Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) demonstration with Joseph J. Ettor speaking from platform to striking barbers in Union Square, New York. (1913)
You don’t need a union to take action for justice on the job
July 18, 2017
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
Last week 1,200 Tufts Medical Center nurses unionized with the Mass Nurses Association (MNA) called a rare one day strike for a better deal on their latest contract. This doubtless left many onlookers — especially younger ones — scratching their heads and asking “what’s a strike?” No surprise, given the American corporate media’s ideological aversion to covering all matters labor, past and present. But fortunately a willful omission that is easily remedied by news outlets willing to honestly discuss the political economic struggles of working people.
A strike occurs when any group of workers refuses to work. Usually to demand reforms on the job like better pay, benefits, and working conditions. Although commonly perceived as an action that can only be taken by members of a labor union, that is not the case. Historically, workers struck long before there were formal unions — and more recently, the right of most workers in the private sector to strike was enshrined in section 7 of the New Deal era National Labor Relations Act of 1935. The salient part of which reads:
Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection…
The Supreme Court supported the idea that any group of workers covered by the NLRA had the right to strike and engage in “other concerted activities” — whether unionized or not — in the 1962 decision National Labor Relations Board v. Washington Aluminum Company. Finding that a group of seven ununionized workers had the right to refuse to work in an unheated factory in the dead of winter until its furnace was repaired.
Naturally, most formal strikes are called by organized unions like the MNA, but it’s worth focusing on the right of ununionized workers to strike because we live in an era when labor unions have been beaten down by giant corporations and the rich people who own them. To the point where the vast majority of all working people in the US are not unionized. Over 89 percent of us in fact. Much research indicates that the precipitous decline in living standards for American families since 1979 is directly connected to the decline of union power. Notably a 2016 study by the Economic Policy Institute “Union decline lowers wages of nonunion workers” that demonstrates the important role unions play in increasing wages for all workers when they are strong.
But another way of looking at the situation is that worker militance on the job has been in steep decline over the same period that unions have been smacked down to the proverbial curb. When strikes were common, working people got the goods. As strikes have become more and more infrequent since the 1970s, the fortunes of the working class (which by the way includes all you supposedly “middle class” people out there who wear dressier clothes to work and have fancy degrees) have trended downward.
This state of affairs is certainly the fault of the “one percent” who control the commanding heights of capital, but blame can also be laid at the feet of many American unions — which have become decidedly less willing to fight over the decades since they won concessions like the NLRA from bosses and the government. Its leaders preferring to put their dwindling funds and often woefully limited political aspirations into backing Democrats for office at all levels. Who — on the rare occasions that they get elected now that most Americans understand them to be bought and paid for by the same ruling class that has made the Republicans into a caricature of a political party — continue to backstab working families with depressing regularity.
So workers in Boston and beyond, unionized and ununionized, need to step up and start exercising their NLRA right to “concerted activities” on the job… up to and including strikes. Before we all lose that right. The Trump administration is many things, but it is no friend of working people. And any damage it does to labor will not be undone by corporate Democrats or anyone else without pressure from below. Strikes, aside from their instrumental value, are very much part of the necessary political pressure for a more fair and just America.
It won’t be easy. Many, many laws have been passed by Democratic and Republican administrations alike since the McCarthy Era to reverse pro-labor reforms and stop working people from fighting for their rights on the job. People who do so will definitely lose battles on their way to building a better society. Believe me, I know. I have taken such risks inside and outside of unions, and lost jobs on more than one occasion.
But there will also be many victories. And as Frederick Douglass, a man who did not just help lead the abolitionist movement to victory, but was also elected president of the Colored National Labor Union in 1872, said:
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
If you believe in democracy, on and off the job, then you will stand with union workers like the Tufts nurses when they strike. And you will take the fight to your workplace — whether it’s unionized or not. Reviving existing unions and building new ones along the way. And then onward to vie for control of the halls of power.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.