Why We Strike

If today's labor movement is going to reverse decades of decline, union leaders are going to need to forget the habits of the last 30 years and learn something new from the rank and file: You don't win a fight by not fighting.
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Striking has gone out of style. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, last year had the second lowest number of walkouts involving more than 1,000 workers in over 60 years -- eleven in total. And 2010 was no anomaly: the only year since 1947 with a lower number of strikes than last year was the year immediately before, which saw a grand total of five strikes of a comparable size nationwide.

One might expect this historic nadir in work stoppages to diminish the labor movement's stature in the right-wing imagination as the arch nemesis of productive enterprise and human freedom. Fewer strikes means lower labor costs to employers, less overt conflict in the workplace, fewer contract gains for workers, and more concessions acceded to without a fight. All that union acquiescence should make for happier capitalists, and for fewer paranoid delusions of creeping socialism in our hospitals, factories and teachers' break rooms.

Instead, of course, we've seen the opposite. In 2011, following two years of record passivity by the labor movement preceded by many years of declining labor organizing and worksite activism, anti-union groups like Americans For Prosperity and FreedomWorks, in partnership with Republican governors and state legislatures in Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey,Tennessee and other states, laid the blame for state fiscal crises squarely on unionized nurses, garbage collectors and elementary school teachers, and launched a battle to the death with public sector unions, in some cases challenging their very right to exist.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who's ever had to face a schoolyard bully. Submissiveness in the face of sustained attack never discourages further hostility; it only provokes it. And too many unions have adopted a submissive posture for far too long.

The last two years may have established a new low for strike activity in the U.S., but it's part of a downward trajectory that's held steady since the 1970s. Part of the story is the decline of union density as an overall percentage of the workforce. The full frontal assault that public sector workers are presently facing has been underway in the private sector for decades. As a result, private sector unions now represent a fifth of the proportion of workers they represented at their mid-20th century peak; this year marks the lowest rate of unionization in the private sector in over 100 years. Fewer union members means fewer union members on strike. But it's also the effect of the permanent defensive crouch labor has settled into since Reagan fired the nation's air traffic controllers 30 years ago. Concessionary contracts, passive acceptance of the inevitability of workers shouldering more of the burden of paying for their healthcare and retirement, the fatalistic belief that rank-and-file workers aren't interested in engaging in a fight -- after a long history of retreat, these have become second nature among too many of today's labor leaders.

A case in point is the U.S. auto industry. Despite the obsessive media focus on the "generous" retirement packages and "excessive" healthcare benefits of unionized American auto workers when the Obama administration pushed for an industry bailout two years ago, workers at the Big Three had in fact been losing ground since Chrysler first negotiated an earlier bailout 30 years prior. In 1979, a beleaguered Chrysler secured more than $1 billion in credit from U.S. and Japanese banks and $750 million in loan guarantees from the Carter administration to save the automaker from demise at the hands of foreign competitors. The banks, smelling opportunity, insisted on concessions from workers as a condition of the loans. In an effort to show common cause with the company and to provide political cover for the president, the United Auto Workers leadership broke with a long tradition of militancy on the shop floor and at the bargaining table and persuaded their members to absorb a six-month wage freeze, the loss of six paid holidays, and pension takeaways.

Wall Street and Congress took the olive branch the UAW extended to them and insisted on the whole tree. Far from appeasing the bankers and the politicians, by showing its will to surrender, the UAW only provoked demands for more sacrifices from workers the following year, including the loss of 17 paid holidays and an extension of the wage freeze. The year after that, Lee Iacocca demanded further concessions worth a half billion dollars to the company. The UAW swallowed them all.

It wasn't long before Ford and GM piled on too, turning the union's ostensibly temporary, emergency measure into a new industry standard. The UAW, having erased its line in the sand with Chrysler, was forced to accept concessions across the entire industry. With the mighty UAW broken, the pattern then spread to other sectors of the economy, including steel manufacturing, trucking, meatpacking and the airline industry. Demands for concessions were pushed not just by employers in desperate financial straits like Chrysler, but by profitable companies in thriving industries as well.

For the business class, it was morning again in America. The table was now set for Reagan's dramatic showdown with the air traffic controllers, for decades of further concessions from auto workers, and, in the long run, for the current attacks on public sector workers.

As the union uprising in Wisconsin reminds us, there is another path for labor. Standing up for yourself makes a difference, and not just to those who already support you. After workers occupied the Capitol building in Madison, polls showed Americans disagreeing with Governor Scott Walker's aim of repealing collective bargaining rights for public workers in Wisconsin by almost a 2-to-1 margin. That kind of decisive support for workers visibly and unabashedly fighting for their future is inseparable from the public's experience of seeing people like themselves putting their livelihoods on the line and standing up for their beliefs and their principles. When was the last time so many Americans expressed such an outpouring of support for workers' rights?

In California, 1,000 nurses at Kaiser Permanente's premier Southern California hospital have likewise stepped into the breach to stave off attacks on themselves and their patients. Kaiser, the nation's biggest HMO, is known nationally as one of the most labor-friendly employers in existence. Recently, however, like the auto manufacturers of three decades ago, Kaiser has changed its attitude toward its unionized workforce, pushing its workers to pay more for their health benefits, chiseling away at their retirement benefits, and even illegally withholding scheduled raises and benefits from workers to retaliate against their union activity.

If the nurses at Kaiser Los Angeles Medical Center had reverted to form for today's labor movement, they would have negotiated away the worst of the cutbacks, and swallowed the rest of it like a bitter pill. But two weeks ago, these workers stepped up and did what unions do less and less of these days: They went on strike. RNs in Los Angeles walked the picket line demanding safe staffing ratios at the same time that workers in Madison, Wisconsin were refusing to vacate the Capitol building. Nurses waved picket signs expressing solidarity with their counterparts in Wisconsin, forming a united front separated by a mere 2,000 miles. Last week, these nurses gave their employer a new deadline of April 19th. If they're not on their way to a contract settlement by that date, the nurses on the union's bargaining committee will recommend to their co-workers that they go on strike again.

If today's labor movement is going to reverse decades of decline and turn back years of attacks from employers and right-wing politicians, union leaders are going to need to forget the habits of the last 30 years, and learn something new from the rank and file: that you don't win a fight by not fighting.

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