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Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America


Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America Cover

ISBN13: 9781935439240
ISBN10: 1935439243
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If the American labor movement is to rise again, it will not be as a result of electing different politicians, the passage of legislation, or improved methods of union organizing. Rather, workers will need to rediscover the power of the strike. Not the ineffectual strike of today, where employees meekly sit on picket lines waiting for scabs to take their jobs, but the type of strike capable of grinding industries to a halt—the kind employed up until the 1960s.

In Reviving the Strike, labor lawyer Joe Burns draws on economics, history and current analysis in arguing that the labor movement must redevelop an effective strike based on the now outlawed traditional labor tactics of stopping production and workplace-based solidarity. The book challenges the prevailing view that tactics such as organizing workers or amending labor law can save trade unionism in this country. Instead, Reviving the Strike offers a fundamentally different solution to the current labor crisis, showing how collective bargaining backed by a strike capable of inflicting economic harm upon an employer is the only way for workers to break free of the repressive system of labor control that has been imposed upon them by corporations and the government for the past seventy-five years.


How the revival of the "classic" production-halting strike is the best hope for a revitalization of the labor movement.

About the Author

Joe Burns is a veteran union negotiator and labor lawyer, and a former local union president. For the past decade, he has negotiated labor contracts in the airline and health care industries. As a former local union president involved in strike solidarity, Burns supported many of the key strikes of the last several decades. He has a law degree from the New York University School of Law.

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Joshua DeVries, January 1, 2013 (view all comments by Joshua DeVries)
Joe Burns does all of us a great favor through this book. For way too long, unions in the US have thought they could concede their way back to strength. The kindest assumption is that union leaders believed that unions were too weak to stand up to corporate America and we workers had to bide their our time until unions somehow became strong again. The unkind assumption is that union leaders were simply lazy, in bed with management, or both, and is certainly true in some cases.

Regardless of which option is true, the result has been the same. Workers, union and non-union, have been losing ground for decades to owners and managers. The popular solution in today's media is for non-union workers to turn on union workers, since union members have not been reduced to quite so low a state, although they have taken many serious blows.

Burns presents another, more logical, solution. If workers and unions are to regain their strength, they have to work for it, and the main tool in our toolkit is the strike. We have to be willing to use it. This doesn't mean we are foolhardy about it - a successful strike requires planning and preparation - but to continue to hope that someday, for some reason, management, government, the Democrats, that someone else will solve our problems for us, is sheer lunacy. The only way for unions and workers to regain their ability to defend ourselves is to fight back. Not with bottomless donations to Democrats, not with lobbyists, but with the strike.

Not only is it the only way to stop union concessions, it is the only way to return to the days when non-union workers looked up to unions with respect. It is a risk to agitate in a non-union workplace. If we expect non-union workers to take that risk, there has to be a clear reason why. We have to be inspiring, and the way to do that is to stand up and say, "no more". During the 1997 Teamster strike against UPS, the Teamsters won the respect of the working class in the country by taking a hard stand against low-paid, part time jobs. If unions want the large majority of workers who aren't in unions to look to organized labor to help them make gains, then we will have take a page from the old union playbook and look back, and forward to the strike once again. Thanks to Joe Burns for making an eloquent case to US labor.
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Susan Rosenthal, June 25, 2012 (view all comments by Susan Rosenthal)
This exciting little book begins with a bang. Reviving the Strike reminds us that class war shaped industrial America, as organized workers challenged capitalism and transformed themselves and society in the process.

Burns argues that workers’ only real bargaining power is their ability to stop production. And to do this, workers must act as a class. These two unavoidable facts gave birth to solidarity pickets, secondary strikes and boycotts that involved whole communities, regions, states, and ultimately the nation.

Class solidarity meant that no scabs were allowed to cross picket lines, and no company was allowed to use struck goods or parts. Holding firm meant fighting pitched battles with hired thugs, professional strikebreakers and scabs. When their solidarity was strong enough, workers could not be defeated. Everyone understood that, even politicians.

During the late 1890s and early 1900s, workers gained real social power in the workplace and in society. However, capitalism cannot function unless it subordinates workers, so the employers closed ranks and built their own class solidarity backed by the power of the State.

In Chapter 3, Burns explains how American workers were legally stripped of their right to fight effectively.

“This did not occur overnight, but was the result of a complicated, decades-log legislative and legal assault by employers against the foundations of unionism. The outlawing of solidarity began with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935, became explicit with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, and was furthered along by Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s.”

The employers could use Congress and the judiciary against workers because the capitalist State always has, and always will, serve the capitalist class. The result:

“In 1952, there were 470 major strikes (those of more than 1,000 workers) involving 2,746,000 workers. By contrast, in 2008, there were only 15 major work stoppages, involving 72,000 workers…In 1952, almost 49 million days were lost due to work stoppages; in 2008, the number of days lost was starkly lower �" less than 2 million.”

