Labor

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.

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.

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.