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There’s Still Power in a Strike

Jeremy Brecher

If workers refuse to work, the bosses can't produce anything. If soldiers refuse to fight, the generals can't wage wars. That's the power of a strike.

Stop & Shop carts sit in an empty parking lot outside of one of the grocery stores on April 20 in Westport, CT during the recent strike. Spencer Platt / Getty

Interview by
Mark Engler

On April 11, thirty-one thousand workers at Stop & Shop supermarkets throughout New England walked away from their delis, checkouts, and storerooms to form picket lines outside their stores. Their action, which lasted until a tentative deal was reached last Sunday, is the largest private-sector strike in the US in several years. It follows a year of notable unrest, in which steelworkers, Marriott hotel employees, and public school teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and beyond all boycotted work to force concessions from employers.

As historian Jeremy Brecher can attest, such actions might be unusual by recent standards, but they have deep precedent in American history.

In 1972, Brecher, a writer and New Left activist, published the book Strike!, which went on to become a classic of labor history. At the time there was little like it available for readers who wanted a popular account of the country’s tumultuous legacy of class struggle. The books that did exist tended to focus on the institutional formation of different unions or the lives of top leaders.

Brecher took a different approach. Channeling Rosa Luxemburg, he focused on moments of mass unrest among workers, describing how these disruptive outbreaks — often organized outside of unions’ formal bureaucratic channels — not only shaped industrial conflict in the US, but also affected the working conditions of millions of people.

A sweeping survey that covered nearly a century of labor history, Strike! has since appeared in several editions — with successive updates addressing the setbacks of the Reagan era, the UPS Strike of 1997, and twenty-first-century “mini-revolts” like the mass immigrant rights marches of 2006 and Occupy Wall Street.

Brecher is currently preparing another update for the book’s fiftieth anniversary. Mark Engler, a Philadelphia-based writer, recently spoke with him about the wave of education actions, the new forms that strikes are taking in the Trump era, and the enduring power of walking out. Their discussion has been edited for length and clarity.


ME

I recently saw a headline reading, “More U.S. Workers Went on Strike in 2018 Than in Any Year in Three Decades.” If we look at numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we see a massive decline in the number of strikes over the last fifty years. It goes from something like three hundred or four hundred major strikes per year, each involving more than one thousand workers, down to an average of just a dozen or so per year in the past decade. We’re only just seeing a small uptick now.

JB

Yes. There was a very extreme drop, and it was amazingly sustained. I think the decline is as pronounced as the peak periods of mass strikes.

ME

Essentially, there’s been a “strike drought” that is equivalent to the strike waves that we’ve experienced in the past.

JB

At least. And much more extended. The fact that it has lasted for forty-five years means that there’s nothing like it in history since the rise of industrial society.

There are several important reasons for it. But I think that the most important one has to do with globalization — the fact that companies could move their operations abroad if anyone threatened to strike or put significant pressure on wages. A second factor is the rise of permanent replacement workers. Up until 1981, when Reagan broke the air traffic controllers’ strike, it had been an established norm in American industrial relations that you could not hire permanent replacement workers. Even though it wasn’t really outlawed, doing that would provoke such a high level of labor and community resistance that companies just didn’t try it. After 1981, there was a stream of strikes that were brutal and were defeated by bringing in permanent replacements.

Historically, when you’ve had recessions and hard times, you’ve had difficulty making any gains through strikes for a period of time. But then when there’s an economic upturn, there has always been a wave of strikes.

One of the most notable things about the period since the 1980s is that even in periods of economic upturn after recessions, you still didn’t see a significant uptick in strikes. I don’t want to reduce this to purely economic patterns, but what’s been happening in 2018 and the beginning of 2019 is more of a return to the long-term pattern of strike activity after recessions.

ME

What do you see as the most significant characteristics of the wave of teachers’ strikes that is now continuing into its second year?

JB

To tie it back to the causes of the previous drought of strikes: teachers are threatened by privatization in the form of charter schools, but they’re not really threatened by globalization or runaway shops. You’ve got to have the schools where the kids are. So therefore the teachers are shielded from one of the major causes of the decline of strikes.

The second thing is that they are a prime example of actions that take on much, much broader issues than conventional collective-bargaining strikes over wages and conditions for narrow groups of workers. The teachers’ actions are strikes over the very existence and life of public education.

Really starting with the Chicago teachers’ strike in 2012, and continuing with the “Red for Ed” actions [last year], and with Los Angeles and Oakland this year, the demands have been very broad. They include raises for teachers, but the constituencies are much wider, including parents and communities and the non-teacher workforce in the school system.

