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To anyone who’s been paying attention, it’s clear that there aren’t enough strikes in the U.S. There used to be thousands of strikes during the heyday of the post-war and 1950s. Today there are but a scattered handful. Even acknowledging the predicament that unions find themselves in, this absence of firepower is pitiful testimony to organized labor’s lack of imagination and resolve.
The Law of the Bargaining Table dictates that you come to fight. When you’re unwilling to use what is universally recognized as your only effective weapon you’re going to be perceived as entering a battlefield unarmed. And, not surprisingly, statistics confirm that perception. The decline in the number of strikes coincides dramatically with the decline in the earning power of the American middle-class.
The reason strikes work isn’t because their fundamental premise (i.e., workers hurting themselves in order to hurt the company) is so unnerving, or because strikes attract media attention, or even because federal mediators get assigned to help with the negotiations.
Rather, strikes work because of the fear factor. Denying the company the opportunity to make money (by workers withholding their labor) is the one and only thing management is actually afraid of. Everything else that happens at the bargaining table (the threats, the table-pounding, the presentation of charts and graphs, etc.) can be written off as stagecraft.
Of course, companies will tell you that strikes are stupid, anachronistic, and counterproductive, that shutting down the whole shebang over a contract dispute is not only silly, but needlessly destructive to both sides. But that’s just whistling in the dark. Strikes do work, and companies know it. That’s why they fear them.
Predictably, one of the things you still hear from management and, alas, the occasional union representative is that strikes can cause a disgruntled company to pull up stakes and relocate elsewhere, either in another state or another country. But this view is more the product of corporate propaganda than a portrayal of reality.
First of all, companies don’t relocate because they’re mad at you. They pull up stakes for one reason and one reason only: Because relocating makes good business sense. And if moving to another state or country made good business sense, they would already have done it, strike or no strike. Nothing is stopping them.
Second, businesses don’t leave the U.S. to avoid paying a union wage. That’s another absurd myth. They leave the country to avoid paying the federal minimum wage ($7.25 per hour), which is why these businesses need to be portrayed as the anti-American, money-grubbing traitors they are.
Think of that scene in The Godfather where Clemenza is standing in the kitchen with Michael Corrleone, explaining how internecine war with the other families is inevitable and necessary. “These things gotta happen,” Clemenza says. “Every five years or so….ten years. Helps to get rid of the bad blood.” The same is true of strikes.
For management, the occasional strike proves that the union has more at its disposal than talk, talk, and more talk. In negotiations, talk has a tendency to take on a life of its own, of becoming an end rather than a means. That’s why so many bargains limp along interminably….because no one knows how to stop talking. You can saber-rattle all you like, but until you prove you’re willing to pull the plug, they’re not going to believe you.
And for the union, a strike not only fulfills a practical need, but an internal, cathartic one as well. It serves as the calling-out of the rank-and-file, a challenge to everyone—from the timid back-benchers to the tough-talking, labor radicals—to stand up and be counted. A strike vote is the classic put-up or shut-up moment.
Two things: (1) We Americans have a soft spot in our hearts for underdogs willing to fight for what they believe in (especially when that fight involves self-sacrifice), and (2) we have a profound, almost reverential respect for hard-workers—and, by extension, contempt for slackers and freeloaders.
We are obsessed with hard work. Indeed, so fueled are we by our Calvinist legacy, that in the aftermath of some guy going berserk and shooting a bunch of people—when the media ask his neighbors and fellow employees to describe what kind of person he was—they will describe him as having been a “good worker,” a “hard-worker.”
But there’s a contradiction here. We admire underdogs, yet we do not rejoice when underdogs go on strike against corporate fat cats. We admire hard-workers, yet we do not embrace those who are, arguably, the hardest-workers among us—the stoop laborers who pick our lettuce and strawberries. Someone needs to explain that.
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 email@example.com.