Reviving the Power to Strike


Strike Back

Using the Militant Tactics of Labor’s Past to Reignite Public Sector Unionism Today

By Joe Burns

IG Publishing: NY, 2014 pp.208

Review by Robert Ovetz

There is a hidden secret in our union movement and Joe Burns has shined a light on it. Our unions will not recover power until we again embrace worker self-organization, the strike, and break both unjust labor laws and our unconditional support for the Democrats. Looking back at the wave of unsanctioned wildcat strikes by teachers, cops, firefighters, sanitation workers, and other public workers during the 1960-1970s, Burns’s lesson is one we ignore at our peril.

The little known wave of public worker strikes that swept the country (and the world, it should be added) reshaped the labor movement. According to Burns, a former AFSCME union negotiator and labor lawyer, the number of public workers who belonged to unions in the mid-1950s grew tenfold to about 40 percent of all public employees by the mid 1970s.

Burns’s book is loaded with compelling histories of how small groups of militant workers made this possible. In the most unlikely places, Utah and New York teachers, Memphis sanitation workers, New Orleans, and Philadelphia police risked losing their jobs, being imprisoned for ignoring a court injunction to return to work, and banned from ever working in their field again. Workers in one agency or department would spark the imagination and passions of workers across a city or state, as teachers in Florida did, battling not only the conservative rigor mortis of its union leadership, but also elected officials, law enforcement, the courts, and businesses. After laying the groundwork with years of patient minority union organizing, the ungovernable force of workers would flash across entire cities, such as Oklahoma City, shutting down an entire city or part of the government. In response, this wave of wildcat strikes, rather than years of fruitless lobbying and campaign donations, won the benefits we try so futilely to hold on to today.

The changes, Burns details, are quite dramatic. For example, by the 1970s, about 70 percent of all teachers were unionized, a tremendous increase from the early 1960s. “In little over a decade, teacher unions had gone from a negligible part of the labor movement to among its largest and most powerful organizations.”

But this tremendous growth wasn’t for the reasons we are taught. Workers didn’t just sign up in droves because it was a good idea and they were asked. They signed up because small core groups of militant workers demonstrated that challenging their employers and the union leadership could bring real changes.

Burns’s lesson for us today is straightforward, persuasive, and impossible to ignore: public workers exerted their power by defying the law, their union leadership (if they even had a union), and struck. “It is not conceivable that the labor movement will be revived in any meaningful way without workers violating labor law, as their counterparts half a century ago did.”

Burns’s extremely accessible book recounts how public workers, beginning in small local workplace committees with a handful of members, organized often—without union representation and a contract—around problems and threats facing their co-workers. Such an approach inevitably put them in confrontation with local elected “allies” who they frequently helped get elected. Using what San Francisco tenant activist Randy Shaw calls the “fear and loathing” approach in his book The Activist’s Handbook (2013), these workers developed new forms of organization, tactics, and strategies as leverage to force local, state, and federal governments to either respond with the carrot or the stick. When the workers built horizontal networks of support both inside and outside associated workplaces, local elected officials were forced to respond or risk losing legitimacy, whether sympathetic to the workers or not, by choosing conciliation rather than repressive measures such as arrests and firings.

In other cases, activists extended outward from their union to defy local and national leadership by organizing wildcat strikes that proved that organizing, not just having a union or a contract, gets the goods and attracts workers to join.

Recounting the meteoric rise of the PATCO air traffic controllers union, Burns concludes that, “it was power, not membership numbers, that initially made these unions attractive to other workers, and allowed them to grow into large, national organizations. Once they proved their mettle, these activists would challenge the leadership and take their unions in a more militant direction. In PATCO’s case that marked them for repression by the Reagan administration. ”

Burns recounts numerous similar stories of militant workers changing the direction of their conservative, Democratic Party-allied union in new directions. One of the exceptional stories is that of the Chicago Teachers. If the 2012 CTU strike is the exception today, it wasn’t at this time. CTU was transformed through frequent strikes until the 1980s.

Facing collective bargaining, strike bans, and conservative conciliatory union leadership, or having no union at all, the 1960s seemed bleak for the workers movement. “In the end, however, it is simply impossible to envision any significant change in the state of the labor movement without a large campaign of civil disobedience and mass defiance of labor laws.”

In other words, Burns’s call is that rather than be cowed by the repressive legal environment which workers now face, it needs to be confronted head on. But it needs to be done by carefully studying the situation, finding the weakest links that can be used for leverage, the strongest possible worker allies, and drawing in more co-workers to the effort by fighting and winning small, but escalating victories, and striking to expand workers power.

For Burns, the answer is to return to the amazing story of the 1960-70s wildcat strikes in order to devise new tactics, strategies and organizational forms to shift the balance of power by embracing the use of the strike. Quoting labor arbitrator Arnold Zach, Burns makes the point that the vast gains of this period came about because “the power to strike was of far greater importance than the right to strike.”

While Burns anchors his analysis in the more recent 1960-70s, occasionally referring to the 1930s, he overlooks another analogous period. From the 1880s to 1910s, workers were similarly engaging in widespread self-organization, confronting their own craft unions, giant industrial trusts, and the judicial, police and military forces of the state. Their often brief, spasmodic eruptions created enough disruption to provoke what we today call the Populist and Progressive Eras of reform that banned child labor, created early minimum wages and pensions, temporarily legalized recognition and collective bargaining in the midst of WWI, improved public health, created universal public education and libraries. None of these reforms would have happened if not for the radical farmers, immigrant anarchists, and socialists injecting their tactics, strategies, and new organization ideas into the AFL, in addition to the IWW strikes in key war industries during WWI. That the IWW eschewed the contract in favor of constant workplace organizing for power is a lesson clearly learned.

Overlooking this earlier period in some ways illustrated the limited theoretical depth of Burns’s thesis. Burns take the position that changes in the organization of production and employers’ attacks on workers’ gains and power spark new waves of militancy and not the other way around.

As Bruno Ramirez illustrated in When Workers Fight (1978)—during the so-called Progressive Era—and Martin Glaberman’s Union Committeemen and Wildcat Strikes (1955) during the Great Depression—employers are more likely to be responding to existing self-organized forms of workers militancy that is outside and sometimes even in confrontation with the union and the contract. Rather than collective bargaining and a contract being forced on employers, business embraced the union as an ally that can discipline recalcitrant workers. It’s no wonder that some of the greatest periods of economic expansion and profits followed the Progressive and New Deal reforms that sought to harness working class militancy (the former less enthusiastically or thoroughly) as a driver of economic growth and profits.

Despite these limitations, Burns’s book is an irresistible guide for reasserting worker power and tipping the balance back in our favor. The first step requires first solving the problem of eroding union power. It is far past the time to cast off our hubris and take risks.




Robert Ovetz, PhD, is a migrant mindworker of academia in California. He works full-time by piecing together numerous part-time teaching jobs in academia where tenure is going extinct. Ovetz belongs to five different unions in three institutions.