The Right to Strike


For half a century, the loss of the right to strike has moved in lock step with the increase in income inequality. According to an International Monetary Fund study of twenty advanced economies, union decline accounted for about half of the increase in net income inequality from 1980 to 2012. The following is the start of a Boston Review discussion on US workers’ right to strike.

James Gray Pope, Ed Bruno, Peter Kellman

Boston Review

May 22, 2017

In December 2005 more than 30,000 New York City transit workers walked out over economic issues despite the state of New York’s Taylor Law, which prohibits all public sector strikes. Not only did the workers face the loss of two days’ pay for each day on strike, but a court ordered that the union be fined $1 million per day. Union president Roger Toussaint held firm, likening the strikers to Rosa Parks. “There is a higher calling than the law,” he declared. “That is justice and equality.”

The transit strike exemplified labor civil disobedience at its most effective. The workers were not staging a symbolic event; they brought the city’s transit system to a halt. They claimed their fundamental right to collective action despite a statute that outlawed it. For a precious moment, public attention was riveted on the drama of workers defying a draconian strike ban.

How did national labor leaders react?

AFL-CIO president John Sweeney issued a routine statement of support, while most others did nothing at all. To anybody watching the drama unfold, the message was clear: there is no right to strike, even in the House of Labor.

About a decade earlier in 1996, Stephen Lerner, fresh from a successful campaign to organize Los Angeles janitors, had warned in Boston Review that private sector unions faced an existential crisis: density could soon drop from 10.3 percent to 5 percent if unions did not expand their activity beyond the limits imposed by American law. He called for unions to develop broad organizing strategies—industry-wide and regional—and to engage in civil disobedience. Few embraced these radical strategies. Today private sector union density is about 6.5 percent, not quite as low as Lerner predicted, but down from a high of over 30 percent in the mid-1950s.

Union decline matters. For half a century, it has moved in lock step with the increase in income inequality. According to an International Monetary Fund study of twenty advanced economies, union decline accounted for about half of the increase in net…

Peaceful disobedience and political action would be two key components of a rights-centered strategy. When people think of civil disobedience today, most think of symbolic protests or brief disruptions designed to attract public attention. Unions have conducted some important actions of this type, for example during the San Francisco hotel strike of 2010 and the more recent Fight for Fifteen.

For the rest of the article and for responses to this article please go to Boston Review 

Reposted from Portside.  We were unable to create a link from the Boston Review to WordPress.



One Response

  1. I am puzzled about these pieces. Please read the full piece on the Boston Review site. They are raising vital issues. But, to me they seem to be unrealistic. I am a former elected union official and a union activist for over 40 years. These arguments of building minority unions, and the arguments that the basic problem is the satisfaction of union officials are based upon a premise. The writers seem to think that U.S workers are seething, ready to rumble. U.S. workers want their unions to organize a revolution.
    That is not what I see. Most workers go to work to earn a wage. They want a decent wage and benefits. Some of us get these through unions. Few workers want to spend their time at work, and then spend 20 hours per week organizing for substantive change.
    I may be missing something here. I am interested in options that respond to the current crisis in labor. But, I think they can only come from be realistic.
    Two examples. Look at the working conditions and salaries of long distance truckers now, compared to truckers when long haul trucking was unionized. You have the anti union environment these critics argue is actually liberating. Well, how is it working for the men and women who drive the trucks.
    2nd, Many of the academic critics of Chavez, Huerta and the UFW criticize his failure to build internal democracy in the UFW. Correct. But, what are the working conditions now in the non union fields? The reality is that conditions are so difficult that yes, you can get an strike. You can get a walk out. And, growers will give a few $$ per hour more during the harvest.
    But most of the workers have to work to feed their families. And, so they move on to the next field and go back to work. – they have to. This is covered on other posts on this blog.
    The basic conditions are terrible and without a union the workers are losing- badly.
    I would like to have some of this analysis of needed union reform and re construction based upon real working conditions. I think the article that began this post refers to the period from 1905- 1910 as a time of strikes and militancy. Yes. And with those strikes and militancy, what were the working and living conditions of the workers ? check out the Ludlow massacre for data.
    This is an honest question. What are the proposals for workers living in the world of labor? Please inform me.

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