Reviving the strike - Joe Burns

Reviving the strike - Joe Burns

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, argues Joe Burns.

In "Reviving the Strike," labor lawyer 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.

Reviving the Strike - Joe Burns.epub277.57 KB
Reviving the Strike - Joe Burns.mobi342.41 KB
Reviving the Strike - Joe Burns.pdf1.7 MB

Posted By

Caffeine Onegin
Dec 3 2013 17:02



Dec 3 2013 19:02

Excellent...... going to the head of my book-length Gril list.

Dec 4 2013 19:34

PDF plz?

Dec 4 2013 23:16
Bernardo wrote:
PDF plz?

You can convert one of these files in a few seconds using a site like If you could upload it here afterwards for others that would be great as well!

Dec 6 2013 05:51
Steven. wrote:
Bernardo wrote:
PDF plz?

You can convert one of these files in a few seconds using a site like If you could upload it here afterwards for others that would be great as well!


(although it looks a little funky in pdf)

Dec 6 2013 14:33

Yeah, I've converted a lot of epub/mobi files into pdf's and they end up looking like that. If anyone has any suggestions on how to set up calibre to where it looks a little more cleaner, I'll add some to the library.

Dec 8 2013 08:37

Fortunate coincidence: Joe was in town last night and sat in with our study group reading Reviving the Strike. It was a great conversation and we were able to talk with him directly with questions we had about the book. His take on the need for "class-against-class" struggles, which really only can happen with militant shopfloor struggles led and controlled by the rank-and-file, confirmed our own experience. He also made an astute point about unions giving an exclusive focus to "politics," and really ignoring the workplace, which put "labor" in bed with Democrats. These really took off in the 1980s and without a critique of economics, or political economy, "class" is almost never mentioned by unions these days. Also, public sector unions, which really can't do the same kind of production-stopping strikes as workers the private sector, have continued this confusion about politics and this one-sidedness needs to be challenged. We had a lively discussion about our own attempts at "social strikes" to overcome this contradiction, as well as talking about the need to imagine new class war tactics.

Our meeting with Joe was a very thought-provoking and rewarding experience. It he comes to your town, he's an extremely friendly and accessible comrade and well worth meeting.

He left us with a beautiful quote from Sidney Fine's Sit-Down: The General Motors Strike of 1936-1937, about how wildcats and sit-downs had a euphoric multiplier effect, as "courage built upon courage."

Chilli Sauce
Dec 8 2013 10:56

That's interesting H. I've not yet read RTS, but from what I gleam, I can't really decipher Burn's politics. Is he in favor of a shopfloor-based militant trade unionism or is it something more radical?

Joseph Kay
Dec 8 2013 11:04

RTS is kinda pitched partly at union staff, with suggestions on how sponsored front-groups could be used to organise strikes while protecting union funds. It's mainly pitched at rank-and-filers imho. And there's a short discussion of the Wobs/minority unionism, though he correctly notes that whatever form of organisation you propose, the problem is still the same: how to organise a production-stopping strike.

Chilli Sauce
Dec 8 2013 11:13

Cool, thanks JK.

I also get the impression that some of the younger staff organizers associated with Fight for 15 (and to a less extent, OURWalmart) have been influenced by RTS. Although that judgement is made from a distance and, or course, doesn't apply to the Madison Avenue types running the campaigns from afar. Any thoughts from anyone on that?

Dec 8 2013 12:03

Even though we tried to pin him down for his opinion, Joe was pretty mixed about FFF and OUR Walmart. He has been traveling around the country a bit, so he said some -- like Chicago -- are much more rank-and-file controlled than others, while some are straight-up PR stunts. None even make the pretense, in any way, of stopping production. So I'd have to say if staffers are influenced by Reviving the Strike, they're clearly not showing it.

He advocates strikes that challenge legal restrictions, while the recent staff-led UFCW/SEIU/HERE actions almost never do. He did paraphrase something interesting (from the past), that went like this: "there are no illegal strikes, only unsuccessful ones."

EDIT: It was clear to all of us in the study group, without really knowing what Joe thinks since he didn't tell us, that the FFF and OUR Walmart actions have nothing to do with the kind of strikes he talks about in the book. When discussing with us, Joe was clear that the kind of strikes he's proposing would need to take on a class-against-class dynamic that would spread beyond the sector that sparked them (as they did with the secondary -- or solidarity -- strikes the 1930s). We all wholeheartedly agreed with him.

Chilli Sauce
Dec 8 2013 13:14

Fair enough, I'd sort of heard RTS referenced in relation to the idea that unions grow in times of labor unrest and that if unions can make strikes happen - even if they're controlled and short-term - then union membership and the respect of workers for unions will also increase. But, like I said, I haven't read the book so this is all second and third hand.

On a related point, the impression that I get from a distance is that at least for FFF, if it could pull off production-stopping strikes, it would. Again, not to say that unions don't want to be in control of those strikes, but it does seem FFF is willing to use limited militancy in a way that most modern unions drives aren't. Any thoughts?

