are what Joe Burns, in his 2011 book Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America, ordered. Burns calls for unions to return their focus to the point of production. There, he argues, workers have their greatest power to pressure the boss and ignite solidarity from community allies and workers in other shops and industries. Though recent decades have seen cases of successful strike activity—from Pittston Coal in 1989 to the Charleston docks in 2000—few high-level officials, Burns writes, even talk about the strike as a tactic. By asserting their right to remove their labor, workers have the power to re-humanize “labor” and ultimately redefine labor law.

What, then, to make of the recent strike wave? AlterNet spoke with Burns to get his take.

James Cersonsky: The strike wave keeps spreading, with no signs of stopping. Why do you think the movement has grown as it has?

Joe Burns: I think it’s a positive development and that it represents a real shift in organizing strategy. It reflects a return to workplace organizing and the strike as a way of rebuilding union power.

Prior to this, for about 20 years, the labor movement had a series of strategies which were very pragmatic—they were meant to work within the existing system of labor laws, and attempt to win by fighting smarter. Unions tried, for example, a variety of corporate campaigns, where they would try to pressure corporations from every angle, often forcing them to agree to neutrality agreements. They were very staff intensive, expensive, and ultimately really didn’t produce the types of membership gains that advocates were seeking; union density continued to fall.

What workers have decided is to return to some traditional forms of organizing, whether you call it minority or pre-majority unionism, finding workers who are willing to fight. They’ve built organizations within the workplace, and are using this series of short strikes for a couple purposes: To raise the general issue of working conditions and workplace powers, but also sending a message of organizing to workers in the workplace, that the way you can improve your conditions is through self-organization.

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