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Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America

Despite being limited by significant strategic shortcomings, many trade unionists still burn with the passion of the 1930s.

The following excerpt, which first ran in In These Times, is from  REVIVING THE STRIKE: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America by Joe Burns. Copyright (c) 2011 by Joe Burns. Reprinted with permission of  Ig Publishing, Inc.

During the 1950s, American workers went on strike an average of 350 times each year. In the past decade, the average number of major strikes each year fell to 20. In his new book Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America, veteran union negotiator and Working In These Times Contributor Joe Burns argues that grinding industries to a halt is the last, best hope for workers and their unions. Visit Working In These Times each Monday in June for exclusive excerpts from the book. Last week's is here. -- Working In These Times Editor Jeremy Gantz

With the production-halting strike becoming a relic of the past, union activists of the last 20 years have had to turn to other mechanisms to try to pressure employers during collective bargaining. Thus, we have seen the rise of strike “alternatives” such as the one-day publicity strike, the corporate campaign and the inside strategy. Each strategy, while supposedly an attempt to revive trade unionism, instead adheres to a system that has been established over the past 75 years to guarantee labor’s failure.

Without the traditional tactics of solidarity and stopping production behind them, none of these strategies had proven powerful enough to make an employer suffer economically. In many ways, these strategies are a reflection of the current state of the labor movement. Rather than putting forth bold ideas calculated to challenge the current system of labor relations in this country, contemporary trade unionists have instead adopted a philosophy of pragmatism, of making do with what the existing system offers, instead of trying to break free of that system, as traditional trade unionists once did.

Nonetheless, in recognizing the limitations of these tactics, we must still acknowledge how creative and refreshing they have been in an era of union busting and decline. They have kept alive the fighting spirit in the labor movement, particularly in situations where a traditional strike would have meant crushing defeat.

Therefore, it is important that we review these tactics so that we can understand how the contemporary labor movement operates in the absence of the traditional strike, as well as to see how, despite being limited by significant strategic shortcomings, many trade unionists still burn with the passion of the 1930s.

One-day publicity strikes

In a one-day publicity strike, the union informs management that its workers will be going on strike, but will return to work in 24 hours. Due to the short duration of the “strike” and the advance notification of the return to work, there is no opportunity for the employer to permanently replace the strikers.

However, due to their limited timeframe, one-day strikes have little impact on the operations of a company. Since the union announces its intention to strike in advance, the employer is typically able to make alternate arrangements to cover the work for the day that the workers are on strike.

The main goal of the one-day publicity strike is, as the name implies, publicity, as the union tries to bring public and media attention to the grievances of its workers. Consequently, one-day publicity strikes have generally been used against employers who are susceptible to public pressure. Frequent targets have included hospitals, universities and public employers.

Since one-day strikes are not as useful in industries that are relatively insulated from the public eye, they have not been utilized in manufacturing for the most part, although the International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Salaried, Machine and Furniture Workers did conduct a two-day strike in 2005 against General Electric, over healthcare cost increases.

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