by Joe Burns
The end of the year labor summations are coming in and it is generally a mixed bag, with the perspectives dependent on how much weight one gives to the success of right wing political efforts. Those focusing more on the political efforts, see a 2012 as a bad year. Others focusing more on the fight back are more hopeful.
Indeed, if one only looks at the immediate wins and losses, the column for this year would clearly stack up on the side of the employers. Employers used the weak economy and low union density as means to aggressively press their advantage on the bargaining and political front. With the employer lockouts at record levels, labor continues to be on the bargaining defensive, even in remaining union strongholds, such as long shore.
The combativeness and courage of workers continued to be inspiring in 2012. Workers in a variety of industries endured lockouts or strikes to defend retiree health benefits and resist other concessions. In one particularly bitter struggle, locked out Crystal Sugar workers in Fargo North Dakota rejected for the fourth time their employer’s concessionary demand.
The tally of immediate gains and losses, however, should be only part of the measure of the year’s success. Another standard is whether we are any closer to developing an effective strategy to combat capital’s assault. By this measure, 2012 was a very good year.
Leading the way was the Chicago Teachers Union. Their militantly democratic, rank and file-driven form of unionism interjected a teacher perspective into the education wars, for years dominated by corporate forces. Their 2012 strike was a return to the roots of public employee unionism which were born in struggle, the product of a great public employee strike wave of the 1960s and 70s. Between 1968 and 1985, the CTU struck at least eight times, winning smaller classrooms, better pay and working conditions. Then their guns fell silent, until a new reform leadership adopted the strike as part of an overall strategy of standing up for their students and public education.
The shift towards the strike was most pronounced in the organizing context, where Walmart warehouse workers struck in California and Chicago, followed by high profile strikes at Walmart itself. Then restaurant workers in New York City struck, putting low wage retail worker issues back on the agenda.
Choosing the strike as their weapon was a historic shift for several reasons. First, it represented a rejection of the government sponsored election by bargaining unit in favor of a corporate-wide or industry approach. Second, organizers adopted a minority unionist approach, organizing those willing to step forward rather than wait for majority support. Third, it reflects the very traditional idea that the way to take on a giant corporation is to engage in fights and demonstrate the ability to win. Finally, restaurant workers reached far back into union history reviving an old AFL strategy of workers establishing wage standards and pressuring employers in an area to honor the scale. Here organizers put forward a bold standard of $15 per hour.
For those reasons, 2012 was a very good year. Largely left unanswered this past year, however, was the crucial question of how to confront the system of labor laws specifically designed to prevent effect trade union activity. Even here, however, 2012 saw positive efforts, such as the Hot and Crusty campaign in New York City where largely immigrant workers forced pizza shop owners to reopen and recognize the union. A key tactic in this struggle included taking over the pizza shop with the support of the Occupy movement. The contract finalized in December contained impressive gains including a union hiring hall.
Likewise, not relying on the NLRB for protection, community allies and officials picketed and occupied the store when a Wendy worker was fired for participating in the New York City restaurant strike, stopping only after the termination was reversed.
So 2012 was a year of new tactics and renewed struggle. Let’s hope for more in 2013.
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.