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The Strike as the Ultimate Structure Test

To build a more confident, fighting, politically educated working class, no task is more pressing right now than building for successful strikes.

Educators from the Acero charter school network hold signs as they protest during a strike outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters on December 5, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. Joshua Lott / Getty

For the past two decades, there has been a lot of hand-wringing about how to rebuild working-class power. Plenty of ink and oxygen has been used in the debate over the way forward for the working class. Finally, in 2018, just as the working class and the organizations it built — unions — seemed to be gasping their last breath, education workers in West Virginia walked off the job in an all-out, 100 percent strike. They won.

The strike was so impressive, so dynamic, that suddenly workers in other states got the idea that they, too, could strike, reinforcing our understanding that workers learn to strike by watching other workers strike and win. Surely part of the reason that corporations have devoted so much effort to smashing previous high-strike periods is precisely because the employer class knows the threat posed by a good example.

While all six major walkouts in the spring of 2018 — including those in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, Arizona, and North Carolina — were exciting and important, the victories, those tangible and less tangible, were uneven. This has to do with conditions in various states, history, and other factors that are not the subject of this book review.

Clearly, however, part of the variation in success had to do with the differences in strike readiness, in what John Steuben calls the strike machinery, across the states. As a result of the production-shuddering education strikes this past spring, and perhaps of the tactical use of the word strike in the mostly symbolic protests of the fast-food efforts, the idea of the strike is garnering more attention in popular discourse than it has since Ronald Reagan smashed the air traffic control workers’ strike in 1981.

Prior to 2018, the only other strike this century that riveted the attention of the nation was the breathtaking one carried out by the Chicago teachers in 2012. There’s no question that the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, and the strikers from Chicago themselves, had a great deal of influence on the decision by West Virginia educators to walk off the job, united, defiant, and jubilant.

The surest way to rebuild working-class power is by instituting a program of high-participation strikes in the sectors where workers can strike to win. Why? For strikes to be successful in the United States, they require no less than 90 percent participation of workers. To achieve this urgently needed level of high participation today, ordinary workers are forced to do two things: build unbreakable solidarity by overcoming the many divisions perfected and deployed by the bosses, and develop what organizers call a tight, effective workplace structure.

Once workers gain experience, they can transport their understanding of how to build unity and structure into their communities, skills urgently needed to fight bad landlords — including the outsize mega-landlord, Airbnb — challenge corporate Democrats in primaries and bad politicians of any party in the general elections, and win ballot measures that tax corporations and the superrich. The evidence of the aftereffects of high unity and tight structure are proving monumental in the electoral arena already, with Oklahoma educators knocking fourteen of the nineteen legislators who opposed their strike demands out of office less than half a year after their strike. Even more remarkable, it’s the educators themselves who are replacing them in the state legislature.

This seems an excellent time to call people’s attention to a little-known book on strike strategy, first published in 1950 and bearing the name, simply, Strike Strategy. Although nearly seventy years have passed since its release — and eighty-two years from when John Steuben, its author, began to write about strikes — part of what is so intriguing about the book, “a practical manual for labor on the conduct of strikes,” is that its truths remain relevant today.

Yet Steuben’s book is absent in a casual search through the index of many recent books on strikes, and few people seem to have heard of it. I first read the book — devoured it actually — in 1997. It was long out of print, and the copy I received was a barely legible photocopy in a three-ring binder. Twenty years later the book is in the public domain, and you can find a full PDF of it online. The cover of the book describes it as the “first of its kind, comprising a practical manual for labor on the conduct of strikes; a brief dramatic history of the strike from 1776 to present; an analysis of techniques employed by industry in strike situations; and a study of qualifications for labor leadership.”

John Steuben was a machinist who eventually became a full-time organizer for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). He was part of the team that helped organize steel workers in the 1930s and was an organizer for the Steel Worker Organizing Committee (SWOC), assigned to Youngstown, Ohio during the Little Steel strike in 1937. He is a survivor of the Women’s Day Massacre, so-called because the wives of Republic Steel strikers had joined their husbands on the picket line, which infuriated a local sheriff, leading to one of the most violent strikes in that era. Steuben’s involvement in the CIO can be characterized by how Jack Metzgar, author of Striking Steel, described as the kind of people hired by John L. Lewis: “He [Lewis] swept up Socialists, Communists, Trotskyists, and various and sundry freelance revolutionaries — anybody who knew how to organize people for disciplined collective action.”