Burns links the social gains of the postwar period with the use of the economic strike, and their subsequent loss to its abandonment.

The Union Bureaucracy

Employers could not have imposed their will on workers without the support of the union bureaucracy. According to Burns’ research, traditional trade unionists, radical and conservative, understood that an effective strike had to stop production. However, by the 1980s, most union officials had adopted “a management-inspired view” of striking, where workers abide by the law, rely primarily on moral pressure, and are easily defeated.

In Chapter’s 4 and 5, Burns reviews how unions have failed to create viable alternatives to the economic strike.

“Each strategy [the publicity strike, the corporate campaign and the inside strategy], while supposedly an attempt to revive trade unionism, instead adheres to a system that has been established over the past 75 years to guarantee labor’s failure…Without the traditional tactics of solidarity and stopping production behind them, none of these strategies have proven powerful enough to make an employer suffer economically.”

According to Burns, less effective forms of struggle reflect a weak labor movement that functions within the existing system “instead of trying to breaking free of that system, as traditional unionists once did.” At the same time, non-workplace strategies to win social gains lack the power to redistribute wealth from the employers to the working class. This is why we continue to lose what we won in the past, and then some.

Chapter 5 explains that campaigns to increase union density by “organizing the unorganized” fail for the simple reason that workers have no interest in joining weak unions that can’t put more bread on the table.

Burns doesn’t explicitly state why union bureaucrats would rather do anything but revive the economic strike. However, he does describe the bureaucracy as a structure apart from the working class and with a separate interest -- preserving itself. Breaking laws would result in fines that would deplete union funds and threaten officials’ salaries and careers.

Fortunately, unions are more than buildings, golf courses and bank accounts. All of these could be lost without losing the essential core of unionism -- class solidarity. If fighting to win means sacrificing union “assets,” then that is what must happen.

Unions cannot allow themselves to be held back by a bureaucratic structure that protects its wealth more than its members.

Twisting Reality

Chapter 7 explores how employers twist reality to gain support for attacking workers. Traditional unionists insisted that workers are not commodities; they are human beings with the right to determine what happens in the workplace. Furthermore, “the rights of workers must trump market considerations.”

“One of the main tenets of traditional trade unionism was that workers could not allow the market to determine wages and working conditions, as the market, unrestrained, will continually drive workers toward poverty, injury and even death.”

The traditional union principle that capital can create nothing without workers -- that labor creates all wealth -- has been turned on its head, so that capital is now revered as the source of jobs and prosperity. Even more shocking is the extent to which union bureaucrats accept this lie and use it to pressure workers to accept concessions, in essence, to surrender to the market. Burns concludes, “Challenging this pro-management bias is key to reviving trade unionism.”

Reviving the Strike offers some powerful lessons:

* There can be no common interest between bosses and workers, only war.
* Workers will always lose if they play by the boss’s rules.
* The power of workers lies in their ability to stop production. If they won’t use this power, they have nothing with which to bargain.
* Workers can stop production only if they unite as a class, disregarding the boundaries of job description, workplace and industry.
* Now that production is international, class solidarity must also be international.
* In order to fight effectively, workers must break the laws laid down by the employers and their State.
* When workers challenge the employers’ right to dictate what happens in the workplace, they challenge capitalism itself.
* The question of power must lie at the core of any union strategy.

In any war there are only two options: fight to win, or surrender. Both options produce casualties. There is no “safe” option for workers under attack, no place to hide in the hope of protecting one’s individual job, dignity and life.

Burns criticizes the pessimism of “professional” unionists who justify doing nothing while they wait for some spontaneous, successful strike to resuscitate a dying labor movement. We can and must lay the foundation for renewed struggle in the here and now.

As Burns explains, developing class solidarity is a process. A minority of determined workers can pull more anxious co-workers into small activities, and the more workers act together, the more courage they have to do what they might never do as individuals.

Reviving the Strike is inspiring and easy to read. It provides the information and the arguments we need to build a new labor movement from the ground up -- one that fights to win.
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Lumpenproletarier, September 27, 2011 (view all comments by Lumpenproletarier)
Mr. Burns argues that a return to militancy and strike tactics will restore Union power. That may be true, however, it was precisely when Labor was powerful that the anti-labor laws and legal precedents were created. Unions failed to stop the shift of power from Labor to Capital in the post World War II period in the United States. There is no logical argument offered as to how a restoration of Union power at this point will achieve anything better in the future.
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Product Details

Burns, Joe
Ig Publishing
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Publication Date:
8.25 x 5.5 in

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Business » Human Resource Management
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Religion » Comparative Religion » General

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How the revival of the "classic" production-halting strike is the best hope for a revitalization of the labor movement.
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