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Verizon workers on strike in Washington, DC in August 2011
By Tim Goulet
June 19, 2016 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Why has the use of the strike in the US become so scarce? While subjective factors are more difficult to quantify, certain basic reasons seem more readily evident. Union membership, particularly in the private sector, is at an all-time low. Most of the unions are heavily bureaucratized, and central labor councils ossified. “Sympathy strikes,” long ago outlawed by Taft-Hartley, militate against the sort of broad-based solidarity so essential to an industrial victory. Moreover, many unions have accepted no-strike clauses for the duration of their contracts, effectively tying one hand behind their backs.
Despite it all, the recent victory of 39,000 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and Communications Workers of America (CWA) workers at Verizon furnishes a stark reminder of what kind of power resides in the organized section of the working class when it is in motion.
It also shows the power of the strike weapon, and how it can be an effective tool -- in not only realizing demands and raising working class living standards -- but also rebuilding our unions.
It also stands to reason that all this happened in the midst of a presidential election campaign, where much of the organic political ferment of recent memory had seen the energy sucked out of it. The independent power of the working class is a certainly force unto its own.
As Kim Moody writes in In Solidarity:
The power to stop production, whether of goods or services, remains the central source of power for workers of all kinds. In the final analysis, the search for alternatives to the strike leads us inevitably back to the strike itself.
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Way back in 1926, militant trade union organizer and communist, William Z. Foster, wrote a pamphlet titled Strike Strategy for the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL). The TUEL was a formation that united union militants across unions and multiple industries, bringing socialist ideas and class struggle union strategy to the rank and file. By 1922 it had been incorporated into the Workers Party, the communist party outpost in the US.
While much of Foster’s material is dated there is still much that is of major interest today. Foster wrote the pamphlet, as he felt the rank and file “has an urgent need to acquaint itself with the principles and practices of strike strategy, of the science of effective struggle by the trade unions.”
Foster maintained that up until the time of the pamphlets writing, there had been “no systematization of strike experiences into a definite strike strategy.” Foster wrote Strike Strategy as a companion volume to another booklet entitled Organize the Unorganized, two concepts that went hand-in-glove.
Foster wrote that strike strategy entailed three essential components: policy, strategy and tactics. Policy would entail subordinating all aims to the conquest of class power by the unions. Strategy would entail which industry or company to strike, and tactics would boil down to what worksites to picket, businesses to boycott, level of community outreach, publicity, etc.
The overarching context strike strategy must be situated in rests on the nature of the period, degree of economic development, and current level of class struggle. In other words, strike strategy must be applied to present conditions.
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Foster listed 13 types of strikes: spontaneous, organized, offensive, defensive, solidarity, intermittent, local, district, industrial, general, international, economic, political, to which more might be added.
Karl Marx wrote, “Every economic struggle is a political struggle.” But it also true that the degree of the political character of a strike varies widely. Foster wrote that it was the duty of socialists to aid in the drawing out of the political character of every strike to the utmost degree, and “to raise them above purely economic ends,” with the aim of uniting “them all into a broad political attack against the entire capitalist system.”
Foster would undoubtedly be turning somersaults in his grave had he lived to witness the shotgun wedding between the leadership of the major trade union federations and the Democratic Party. The “broad political attack” he envisioned could only be realized through the formation of an independent workers party with its own class interests, that could generalize and coordinate the myriad of struggles across unions and industries throughout the country.
But this undoubtedly is not where we are today. What is most notable about Strike Strategy, however, is its organizational orientation, focusing on reaching new workers, and recognition battles with employers. This is one reason it retains its value.
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Three key factors to labor organizing that Foster highlights that are still indispensable today include: 1) organizing the unorganized 2) organizing across industries, and 3) organizing the unemployed. A strike can be used effectively to all these ends.
The “first consideration in strike strategy is the development of unity and solidarity among the worker.” This involves more than simply bringing workers into unions and strikes, but it also means overcoming the myriad of intra-class divisions imposed by capitalism and exploited by the employers.
Foster writes that this must include a three-phased policy of 1) education 2) organization, and 3) policy. The policy must be one that materially counteracts divisions by unapologetically defending the common interests of all workers.
This means organizing both skilled and unskilled workers collectively. In today’s terms this means a policy that presents the interests of the professor as analogous to the janitor that cleans the classroom. This also means uniting the native worker and the foreign born. Today this translates into combating patriotism, jingoism and economic nationalism in our unions, which is often fed by the employers and reinforced by conservative trade union bureaucrats. It means uniting white and black workers and combating racism in our ranks. These fights, as all others, must extend beyond the parochial boundaries of our shop floors and union halls.
