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May 2002 • Vol 2, No. 5 •

Why Workers Don’t Strike

By Charles Walker

But that was then and this is now. Last year’s twenty-nine major strikes “idled” 99,000 workers, and wouldn’t you know it, the total number of lost workdays hit an historic low, according to the Department of Labor. Four of last year’s strikes involved 5,000 or more workers, who were out about two weeks, except for a walkout of just one day by Seattle’s teachers. The single private industry strike of that size was a Machinists strike against Pratt & Whitney. Minnesota’s Governor Jesse Ventura, who forced nearly 25,000 AFSME members onto picket lines, provoked the largest strike, public or private.

Of course there were smaller strikes, but the Labor Department doesn’t seem to bother to keep tabs on them. But check out the 2001 file of Labor Notes, a journal that does keep up with even smaller strikes, and I think you’ll get a pretty good idea of how few and far in between were last year’s strikes of all sizes. One of the strikes the magazine reported on was a wildcat strike by 800 workers at the “massive Jeffboat facility in Jefferson, Indiana.” I’d guess you could rightly say that it was a wildcat against both the company and the union, that is to say, the union’s bureaucratic officials. After the workers voted 4-1 to reject the company’s last, best and final offer, the union officials told the workers that the union had failed to notify the firm that it would let the old contract expire. It was a “clerical error,” they said. In other words, the union tops spent two months “bargaining,” knowing that they wouldn’t back up the workers’ demands with legal strike action.

Not surprisingly, the workers were infuriated! They were so outraged, they set up a picket line. Workers inside the plant stopped what they were doing and joined the pickets. They held out for a week with only ten defections, before they gave up on the idea that “their” union, a Teamsters local of 18,000 members, wasn’t going to back them up.

As far as I know the wildcatters were not attacked as being “unpatriotic,“ as were the Minnesota State strikers. But the fact that there were only 29 strikes of a thousand workers or more in 2001, probably had very little, if anything, to do with last year’s skyjackings. That’s suggested by the fact that in 1999, two years before the skyjackings, the Labor Department counted only 17 major work stoppages. Moreover, there’s been a sharp decline in strikes since 1982, when for the first time since the end of WWII the number of strikes fell to just 96 and has never been as high again.

Union bureaucrats won’t take responsibility for the decline in workers’ living standards.

Those union workers who have suffered a loss in their standards of living and those workers who haven’t, but still feel an aching insecurity, may not be sure who’s responsible for their situation. And younger workers may wonder why their parents seemed to have a much easier time of it, and often with only one parent working out of the home. If they ask their union “leaders,” they’re not likely to hear the answers that union bureaucrats give one another. That is, they’re not likely to be told to their faces that it’s their own fault for not fighting back, for not rejecting substandard contracts, and for not striking, even though most union leaders virtually abandoned the strike as next to worthless, as clearly evidenced by the strike numbers for the past twenty years.

In other words, the union bureaucrats won’t take responsibility for their part in the decline in workers’ living standards that fell as union militancy declined, and not before. Yet truth to tell, not one of them campaigned for office on a platform promising never to strike, promising never to fight back, or promising to bargain away the gains that the workers’ fathers and grandfathers struck hard and often to win.

Make no mistake; workers are not inclined to take on the bosses just for the hell of it. When they fight they fight to win. And when they fight they don’t want to go into battle crippled by a “leadership” that doesn’t have its heart in the fight. Of course that’s because there’s so much at stake.

But again, make no mistake; U.S. workers will and do fight back when they are inspired by a prepared, fighting leadership. That was clearly demonstrated in 1997 when 200,000 UPS workers, inspired by the leadership of Teamsters President Ron Carey, hit the bricks in the first and only national UPS strike since the Teamsters organized UPS more than 80 years ago.

So, should workers wait until another Ron Carey makes it to the key position in their union and becomes powerful enough to hold off his bureaucratic opponents long enough to lead the ranks in defense of their real interests, and with the power of their union’s organized ranks behind them? No, probably not. That Carey made it to the top was a fluke. If the authorities had known that Carey cared about the union’s ranks in a way so at odds with the Teamsters oligarchs, surely they would have found a way to block his rise, as they did arrange his fall.

In any event, the power is in the ranks, not any leader, no matter how dedicated, no matter how smart. Besides, leaders can be created by the battles they fight. History is full of once unknown fighters who rose to the occasion in the heat of battle and made a difference. The task today is to fight, so that solidarity and a leadership can be forged. To put the matter in such a barebones way, however, doesn’t sound realistic. What is realistic is that some workers, very much like the betrayed Jeffboat workers in Jefferson, Indiana, will gain a victory, perhaps just a small victory and thereby gain a foothold. And then with their foothold secured they’ll set out to encourage other workers to do the same.

Something like that happened in one of the unlikeliest places, a strong company town, and in one of the unlikeliest unions, a backward craft union whose tops viewed most workers as “rubbish,” and at one of the darkest times for U.S. workers. The time was 1934, the place was Minneapolis, and the union was the Teamsters. In 1934, a handful of coal yard workers and haulers took on all those obstacles and more and made labor history —a history still bright enough to inspire and to guide any worker today who’s ready to fight back, despite the latest statistics from the Labor Department.

Would you be surprised to learn that last year there were only twenty-nine so-called major strikes and lockouts of one thousand U.S. workers or more? Well, maybe you wouldn’t be surprised, but workers from the 1950’s probably would be. That’s because it wasn’t unusual in the 1950’s for industrial workers to back up their demands with strike action. And, in a single year, those 1950’s work stoppages might involve a million and a half workers — or more! In fact, many of the benefits and working conditions that have been lost or bargained away in the past two decades were won on those picket lines. In 1950-1953, there was an average of 436 strikes of a thousand workers or more, an historic high! In fact, from 1947 to 1977, most years saw nearly 300 work stoppages by a thousand workers or more.





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