Even though union membership hovers at about a 12-percent (down from a high of 35-percent in the 1940s and 1950s), there’s a way of looking at these figures that gives us cheer. With the U.S. population at more than 300 million, that 12-percent figure converts to about 14.7 million members—which is pretty close to the total number of union workers you had back in the 1950s.
And because there is, undeniably, strength in numbers, let’s consider a tantalizing hypothetical. What if America’s 14 million union members went on a spontaneous one-day strike to remind the country of just how important working people are, and how skewed and weird and mind-numbing our priorities have become? Let’s take a moment to consider that.
Admittedly, right out of the chute there will be skeptics and naysayers who will argue that such a thing couldn’t happen—that it’s illegal, that it’s too ambitious to pull off, that it would be a logistical nightmare, that it could only end badly, etc. But instead of jumping to conclusions, let’s examine these objections.
First, yes, it is illegal—particularly when you begin including people like police, firemen, nurses, postal workers, etc. So maybe we’d have to consider making some exceptions. Yes, federal workers could be fired for going on a wildcat strike. Everyone still remembers 1981, when Reagan fired the Air Traffic Controllers for going out on what was technically an illegal strike.
But let’s look at it carefully. First, we have Obama in office, not Reagan. Second, unlike actual strikes, which can last for weeks or months, this is one-day strike. And the fact that it’s a one-day deal will be made known in advance, which means employers won’t hire replacement workers and, very likely, won’t fire anyone.
Of course, America’s bosses will raise bloody hell and threaten to fire everybody—that’s what bosses do when they’re cornered—but because such a move would be utterly self-destructive (the costs associated with recruiting and retraining an entire workforce would be staggering), they won’t do anything….except simmer.
Let’s also remember that these aren’t lone wolves who can be picked off one by one. These strikers will have a union to represent them. Consider what happened in China and India a couple years ago when workers went out on spontaneous wildcat strikes. When management fired the ringleaders, the workers threatened to call another wildcat unless they were hired back—which they were. The same would happen here. The message: If you fire anyone, we’ll turn around and shut you down again.
In the worst case scenario, if there turned out to be some fines that had to be paid, let the union pay them. After all, if there’s one thing organized labor has plenty of, it’s money. Labor spent an estimated $400 million dollars on Democratic campaigns during the 2008 elections.
There’s another a advantage to a one-day strike. While it’s difficult getting people to engage in explicitly political or time-consuming stuff—marching in parades, attending rallies, carrying placards, making phone calls or writing chain letters—all they have to do to pull off this protest is stay home. Their very absence assures its success.
As for being a logistical nightmare, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, given that we live in the Internet Age, and given that this would be a union-organized, union-administered event (i.e., working off up-to-date membership rosters), it would be a logistical piece of cake.
But what would a one-day strike achieve? What good would it do? At the very least it would get the nation’s attention and demonstrate the heretofore unrecognized and unappreciated fact that working people (the country’s largest voting bloc) possess a tremendous amount of leverage.
As a society, we’re more or less numbed-out. There’s a huge disconnect between what’s going on around us and what’s being done in response. Even though we’re involved in three wars, still recovering from the second-greatest financial crash in our history, and are watching the middle-class being systematically dismantled—you wouldn’t know it from the public’s response. Nothing (or very little) is happening in the streets.
We need to react. The public needs to be reminded that Wall Street ain’t the only entity with muscle. History has shown that social movements have muscle. And because the only bona fide social movement in place is the labor movement, it’s time for organized labor to lead the charge.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org