Dec 9 2013 00:05
Chilli Sauce wrote:
On a related point, the impression that I get from a distance is that at least for FFF, if it could pull off production-stopping strikes, it would. Again, not to say that unions don't want to be in control of those strikes, but it does seem FFF is willing to use limited militancy in a way that most modern unions drives aren't. Any thoughts?

First, we need to separate the wheat from the chaff. In these sectors there have been genuine strikes based on working class agency, where workers refused to provide their labor power to their boss, with the intention of stopping production -- even indefinitely.

    1. On September 13, 2012, 33 warehouse workers employed by WareStaff and NFI (an employment agency and 3rd Party Logistics firm contracted by Walmart, respectively) went on a 15-day strike at an NFI's Mira Loma warehouse, in Southern California's Inland Empire
    2. On September 15, 2012, approximately 30 warehouse workers inspired by the action in California, went out on a 3-week strike against Roadlink (3rd Party Logistics firm contracted by Walmart), in Elwood, Illinois, a logistics center in the suburbs of Chicago

Warehouse Workers United in California's Inland Empire are connected with Change to Win. As could be expected, in response to retaliation for their strike their partners in clergy, non-profits, and the Democratic Party called for a 6-day "pilgrimage" march to Los Angeles. Despite the bravery of the workers who went on strike, they lost and bureaucrats then took charge and turned it into a harmless media spectacle.

The Warehouse Workers for Justice in Illinois, on the other hand, are part of a workers center founded by United Electrical Workers (UE), an independent union that also represented the workers at the Republic Windows and Doors who occupied their factory in December 2009. They not only won their core demands, but also got back pay for the 3 weeks they were out on strike. Truly inspirational.

EDIT: Joe Burns pointed out that there was some cross-pollination between the Roadlink warehouse workers strike and the Chicago teachers strike, as well as how the California warehouse strike was the spark that set off the strike in Elwood, Illinois.

So there have been some attempts at production-stopping strikes that workers in these other sectors could draw on. But they don't. None of us are in halls of Change to Win headquarters in Washington DC, so we don't know. We can only speculate.

But here are some things that are clear:

    1. All these actions are funded and led by front groups of present or former Change to Win unions: SEIU, UFCW, HERE, and IBT
    2. All the above unions are represented by the Berlin Rosen PR firm, who have a common strategy for all 3 campaigns: fast food workers, Walmart workers, and Clean and Safe Ports for truckers on the West Coast
    3. All of them are based on Berlin Rosen's campaign strategy: "Low Wage Work: Driving Labor's New Frontier," which can be summed up as seeding the corporate media with "strike" memes, casting their lots into the spectacular marketplace of ideas, lobbying Democrats for minimum wage laws, as well as organizing heavily media-saturated events that last an hour or so -- and with monitors to clearly discourage any disruptive action that might close the establishments or impede customers from accessing them
    4. All of the campaigns are based on neo-liberal partnerships with non-profits, clergy and the Democratic Party. Take the action at McDonald's in Oakland, California on December 5th. It was led by East Bay Up the Pay, a coalition of East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), HERE, SEIU and ACCE. EBASE's campaign around the Port of Oakland is based on partnering with the city and port management for (capitalist) development to create "good jobs." At an earlier McDonald's action in Oakland House of Representative member for Oakland 13th district, Barbara Lee, could be heard saying into the mic: "Fast food workers, Congress has your back"

Doing research on the non-profits in the neo-liberal partnerships with these campaigns, you find the usual suspects. But if you check the non-profits' tax returns (using an online tool like GuideStar), what's startling is the 6-figure salaries of their directors, researchers, and some of the staffers. Peter Gleick, executive director of the Pacific Institute, partner in Oakland's Clean and Safe Ports coalition earns $183,707 a year. But if you follow the money further, you find the usual financier suspects. Like the deep-pocketed lefty funders at Tides Foundation. But if you dig deeper, you see bureaucrats who create the cozy ties between Democrat politicians well ensconced in the political state and corporate foundation money. I have to admit it was shocking seeing some of these neo-liberal non-profit partners funded by the Ford Foundation.

Check out Aldoph Reed's interesting interview about his personal experience with Ford Foundation funding of poverty programs, always with strings attached. Here's what he said:

Adolph Reed wrote:
Ford had been raising the bar on us, pushing us more and more in the direction of business development and entrepreneurial stuff, so we improvised this thing we called "community capitalism," basically organizing co-ops and giving us a little bit of cover. Ford, as it turned out, wanted to do more feasibility studies, so I spent time doing studies on shopping centers, development, shopping habits and patterns, and Ford wanted to move still farther in that direction. So my buddy and I led a staff insurgency.

