Joe Burns: What the labor movement needs

Industrial Worker interview with Joe Burns, author of Reviving the Strike

Joe Burns: What The Labor Movement Needs
By John Maclean, Industrial Worker

The following interview was conducted with Joe Burns, author of the recently-published book “Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America” (Ig Publishing, 2011).

Industrial Worker: You follow James Begin and Edwin Beal, the authors of the textbook “The Practice of Collective Bargaining,” in contending that the “purpose of striking” is to deny access to a productive plant “until it is ransomed by a satisfactory settlement.” What do you think about the recent closing of the Minnesota state government, the Washington, D.C. debt ceiling theater, and settled attempts to “bleed” the pocketbooks of the working poor, elderly, and disabled, but not the bosses?

Joe Burns: Traditional labor economists understood that to be effective, union strike activity needed to impose economic pain upon employers. A strike which effectively halted production or a boycott which caused an employer’s business partners to cut off ties caused employers to feel pain during a strike.

Today, under a system of pro-employer labor laws and practices which I call the “system of labor control,” only workers feel pain during a strike. Tactics such as mass picketing, secondary strikes, and quickie strikes are not allowed precisely because they are effective at harming employers.

Likewise, in the context you speak about, in the government shutdowns or fake budget “crisis,” conservatives are not the ones feeling the pain. They don’t care if people don’t get government services. In fact they like it. The question for our movement is how to start causing the corporate elite to feel some of the pain. That means disrupting the only thing they care about—their ability to accumulate wealth off of the labor of workers. That is why we need an effective strike.

IW: You write that the outlawing of solidarity “began” with the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, became “explicit” with the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, and was “furthered along” by many [U.S.] Supreme Court decisions. In the 1930s unions flowered “through solidarity,” and by the 1980s they were being wrecked by a lack of the same. Can you help people new to labor understand these legalistic intrusions into our right to free association?

JB: Solidarity is the heart and soul of trade unionism. Labor’s traditional tactics of solidarity allowed workers to join together across employers and even industries to confront employers together. The great strikes of labor history involved tens or hundreds of thousands of workers striking regional or national industries at once. Today, in contrast, unionists are often legally forced to strike one plant of a giant corporation.

Additionally, trade unionists were able to use powerful tactics of solidarity such as striking or boycotting business partners of struck firms. These solidarity tactics, which the legal system calls “secondary activity,” were so powerful [that] Congress outlawed them in the 1947 Taft Hartley Act. At a deeper level, the very structure of labor law encourages narrow collective bargaining. That makes it impossible to standardize wages within an industry and to maintain stable collective bargaining. We can’t win without solidarity. It’s hard to see the revival of the labor movement taking place based on organizing and bargaining shop-by-shop. It will require taking on entire corporations and industries at once.

IW: You write that with fewer strikes, union membership has declined, and that there has been a failure to find alternatives to striking. Tell us about some of these failed alternatives, and the importance of building solidarity in struggle.

JB: Since the mid-1990s, trade unionists have attempted to revive trade unionism without a powerful strike. Our main strategy has been to organize the unorganized either within or without the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The strategy has not worked. Despite massive expenditures of resources (including over $1.5 billion by the Service Employees International Unions since 1995), the percent of private sector workers organized into unions has dropped from 10 percent in 1995 to about 7 percent today.

In “Reviving the Strike,” I argue the reason is our lack of tactics capable of improving workers’ lives. Lacking a powerful strike, trade unions are unable to win higher wages and benefits. Workers have shown zero interest in joining a weak and declining labor movement. Developing an effective strike should be the main focus of labor.
Instead, many trade unionists look further and further from the workplace and shop-floor struggle. So we see calls for social unionism centered on coalition building with non-profits, living wage campaigns, and even converting unions into mass protest vehicles divorced from the workplace. All good stuff, but what we need is a workplace-centered grassroots movement capable of interrupting the sale of human labor.

IW: In your book you write about the limited successes of “minority unionism” at Starbucks. Given the recently-terminated strike of independent Starbucks employees in Chile, what would you say to unionists organizing the coffee giant worldwide?

JB: The concepts of minority unionism and solidarity unionism are extremely important. A union is a group of workers and not an entity decreed by the government. The sort of non-bureaucratic, grassroots organizations being built by activists at Starbucks is what the labor movement needs. The challenge for advocates of minority unionism, and for workers’ centers in general, is how take on powerful corporations. Building organization is only one piece of the puzzle.

Whether one advocates majority or minority unionism, the question is the same: how to build worker organizations capable of confronting capital and improving workers lives. Absent direct economic power, advocates of minority unionism are left with the same reliance on NLRB charges and elections. That was the question confronting activists at Jimmy John’s earlier this year when deciding whether to hold an NLRB election or engage in direct action.

IW: Finally, give us your sense of what needs to happen for labor to break free of the system of labor control in the United States. When you wrote about the things we could learn from the right in this country, I recalled William D. Haywood characterizing the founding convention of the IWW as a “continental congress of the working class” directed toward freeing it from the “slave bondage of capitalism.”

JB: We cannot have effective trade unionism without challenging capital’s control over the workplace, industry and the economy. An effective strike, one which stops production or disrupts the supply chain of an employer, by definition challenges the employers’ “right” to run “their” business. Underlying the system of labor control are a set of what law professor James Attleson calls pro-management “values and assumptions,” which in many ways are more important than individual case law. Challenging these ideas is critical to reviving trade unionism.

While radical unionists such as the IWW in the 1910s or the early CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] unionists of the 1930s certainly understood this, I argue many ideas of the relatively conservative American Federation of Labor also challenged capital more than the modern trade union movement. Mainstream labor ideas such as “human labor is not a commodity” and “labor creates all wealth” fueled militant strike activity.

This article originally appeared in the October, 2011, issue of the Industrial Worker newspaper