Worker militancy and the labor movement are back in the public eye in a way not seen in decades. In the past three years, workers have struck—at times illegally—in huge numbers, especially in the education sector. Many of those strikes, like the General Motors strike, have been “traditional” labor strikes; some, like the Red for Ed movement, have happened both within and outside of the structure of the traditional labor movement.
It seems clear that something is different. Unions and workers are more willing to strike, and more likely to win them, than has been the norm since Reagan broke the air traffic controller strike in 1981. Nor are the strikes purely defensive actions, as many were during the 1980s and 90s. Often, the strikes of the 80s were attempts, usually failed, by blue-collar workers to stop plant closures and prevent offshoring. In contrast, strikes over the past decade are more likely to be offensives launched by unions and workers demanding more, against the background of soaring corporate profits and widespread austerity in the wake of the Great Recession.
Yet it’s too simplistic to claim that the strike is back. The act of striking is still less common today than it was for most of the 20th century, and strikes still often involve relatively small numbers of workers. We’re uncertain when this “strike wave”—if it qualifies as such—will crest. There have been comparatively few large-scale strikes since the General Motors strike in the fall of 2019, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic. The question remains if the combination of a pandemic and a new Democratic administration will serve to amplify or suppress labor militancy.
Regardless of what the future holds, the revival of the strike has encouraged new discussion of the direction the labor movement is taking. Unfortunately, much of that discussion has occurred within a stale binary: do we ignore the law to build power, or can we only build power once the law is changed? Advocates of the former (including many radicals) point to the illegal 2018 educator strikes as proof that the law shouldn’t matter.
Unionists in both camps have falsely construed these options as mutually exclusive. No great expansion of union power on the scale necessary to revive the movement is possible without reforms, and no reforms are possible without pushing and breaking the law. There is no either/or; we must do both. In figuring out how to do both successfully, we have to turn to the strike weapon—and examine why, and how, we use it.
There’s little doubt on the left or among more militant segments of the labor movement that strikes are good, and we want more of them. But if we take a step back and ask why we strike—to understand the purpose of withdrawing our labor, why it’s good, and what role it can play in changing the landscape—the picture is far more muddled.
The Strike Weapon
Defining the strike is crucial. The term is used widely. Student strikes refer to a refusal to pay tuition, and are often triggered (as in Quebec and the United Kingdom) over government proposals to increase tuition rates. Usually, they’re backed by student unions—entities that are commonplace elsewhere, but are largely supplanted by “student government” in the United States. Rent strikes can serve as an exertion of power by tenants over landlords. Prison strikes are common as well, sometimes over prisoner status (as in the case of the Long Kesh and Armagh Women’s Prison hunger strikes launched by Irish Republican political prisoners in 1981), or over conditions within prisons (currently the chief concern of prisoner strikes in the United States).
But the labor strike is distinct; it is a collective withholding of labor. That it be collective is key. Although an individual worker can be replaced, when workers act together, they have power. Workplaces require workers, and the collective refusal to provide labor grinds a workplace to a halt. In the United States, labor strikes usually take place in the context of a collective bargaining relationship, with a certified union withholding labor as leverage during contract negotiations.
The left attributes wider significance to the strike. Syndicalists and anarchists made the general strike, a collective withholding of labor by the broader working class, a central expression of their politics. According to “Big Bill” Haywood of the Industrial Workers of the World: if “workers are organized, then all they have to do is put their hands in their pockets and they have the capital class licked.” Haywood’s argument wasn’t new—it was an extension of earlier anarchist theories of the general strike, which became central to the IWW.
The “general strike” has less cachet outside of anarchist circles. Friedrich Engels criticized the general strike, ridiculing the idea that the capitalists would ever allow the working class to accumulate enough power to successfully stage one. Rosa Luxemburg theorized the “mass strike” as a “maturation” of the theory of the general strike. Contraposing it against the general strike, which would “inaugurate” the social revolution, she described the mass strike as “creating for the proletariat the conditions of the daily political struggle and especially of parliamentarism.”