Our class needs more insurgencies against the class interests represented by the Ford Foundation. We need more rank-and-file militancy -- like the strikes in Mira Loma and Elwood -- and less reliance on union piecards, foundation money with strings attached, and illusions about the state "having our backs."

Chilli, if you have any counter-examples about FFF, please share them.

Chilli Sauce
Dec 9 2013 09:18

Nah, I don't really have anything too concrete - just observations from a distance and what I've heard second and third hand.

I will say though in relation to UE example, it still does seem like an argument for militant trade unionism. Now, don't get me wrong, if I had to choose to be in an UE shop or an SEIU one, it's not even a choice. But despite its democracy and it left-wing bent, it's still a trade union with paid staff that's met the legal requirement of being a registered union. That strike you mention is indeed inspiring and workers in that position are certainly worthy of our support, but I still don't think it represented a fundamental break with trade unionism.

Dec 9 2013 15:15

One of the problems with the "lesson" that SEIU, et al, have taken from Burns and other advocates of strike revival is that they are trying to have it both ways: "militant" strikes combined with legal protection for the unions involved. In other words, none of these unions are willing to risk breaking the law, and instead are tinkering around the edges to avoid the potentially serious consequences of confronting the "system of labor control" head-on.

Confronting this system and unleashing true class power would necessarily require a willingness to risk the current institutional integrity of these unions: officers would have to be willing to risk prosecution, treasuries would be put at risk, and in one way or another, these edifices of institutional labor would have to be fundamentally altered in some existential manner.

It is worth noting that these unions are extremely conservative when it comes to fights involving their existing membership, where they appear to be much less enthusiastic about "reviving the strike." Fast food workers, should they ultimately be represented by SEIU or the like, will almost certainly see a sudden drop-off in union support for experimental methods of fighting the boss.

Hopefully, fast food workers will successfully wrest control over this campaign and create something truly transformative.

Chilli Sauce
Dec 13 2013 08:46

So I'm about 100 pages in - enjoying it, but it's still mostly giving a historical perspective on all this stuff. The impression I get is that he's still arguing more for militant trade unionism than syndicalism, but there's certainly much worthwhile in the book in any case.

Anyway, FWIW, I remember being told that the book argues for like arms-length union sponsored groups that would be more able to take illegal/confrontational/risky actions. And I think that's why I had it in my head that some of the union front groups we're seeing at Walmart and in Fast Food were influenced by RTS.

Dec 13 2013 10:57

What I took away from the book was that 2 key factors make strikes effective: 1. stopping production and 2. classwide solidarity (like secondary/solidarity strikes and boycotts). In meeting him face-to-face, Joe mentioned the overt class dynamic of those types of actions. He agreed that so little of what passes for union organizing today even comes close to what can be called class struggle.

The PR stunts in fast food, with Walmart workers, and with Teamsters and their Clean & Safe Ports front group, do neither. They focus on the media, who come to these events and end up documenting events that have all the militancy of a press conference; absolutely no attempt is make to stop production by preventing people from patronizing the businesses. So essentially they misrepresent these pseudo-picket lines, which condones scabbing because all the action is for the TV cameras -- to the point that attendees are sternly cautioned against interfering with the businesses' operation in any way. Additionally, since very few rank-and-file workers are involved in the planning of these events, one angle they play up after the fact is workers being victimized for striking. As one of the in-depth articles post on libcom noted, fired workers are treated like pawns because very little effort was ever made to prevent their firing with rank-and-file militancy on the shopfloor in the first place, mostly because the front groups get much more publicity from claiming the unfairness and illegality of their firings -- and then turn the focus to the NLRB, as it is relied on to correct this "injustice." So there's no attempt to go beyond narrow sectors and make the organizing classwide. The focus, along with calls for a higher minimum wage, is on the benevolence of the state instead.

To sum up, none of the fast food, Walmart or trucker PR events do anything that Joe Burns suggests. I highly doubt any low-level union piecards read the book. Even if they did, they have no ability to override the PR firm that is effectively directing what amounts to a single campaign in several sectors. The day before yesterday, the Democratic mayor of San Francisco proposed a $15 an hour minimum wage for the city. I'm certain that the fast food, Walmart and trucker campaigns are being promoted with heavy involvement of the Democratic Party behind the scenes. Makes one wonder if all this build up is being coordinated with Obama for announcing his push for a new national minimum wage.

Chilli Sauce
Dec 19 2013 13:38

So, on page 94, Burns writes that "without government action as an option, there is really only one way forward for the labor movement, and that is to repeal the NLRA by non-compliance...".

I was thinking about this, but in a weird way certain sectors of capital have sort-of repealed the NLRA through their own non-compliance. Take Wisconsin, for example. Now, obviously, this was done as an attack on workers' rights, but I have heard stories of unions who now practice minority unionism and who do direct collection of dues.

H, you didn't get a chance to ask him about those sorts of development and whether he sees them as forcing unions into a position of militancy - even if just to save their own skin?