Before becoming a staff organizer for the CIO, Steuben was the staff director of the New York City office of the Trade Union Unity League in the early 1930s, a Communist organization. From the numerous FBI files on Steuben, we know his real name was Isaac Rijock, that he was born in Ukraine in 1906, and immigrated to the United States in 1923. He would continue as a full-time union staffer from his early CIO days until just after he published Strike Strategy, when he was purged from his position as secretary-treasurer of the New York Hotel Front Service Employees Union Local 144 of the Building Service Employees International Union, AFL. He continued in the party, quitting after Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes in 1956, and he died shortly thereafter. Obviously, his insights into strike strategy were heavily shaped by organizing in the steel industry and the Little Steel strike.

Steuben is at his best, and the manual is of highest value, when he is describing the nuts and bolts of the strike machinery, the boss fight, and how to defeat the boss campaign. The least interesting parts of the book are when he is advancing party doctrine (most of part one). The book is three hundred pages of text, prior to the “Roll Call of the Dead” — a kind of index not found in more recent books on strikes and a reminder of the harsh conditions from which our much stronger labor movement emerged.

Steuben breaks his ideas into four parts, starting with an excellent chapter simply titled “The Right to Strike.” As a trade union organizer and scholar, I have long used Steuben’s definition of a strike, which is on the second page of this chapter: “A strike is an organized cessation from work. It is the collective halting of production or services in a plant, industry, or area for the purpose of obtaining concessions from employers. A strike is labor’s weapon to enforce labor’s demands.”

This definition of a strike stands in contrast to the symbolic strikes dominant since the 2008 economic crash, including those in the fast-food campaigns and anti-austerity protests in Europe, which have the character of a protest and make the participants feel good, but lack the power of the collective withdrawal of labor. The education strikes, beginning in Chicago in 2012 through the start of the fall school year in Washington state, hew to Steuben’s definition. Of note, Steuben tells us the right to strike is a “freedom guaranteed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution,” a bold and welcome assertion, but unfortunately not understood as the law of the land.

Writing during the wake of the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, Steuben says “At the present stage of the struggle the chief danger is not that the right to strike may be completely taken away. Rather it is that this right may be so emasculated through federal and state legislation that it would become theoretical.” This analysis foreshadowed what would later happen with such laws as the Taylor Act in New York State, and even SB7 in Illinois, passed in 2011 as an effort to thwart the Chicago teachers. Much of the rest of part one is worth skipping. A far better history of strikes, and the particularly ruthless nature of the US corporate class, can be found in Jeremy Brecher’s Strike! Rather than his discussions of politics and labor, in the US context, read Ira Katznelson’s City Trenches or Nelson Lichenstein’s State of the Union.

Today, in part due to the Bernie Sanders campaign, the swelling ranks of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the rise of Trump and the forces propping him up, strikes as defined by Steuben are making a comeback. We should be thankful that Steuben actually does offer a basic manual on strike strategy. Beginning in part two of the book, chapter five, titled “Preparing for Battle,” through six, “On the Line,” seven, “On the Offensive,” and eight, “Public Support,” combined with skipping to fourteen, “Strike Leadership,” he devotes more than one hundred pages to some useful nitty-gritty necessary for a strike to succeed. Although some very recent books are also helpful here — including How to Jump-Start Your Union, from Labor Notes; and Micah Uetricht’s Strike for America, both about the lessons from Chicago in 2012 — Steuben offers much more detail.

After cautioning “If Taft-Hartley-ism persists for any length of time, organized labor will once again be confronted with a new employer-sponsored ‘open-shop’ drive,” he states, “Careful preparation for a strike is exceedingly important—very often the conduct and outcome of a strike depend on the quality of the preparatory work.” He covers the differences between unorganized, newly organized, and union-tenured, and understands strike preparations can be best appreciated by a careful analysis of power well in advance of the strike itself (“What they are depends on the character of the expected struggle”).

In the case of unorganized or newly organized workers, Steuben stresses the same thing organizers today know: you must focus on the “biggest-worst,” meaning those “key plants and departments that receive special attention.” There’s no point in spending all the time engaging already pro-union activists. In fact, it is a waste of effort in a tough fight to spend time on those already on your side. The energy must be targeted to the areas where people are not yet on board.

In a situation where the union is already established, he stresses that the key tasks are reaching all workers and their families, getting across three things: “first, that the demands presented to the employers are just and wise; second, that these demands can be obtained only through a strike; third, that if the strike is called, they must actively participate and stick it out till the very end.” He notes something that many union leaders have missed in the past seventy years: “It is not enough to call a membership meeting and decide by majority vote on strike action. In most unions, attendance at membership meetings is entirely unsatisfactory.”