The contemporary left generally understands the strike as the collective withholding of labor, on some scale, and as playing a key role in any sort of emancipatory class politics. But what does that role look like with regard to the actually existing labor movement and a legal structure of labor relations that privileges the rights of management above the rights of labor? Within the context of American labor relations, strikes are a weapon used during contract negotiations to achieve the best possible contract. In those terms, they serve as an added point of leverage in the collective bargaining arrangement.
A radical could interpret the role of a contemporary strike within the framework of collective bargaining as securing the most favorable footing before an armistice is called in the war between workers and management. Striking achieves the best possible gains for workers. There’s also a role of “consciousness raising” assigned to the act of striking: it both radicalizes the participants and makes future strikes more likely.
Understood this way, the radical interpretation of the strike weapon operates largely within the general framework of American industrial relations. The goal of the strike is to obtain gains (and, some will argue, to foster labor militancy and further the willingness to strike) under the theory that each strike will secure a forward advance.
Is this enough? If we orient the strike toward achieving leverage within a goal-oriented bargaining context, workers may be unwilling to strike unless the leverage is deemed necessary. Setting aside the question of whether striking to foster further strikes is a credible strategy, strikes do not generally replicate themselves within a specific context. Instead, strikes often lead to a period of labor peace; employers are more likely to quickly ratify agreements (as in the case of the Verizon contract extension in 2018) on the heels of bruising strikes. The result can be a prolonged demobilization following the period of conflict and frenzied activity.
Without a more comprehensive interpretation of the strike tactic, we risk a situation wherein the occasional strike and the credible threat of a strike can only operate inside a system that, regardless of original intent, disempowers workers. In that role, the strike will serve as a tool to curb the excesses of managerial diktat—but not as a repudiation of the broader structure that produced them.
Striking for Power
What’s missing from the prevailing conception is that our understanding of the strike lacks a credible discussion of power. The strike itself is of course necessarily an exercise of power within the contest between labor and management. But while striking to secure a bigger raise may reap immediate economic gains, it does less to shift the balance of power. A raise doesn’t make workers more powerful, and once the contract is signed and “labor peace” restored, the fundamental dynamic can remain as it was, even as the union and its supporters celebrate a victory. In short: strikes won’t fundamentally change anything if they’re not informed by a theory of how change occurs.
The 1990 West Virginia teachers’ strike is an example of winning the battle while losing the war. Although teachers struck statewide for pay raises and won—they vaulted from 49th in the nation in teacher pay to 34th—once the strike was over, they returned to a system of labor relations in which they had no legal right to strike, no collective bargaining agreement, no exclusive representation, and no basic union rights. Nothing fundamentally changed. The result: two decades of wage stagnation that led again to the need for a statewide strike to secure wage increases and protect healthcare. What gains might result from their most recent strike remain to be seen.
West Virginia teachers didn’t prioritize permanently changing the power dynamic in their 1990 strike; the focus was on wage gains. In contrast, many public employee strikes in the 1960s and 70s prioritized both securing short-term gains and long-term power. Pennsylvania teachers struck widely in the late 1960s, culminating in a mass strike and rally on the steps of the state capitol, closely mirroring the West Virginia strikes. The difference: in addition to pay increases, teachers demanded collective bargaining rights. They got them. Pennsylvania’s Republican trifecta passed and signed Act 195 in 1970 expanding collective bargaining rights—among them the right for public employees (including teachers) to strike. Similarly, postal workers illegally struck nationwide in 1970 and secured both short-term gains in the form of wage increases and long-term gains in the form of bargaining rights.
More recent examples can be found within education unions that have prioritized the idea of “Bargaining for the Common Good,” often casting their fights as a contest between the working class and corporations or politicians. To direct a company’s financial operations is regarded as an inherent right of management: unions can issue demands that carry price tags, but they can’t tell employers how to pay for them. CTU challenged this, and managerial rights more broadly, by demanding that tax increment financing funds controlled by the city of Chicago be used to invest in public schools. Funding and governmental austerity were at the heart of CTU’s war with Rahm Emanuel, and, by winning concessions, they asserted their right and the right of other public sector employees to bargain over funding, whether or not the law recognized it. They changed how schools were funded, and who had a voice in the decisionmaking.