During the West Virginia strike, teachers refused to go back when the unions told them to go back, and it became a wildcat, in part because the offer on the table provided a raise for teachers but not for the rest of the school workforce. When they finally won, they won a raise for all state employees.

ME

Taking a step back, I wonder if you could talk a bit about the power of the strike and what the source of that power is. This is a basic question, but I think it is often overlooked.

JB

We look around us and we see bosses telling workers what to do; we see government officials telling populations what to do; we see military officials telling soldiers what to do. It’s very easy to view the world as a place where there are a small number of powerful people who have the ability to just instruct the powerless what to do. But that’s only half the story.

The other half is if the soldiers won’t fight, the generals can’t have wars. If the workers won’t work, the bosses can’t produce anything or make any money. And if citizens won’t obey the commands of their public officials, and won’t keep off the grass, and won’t pay their taxes, there turns out to be a mutual dependence.

The withdrawal of cooperation gives people who appear to be powerless a counter-power. But you have to organize it. Since no one can use it by themselves, you can only use this power by cooperating with other people who appear to be in the same boat. One of the most important and most powerful means of exercising this power is the strike. If workers withdraw their acquiescence and cooperation, then their employers are pretty much up a river without a paddle.

Another part of the power of the strike is the ability to mobilize and inspire support from a much wider movement. At the extreme, this takes the form of a general strike. But it can also involve the participation of the community in pickets, or all kinds of other expressions that make it difficult for the government to just send in police or the National Guard. If too many people are sympathetic to the strikers, it makes it a lot harder to use that kind of repression.

ME

On that point, I think we both see the recent uptick in strikes as a very hopeful sign. At the same time, the history related in your book is filled with broken strikes, and with terrible repression and violence. How do you balance the sense of hope and untapped power that we feel around strikes with the reality that working people are not always on the winning side?

JB

There’s no question that in many situations a strike involves risk and sacrifice. And no one should embark upon these activities without weighing the costs.

I think you find many working people go through exactly that kind of process. For example, in the period when permanent workers were being brought in as strike-breakers, a large number of people said, “Look, the dice are completely loaded against us in this situation, so we’re not going to strike.” That’s a big part of the story of the decline of strikes. Maybe they went further than necessary, or maybe they had leaders who weren’t willing to fight for other reasons. But a big part of it is a realistic weighing of conditions.

When you look at it historically, in these periods you generally see a search for new strategies, new forms of organization, and new approaches that allow workers’ basic power to be used effectively again.

For example, [in the 1800s] craft unions — made up of workers who had a particular skill, like carpenters or cobblers — were quite strong, but then modern industry and factories came along and their power was pretty much eliminated. Eventually they were reorganized on an industrial basis, so that everyone in the same factory, and everyone in the same company, and everyone in the same industry would be part of the same union. And they gained an ability to shut down these giant continental corporations, like General Motors and General Electric.

These types of changes usually involve an experimental process, in which people test out what might work, what they might do differently. I think that’s what we’re seeing today. If teachers can make demands that draw together parents and kids and community members and janitors and nurses — and all the people who are connected with public education one way or another — maybe we can do things we couldn’t do the old way.

ME

In your book Strike! you have a strong focus on spontaneity and the emergence of strikes from outside of formal organizational structures. I wonder to what extent you stand by that focus today?

JB

I have had the incredible privilege of updating the book repeatedly over the past fifty years and revisiting the questions it takes up. I have described this editing process as a collaboration between my younger self and myself today. Certainly there are things that I perceive differently now. And also the world has changed: the world of work, the world of unions, and the world of employers have changed massively. So I’ve had to take into account both those external changes and things that I’ve learned.

Strike! was written at a time when there was institutionalized collective bargaining in a large part of American industry. Even in sectors that were not unionized, unions and labor law played a great role, and non-union employers largely conformed to the patterns that were set by union employers. That structure is almost all gone now.

Also at the time that Strike! was written, a high proportion of strikes that involved significant militancy and solidarity beyond a single workplace were wildcat strikes — instances in which workers wanted to strike and union leaders didn’t want them to. That was a very important dimension then, much more important than it is today.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that this dynamic doesn’t happen at all now: the strike in West Virginia was not initially supported by the two unions. Eventually the teachers’ movement became so powerful — coordinated in substantial part, though not entirely, through social media — that the union officials decided that they would back it. And then, when those leaders made a deal with the governor without consulting the teachers and announced that the strike was over, there was a very emotional reaction from the teachers. The rank and file held meetings, county by county, through all the fifty-five counties of West Virginia and voted to continue the strike.