Steuben then basically outlines what successful strikes in the recent past have all done, which is reach every member “in the shops or at home.” And although his language is dated and bound up with the mostly male workers with whom he was experienced, his observations of tending to “Mrs. Striker” (ouch!), “the wives, children” and more, would have gone a long way in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the United Auto Workers were out-organized in 2014 during the Volkswagen campaign when the boss did just that: went to the wives and the families outside the plant. Steuben is obsessed in a good way throughout with the very elements crucial to winning today: unifying the ranks, tending to serious relationships with the broader community, the media and public relations campaign, and inoculating against key elements of the boss campaign.

If Strike Strategy is read as a manual rather than a narrative, it’s powerfully instructive. For example, the specifics mentioned above and many more are spelled out in chapter five, which is the longest. If people read nothing else, they’d get a good overview of the key aspects of strikes here, including, obviously, “Involving the Rank and File” as the most crucial aspect of the work. Steuben states plainly, “A strike needs active participants, not observers.” And “Strike leadership should be much broader than the regular union leadership; for the greater participation of the rank and file, the stronger the strike.” He details establishing key strike committees, he lists many types of committees, and focuses attention throughout the essay on race and racism: “No strike committee, of course, could be considered genuinely representative unless it included adequate representation of Negro workers on strike.” He makes a point of stressing that the many war veterans among the ranks (WWI and WWII) have unique experiences in discipline, military formation, and overcoming fear and adversity, which are all helpful in a strike. He also points out that veterans have strategic value in regard to the public relations campaign.

In addition to the entire progressive movement, unions today would do well to understand that the endless stream of Iraq and Afghanistan vets bring the very same skills, experiences, and value, as well as pain and suffering. Discussing whiners in unions who complain about apathy, Steuben says, “In each local union, in each plant, are hundreds of devoted and intelligent men and women …. Many of these workers have a great deal of native ability, and a wise strike leader knows how to bring this to the surface and make it operate for the good of the union.” It’s almost as if chapter five is a summary of the rest of the book, but the subsequent details are precisely what go beyond other books you can readily find in print.

In chapter six, he stresses the value of the 100 percent out strike and again focuses our attention on what it means to build high unity and high participation: “But even without the element of surprise, a walkout is completely effective if the strike call is answered 100 percent.” There’s simply no reason and no excuse not to build toward 100 percent out strikes today, whether for defensive reasons — such as with the Illinois law passed in 2011 that mandated no less than 75 percent of the teachers had to participate for the strike vote to be valid, or with the recent law passed in the UK mandating no less than 50 percent participation when balloting for a strike — or for the more obvious offensive reasons.

Even beyond the threat of more repressive legislation, with the exception of highly skilled and structurally powerful workers, most worker power comes from their large numbers and unity as well as effective organization, not their irreplaceability. This has always been true: There have always been workers with more capacity to strike and less capacity to strike.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the era in which Steuben gained his experience before making the time to solidify it into a manual, the CIO wasn’t equally focused on all sectors of workers. It wasn’t even somewhat focused on all types of workers. Rather, it was very focused on industries that it believed presented the best opportunity for workers to exercise the strike. And within these industries, “the basic industries,” the entire approach was building unity across the workplace. As exciting as many recent nurses’ strikes are — much more numerous than people realize but less attention-getting because they lack the statewide character of the recent education strikes — they have left too much power on the table and fail to achieve the mass political education that would result from whole hospital strikes, involving all workers together.

Steuben gets into the minutiae about picket lines, their role in exerting “healthy, moral pressure on strikers who are weak or weakening,” and the need to know where everyone is at all times. He’s also clear that the picket line represents what some of us today call “demonstratable,” supermajority participation.

The demonstratable part of supermajorities is as important today as when Steuben wrote, “The picket line serves another function: it demonstrates to the public that the employees are solidly behind the strike.” Because the employer’s public relations effort, as well as attempts at back-to-work movements, rest on a narrative that suggests only a small group of workers care, demonstrable supermajorities serve multiple functions.

In the lead up to today’s most successful strikes, countless structure tests are conducted in advance of knowing a workplace or workplaces are actually ready to strike to win. Steuben talks about the United Electrical workers “pre-picket lines,” where the UE would “rehearse mass picket lines” while still in negotiations. He has pages on what a good picketing plan must include.

In the chapter on public support, he suggests going far beyond today’s top-down “labor-community” alliances and notes that the work of forging serious relationships to the broader community is best done by the most talented organizers, not inexperienced activists with a half-hearted assignment, usually way too late to matter. “The task cannot be left in unskilled hands,” Steuben writes. “Nor can it wait till the battle has begun. One of the ablest organizers must be assigned …” He goes on to tell stories, including how they had over one hundred clergy, from across denominations, sign a statement supporting the strike in Youngstown in 1937.

