Around the World, Mass Political Strikes Challenge the Effects of Globalization

Around the world in the last few years, labor has responded to globalization and its impact with general or mass political strikes. In Argentina, India, Spain, South Korea, Bolivia, South Africa, and France, labor federations have called on their members and sometimes the entire working class to challenge privatization, austerity, downsizing, and other symptoms of increased corporate power-by stopping work.

Not too long ago, the Ontario Federation of Labour organized one-day general strikes in cities across that province called the Days of Action. In 1998, Puerto Rico’s labor movement, including most of its AFL-CIO unions, struck in opposition to the sale of the public telephone company.

With the Free Trade Area of the Americas coming down the Fast Track, why not a general strike throughout the hemisphere, including across the whole U.S.?

It’s a novel idea for a labor movement that, especially since the 1940s, has been focussed on industry-by-industry or company-by-company bargaining. Since the go-it-alone strategy is not working in an era of globalization, some changes may be in order.

THE AMERICAN SYSTEM

It has to be admitted that in the United States, general strikes are as rare as a generous employer. One reason for this is simply that the business unionists who head up most of our unions are not for it. Back in the mid-1970s then-AFL-CIO President George Meany said, “We believe in the American system. We don’t take to the streets and we don’t call general strikes and we don’t call political strikes.”

In one respect Meany was wrong. “We” certainly do take to the streets, and it hasn’t just been in the 1930s or the 1960s. Check out the streets around Pittston’s western Virginia coal mines in 1989, or the highways hit by “road warriors” from Hormel in the mid-1980s or Staley in the mid-1990s. What about the Latino drywallers in Los Angeles a decade ago or the construction workers in New York City a couple of years ago? And then there were the thousands who marched last June in Columbia, South Carolina in support of the Charleston 5, members of the ILA threatened with felony charges for trying to stop scabs.

And does Seattle ring a bell?

Meany was wrong. American workers hit the streets with regularity. But they don’t stop work and hit the streets all at once, together, for a common goal. In large part this is due to the weak class consciousness of most American workers that is both a cause and consequence of business unionism. Over the years, it has been further undermined by a prosperous past, racial divisions, and an approach to politics and social programs unique to unions in the United States.

Most accounts of the tightening grip of business unionism after World War II include the, by then, universal presence of no-strike clauses in union contracts; the purge of leftists from the CIO; the growing dependence on the Democratic Party; McCarthyism; increased bureaucracy; and, of course, the Taft-Hartley Act. All of these played a role in the triumph of the narrow ideology and practice of business unionism. But it is important to understand what they did and didn’t accomplish.

All of these events and trends weakened organized labor in important ways. They wrecked the plan to organize the South, leaving that region a haven for runaway shops to this day. Bargaining in the electrical industry was fragmented and seriously undermined by the attacks on the United Electrical Workers after it was forced out of the CIO.

Most unions, however, emerged from the 1940s larger and institutionally stronger. Many grew from the 1950s through the 1970s, although private sector unionism slipped for a time. There were more strikes in the 1950s than in the 1930s, and many of the big gains in collective bargaining came in that decade. Real wages, adjusted for inflation, grew by 250 percent from 1945 to 1975. In most respects, the unions of the 1950s were stronger than they had ever been and much more powerful than they would become.

A NARROWED VISION

What the very success of the path chosen in the 1940s did do, however, was to undermine the notion of the labor movement as the representative of a class and to narrow the vision of most unions.

Frustrated in the late 1940s by a Republican Congress and a rightward moving Democratic Party, leaders of the individual unions turned toward a trend begun by the Mine Workers in 1946 when John L. Lewis negotiated an employer-paid health and welfare fund. “If we cannot bring this protection to our members by national legislation,” said Textile Workers President William Pollock, “we should insist that this become part of our contracts.”

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This trend toward winning social gains union-by-union, industry-by-industry instead of class-wide was given a boost by the Taft-Hartley Act, which in an attempt to control union-run plans actually encouraged them.

It meant, of course, that programs such as improved pensions and national health care that had been seen by millions as benefiting the entire working class and others as well, now only came to those whose union was strong enough to win them from reluctant employers. Whereas in 1946 the major industrial unions had bargained at the same time for the same demand and many had struck together, henceforth each union sought its own way, and fought only for its own members.

Whether they administered industry-wide union-run plans like the Mine Workers or Teamsters or the company-based health and pension plans like those in auto, steel, and electrical, top union leaders now stood over highly complex “private welfare states” that encouraged more bureaucracy and a greater focus on a particular company’s well-being. It was the companies, after all, not the government or the public as a whole, which appeared to “pay the bills” for health care and pensions.

Thus, the leaders’ and staffers’ concern for company profits, already there for many, was reinforced and deepened. This meant the continual surrender of workplace organization and power to management in return for expensive benefits-presumably paid for by the productivity squeezed out of the members. It meant the abandonment of cross-industry pattern bargaining and eventually the unraveling of even single-industry patterns, as union leaders focused on the “health” of the big companies that provided the benefits.

Above all, it meant a growing identification with the company, not only among the leaders, but in the ranks as well. This didn’t mean that workers didn’t hate management and resent the indignity and physical pressure of the demands of production. But the realization that your pension and health benefits derived from the company-even if won through struggle by the union-could not help but affect your outlook.

FRAGMENTED RESISTANCE

The aggressive speed-up and productivity drives of the late 1950s through the 1960s provoked an upsurge in rank and file militancy, expressed through wildcat strikes and the formation of reform movements among coal miners, airline mechanics, auto, steel, postal, public sector, and trucking workers. Yet the movements and organizations they created never came together or had much contact with one another. For all their daring and militancy, these grassroots workers’ movements of the 1960s and 1970s reflected the fragmentation underwritten by the “private welfare state” that brought both a measure of prosperity to many and speed-up to millions.

By the early 1980s, the corporate assault on the workplace was joined by company efforts to cut costs across the board. Now, the wages and benefits employers had ceded in more profitable times came under attack along with working conditions. The room for trade-offs shrank year by year.

For most top union leaders this produced accelerated concern with company well-being. Labor-management cooperation, jointness, and partnerships became the alleged salvation of company and union alike. It might cost jobs as downsizing proceeded, but the goose that laid the golden egg would be saved-even if the eggs going to the workers became more scarce.

Even in its own terms this “strategy” has failed. It has not stopped the erosion of benefits or the loss of jobs. The go-along, go-it-alone route can’t work for workers in a world of global corporations.

Perhaps ironically, the corporate post-September 11 rush to war profiteering and government hand-outs has made the question of class all too real for millions, who are being forced to sacrifice jobs or income in the face of war and recession.

In this context, the fight against the Free Trade Area of the Americas offers an opportunity to pull organized labor and its allies back together again. It holds out a chance to retrain our movement in the idea that an injury to one is an injury to all.

A mass political strike in America? Think about it.