While rebellions against poverty and repression spread from Hong Kong to Lebanon, Chile and Iraq, workers in the United States are engaging in their own hell-raising. Drawing upon their militant labor history, the ranks are picking up one of their most effective weapons, the strike.
By withholding their labor, working people can use their collective power to force arrogant bosses, both private and public, to concede to their just demands.
Pickets proliferate. The upsurge in walkouts began with the audacious West Virginia teachers strike in February 2018, when rank and file educators blew right past their timid union leadership on their way to the picket line. This inspired teachers in a slew of red states, as well as bus drivers, nurses and other public employees, to flex their muscles (See “The power of public workers revealed,” Freedom Socialist, April 2019).
In fact, in 2018 there were more major work stoppages in the country than at any time since 1986, with nearly 500,000 workers participating. And 2019 is turning out to be even more rowdy. In one week in October there were more than 85,000 folks walking picket lines across the nation.
Until recently, the lion’s share of those striking were public sector unions. Last year’s nationwide hotel workers strikes, as well as the 49,000 members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) who struck General Motors (GM), has shown that workers under the lash of private employers are also ready to fight back. While the UAW was out, in Arizona 1,700 copper workers at the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO), who had not received a raise in nine years, were also on the picket line.
What’s gotten into the toilers? For one thing, workers are fed up. During the recession that started in 2008, many companies and public agencies imposed harsh concessions on their workforce. They claimed that hard economic times required pay freezes, cuts in benefits, and leaner staffing. In 2009 UAW members were pressured to accept the hated two-tier wage scale, which forced newer employees to accept far lower wages than their senior counterparts for the exact same work.
But now the economy has supposedly recovered. And it has for corporations — their profits are up nearly 30 percent since their pre-recession peak in 2006. The fat cats have done quite well at the expense of workers, whose share of the national income is at its lowest since World War II.
So of course the folks who generate all this wealth, the working stiffs, are tired of waiting to get their share. They are ready to rebel as they see their bosses pull down enormous salaries while their wages lose ground to inflation.
Another factor driving the impulse to grab a picket sign is the success of strikes in the last two years. Teachers have won double digit pay raises, even in states with anti-union “Right to Work” laws. They have forced concessions on education funding, school privatization, class sizes and more. Good results from bold action breeds confidence, and soon there is strike talk around every water cooler.
A tale of two strikes. Very different strategies were used for a couple of recent battles — the walkout by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the stand-off between the United Auto Workers and General Motors.
The CTU drew upon the lessons of their groundbreaking 2012 walkout during their recent strike. Clearly the ranks were well prepared for action, and pickets remained spirited for eleven days. Each afternoon members led rallies downtown, where they enjoyed strong support from the rest of labor and the public.
A key strategy for the union, and one that won parents to their cause, was to broaden the issues that they fought for far beyond the normal bounds of collective bargaining. The walkout was all about a better, more equitable education for Chicago students. Better services for students, reducing class sizes, and ending racial disparities across the school system were front and center.
While the agreement reached did not address some of the more ambitious goals such as investments in affordable housing, it did contain a 16 percent raise over 5 years (40 percent raises for the lowest paid staff), a guaranteed social worker and nurse in every school, significant progress on class size reduction, and more.
The confrontation between the UAW and GM was an epic battle, judging by the tenacity of autoworkers who stuck to their guns for 40 days. On the line picketers talked about their outrage over the treatment of temporary workers and those newer employees in the lower-tier wage scale. The inter-generational solidarity was inspiring to see.
But the UAW leadership, several of whom have been indicted for corruption, was not up to the task. The strike started with little preparation, and the demands were vague. There was no plan to mobilize solidarity from the rest of labor or gain public support. There was not even a hardship fund set up as a way for others to help out.
After such a heroic effort by the ranks, the union brokered a deal that still contained a tiered wage structure (with some improvements) and did essentially nothing to slow down plant closures. A 43 percent NO vote, even after six weeks on the line, showed significant discontent with the meager results from the walkout.
A time for defiance. Current labor laws stack the deck against striking workers, and they must be challenged. Teachers in Dedham, Mass., recently did that by walking out despite a state law banning public employee strikes.
Private sector unions like the UAW will have to do serious rule breaking to prevail against their deep-pocketed employers. They will have to defy injunctions against mass picketing, launch industry-wide shutdowns of production (even if not all of their contracts are expired), and mobilize national and international solidarity to challenge their boss’s control over production.
Workers in the U.S. are showing that they have the fighting spirit to win justice. With bold leadership and solid plans to mobilize, their strikes can yield more victories and rock the economic status quo.
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