Los Angeles teachers used a similar approach in their 2019 strike, building a labor-community alliance that brought working-class residents of Los Angeles into their fight with the Los Angeles Unified School District. Charter expansion and community schools were core issues in the United Teachers of Los Angeles strike. Under California law, striking over charter expansion and community schools was illegal. (It’s common for labor law to restrict unions from striking over “permissive” or “prohibited” subjects of bargaining.) They did it anyway. Teachers knew that these were key concerns, and Los Angeles Unified knew it too. Teachers struck and won concessions on items over which they had no legal right to strike.
In both the cases of Pennsylvania teachers and postal workers, strikers broke the law to change the law, securing long-term structural realignments—bargaining rights—in the process. Both the Chicago and Los Angeles teachers deliberately asserted their voice and challenged the legal and contractual principle that control over certain practices should be the inherent right of management. A common thread connects all of these: not only did unions strike seeking short-term gains; they also struck and secured long-term shifts in the power dynamic between labor and management. In doing so, they opened up broader possibilities.
This is why we strike. When we strike, we must seek to rupture the normal order of things: we break the wage relationship and create the political space to reconfigure the power dynamic to our advantage. Striking is about more than immediate economic gains or diffuse questions of consciousness. Although both of those things matter, the crucial component is building durable working-class power. Viewed this way, we may subvert the binary of declaring the law as alternately all-powerful and meaningless. Instead of ignoring the law as a rule or prioritizing legal reforms as a prerequisite to building power, we do both. We organize, we break the law, and we change the law. In short, we build power and then codify our gains, allowing us to build more and push further.
A Path Forward
The labor movement is in a critical moment. Decades of union decline show no sign of slowing, while the glimmer of resurgence has raised the stakes on labor’s path forward. How we proceed is important, and the false choice between ignoring the law and declaring it sacred is not only wrong—it ignores the history behind how we built the rights we have. As we move forward, we have to keep clearly in mind that no successful path can be taken without the strike weapon close at hand.
Striking with purpose is crucial, and we need to understand our goals and how they fit into a path to power. That means discussing why it is we strike, and doing so in a way that is clear-eyed about building working-class power in tangible ways. When we secure more rights for unions and write those into the law, when we agitate against the idea that management has rights that supersede those of labor, we make more possible. These are tangible outcomes that show an enduring shift in the power relationship between the two.
Luxemburg was right: strikes are not all that there is. They create the conditions of struggle for workers, and they create the space necessary to expand the rights of the working class, but they alone can’t achieve a better society. Even if they’re not everything, they’re a necessary component of reviving the labor movement, and of left politics. When we strike, we directly subvert the foundations, the divine rights, of management and capital. But that’s only possible if we strike with a purpose that extends beyond securing a favorable contract.
And striking with these goals in mind does not ensure that we’ll be able to take advantage of any new possibilities. Achieving widespread union rights in the 1930s led to a system of collective bargaining that has been slowly eroded, leaving us with a legal framework that disadvantages workers. European social democracy has not delivered egalitarian utopias. But there are never any guaranteed outcomes—only propositions about the future that we need and the way we can achieve it. No path to a different society will be traversable without workers exercising their power to withhold their labor. We know that the strike is a tool we have to use.
Making this part of labor strategy doesn’t require that workers are avowed radicals. Radicalization happens through struggle. But workers will widely agree that they don’t have enough power at work, and that the boss has too much. They see the rich getting richer while they continue to struggle to make ends meet. And many would say that they deserve more of a voice in setting the terms of their employment. We start with a simple proposition—we deserve more—and we work from there.
Reorienting how we think about the strike weapon, and how that impacts our organizing, is a question of education: of having the sort of widespread discussions about union strategy from a left perspective that the Trade Union Educational League fostered in the 1920s. It can be accomplished—and it needs to be accomplished quickly. Each year, union density declines; each year, the road back to power becomes longer.
But the crucial component, the readiness to withhold our labor, is there in a way it hasn’t been in decades. That’s where we start: understanding that we deserve more, and showing our willingness to fight for it. From that foundation, we can strike—and win—lasting working-class power. ♦
C.M. Lewis is an editor of the labor publication Strikewave and a union activist in Pennsylvania.
Cover image: A frame from Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925).