Against the Work Stoppage- A New Strike for a New Labor Movement

Over the past few years, the labor movement in the U.S. may have turned a very important corner. Finally, two decades after a series of disastrous setbacks made strikes taboo in union circles, we may be recovering our most important weapon.

It's about time, because without the capacity to strike and win, labor movement revival is impossible. Like any social movement, the labor movement only exists through collective action, and the strike is our main form of collective action.

But a new danger looms as we pick up the picket signs. The new danger is that after all the efforts our unions are making to unlearn the old ways of business unionism, when we turn to the strike we'll do it the old way. After all, a strike is a strike is a strike... isn't it? No way.

We might call the strike as we know it "the work stoppage". This kind of strike was shaped in conditions that prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s. It is a withdrawal of labor power, a bargaining tool for business unionism. By cutting profits, it aims to force an economic decision favorable to workers. And typically-though union officials don't like to be quoted on this-the pain of the extended strike is also often intended to force workers to moderate their expectations and settle for less.

The work stoppage IS the most common form of the strike in the U.S., and it certainly is our common notion of what a strike is and can be. But in fact the simple withholding of labor only delivers power where we have cornered our labor market, or where we somehow enjoy an advantage that protects us from competition. And in the public sector it's rarely EVER an effective source of power, since public employers aren't capitalists and don't lose profit when we strike, and since public employers learned a long time ago how to turn public anger over the disruption of public services against "those greedy public workers."

By the late 1970s in the public sector and by the early 1980s in the private sector, employers in both sectors had learned how to use strikes as weapons against unions, and routinely sought to manipulate unions into striking. Small wonder, then, that when someone shouts "strike" in a crowded union hall so many of us run for the exit.

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So now we are in a situation, public sector and private, less similar to that faced by our parents thirty or forty years ago, and more similar to that faced by workers in most of the rest of the world. The simple withholding of labor power is not enough, especially when a company with an eye on long-term strategy calculates its ability to take a strike for a year or more to break the union and allow it to re-open at lower cost and with a freer hand, and ESPECIALLY where an employer is inclined to disinvest in higher-wage areas and move production elsewhere.

Does that mean we don't strike? No! But it does mean that we strike smart. We study when we win and when we lose and learn the lessons of success and failure. The most important lesson is that a whole new world of possibilities appears for union power when we start seeing the strike not as an "off button"-- put down your tools, walk out, stand in front of the worksite, keep people from crossing the lines-- and instead see it as an "on button."

After all, in a strike situation suddenly the union has dozens or hundreds or even thousands of full-time folks on the payroll, so to speak. What kind of creative and effective organization and tactics can we put together with that many folks? What are our adversary's points of vulnerability, and how can we hit them? Who are our potential allies, what are THEIR issues, and how can we use mutual support and common concerns to bring them into the fray? How can we use this suddenly huge "strikeforce" to escalate, to spread the strike, to organize the unorganized and/or to accomplish other kinds of objectives-in our community or in the political arena or elsewhere in our industry-that leave us stronger than we were before the strike?

Unless we shake our taken-for-granted notion of the strike as work stoppage, the habits of the past will hold us back from learning such lessons. This could easily lead to more PATCO-style debacles. And so the mini-revival of the strike could wind up reinforcing our fear of collective action, instead of arming and energizing the new labor movement.

And here's an even greater obstacle to unleashing the potential power of the new strike: our unions are used to being run by just a few people. The staff is used to it, and the members are used to it. This is understandable when only a few folk are actively involved. The problem comes when suddenly we have a "staff"-a strikeforce-of dozens, hundreds, thousands. We don't know how to open things up. But when we DO open up, the payoff is tremendous: not only in organizational capacity and strike power, but also in the formation of new grassroots labor leaders and in strengthening the internal life of the union.

When we open up our minds to the new strike, and when we open up our unions in the new strike situation, then maybe we'll learn (to paraphrase Peter Sellers) to stop worrying and love the strike again.

Paul Johnston is director of the Citizenship Project (a union-led immigrant-community-based workers' center in Salinas California), author of Success While Others Fail (a study of strike success and failure in the new labor movement), and a sociologist at UC Santa Cruz.