Fighting to Win

Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America, by Joe Burns (2011). This exciting little book begins with a bang. Reviving the Strike reminds us that class war shaped industrial America, as organized workers challenged capitalism and transformed themselves and society in the process.

Burns argues that workers’ only real bargaining power is their ability to stop production. And to do this, workers must fight as a class. These two unavoidable facts gave birth to solidarity pickets, secondary strikes and boycotts that involved whole communities, regions, states, and ultimately the nation.

Class solidarity meant that no scabs were allowed to cross picket lines, and no company was allowed to use struck goods or parts. Holding firm meant fighting pitched battles with hired thugs, professional strikebreakers and scabs. When class solidarity was solid, workers could not be defeated. Everyone understood that, even politicians.

During the late 1890s and early 1900s, class solidarity gained workers real social power in the workplace and in society.

However, capitalism cannot function unless it subordinates workers, so the employers closed ranks and built their own class solidarity backed by the power of the State.

In Chapter 3, Burns explains how American workers were legally stripped of their right to fight effectively.

“This did not occur overnight, but was the result of a complicated, decades-log legislative and legal assault by employers against the foundations of unionism. The outlawing of solidarity began with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935, became explicit with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, and was furthered along by Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s.”

The employers could use Congress and the judiciary against workers because the capitalist State always has, and always will, serve the capitalist class. The result:

“In 1952, there were 470 major strikes (those of more than 1,000 workers) involving 2,746,000 workers. By contrast, in 2008, there were only 15 major work stoppages, involving 72,000 workers…In 1952, almost 49 million days were lost due to work stoppages; in 2008, the number of days lost was starkly lower – less than 2 million.”

Burns links the social gains of the postwar period with the use of the economic strike, and their subsequent loss to its abandonment.

The Union Bureaucracy

Employers could not have defeated the working class without the support of the union bureaucracy.

According to Burns’ research, all traditional trade unionists, radical and conservative alike, understood that an effective strike had to stop production. However, by the 1980s, most union officials had adopted “a management-inspired view” of striking, where workers abide by the law, rely primarily on moral pressure, and are easily defeated.

In Chapters 4 and 5, Burns reviews how unions have failed to create viable alternatives to the economic strike.

“Each strategy [the publicity strike, the corporate campaign and the inside 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 have proven powerful enough to make an employer suffer economically.”

According to Burns, less effective forms of struggle reflect a weak labor movement that functions within the existing system “instead of trying to breaking free of that system, as traditional unionists once did.” At the same time, non-workplace strategies to win social gains lack the power to redistribute wealth from the employers to the working class. As a result, workers continue to lose ground.

Chapter 5 explains that campaigns to increase union density by “organizing the unorganized” fail for the simple reason that workers have no interest in joining weak unions that can’t put more bread on the table.

Burns doesn’t explicitly state why union bureaucrats would rather do anything but revive the economic strike. However, he does describe the bureaucracy as a structure apart from the working class and with a separate interest – preserving itself. Breaking laws would bring fines that would deplete union funds and threaten officials’ salaries and careers.

Fortunately, unions are more than buildings, golf courses and bank accounts. All of these could be lost without losing the essential core of unionism – class solidarity. If fighting to win means sacrificing union “assets,” then that is what must happen.

Unions cannot allow themselves to be held back by a bureaucratic structure that protects its wealth more than its members.

Twisting Reality

Chapter 7 explores how employers twist reality to gain support for attacking workers.

Traditional unionists insisted that workers are not commodities; they are human beings with the right to determine what happens in the workplace. Furthermore, “the rights of workers must trump market considerations.”

“One of the main tenets of traditional trade unionism was that workers could not allow the market to determine wages and working conditions, as the market, unrestrained, will continually drive workers toward poverty, injury and even death.”

The traditional union principle that capital can create nothing without workers – that labor creates all wealth – has been turned on its head, so that capital is now revered as the source of jobs and prosperity. Even more shocking is the extent to which union bureaucrats accept this lie and use it to pressure workers to accept concessions, in essence, to surrender to the market. Burns concludes, “Challenging this pro-management bias is key to reviving trade unionism.”

Reviving the Strike offers some powerful lessons:

  • There can be no common interest between bosses and workers, only war.
  • Workers will always lose if they play by the boss’s rules.
  • The power of workers lies in their ability to stop production. If they don’t use this power, they have nothing with which to bargain.
  • Workers can stop production only if they unite as a class, disregarding the boundaries of job description, workplace and industry.
  • Now that production is international, class solidarity must also be international.
  • In order to fight effectively, workers must break the laws laid down by the employers and their State.
  • When workers challenge the employers’ right to dictate what happens in the workplace, they challenge capitalism itself.
  • The question of power must lie at the core of any union strategy.

In any war there are only two options: fight to win, or surrender. Both options produce casualties. There is no “safe” option for workers under attack, no place to hide in the hope of protecting one’s individual job, dignity and life.

Burns criticizes the pessimism of “professional” unionists who justify doing nothing while they wait for some spontaneous, successful strike to resuscitate a dying labor movement. We can and must lay the foundation for renewed struggle in the here and now.

As Burns explains, developing class solidarity is a process. A minority of determined workers can pull more anxious co-workers into small activities, and the more workers act together, the more courage they have to do what they might never do as individuals.

Reviving the Strike is inspiring and easy to read. It provides the information and the arguments we need to build a new labor movement from the ground up – one that fights to win.

Susan Rosenthal is a life-long socialist, retired physician, union member, and the author of POWER and Powerlessness (2006). Sick and Sicker: Essays on Class, Health and Health Care (2010), and Rebel Minds: Class War, Mass Suffering, and the Urgent Need for Socialism (2019). She can be reached at: Read other articles by Susan.