The entirety of part three deals with the boss war. Because — at least in the US — the boss war is now firmly rooted in the White House, it’s an important and useful five chapters where he deals with picket line violence, the elements of the boss fight, and how to inoculate against the employer — all key to winning today. In the only book review I found of Strike Strategy, by the senior editor of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and published in the Industrial and Labor Relations Review (one can imagine his sympathies given the conditions), it states, “Mr. Steuben bases his strike strategy manual on the assumption that hostility is the normal relationship between unions and employers. He emphasizes that unions should prepare for struggle against employer hostility.” The BLS reviewer is shocked at the idea that employer hostility would exist, let alone make a roaring comeback after a brief truce in the relentless employer-led class war.

This is a crucial point: that a period where workers’ standards of living were improving; where the quality of life for the ordinary American worker was heading in the right direction; where inequality was steadily falling; where local, state, and federal governments were more responsive to the needs of the entirety of the people — not merely the CEOs — was predicated on an elite class desperate for labor peace because of an era of high-participation strikes.

Those who doubt the analysis about the need for mass strikes versus empty slogans such as “We will remember in November” and “social partnership” need only read the opening lines of the June 2018 Supreme Court ruling in Janus vs AFSCME. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, states, “Neither of Abood’s two justifications for agency fees passes muster under this standard. First, agency fees cannot be upheld on the ground that they promote an interest in ‘labor peace.’” A few sentences later, Alito writes, “Whatever may have been the case 41 years ago when Abood was decided, it is thus now undeniable that ‘labor peace’ can readily be achieved through less restrictive means than the assessment of agency fees.”

Today’s state and federal legal assault on the largest remaining unionized workforce, the public sector, has come about because the national leadership of these unions failed to grasp that strikes, not just voting at election time, are the key to working-class power. The national union’s focus on electing Democrats, as the Democrats were being taken over by Wall Street and Silicon Valley lock, stock, and barrel, was and is a disaster.

The gap between the rhetoric of the broader progressive movement, the “We are the 99%” and the ability to actually manifest anything close to the 99 percent, are as vast as the Grand Canyon. It simply doesn’t matter what percent you claim are with you in your rhetoric if you can’t first organize — that means unify — supermajorities, then mobilize the base for collective action.

Supermajority strikes (not symbolic strikes, and certainly not minority strikes) are unique because they forge unbreakable solidarity and build organization among a real 99 percent — that’s what supermajority means. You can’t afford to ignore the worker, the unit, the school, the hospital, the warehouse, the call center that isn’t on board with you as you prepare for strike action. Steuben repeats this many times throughout Strike Strategy.

Election after election in the US, and increasingly in Europe, is being decided by small margins and confusion about who is to blame for the extreme pain among the working class. Small margins create endless openings for the Steve Bannons of the world, for their strategy is basically that of the boss strategy in a strike: dividing the working classes and driving futility, the very strategies workers learn to overcome when preparing for supermajority strikes.

In the US, the small-margins strategy on the part of the Democrats is what put Trump into office. Idiotic and calamitous assumptions that Democrats only need to turn out 1 or 2 percent more to take this state or that congressional seat are spewed by Silicon Valley data wizards whose allegiance is to the new elite, not the working class. Small margins, gerrymandering, and all forms of voter suppression can best be defeated by relearning how to build supermajorities in difficult conditions.

Strikes also serve as the most effective form of mass political education so desperately needed throughout the West, and certainly in the US because strikes clarify the two sides. Strikes strip away the false rhetoric of Trump and his ilk, also urgent on the to-do list if we stand a chance to stop the rise of the very dangerous right wing.

Supermajority strikes are hard. Because they are hard, they are urgent. Steuben’s discussion in part three, of the employer’s strategies to divide workers from one another, isn’t a history lesson. It’s the present. Retaking power from the forces decimating the working class — the exact forces driving climate change denial, decimating the planet — requires focusing on today’s strategic sectors, what Steuben calls the basic industries. Today’s basic industries include health care, education, and logistics, sectors that are growing. The mission-driven workers in two of these sectors have deep, unbreakable bonds to their communities. They are made up mostly of women, often women of color, who hold the promise of a labor movement that instinctively knows the connection between the home, work, and the community. The fears of the gig economy are being used to distract people from the urgent work needed now: instituting a program of mass strikes in key sectors where winning is entirely possible, where the numbers of workers in these sectors alone can rebuild the union density of the 1950s.

Reading Strike Strategy will help people who don’t have strike experience — the vast majority — understand what goes into winning strikes. Winning strikes, not losing them, will build a more confident, fighting, politically educated working class.