December 11, 2012

The Power of Example -- a conversation with labor leader Joe Burns

From the interview:

In the past few months, we seem to have seen an upsurge in successful strikes. What is the significance of this?

Clearly we've seen a change in the past couple of months in terms of strike activity increasing. In labor history, workers tend to strike in waves, because the power of example leads other workers to strike. First, with public employees and teachers, the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike. They had overall a very successful outcome. So other teachers unions have decided to strike. Second, you've seen other places where workers are striking to defend themselves, with very aggressive employers demanding concessions. In California, the ILWU is using a strike to defend decades of gains made by workers. The third thing -- and this is a real shift -- is the use of the strike as an organizing tool. That's a big change over what has been happening over the past couple of decades. Fast food and Walmart workers are using the strike as both a tool
of organizing and demanding improvements from employers.

In the past new union organizing has been seen as slowly building on one-on-one discussions, and this is really different because if you look at the history, when we've made real gains it's been when we've shifted to a strike-based model.

How do you think the wave can be expanded?

It's going to have to be expanded, but it's going to be difficult because the rules of the game are so tilted in favor of employers. Employers have a lot of advantages under the system of labor law. What organizers will run up against is that we're going to
have to directly confront what I call the system of labor control -- the set of labor laws that have been put into place to make it difficult to win strikes. For now organizers have been embracing this tactic, so we'll see where it takes us.

To take a historical example: In the 1960s, millions of public workers joined trade unions, and they did it through strikes. Starting with the New York teachers, we saw this incredible strike wave, and that's really how public workers won their unions. This was the power of example, unions refusing to obey unjust labor laws, and it was a grassroots rebellion. And, as I discuss in Reviving the Strike, it was a very similar pattern in the 1930s.

Many of these recent strikes, especially with the fast food and Walmart workers, occurred among what many theorists of labor have labeled the "precariat" -- that is, people doing types of work that tend to have low job security and high turnover, and which are often part-time and subcontracted. For many years, unions avoided organizing these kinds of workers due to the difficulties of organizing such a disparate workforce.

Read the rest of the interview here.

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