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PORTSIDE  December 2012, Week 2

PORTSIDE December 2012, Week 2

Subject:

The Power of Example -- a conversation with labor leader Joe Burns

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Date:

Mon, 10 Dec 2012 21:59:55 -0500

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The Power of Example -- a conversation with labor leader
Joe Burns

http://wagingnonviolence.org/2012/12/the-power-of-example-a-conversation-with-labor-leader-joe-burns/#more-20323

by Matthew Cunningham-Cook | December 10, 2012

Many, if not most, in the labor movement were deeply
disappointed with the results of the Wisconsin
uprising, from which the anti-labor establishment has
emerged almost entirely victorious. A few months after
the uprising began, Joe Burns, a labor lawyer and
former union president, published Reviving the Strike:
How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform
America, to critical acclaim. In the wake of that
struggle in which strike tactics were shied away from,
the book argues that the only way to reverse four
decades of labor's decline is by bringing back the
militant tactics that built the labor movement to begin
with -- notably, industry-wide strikes with disregard
for unjust labor laws.

As Waging Nonviolence's new "Wildcat Winter" series
indicates, we seem to be at the precipice of a revival
like the one Burns called for. Chicago teachers struck
in September, followed by nearly half a dozen teachers'
strikes in suburban Chicago, the Walmart strikes up and
down the supply chain, the just-settled longshore
clerks' strike on the West Coast, and now the striking
fast food workers in New York City. I talked with Joe
to hear from him on this ongoing Wildcat Winter.

In the past few months, we seem to have seen an upsurge
in successful strikes. What is the significance of
this?

Clearly we've seen a change in the past couple of
months in terms of strike activity increasing. In labor
history, workers tend to strike in waves, because the
power of example leads other workers to strike. First,
with public employees and teachers, the Chicago
Teachers Union went on strike. They had overall a very
successful outcome. So other teachers unions have
decided to strike. Second, you've seen other places
where workers are striking to defend themselves, with
very aggressive employers demanding concessions. In
California, the ILWU is using a strike to defend
decades of gains made by workers. The third thing -- and
this is a real shift -- is the use of the strike as an
organizing tool. That's a big change over what has been
happening over the past couple of decades. Fast food
and Walmart workers are using the strike as both a tool
of organizing and demanding improvements from
employers.

In the past new union organizing has been seen as
slowly building on one-on-one discussions, and this is
really different because if you look at the history,
when we've made real gains it's been when we've shifted
to a strike-based model.

How do you think the wave can be expanded?

It's going to have to be expanded, but it's going to be
difficult because the rules of the game are so tilted
in favor of employers. Employers have a lot of
advantages under the system of labor law. What
organizers will run up against is that we're going to
have to directly confront what I call the system of
labor control -- the set of labor laws that have been
put into place to make it difficult to win strikes. For
now organizers have been embracing this tactic, so
we'll see where it takes us.

To take a historical example: In the 1960s, millions of
public workers joined trade unions, and they did it
through strikes. Starting with the New York teachers,
we saw this incredible strike wave, and that's really
how public workers won their unions. This was the power
of example, unions refusing to obey unjust labor laws,
and it was a grassroots rebellion. And, as I discuss in
Reviving the Strike, it was a very similar pattern in
the 1930s.

Many of these recent strikes, especially with the fast
food and Walmart workers, occurred among what many
theorists of labor have labeled the "precariat" -- that
is, people doing types of work that tend to have low
job security and high turnover, and which are often
part-time and subcontracted. For many years, unions
avoided organizing these kinds of workers due to the
difficulties of organizing such a disparate workforce.
How do you see victories as possible with these new
tactics?

A couple points. One is that, in a lot of industries in
the 1930s, the organizational work was very precarious,
and it became one of the main demands of the unions to
make jobs permanent, with job security, and full-time.
This was something they were able to change through
struggle. If you look at longshore workers in the
1930s, you had to be called for work. Auto work was
very intermittent and high-turnover. Trucking was the
same thing. What unions did is they disregarded the
rules that employers had set up and as a result made
major gains. For the Teamsters it was a question of
whether you had a union card, not whether you were an
employee or contractor. That's the key part of it -- it
could be changed.

If you jump forward to today, the same thing holds
true. Employers are able to use their advantages under
labor law to structure work in a particular fashion,
and it's the responsibility of unions to fight against
this.

Could I sum that up like this: Unions need to organize
work, not employees?

The Justice for Janitors campaign is the best example
of this. SEIU confronted an industry that had
subcontracting, and if you started to organize they
would just hire another contractor. But they took the
entire industry on -- and that's what you see with
groups like warehouse workers and more geographic
organizing of the restaurant workers in New York City --
rather than the traditional shop-by-shop organizing
that has been foisted upon unions by traditional labor
law.

About 10 years ago, activist and scholar Dan Clawson
wrote The Next Upsurge, which argued that labor
movements emerge as part of broader surges. Do you see
what's happening now as potentially the precipice of
the type of movements we saw among workers in the
private sector in the 1930s?

I think it could be the beginning of one. Certainly the
conditions are there, and there's an understanding
among unions and organizers that how they do things
needs to change. That's really been the key to the
recent breakthroughs: new kinds of organizing.

We can't push this forward, however, without
confronting the system of labor control. Labor laws are
so stacked in favor of employers that it doesn't
necessarily matter how creative we are, we're always
going to come up against the limits of a rigged system.
If we're going to move forward we have to figure out
both the necessity and the ways of being able to
violate these unjust labor laws. If we look at labor
history, that was clearly a necessity both in the 1930s
and the 1960s, the two greatest upsurges of the last
century.

In southern Europe and in South America, arguably the
two places in the "West" where the labor movement is
the most vibrant, there seems to be a much greater
cognizance among working people that they are locked in
a struggle with capitalism. Do you think that that has
to be replicated here in the United States?

Successful trade unionism necessarily requires
confronting capitalism. The reason that's the case is
because effective unionism challenges the ability of
capital to operate. You're basically interfering with
the sale of human labor, which is the key component of
capitalism. That's what I talk about in my book; even
if we think about conservative American Federation of
Labor officials of 100 years ago, their underlying
philosophy of human labor as not being a commodity was
actually quite radical. What's happened over the last
60 to 70 years in the labor movement is that we've
embraced fairly conservative ideas which allow us to
have unionism but only within a framework that respects
and allows the ability for capital to operate freely.

What do you think needs to come next?

It's very hopeful that we've seen a turn in the labor
movement back toward the strike and back toward
grassroots activism and workplace-based activism. We've
had a lot of other ideas that we've tried in the last
20 years, but returning to a very traditional and
proven strategy is really our only hope.

[Thanks to the author for sending his article to
Portside.] 

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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