Secondary Strikes Are Primary to Labor's Revival
Joe Burns November 4, 2010
Solidarity is the heart and soul of unionism--the only
force capable of confronting power and privilege in
society. To revive unionism, we must recover labor's
long-lost tools of workplace-based solidarity.
Today, union activists join each other's picket lines
and hold fundraisers for striking workers. While
important, these acts of solidarity are largely
conducted away from the workplace.
In contrast, labor's traditional forms of
workplace-based solidarity allowed workers to join
across employers and even industries to confront bosses.
Such tactics included secondary strikes and
What's a secondary strike? Say workers at a small auto
parts plant in Indiana walked out. If they enlisted the
support of the Teamsters to refuse to transport the
parts, the United Auto Workers to refuse to assemble a
car with the parts, and employees of car dealerships to
refuse to sell the cars, their power would be
multiplied. The original strike would be a primary
strike and the others would all be secondary strikes.
In the past, solidarity tactics allowed workers to hit
employers at multiple points in the production and
distribution chain. By impeding the flow of supplies
into a plant, unions pressured the employer to settle a
strike or recognize the union. Similarly, secondary
boycotts pressured retailers to stop selling struck
Solidarity tactics expanded the site of the conflict,
allowing workers to confront employers as a class. Many
of the strikes we know from history, like the 1912
Lawrence Bread and Roses textile workers' strike or the
huge postwar steel strikes, are great and historic
precisely because they involved tens of thousands of
workers across entire industries.
More recently, the UPS strike of 1997 involved 200,000
Teamster drivers and loaders and captured the
imagination of union and non-union alike. OUTLAWING
From the earliest days of unions, workers understood the
need to unite with others in their industry to seek
common standards. Otherwise, workers winning wage
increases at one company would be undercut by other
companies that failed to match the raises.
Thus in the 1940s through the 1970s, unions negotiated
industry-wide or pattern agreements, at times covering
hundreds of thousands of workers. Along with this broad
scope of bargaining came major confrontations between
workers and employers.
But in the 1980s, in the face of a deep recession and a
legal system hostile to solidarity, and with unions
failing to mount effective strikes, the patterns and
therefore union standards began to crumble. As this
publication argued earlier this year, "After a 30-year
employer onslaught, national patterns have been largely
devastated or have become top-down conduits for
Today, the most powerful forms of solidarity are
outlawed. Secondary strikes and workers' refusal to
handle goods from struck plants were banned by the
Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. The Landrum-Griffin Act in
1959 closed a loophole unions had used in the 1950s, in
which the union would negotiate "hot cargo clauses"
where the employer agreed not to use struck goods.
At a deeper level, modern labor law forces unions to
bargain with individual employers rather than establish
standards on an industry basis. Over the decades since
the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935,
the Supreme Court tightened the noose on industry-wide
The court allowed employers to unilaterally opt out of
multi-employer bargaining and made it an unfair labor
practice for a union to insist on such bargaining. So by
the 1980s, employers wishing to break free from pattern
agreements had the law on their side.
To be clear, the downfall of solidarity cannot be
attributed solely to legal factors. Unions willingly
agreed to no-strike clauses. Over the years, many
focused on just the needs of their own members, failing
to embrace a social unionism that looked out for the
interests of all workers. In the 1980s and afterwards,
unions often failed to defend their pattern agreements,
allowing special deals for particular "troubled"
employers until the pattern was no more.
And union officials all too often squashed rank-and-file
attempts to join together across bargaining units, even
at the same employer. So, for example, striking
meatpackers at Hormel in the mid-1980s were attacked by
the United Food and Commercial Workers International for
attempting to expand picket lines beyond the Austin,
Minnesota, plant. GOING AFTER THE BIG GUYS
The best current demonstration of the power of secondary
activity comes from farmworkers. The Coalition of
Immokalee Workers in Florida forced Taco Bell and other
huge corporations to increase pay for tomato pickers in
their supply chains.
Rather than target the subcontracting growers, CIW
pressured the major corporations that purchase the farm
produce--companies whose financial interest in the
dispute is relatively indirect.
CIW's work shows the power of an industry-wide approach.
Targeting individual growers would not have succeeded,
because a grower paying higher wages would not have been
able to get Taco Bell to buy its products.
CIW mirrored SEIU's successful Justice for Janitors
campaigns of the 1990s, which made life difficult for
all levels of the contracting chain, including the
end-users of janitorial services as well as workers'
immediate employers, and sought industry-wide agreements
in a city.
For almost 30 years, most union activists have tried to
ignore the fact that restrictions on solidarity
hamstring our movement. We've been told that organizing
new members and conducting corporate campaigns can
revive the labor movement. It's not working.
Last month, rank-and-file longshore workers provided a
rare example of workplace-based solidarity in action.
Fresh Del Monte Produce transferred work from a union
pier in Philadelphia to a non-union facility,
threatening 300 longshore jobs.
To spread their fight to a much bigger site,
rank-and-file workers from Philadelphia set up picket
lines at the major New York/New Jersey ports. Workers
there honored the picket lines for two days--despite an
injunction from a federal judge and the opposition of
their international union.
After two days, Del Monte promised to negotiate and
workers pulled the picket lines. Workers rediscovered a
real sense of collective power, but anemic
follow-through from the International means the
Philadelphia local is looking at a long fight to win
back their work.
Still, workplace-based solidarity and expanding the
dispute were crucial. The Philly workers pulled their
natural allies, other longshore workers concerned about
non-union ports, into the dispute. They made other
corporations--all those trying to ship goods into New
York or New Jersey--feel pain as well, by tying up
shipping for two days.
Longshore workers occupy a strategic spot in the U.S.
economy. Their struggle illustrates why workplace-based
solidarity is outlawed--precisely because it is so
Reviving solidarity will not be easy. Labor law forbids
it. It goes against a union culture based on bargaining
with individual employers. Reviving solidarity will
require new ways of thinking and, perhaps, new forms of
But the labor movement has little choice. As AFL-CIO
President Richard Trumka noted in the early 1990s,
unions need "their only true weapon--the right to strike.
Without that weapon, organized labor in America will
soon cease to exist."
Joe Burns' book Reviving the Strike: How Working People
Can Regain Power and Transform America (IG Publishing)
will be published in May 2011.
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