Legendary political satirist Mort Sahl (whom I’ve interviewed) used to tell this joke: “If President Nixon saw a drowning man 20-feet from shore, he would throw him a 15-foot rope. Then Henry Kissinger would go on television and solemnly announce that the president had met him more than halfway.”
If you substitute “Democrats” for “Nixon,” “organized labor” for “drowning man,” and “Obama” for “Kissinger,” you get an idea of how the Democratic Party has treated labor. They pound their fists, they utter platitudes, they ask for donations, and they regularly remind the AFL-CIO that they have, indeed, met them more than halfway.
Unfortunately, halfway isn’t enough, not with the struggles labor is facing. It’s no secret that there are plenty of things organized labor could use right now, starting with passage of the EFCA (which would give workers the right to card check). Other things include closure of loopholes in federal labor laws, modification of Taft-Hartley, more NLRB field agents, fewer right-to-work states; and more creative minds running the AFL-CIO.
But the most important thing, undeniably, would be passage of a law prohibiting the permanent replacement of strikers. That piece of legislation would change everything. When Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “Labor cannot, on my terms, surrender the right to strike,” he acknowledged that working people have only one weapon at their disposal—i.e., withholding their labor. Workers can scream and argue all they like, but without the threat of withholding their labor, they have no leverage.
Strikes are perfectly legal; they’ve been around for a couple hundred years and are recognized all over the Western world. But if hitting the bricks is tantamount to economic suicide, it not only negates Brandeis’ central point about labor maintaining its right to strike, it practically gives businesses free rein, which, with the middle-class melting away like the earth’s glaciers, is the last thing we need.
Striker replacement legislation would make a tremendous difference. It would unshackle the American worker. It would liberate him, energize, inspire him. Guaranteeing workers the right to return to their jobs would not only level the playing field, it would change the whole ballgame.
When I talk about this to other men, they either miss the point or smugly suggest that strikers deserve every bad thing that happens to them. And I hear this from tough guys, men who view themselves as radicals of a sort, as rugged individualists, as rebellious free-thinkers. Yet these “armchair revolutionaries” are so gutless, when they hear about working people rising up in protest, their first reaction is to side with the bosses.
Then there are those who miss the point entirely. I’ve met people who think organized labor insists that businesses be shut down during a strike, that companies be deprived of their constitutional right to engage in commerce. One person actually thought the referees union was demanding that the NFL not play any football games while the refs were on strike—that the whole football season come to a screeching halt.
If that weren’t so pathetic, it would be funny. For openers, those refs weren’t on strike; they were locked out. Moreover, if the NFL or any other business in America wants to use replacement workers (“scabs,” as they’ve been properly called), they are welcome to use all the untrained, inexperienced, unqualified workers they like. (By the way, how’d that NFL experiment turn out?)
The critical thing here is that once a strike is settled—win, lose, or draw—the full-time, invested workers get their jobs back, and the temporary workers leave. The jobs they’ve been poaching don’t belong to them. They belong to the working men and women who made the sacrifice. Just as we don’t allow squatters to take over our homes when we’re out of town, we shouldn’t allow scabs to take our jobs.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org