Foster also emphasized the primacy of uniting the employed with the unemployed, a particularly crucial factor during times of economic depression. The government routinely demonizes the poor and those receiving any form of government assistance. This is meant to divide the working class. The bottom line is: the labor movement must fight for the interests of the entire class, and all those oppressed, full stop. No exception.
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Foster then takes up strategy and technique, writing that the organizing campaign constitutes the preliminary phase of the strike itself. A proper analysis is necessary that takes into account “(1) the state of the industry, (2) the strength and disposition of the enemy’s forces, and (3) the general political situation.” These questions are bound up with vital strategic questions such as how to hit the enemy at their weakest point, and when they are “least able to stand the blow.”
This means the timing of the strike is key, and is best during the time of greatest industrial activity. Also, “the workers must know exactly with whom they are fighting”. This involves a close study of the employer’s organizations, their financial conditions, and “relation of various companies to each other.” This will allow the workers to “gauge the strength of the enemy, to know where and when is the best place to hit him, and to learn, in the course of the strike, whether he is being seriously weakened or not.”
Moreover, “the working class strategists must always bear in mind the existing or prospective general and local political situations”. They are often decisive in strikes.” Foster writes, “National election periods present favorable opportunities that must not be neglected.” During these periods the employers often seek to mobilize the rank and file into voting for a particular “labor friendly” candidate, which typically means a Democrat. That being the case, it is not unlikely that the capitalist politicians will “seek to slough off the rough edges of the class struggle by slackening somewhat the state pressure” on the workers. Strike action culminating in such periods, if handled aggressively, has relatively higher chances of success. Conversely, when elections are over, and politicians no longer seek the labor vote, they will often return to their heavy-handed ways in dealing with stops in production or services.
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Organizing campaigns and strikes must be centered on the basic demands of the workers, which should not be outside “the realms of possible achievement under existing conditions.” The nature of demands are typically conditioned by the balance of power between the employer and union, the mood of the rank and file, the tempo of industrial activity, and degree of ideological development, etc.
In periods of economic upturn, strike activity will often be of an offensive character, demanding better pay and work conditions and the right to organize. In periods of recession, when workers are facing a generalized employers offensive and austerity, the fight will be defensive, looking to preserve previous gains and existing standards.
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Foster describes the strike itself as “the very heart of the class struggle.” They are open fights between exploiter and exploited where the “conflicting interests of the two classes are most manifest.” This is where workers employ their ultimate weapon: the withdrawal of labor-power and consequent cutting off of the employers’ source of profit. In order to maintain this state, it is necessary to achieve an unbroken solidarity against all odds.
It is for this reason that morale is crucial. But it is not a thing unto itself, “It is the product of a generally successful strike direction.” This includes striking an effective first blow, building solidarity networks, deterring “scab” labor, harboring an element of surprise, “dramatizing” the strike, or politicizing it through relentless exposures of employer ruthlessness.
And in the case of a situation such as Verizon, it is about “consolidating the victory.” This is just as important as organizing an orderly retreat in the case of defeat. Such victories “amount to little unless they are followed up by thorough organization of the workers involved and the systematic utilization of their victory to stimulate vast masses of other workers into action.”
Foster maintains that there are “two special periods” that “offer exceptionally good opportunities to draw masses into the struggle. 1) At the beginning of major strikes, when the workers are activated by the fight, and 2) right after a victory has been scored.”
This includes the “urgent necessity of systematically exploiting the victory by initiating great campaigns of organization among workers in the same or allied industries.”
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The history of modern capitalism in the US has been one marked by cycles of labor militancy, which saw strike waves begin in the 1880s, followed by slump in the 1890s, a recurrence before and after WWI, followed one again by a downturn in the 1920s, an upswing in the 1930s and 1940s, and again in the 1960s and 1970s.
These periods of industrial upsurge were typically the result of deeper underlying social shock waves such as a reorganization of work structures, or dramatic disruptions in working class living standards.
But there has not been another strike wave since. How can the left prepare for the next once? The study of labor history is a critical endeavor. Given the cleavage between the present generation of leftists and the last era of class-struggle militancy, perhaps more so than any other vocation.
Tim Goulet is a shop steward with Teamsters local 810 in New York City and a member of the International Socialist Organization.