Click to go to the Subscriber Log In Page
Go to menu with buttons for all pages on BC
Click here to go to the Home Page
Est. April 5, 2002
January 10, 2019 - Issue 771

The Strike:
Workers' Ultimate Weapon?


"My definition of working class is:  Regardless of your income,
if you are unable to live for three months without any money
coming into the house, you are in the working class.  That
example cuts across most workers in cities across the nation,
but somehow, the significance of that does not penetrate the
thinking of Americans.  Until it does and until workers act on it
in solidarity, all of the small wins will be just that, small wins."

In the heady days of U.S. labor's power, which lasted only a few decades, workers understood the power of the strike, the withholding of their energy, experience, expertise, and willingness to show up on the job every day. That's what made the country as powerful as it was, economically and otherwise.

What made that all possible was that there was a unified union movement supported by a new labor law, and that was what made the strike a potent weapon, the ultimate weapon of workers against capital. Because the strike was (and is) such a potent weapon, the rulers of the nation and economy feared that it could damage the control they enjoyed over most aspects of American life.

These rulers long feared the potential power of workers and they fought any evidence of activity that might unify workers, going back to the mid-19th Century. With their private armies and gangs of gun thugs, the industrialists and robber barons (pretty much the same thing) oppressed and even killed workers and their families, as they organized or struck for higher pay and safer and healthier working conditions. Their deadly forays against workers were a warning to all.

For a century, or so, they managed to keep a lid on broad organizing of unions or a union movement. For sure, there were successful strikes and other actions, here and there, but often, they were isolated victories. Part of the power over workers and unions was that the ruling class had the money and, for the most part, owned the means of communication, especially the newspapers and then, radio and, after that, television. The circle of propaganda dispersal was nearly complete and they had control of much of what the masses of the people received as information. Today, that control is consolidated in the age of television, when a half-dozen companies own the major TV networks and several more own the major newspapers.

After passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) that was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935, the labor law which guaranteed the basic rights of private sector workers to organize into trade unions. The powerful pulled out all the stops in their attempt to keep the law from being passed and then tried to render it unconstitutional, taking the case to the highest court.

When all of that failed, the NLRA became the law of the land and the strike became a legal means for workers to oppose the power of capital. Into the early part of the 20th Century, capital had manipulated the rules, starting in the 19th Century, to have unions declared to be in “restraint of trade” and, therefore, illegal structures. When workers joined together under those circumstances, they could be opposed with the private armies and corporations of gun thugs and most concerted actions of workers were declared illegal and those who participated in strikes and other actions faced violence or threats of violence. They could keep the lid on unions, but the NLRA threw a monkey wrench into their works by giving workers the right to bargain collectively for pay, benefits, and pensions, along with the right to withhold their labor. The right to strike.

Feeling their power under the new rules, workers through their unions felt that they could safely agree to withhold the power of the strike during World War II, their contribution to the war effort. At the end of the war, there was such an groundswell of organizing and strikes for recognition of their unions that the “captains of industry” and their minions in politics at every level became alarmed anew at the possibilities for workers to have a tangible contribution to the direction of the country, both economically and socially.

By that time, the power brokers had about a century of experience in oppressing working men and women and their unions. But the fear instilled in them at the end of World War II by the surge of organizing and the strikes that brought millions into what was then considered to be the middle class, that they renewed their efforts at supressing unions, albeit with other weapons, since the new labor law protected striking workers, who before could be denounced as “mobs” and “criminals,” just for demanding a decent life for themselves and their families.

After 1945, the war on workers and their unions was shifted into high gear, with the millionaires and billionaires putting on a full frontal attack through local and federal laws, through the courts, and through their propaganda and right-wing think tanks, which have been funded by never-endng amounts of cash from business and industrial interests and the rich. By the 1980s, it had been largely successful and the number of strikes each year (a primary marker of workers' and unions' power) had been reduced to a small percentage of the strikes of the 1960s and 70s.

It appeared that capital won the war, but during the past half-dozen years, there have been movements created that have resulted in pay increases and other improvements in working conditions. They are victories and, with each win, other workers are inspired to make the commitment and risk their livelihoods to gain, say, a $15 minimum wage. Scholars of the working class and unions have seen these victories as a sign that the tide is changing and there could be a resurgence of the union movement. But, if unions are involved in some of these victories, they have largely kept their presence low key.

It doesn't appear that the rich or Corporate America are very worried about the victories of workers in the past several years, because they often occurred in one sector or another or one industry or another. They are significant, however, although they have been in lower-wage industries, in which the people are suffering oppression. They need a $15-an-hour wage just to make ends meet, to pay the critical bills in life. For most of them, they need to work another job or put in overtime to meet those bills, even at $15. Although the $15 wage has been won in some places, that wage has been phased in and won't be seen until 2020 or later. They can't wait.

The next group of workers who should rise up and demand better conditions are those in the so-called gig economy, those workers who make their living as freelancers, temp workers, on-call workers, or independent contractors. Their presence in a workplace may be fleeting and there is little opportunity to develop a relationship with others doing the same work. And, there is always the downside: Earnings may vary from month to month, there are few or no benefits, there is little to no job security, and there is a dimly defined road to “career advancement.”

But, no matter the industry or sector of the economy, workers are approaching their plight as isolated situations. To date, there is little cohesion among all of the sectors and their movements. And that has been the problem of the union movement. In the past half-century, laws have been passed that hamper unity and solidarity among unions. These laws have been adopted for the specific purpose of weakening unity, but the unions have taken most of the blame.

The only way the masses of workers in the U.S. will win a secure place in the economy is to join together and act as one, at least on occasion. There have been mass demonstrations that drew the attention of the powers that be, going as far back as the 1960s' civil rights movement, but they all were for a specific purpose and goal, not as broad-based as the organized labor movement. There is a defining characteristic that should bring people together: Regardless of all of the differences among the people, what is common to most Americans is that everyone is a worker of some kind. And, the working class is growing, as the middle class continues to shrink.

My definition of working class is: Regardless of your income, if you are unable to live for three months without any money coming into the house, you are in the working class. That example cuts across most workers in cities across the nation, but somehow, the significance of that does not penetrate the thinking of Americans. Until it does and until workers act on it in solidarity, all of the small wins will be just that, small wins. Other nations and other peoples realize that all they have is each other. Consider the “yellow vest” demonstrations in France and the millions (some estimates are as high as 150 million) of workers and farmers in India, who have demonstrated just this week. They are protesting many of the same conditions that exist for workers in the U.S., especially the deterioritating condition of their lives.

Many students of labor history and labor unions, along with some union leaders, are hoping that this resurgence of strikes signals “the return of the strike” and, with it, return of a labor movement as strong as that after World War II. It's certainly possible, but it won't happen, unless all of the disparate elements of the working class and middle class (along with small farmers) bring themselves together in unity and speak to power in their own voices, in the streets and everywhere. The strikes are a good sign, but Solidarity is the only way to solve the deadly problems of inequality and oppression. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.




is published every Thursday
Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield, MBA
Peter Gamble

Perry NoName: A Journal From A Federal Prison-book 1
Ferguson is America: Roots of Rebellion by Jamala Rogers