The period in which I wrote Strike!, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, was a high point both for institutional union opposition to strikes and for wildcat strikes. I don’t think my theoretical perspective on it, so to speak, has changed — but the reality has changed in a way that has made that somewhat less central.

ME

Of course if we look at the teachers’ strikes, one thing that’s interesting is that a lot of these are happening in unexpected places — in red states, right-to-work states, and areas not known for having the strongest established unions.

JB

Absolutely. West Virginia is an exception, in that 70 percent of teachers were members of unions. But the unions were extremely weak, they were more like lobbying organizations, and they were also divided. The unions didn’t really initiate the actions, but they did become a factor. Eventually they called the strike, but then tried to call it off very fast. In Oklahoma and Arizona, which were the two that followed immediately, as a direct response to the West Virginia strike, the unions were also weak and played a very small roll in the overall process, even less than in West Virginia.

But then in Chicago and Los Angeles, you had a very experienced, very savvy union leadership that wanted to shake things up, leadership that was committed to a broad public education movement and to building an ongoing movement of parents, kids, teachers, and other employees. With the Chicago teachers’ strike, one of the things they did during the build-up to the strike was participate in a big anti-NATO demonstration. They also participated heavily in Occupy Wall Street in Chicago. So they had a much, much broader perspective on what they were doing.

ME

That seems to be the counter-example to the claim of spontaneity: when we talk about the very careful organizing of a dissident caucus in Chicago, which took place for years before the strike, and to some extent about LA, where you have the Union Power slate taking over the union and really investing in long-term power going into the strike.

JB

I think you would find pretty similar things in other times and other places. Just think about Harry Bridges and the longshoremen association, the ILA, on the West Coast [in the 1930s]. It’s a very similar example, with a rank-and-file caucus that took over the union and moved toward a much more radical kind of strategy — eventually stimulating a general strike in San Francisco in 1934. So I don’t think Strike! maintains that that’s not a pattern that happens.

In the book I tried to give a background to the outbreaks, to show that it was not as simple as saying either that there was a spark and everybody struck, or that there was carefully planned leadership and organization that determined everything. There’s some truth in both.

The thing that I would emphasize, what I want to teach people, is that they don’t have to wait for leaders to give permission, or for organization to be established. They’re not powerless. If they want to act, they should take a good hard look at the situation and act in a way that’s going to be realistic and effective for meeting their needs. So I think I tend to highlight cases where nobody was giving people permission to act.

ME

I wonder if you could talk a little bit about striking as a form of disobedience that might be applicable to other movements.

JB

Absolutely. There have been a number of cases since the beginning of the Trump era where the boundary line between what’s a strike and what’s a movement — what’s a rebellion or a demonstration — has really blurred. The boundary between the two seems to be fading.

The Women’s March was originally conceptualized as a women’s strike. The #MeToo movement included a conception of a strike early on, with a walkout at Google. There have been immigrant rights actions that were pretty close to what we think of as strikes.

Toward the end of the government shutdown earlier this year, you had sickouts occurring among flight controllers and airport workers, and more and more flights were being cancelled. [Association of Flight Attendants president] Sara Nelson issued a call for a general strike. The airports were in chaos. And that was a major factor in Trump’s decision to end the shutdown.

ME

That’s an interesting point. In Strike! you talk about moments in US history where there actually have been general strikes — for example in Seattle, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Today, the general strike seems like sort of a leftist dream. You have radicals calling for them periodically, but usually those calls feel wildly overambitious. To what extent do you think the idea of a general strike is useful to us?

JB

The greatness of the general strike is that it presents an image of the power workers have and the dependence of employers on their acquiescence and cooperation. The general strike illustrates the idea that society could not go on functioning in an oppressive way for a single day if all workers decided to strike. It is tremendously important as an educational tool for thinking about the power of ordinary folks in general.

You see the idea emerge a lot. And I think it’s stunning that it comes to people’s minds immediately — that they think of it even as something on the horizon of possibility. It’s a sign that people are aware of the potential power that is involved.

In the future, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of strikes that are focused on particular sectors — and I don’t just mean industrial sectors. I can imagine women’s strikes. I can imagine government workers’ strikes; education system strikes; workers in a geographic area; workers in health care. I would see those as potential building blocks that might move toward something like a general strike.

There are definitely conversations about whether there can be strikes around issues of climate change. Certainly, climate destruction is a threat to just about everyone. It’s one where mass social mobilization is necessary to force a change of course in society.

I don’t think anyone’s got the formula for doing it yet — although striking students are taking this up. It will be a difficult process to engage organized labor as it currently exists. But there are pathways from where we are now to a place where substantial parts of organized labor might participate in something like that. We’ve got to go down that pathway.