The American labor movement needs a jolt and Joe Burns’ new book, Reviving the Strike, delivers just the right shock treatment.
Debunking commonly held assumptions about labor’s inevitable decline and extinction, Burns, a veteran union lawyer, argues clearly and persuasively that worker power is still possible — but will require a dramatic shift in thinking and strategy.
Don’t expect standard academic or progressive bromides about “coalition-building,” “corporate campaigns,” “organizing-to-scale” or “social unionism.” In taking on some of the labor left’s sacred cows — living wage campaigns, worker centers, etc. — Burns praises and honors the commitment, brains and tenacity of activists. But these approaches, he suggests, lack the singular component necessary to transform power relations in the political economy. That, he contends, is the capacity to stop production.
Burns makes his case in a tightly-written narrative. After the union insurgencies of the 1930s, Congress and the courts imposed a system he calls “labor control,” one designed to disable unions’ principal and primary weapon: the strike.
A few years ago the nonprofit, nonpartisan Los Angeles Economic Roundtable released a study that got too little attention. It found that union workers in the county earn 27 percent more than nonunion workers in the same jobs. These extra wages for the 800,000 union workers—17 percent of the labor force—added $7.2 billion a year in pay. As union workers spent their wages on food, clothing and other items, their additional buying power created 64,800 jobs and $11 billion in economic output. Let me repeat: $11 billion.
Clearly unions are good for the economy. But to hear business propaganda tell it, that 11 billion is the 11th Plague, because anything that moves the country away from an imaginary, 19th-century Utopia where business held all the cards, is to be avoided — like the plague.
This winner-take-all crowd should be happy because, in many ways, America today does resemble its Gilded Age of the late 1800s —
Corporations are forever arguing that all that stands between consumers and paradise is the “lousy gummint” and its lousy regulations. “Get out of the way!” is their rallying cry. Well, we had a bit of a natural experiment this past summer, as Congress forced a shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration. (As it happens, the shutdown sprang, in part, from anti-union ideological reasons, but that’s a whole other story.)
In addition to furloughing some 4,000 FAA employees and idling tens of thousands of construction workers, the shutdown deprived the government of an estimated $30 million in ticket taxes—every day.
Some might argue that the government needs that revenue. But let’s focus on the positive: Without the taxes, ticket prices are lower for consumers, and that’s a good thing, right? Awwww, you’re adorable. A couple of airlines did pass the savings on to travelers, but according to a travel agent I spoke with (yes,
We were met at the Hyatt Andaz loading dock with a big sign that said, Welcome Back, Andaz Employees. I crept into the entrance, a nervous wreck, still uncertain if I had been fired or replaced, but I was soon relieved to find that everyone had been let back in. We were greeted with forced smiles and boxes of multi-colored donuts.
Union members refer to each other as brothers and sisters. It may seem cultish at first, but after my experience with a seven-day strike at the Hyatt Andaz last week, it makes perfect sense. There is nothing that bonds people like walking off a job together, protesting their employer and taking no pay for a week, all in hopes of getting a better situation. We made a financial sacrifice and some of us, including myself, are pondering the first of the month with certain dread.
There is a general sense of uneasiness,
Ed Padgett works as a pressman at the L.A. Times’ Olympic Boulevard printing plant – a third-generation employee who has been with the paper 39 years. He currently blogs at his site, Los Angeles Pressmens 20 Year Club. Padgett began posting messages in 1990, before the advent of the Internet, because, he says, “I was getting a bit bored.” His tedium vanished in 2008 when, after press operators voted to join the Teamsters (the first union shop on Times property since 1967), Times managers began, he said, continual attempts to fire union members on a variety of workplace rule infringements.
What’s happening at the Times these days?
They’re expecting a really bad fourth quarter. The senior vice president told us we’ve got three years more of printing the hard copy Times before they shut it down.