Didn’t Our Mommies and Daddies Teach Us to Fight for What Was Right?

To anyone who’s been paying attention, it’s clear that there aren’t enough strikes in the U.S. There used to be thousands of strikes during the heyday of the post-war and 1950s. Today there are but a scattered handful. Even acknowledging the predicament that unions find themselves in, this absence of firepower is pitiful testimony to organized labor’s lack of imagination and resolve.

The Law of the Bargaining Table dictates that you come to fight. When you’re unwilling to use what is universally recognized as your only effective weapon you’re going to be perceived as entering a battlefield unarmed. And, not surprisingly, statistics confirm that perception. The decline in the number of strikes coincides dramatically with the decline in the earning power of the American middle-class.

The reason strikes work isn’t because their fundamental premise (i.e., workers hurting themselves in order to hurt the company) is so unnerving, or because strikes attract media attention, or even because federal mediators get assigned to help with the negotiations.

Rather, strikes work because of the fear factor. Denying the company the opportunity to make money (by workers withholding their labor) is the one and only thing management is actually afraid of. Everything else that happens at the bargaining table (the threats, the table-pounding, the presentation of charts and graphs, etc.) can be written off as stagecraft.

Of course, companies will tell you that strikes are stupid, anachronistic, and counterproductive, that shutting down the whole shebang over a contract dispute is not only silly, but needlessly destructive to both sides. But that’s just whistling in the dark. Strikes do work, and companies know it. That’s why they fear them.

Predictably, one of the things you still hear from management and, alas, the occasional union representative is that strikes can cause a disgruntled company to pull up stakes and relocate elsewhere, either in another state or another country. But this view is more the product of corporate propaganda than a portrayal of reality.

First of all, companies don’t relocate because they’re mad at you. They pull up stakes for one reason and one reason only: Because relocating makes good business sense. And if moving to another state or country made good business sense, they would already have done it, strike or no strike. Nothing is stopping them.

Second, businesses don’t leave the U.S. to avoid paying a union wage. That’s another absurd myth. They leave the country to avoid paying the federal minimum wage ($7.25 per hour), which is why these businesses need to be portrayed as the anti-American, money-grubbing traitors they are.

Think of that scene in The Godfather where Clemenza is standing in the kitchen with Michael Corrleone, explaining how internecine war with the other families is inevitable and necessary. “These things gotta happen,” Clemenza says. “Every five years or so….ten years. Helps to get rid of the bad blood.” The same is true of strikes.

For management, the occasional strike proves that the union has more at its disposal than talk, talk, and more talk. In negotiations, talk has a tendency to take on a life of its own, of becoming an end rather than a means. That’s why so many bargains limp along interminably….because no one knows how to stop talking. You can saber-rattle all you like, but until you prove you’re willing to pull the plug, they’re not going to believe you.

And for the union, a strike not only fulfills a practical need, but an internal, cathartic one as well. It serves as the calling-out of the rank-and-file, a challenge to everyone—from the timid back-benchers to the tough-talking, labor radicals—to stand up and be counted. A strike vote is the classic put-up or shut-up moment.

Two things: (1) We Americans have a soft spot in our hearts for underdogs willing to fight for what they believe in (especially when that fight involves self-sacrifice), and (2) we have a profound, almost reverential respect for hard-workers—and, by extension, contempt for slackers and freeloaders.

We are obsessed with hard work. Indeed, so fueled are we by our Calvinist legacy, that in the aftermath of some guy going berserk and shooting a bunch of people—when the media ask his neighbors and fellow employees to describe what kind of person he was—they will describe him as having been a “good worker,” a “hard-worker.”

But there’s a contradiction here. We admire underdogs, yet we do not rejoice when underdogs go on strike against corporate fat cats. We admire hard-workers, yet we do not embrace those who are, arguably, the hardest-workers among us—the stoop laborers who pick our lettuce and strawberries. Someone needs to explain that.

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: dmacaray@gmail.com. Read other articles by David.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MylesH said on August 20th, 2010 at 12:36pm #

    Well said.
    As a teacher I’ve waited for years for our union presidents to announce she/he might be coming down with the flu and hope that s/he can make it to work on Monday (hint hint). They never had the courage.

  2. Deadbeat said on August 20th, 2010 at 4:36pm #

    Didn’t Our Mommies and Daddies Teach Us to Fight for What Was Right?

    This article has nice sounding cliches but the contradictions makes the article lose its effectiveness in order to understand the current situation and what needs to be done about it.

  3. John Andrews said on August 20th, 2010 at 11:27pm #

    The writer doesn’t mention how strikes often suit employers, and have sometimes been engineered by employers and politicians ever since the grim days of the Industrial Revolution. For example, when things are quiet you can’t beat a strike for cutting down on your wages bill for a while… or when you want a climate of industrial unrest in order to ‘justify’ drafting anti-union legislation.

    The writer sneers at the possibility of strikes being used to ‘justify’ companies relocating. Whilst they would never be the primary cause of relocations, they certainly help the media explain such relocations (not that the media need much help).

    We in Britain used to have ‘great’ union leaders who were never afraid of strike action… Len Murray for example, or Bill Morris, or John Prescott. They all went on to the House of Lords.

  4. Don Hawkins said on August 23rd, 2010 at 3:34am #

    By Marshall Saunders
    Legend has it that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. These days, Congress fiddles while the world burns.

    More precisely, it’s Russia that’s burning at the moment, with a record heat wave and forest fires being blamed for as many as 15,000 deaths so far. Also troubling is the drought, which prompted the Russian government to ban wheat exports this year, sending shock waves through global food markets. Philadelphia Inquirer

    Take a look at the temperatures today top right;


    Legend has it that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. These days, Congress fiddles while the world burns. Good one Marshall Saunders and the big plan for some very tuff day’s ahead is go shopping. You would think this is setting a very bad example for the kid’s. Yes this is a tuff one alright for that little bit bigger brain while the World burns.

    From the beginning of preparedness in 2011 , American leaders recognized that the stakes were too high to permit the change over from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy to grow in an unfettered, laissez-faire manner. American manufacturers, for instance, could not be trusted to stop producing consumer goods and to start producing materiel for the change over.

    To organize the slowdown of the economies Worldwide and to ensure that it produced the goods needed for the changeover , the federal government spawned an array of mobilization agencies which not only often purchased goods (or arranged their purchase) , but which in practice closely directed those goods’ manufacture and heavily influenced the operation of private companies and whole industries. On going talks with China and India were spawned with agreement’s to share all research working together was for the first time achieved.

    Solution therefore required a rising fee on oil, gas and coal – a carbon fee collected from fossil fuel companies at the domestic mine or port of entry. All funds collected were distributed to the public on a per capita basis to allow lifestyle adjustments and spur clean energy innovations. As the fee increased, fossil fuels were phased out, replaced by carbon-free energy and efficiency. Farming practices Worldwide began to change and those that needed help got help. Did we all live happily ever after no but it was a start and America for the fist time began to lose weight.

    A straight line may be the shortest path between two points, but it is not necessarily the fastest way to get where you want to go. Ladies and gentlemen, you’re entering the wondrous dimension of imagination, next stop…………………………………………….. thanks T42 the wondrous dimension of imagination.