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There Is No Strike Wave in the Private Sector

The teachers’ strikes of the past year and a half have been an inspiration. But we haven’t seen a revitalization of successful worker militancy where it’s desperately needed: in the private sector.

Oakland Unified School District students, teachers, and parents carry signs as they picket outside of Manzanita Community School on February 21, 2019 in Oakland, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty

Based on a Bureau of Labor Statistics report showing that the number of striking workers is the highest since 1986, many have celebrated the return of the strike. With the wave of teachers’ strikes over the past year, the successful string of hotel worker strikes by Unite Here, and most recently the Shop & Stop grocery workers’ strike in New England, there are certainly many reasons to be hopeful.

Labor activists are by nature optimists. We must be — otherwise, how do you inspire workers to take action and move forward? Struggle feeds upon struggle, and the notion that striking is a good thing helps spur others to action, as it did in Arizona and Oklahoma after the West Virginia teachers’ strike. So, talking about and promoting strikes is a good thing.

But optimism can’t be a substitute for sober analysis. Truly reviving the strike is going to take some radical changes to labor strategy, given the depth of labor’s crisis. It’s important to take a close look at the numbers. And the numbers show that there was a substantial teacher strike wave accompanied by a modest strike activity in the private sector.

The key number cited by many trumpeting the new strike wave is that the number of individuals who went on strike last year is the highest since 1986. In 2017, there were 485,000 individual striking, a number not exceeded since the 533,000 strikers in 1986. That is an important number that shows something significant is afoot. By one estimate, last year 5 percent of US teachers participated in strike activity. This is one of the most important development in recent years, as detailed in Eric Blanc’s excellent book Red State Revolt.

It does not, however, herald a generalized return of strike activity. Rather what we see is primarily a teacher strike wave combined with short duration strikes in the University of California system.

Of the 485,000 individual strikers last year 457,200 were teachers and other public employees. Of this, the vast majority of individual strikers were teachers in the West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Colorado. The other major group public employee group was a two-day strike of service workers at the University of California.

Isolating the private sector strike activity, we find nothing remarkable by standards of recent years. Almost 28,000 private sector employees struck or were locked out in nine major disputes in 2018. The most high-profile and largest numbers included strikes by hotel workers, members of Unite Here. These strikes are the culmination of years of strategic activity to line up local hotel contracts to take on giant hotel chains, the sort of strategic vision that is sorely lacking in most unions.

Comparing these numbers to historical averages, it is clear we have a long way to go in reviving the strike. In the 1980s, there were an average of eighty-six major disputes per year. In 1986, there were 11,000,000 lost workdays. And these numbers were down from the hundreds of major strikes per year in the 1950s and 1960s, representing tens of millions of lost workdays.

Simply put, there is no strike wave in the private sector.

State of the Strike in the Private Sector

You might ask, so what? It’s good to celebrate that more individual workers struck last year than in any year since 1986.

Don’t get me wrong. When I was writing Reviving the Strike over a decade ago, few in labor looked to the strike as the key ingredient in labor’s revival. So the fact that more and more folks in labor are striking is a good thing.

The problem is that declaring the strike revived understates the depth of labor’s crisis as well as the steps necessary to escape it. Reviving the strike is central. But declaring the strike revived ignores the conditions that gave rise to its decline as well as the roadblocks to effective strike activity. Most importantly, it dramatically underestimates the radical changes in the labor movement necessary to truly revive strike activity.

Many of the labor disputes cited by the BLS in fact point to the continued weakness of strike activity. The lockout of 1,200 Steelworker union members at National Grid, the prolonged strike at Charter Communications / Spectrum in New York, and the ongoing contract dispute at AT&T all point to continued difficulty for unions in the private sector.

None of this is to spread doom and gloom, but merely to be real: striking in the private sector remains difficult.

Not Simply a Question of Willpower

It is going to take more than willpower to revive the strike. When I was starting in the labor movement in the 1980s, heroic battles raged in almost every industry. Greyhound workers struck twice in the 1980s, Western mine workers waged a heroic battle at Phelps Dodge, and other groups including meat packers, airline workers, and paper workers heroically fought back against management’s attempts to bust their unions. Workers in virtually every industry took a stand. These were prolonged, bitter fights to the death. But we lost more than we won in this period, including many, many bitter defeats.

Workers did not quit striking because they did not need or want to. Striking was abandoned because the current regime is set up for labor to fail. Employers are allowed to legally permanently replace striking workers, workplace-based solidarity is largely outlawed, and employers easily can get injunctions against mass picketing.

In almost thirty years of labor activism, I have found that getting a group of workers to fight has never been the problem. The real question for folks risking their jobs, their pay, and their health care is whether there is a real strategy to win. It is not a willingness to fight that’s the problem, but a lack of tools to win under the current regime.

Truly reviving the strike in the private sector will require radical action of a type not seen in the labor movement for decades, involving a wholesale repudiation of existing labor law, a rejection of employer property rights, and a commitment to organize the key sectors of the economy through militant tactics.

This gigantic task will not likely be done by isolated groups of workers but will require the support of national unions. Engaging in the type of militancy needed will require restructuring unions, figure out ways to protect union assets, and a type of grassroots militancy unknown to most unions. None of these issues are even on the radar for the labor movement.

Clearly, the teachers’ strikes are pointing us in the right direction. Rather than pretend the strike is back, let’s have the far more difficult discussion of how do we apply the lessons of the red state revolt to the private sector. The ingredients are all there: member-driven mass mobilization, courage and solidarity, a willingness to violate labor law, and a sharp class stand that draws lines between the people and the establishment that does not serve our needs. So, let’s celebrate the strikes that did occur, and start strategizing for those that are about to.