by Joe Burns
Much has already been written about Boeing’s successful extortion against its unionized workforce in Seattle to make them choose between losing jobs or sacrificing pensions and taking other concessions. On January 3, Boeing workers narrowly approved a set of concessions in a controversial revote ordered by the international union over the objections of the local leadership. Certainly the fact that the Boeing corporation, a highly profitable corporation extorted workers was reprehensible as many commentators have pointed out.
What I would like to discuss here is not the decision of Boeing workers to accept concessions but the system of labor laws which allowed Boeing to place unionized workers in that situation. Looking at the question this way requires digging into the underlying set of legal rules that allow employers to either blackmail unionized workers or, more commonly, simply move to avoid unionization. It involves questions including the outlawing of solidarity or ‘secondary’ tactics, union influence over decisions of capital mobility, and the degree to which we as a labor movement can work within a legal framework designed to ensure our failure.
At the end of the day, a majority of voters in the IAM voted to take steep concessions during the mid-term of their contract. The choice they faced was a difficult one. They could agree to gut key provisions of their contract or reject the concessions and run the risk of seeing the work go eventually non-union. Either way the workers were guaranteed to lose. While it was up to those workers to debate how real the threat to move work was, anyone who follows the trajectory of unionism and capital flight to non-union locations or industries cannot ignore the threat.
Which comes back to the question of how did it come to be that Boeing acquired the power to blackmail its unionized workforce? And to the related question of can we envision a workers’ movement in which such employer power is neutralized? Ultimately, with union density in the private sector hovering a little over six percent, the labor movement must start confronting difficult questions such as these. While there is an understandable tendency to instead focus on the fuzzier questions of forming alliances with other social movements, eventually we must deal with these core economic questions.
To answer these questions, like many others in labor’s decline, takes us back to the anti-union 1947 Taft Hartley Act. (And if one wants to go further to the basic structure of the National Labor Relations Act which diverts unions into dealing with individual employers rather than entire labor or product markets which was the original and more proper focus of unionism.)
When I used to think of Taft-Hartley I often would think about it in terms of restrictions on strike activity including the restrictions on solidarity strike and certain boycott activity. Certainly in terms of strike activity, Taft Hartley played a key role in silencing labor’s economic weapons. Although the Supreme Court certainly did its part by allowing workers to be permanently replaced by scabs and outlawing other effective strike tactics.
Yet an even more basic problem with Taft Hartley (aided and abetted by decisions of the liberal supreme court of the 1960s era) is that it crippled unions’ ability to deal with business change. To take one example of many, the mineworkers in the 1960s and 1970s desperately struggled to prevent the development of a non-union wing of the industry. Efforts to impose fines employers for non-union operations ran afoul of the prohibitions on secondary activity. To take another example, one can look at the rules on reserve gates in construction, which is a legal fiction allowing employers to set up a separate scab gate to prevent construction workers from shutting down an entire construction site to prevent the use of non-union or scab contractors.
It is hard to find an industry where de-unionization has not been aided and abetted by legal rules specifically tailored to favor employers. Whether it’s the use of subcontracting in building services, successorship rules in mining or hotels, the strategy of moving to Southern or non-union areas, or the development of a non-union parts industry in auto, imposed ‘legal’ rules crippled union ability to resist. For a fuller discussion please see chapter 6 of my Reviving the Strike or, even better, James Atleson’s now classic Values and Assumptions in American Labor Law.
The point of focusing on this legal history is not to simply point out how bad or unfair the Supreme Court is or how screwed up Taft Hartley was and is. Rather, this legal history directly answers the question I posed earlier as to whether we can envision forms of unionism in which such employer power is neutralized. The very fact that these rules were changed to allow employers to wield such power, points to a world where they do not have this power. The answer is yes because imperfectly and for a brief historical time such a world existed, such the rise of Teamster power in trucking through secondary strike activity in the late 1930s and beyond.
In other words, what would it look like to have a labor movement capable of stopping employers from blackmailing workers or avoiding unions by moving capital? What if unionized labor could refuse to move or handle non-union goods? What if the labor movement had the ability once again not to bargain with individual employers but to standardize wages across industries? There is a reason that the labor movement traditionally fought so vigorously against restrictions on solidarity.
There is a tendency to look at these decisions to move capital and the forces of globalization as if they were natural phenomena. Yet they are not. In Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin’s book Solidarity Divided they quote former AFL-CIO President John Sweeney discussing globalization. “This global order is neither a force of nature, nor the inevitable product of technology. It has been forged by governments, envisioned by conservative ideologues, and enforced by corporate muscle.” The same and related point can be made about the rules allowing Boeing to move work and the web of rules preventing unions from successfully attacking such corporate decisions. They are neither inevitable nor the logical working of judicial decisions. The rules, and the decisions to adhere to them, are social creations.
That’s why it is disappointing that the battle of West Coast long shore workers gets so little attention even in progressive labor circles. While many are rightfully excited about efforts to organize restaurant workers and to pull new forces into the labor movement, the long shore workers struggle hits at key issues facing unionism.
Ultimately, I don’t claim to know how exactly we crack this nut. Doing so involves complicated questions of rejecting repressive labor laws, building new forms of unionism, and reviving some old tactics. (Some of these questions will be discussed in my forthcoming book Strike Back: Using the Militant Tactics of Labor’s Past to Reignite Public Sector Unionism Today, which uses the occasion of the illegal public employee upsurge to tackle these questions.) But even if we don’t have all the answers, it seems to me that part of labor’s renewal must include asking the right questions.
Joe Burns, a former local union president active in strike solidarity, is a labor negotiator and attorney. He is the author of Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America (IG Publishing, 2011), which was reviewed on Talking Union by Carl Finamore. Burn’s website is here.
For other articles by Joe Burns on Talking Union, click here.