No-Strike Clauses Hold Back Unions

Labor is confined by contract unionism, whose core is the no-strike clause.

Recall that during the 1999 mass protests against the World Trade Organization, the ILWU used its power to shut down all West Coast ports for a day, a stroke of exemplary solidarity.

The decision not to support the current call was influenced by the fact that, like almost all unions, the ILWU is bound by a clause barring strikes during the life of the contract. The last time ILWU supported a shutdown of the Oakland port, it suffered a fine of $65,000.

For more than 75 years, the labor movement has been enclosed by law and custom by collective bargaining, whose goal is to achieve a contract that seals in wages, benefits, a grievance procedure, and work rules. In return, workers agree, crucially, to surrender their right to withhold their labor.

The penalties for violation are often severe: stiff fines and imprisonment of union officials.

Why do contracts hold back unions?

1. The contract has the force of law. Workers agree to suspend most of their demands till the contract ends, sometimes as long as six years. Even if conditions change, the union cannot reopen the contract unless the employer consents.

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2. The union is responsible for enforcing the contract, including disciplining the workers. When management violates the agreement, workers have no recourse but arbitration, which is weighted toward employers. If they (rarely, these days) resort to a wildcat, their union is obliged to “order” workers back to the job.

3. Under these conditions, the union tends to become conservative. The weight of the law mostly prevails.

With the employers’ offensive of the last generation, collective bargaining is now mostly a form of collective begging. Yet collective bargaining remains a sacred cow. Few are willing to advocate that, at the minimum, contracts leave the strike weapon unrestricted.

The labor movement has forgotten its own traditions: Until the 1930s, labor contracts were fairly rare. Workers used to fight for their demands continuously and agree to return to work only when they were met.

Skeptics ask why employers should sign contracts if they cannot buy labor peace. But European unions do not, typically, agree to limitations on strikes.

Until unions re-examine the trap of collective bargaining, the downward slide will accelerate.

Stanley Aronowitz teaches sociology at the City University of New York.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #394, January 2012. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.