The Root of Labor’s Crisis Lies in the Private Sector

by Joe Burns

Joe Burns

The reelection of Governor Scott Walker merely confirmed what trade unionists should already understand—labor’s current strategies have little chance of success. In the post election soul-searching, labor analysts have questioned the turn towards Democratic party politics, the influence of corporate money in the elections, and the demobilization of 2011 Wisconsin uprising. Doug Henwood in a far-reaching critique worth reading zeroed in on the narrowness of unions under the modern system of collective bargaining.

All of these factors are important and worthy of discussion. The crisis of public employee unionism, however, runs much deeper. Winning the Wisconsin recall could perhaps have helped slowed the decline of public unionism, but the crisis of public employee unionism cannot be solved at the ballot box. Confronting labor’s crisis requires a reexamination of key elements of trade union strategy.

This article will discuss two elements of labor strategy. The first concerns the role of the strike in the creation of both the public and private sector labor movements, as well as the subsequent abandonment of labor’s strike strategy in the last two decades. The second involves labor’s retreat into the public sector.

In the decades following the 1930s, the center of gravity in the labor movement was in the private sector. With the development of powerful forms of strike activity in the 1930s, the labor movement was able to organize key industries and transform working conditions for a generation of working class Americans.

Public sector workers, however, were left behind in the 1930s generation labor upsurge. Public employee unions of this period rarely struck, relied on lobbying efforts, and generally engaged in “collective begging” rather than collective bargaining. In 1958, there were only 15 public employee strikes in the entire nation. Public employee unions represented only nine percent of public workers going into the 1960s.

In the decade and a half following 1960, public workers engaged in a period of intense strike activity. Teachers, sanitation workers, and even police and firefighters struck repeatedly for union recognition and to bring pay and benefits up to their private sector counterparts. As Professor Joseph McCartin, a leading authority on public sector strikes, noted: “While the antiwar protests of 1970 are better remembered, the militancy of government workers was not less evident. New Jersey alone say twenty-five five public sector strikes—up from only one in 1962. During the first three months of 1970s, U.S. public workers struck government agencies at a rate of one every thirty-six hours. Over a ten-week period, strikes erupted in twenty-four cities and twenty-eight schools systems.”

This strike wave consisted of for the most part illegal strikes. Up until Hawaii legalized some public employee strikes in 1970, all strikes by public employees were illegal. Public workers violated injunctions, won community support, and more often than not came out victorious during their strikes.

By striking, public employees won not only major improvements in paying and working conditions. They also won collective bargaining rights and the very legal right to strike. In almost every instance where striking was legalized, it was preceded by illegal strike activity. State legislatures passed laws permitting striking as a means of controlling and standardizing strike activity. As one academic noted, “State legislatures that legalize strikes by public employees do not intend to encourage work stoppages. Rather, they believe that once strikes are legal, they can be regulated and procedures can be required which will reduce the incidence of strikes and shorten those strikes that do occur.”

The militancy of public employee unionism during this period rested on a still powerful private sector labor movement. Almost a third of private sector workers belonged to unions in the mid-1950s. Density was even higher in the key industrial states where public employee unions were concentrated. Public employees fought to enjoy the gains private sector workers had won in the previous decades: pensions, health care, and control over working conditions.

Which brings us to the second point: we cannot have a labor movement primarily based in the public sector. Union standards matter. Most private sector workers have lost access to quality health care and the defined benefit pension plans which were key elements of union contracts through the 1980s. After several decades of withering management attacks, unionization levels in the private sector are down to a mere seven percent, the lowest in 100 years. To the extent union standards are eroded in the private sector, we should expect great difficulty maintaining them in the public sector.

That is what is happening in state after state. In Wisconsin in the year leading up to the 2011 attack on public workers, Wisconsin corporations engaged in an aggressive and successful attack on private sector unions. Wisconsin employers such as Harley Davidson, Mercury Marine and the Kohler Corporation won concessions under the threat of plant closures or relocations.

While attacking public employee unions, politicians such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Ohio Governor John Kasich speak of the “haves” and the “have nots.” These politicians are not referring, of course to the real “haves”—the one percent of the population that owns over half the wealth in this country. Rather, they portray public workers trying to defend hard won benefits as the haves, sowing division between private sector and public sector workers.

So what does this mean for union strategy?

First, we need to recognize that the long term survival of the labor movement rests in our ability to regain power in the private sector. Capital must be confronted directly in its seat of power. That means, hard as it may be, redeveloping an effective strike. Just as John Lewis and the United Mineworkers of America funded the organizing of the auto and steel industries, public sector unions as a matter of survival need to support the creation of a militant strike-based organizing drive in the private sector. Unless we can drive up standards in the private sector, we will be unable to maintain them in the public sector.

Second, understanding that we did not win unionization at the ballot box should be key to our current strategy. The clear lesson from numerous academic studies over the years is that whether the law permitted striking had little effect on strike activity among public employees. Far more important was the level of grassroots organization, the overall militancy of the working class, and the development of a consciousness rejecting limitations on the right to strike.

Finally, the real lesson of Wisconsin should not be the loss of the recall effort. The real lesson is the power of people in motion. A little over a year ago, tens of thousands of workers in Wisconsin took to the streets to defend bargaining rights for public employees. Through dramatic action they isolated labor’s enemies, crystallized class relations in America, and created a crisis for the powers that be. When labor does come roaring back, we can be sure, it will look a lot more like the 2011 occupation of the Wisconsin state capital than the recall effort of 2012.

Joe Burns is a  union negotiator and attorney. He is the author of Reviving the Strike, which was reviewed on Talking Union by Carl Finamore. Burn’s website is here

3 Responses

  1. Good analysis. Thank you. Question. While I agree with your recommendations for grass roots based active organizing, I am unclear. Grass roots, neighborhood based organizing for what? Is this grass roots work directed in the electoral arena at least some of the time? Such as in the recall? Or, if not, what is the neighborhood organizing approach’s goals?

    • @dcampbell1 I think you’re missing the point. If the movement in the WI state capitol had continued pressing the point and ratcheting up the pressure, they could have forced Walker to capitulate. So instead of pinning all of labor’s hopes on winning the recall, the labor-community movement could have been pressing its advantage of already having a major win WITHOUT wasting our time and money on electoral politics fighting the candidates of the 1% by begging the flip-flopping Dems to take our money without even so much as a promise to push our issues.

      Real Labor-Community organizing bypasses any need to participate in electoral politics. If you have a strong grassroots, action oriented coalition, then you can mobilize your forces to win strikes, win concession, win contracts, win real change. Elections are a distraction, its time to get back to doing REAL labor organizing.

  2. Union leadership and union members seriously dropped the ball when the Wisconsin law was enacted stripping the unions of collective bargaining power. They had the momentum, people were in the streets, and public opinion was on the side of the workers. The day the law passed, there should have been a general strike, with all public sector union members walking off the job. Instead, they flinched. They stuck their tails between their legs and retreated, taking comfort in the idea that they would soon recall the governor.

    The fear to act decisively at that opportune moment foretells the future of the labor movement. “When labor does come roaring back” ? Sorry Joe, it’s over. A heart transplant can’t save someone who’s already been embalmed.

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