Unless Union Workers Can Strike, They’re Dead

Why give someone a French kiss when they’ll accept a handshake?

– a company executive quoted during contract negotiations with the union

As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “Labor cannot, on any terms, surrender the right to strike.” Brandeis didn’t say that because he personally rejoiced in seeing factories lying idle; rather, he said it because he knew that strikes were the only weapon union members had. Take that away, and they have nothing.

While it’s true that other tactics and strategies are available to union workers, the strike—defiantly bringing the whole operation to a screeching halt—is their only viable “weapon.” Why? Because it, and it alone, immediately affects the company’s profits. Without labor, they’re crippled. Moreover, if management didn’t think strikes were effective, they wouldn’t fear them as much as they do.

Consider what happens at the bargaining table. If you can’t strike in response to an inferior contract offer, your only other choice is to accept it. There ain’t a third option. You can scream and stomp your feet and promise management there will be dire repercussions if this lousy offer is forced down their throats, but in truth, without the threat of a strike, none of these histrionics amount to more than dramatic posturing.

Even worse, after deciding not to go on strike, if the union still chooses, on principle, not to sign the contract, management has the authority to sign it for you (an “implemented agreement”), and you’re stuck with whatever they give you. And don’t think they don’t see you for what you are: too stubborn to sign the damned contract, but too weak or “political” to pull the plug. It’s a hideous position to be placed in.

So what happened? There used to be literally thousands of strikes per year. Today there are just a relative handful. What happened? Well, for one thing, there are far fewer private sector union members today than there were, say, in the 1950s. Today, the private sector is about 7-percent unionized; in the 1950s it was closer to 35-percent. More union shops, more union members….more strikes. Simple as that.

Also, unions had more respect back then. In the 1950s, when people heard you were a union member on strike, they not only grudgingly admired you, they also envied you for having a good job (union wages and benefits), and—because everybody respects strength—for having the courage and resources to stand up to The Man. For having the guts to tell The Man to go screw himself.

Compare that 1950s mindset to the mindset of today. Compare it to Corporate America, where workers are scared shitless—scared of being laid off, scared of jobs being relocated to Asia, scared of the boss, scared of not working long and hard enough, scared of getting caught spreading pro-union literature on the job. Basically, scared of everything.

Where’s that fighting spirit? Where’s that old-fashioned sense of American sass? The sass and orneriness that led directly to the American worker carving out his and her niche in the middle-class? Alas, it’s been leeched out of us—propagandized and legislated right out of us.

But let’s be fair. While workers’ defiance and “sassiness” are worth re-acquiring, there’s more going on here. Indeed, one can argue that the biggest change in the dynamic has been the introduction of permanent replacement workers. And the sea change in public perception and the ease of automation are largely responsible for it.

When union members go on an economic strike (as opposed to a ULP—Unfair Labor Practice—or safety strike), their job can be given away to a permanent replacement, which, recalling the Brandeis quote, is essentially the same thing as relinquishing their right to strike. Let’s not fool ourselves. If going on strike means losing your job, you no longer have the “right to strike.”

The only solution, other than roving bands of union strikers dissuading scabs from entering the facility by beating the holy crap out of them (Ah, the nostalgic old days!), is to pass a law banning permanent replacements. Companies can still hire temporary replacements in order to keep the operation going, but when the strike is over, the “real workers” get to come back. It’s the first step in leveling the playing field.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.