A Few Myths About Strikes

A friend just retweeted this link to a web site discussing the negotiations between the striking Minnesota Orchestra and management. It brought a few things to mind that some of you may not know, mostly myths about how to win a strike.

1. “In order to win a strike, the union must win over ‘public opinion.’

Not really, no. Sometimes it can be useful to win over public opinion (as a source of additional income for the strike fund, &c), but it is never decisive.

2. “To win over public opinion, show how willing you are to compromise.”

This goes beyond myth and reaches the level of outright lie. The great labor battles in the past that have, in fact, won over public opinion (whatever that even means), have done so either because the conditions against which the workers were striking were so obviously appalling that anyone with a shred of conscience couldn’t help but support it (various coal strikes and early textile strikes had this), or, more often, by displaying the sort of firm, uncompromising attitude that convinced people they meant business (the Minneapolis General Drivers strike; the sit-down strikes in Flint, Michigan; the South St. Paul packing house strike in the 40’s are good examples).

3. “Workers are too selfish to risk their comfort to support workers in other industries.”

This, if believed by the workers themselves, is the most dangerous myth. In fact, it has been shown again and again that, in a serious battle between labor and management, efforts to reach out for support from the rest of the labor movement will be rewarded. The clearest case of this in reverse was the PATCO strike, which began what can only be called the destruction of the American labor movement. Many air traffic controllers understood instinctively that the effort by Reagan to break their union would be followed by attacks on the rest of the labor movement; and (more importantly) so did workers throughout the country. The refusal of the trade union bureaucracy to enlist the aid of the rest of labor is exactly what led to the destruction of that union–and the subsequent attacks on labor throughout the country until today, for all intents and purposes, there is no labor movement here at all.

During the writers’ strike, the actors’ union and various unions of technical workers were very willing to support the strike (sometimes, it is true, against the wishes of their own leadership); the offers were refused. In the present case, no effort has been made to reach out to stagehands unions, or riggers, or any of the other associated industries. The leaders of the musicians’ union seem determined to fight with one hand, blindfolded, and a foot in a bucket. Management, meanwhile, is using every weapon at their disposal.

I continue to be optimistic. I think there is sufficient growing discontent that a labor movement will grow here in spite of the dead husks of what remains of  the unions hanging around the neck of the working class like millstones. But it will have to be in spite of those unions that, as the musicians’ union is demonstrating, aren’t worth the name.

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22 thoughts on “A Few Myths About Strikes”

  1. I don’t think public opinion is necessary to win the strike for the MN Orchestra Musicians. I think it’s necessary for them to continue to have audiences once they’re playing again, and to have the funding that comes from donations (essentially an augmented version of those audiences). If they win the lockout and lose the audiences, they still lose.

    Showing that they mean business is not going to ruin that IF they can get that message across. But I think it’s a lot harder to find the balance in public opinion/public relations when you essentially *are* your own product. Not that this has stopped management from running down *their* own product at every turn, but I can understand why the musicians would like to come out of the lockout with *somebody* having tried to keep *some* positive attitude towards going to their concerts.

  2. In a socialist context, unions are part of the attempt to wrest control from the capitalists and create a new society.

    In a capitalist context, closed-shop unions are a way for one group of workers to create a monopoly for their own services and make themselves wealthier at the expense of everybody who would otherwise compete for their jobs.

    Which context is more prevalent? In the context of a monopolist fighting a closed-shop union to see which gets the bigger share of undeserved profits, it’s like a couple of dogs fighting over a dead gopher. Why should anybody else care who wins?

    Well, but every now and then the federal government gets interested in making things inconvenient for monopolists, and every now and then they want to make things inconvenient for unions. They do that when the entities in question lack public support. So public support is useful in the long run.

    Just now, capitalists have a whole lot of influence on the media. Of course, capitalists have pretty much always owned the media, but maybe now it’s fewer competitors. It’s considerably cheaper to run a big modern press than a small obsolete one, so if you want to start a small paper you do better to hire somebody else’s press to do your runs too. But then maybe they don’t like your politics and choose not to do business with you. If they’re willing to take your money it means that — rightly or wrongly — they don’t consider you a threat. Similarly, a few big entities own most of the radio stations. They tend to have far-right political commentators who get people angry. There would surely be a market for far-left commentators who would get people just as angry, but mostly radio stations choose not to fill that market niche. Possibly advertisers wouldn’t want to reach out to that audience, I dunno.Limited competition means they can choose to leave money lying on the table and nobody else will reach for it.

    So it’s probably harder than before for unions to generate favorable public opinion.

    To the extent that public opinion matters, it’s good for unions to *appear* to be the reasonable ones who have no choice but to strike. Their entirely reasonable demands are being stonewalled by evil opponents. They have compromised as far as they can possibly go, and still management refuses to make any meaningful concessions on the most vital issues. If they can get their opponents’ wives and daughters asking them why they can’t just make some reasonable compromise, that can create real progress. But it’s harder to get a sympathetic hearing from the media than it used to be.

    Meanwhile, labor leaders are essentially managers. The job they do is management, they sit at desks and look at reports and make decisions. Labor managers are responsible to union members much like business managers are responsible to stockholders. It’s understandable that they might often feel more sympathy to each other, than either does to their constituents.

    The labor movement could possibly have turned into something powerful, but it looks to me like it’s been successfully nerfed. Better luck next time.

    I think maybe to avoid these problems it might be possible to arrange some sort of anonymous system, where nobody’s in charge but when things reach some critical mass then everybody does their part without any real leaders. There would be big limits to something like that but it would be impossible to subvert it by finding the leaders and neutralizing them. It would take time to find other ways to subvert it. (Like find a way to compromise the communications, so everybody gets false reports.) While it worked, it could allow significant change.

  3. Let us add another myth, the myth of the boycott. Yes, the farmworkers won at least some of their demands after we all quit eating grapes. But that was when the AFL-CIO and Teamsters still had some reputation for their ability to shut things down. The nationwide, multi-company meatpacking strikes in the 40s secured union conditions in spite of intervention by industry, the governor, and the National Guard — because they shut down all but the most minimal production. Meatpackers in Austin, MN products were badly defeated because their leadership refused to do the same, calling instead for consumer boycotts of Spam and other Hormel products. The same has been seen in dozens of other strikes that were, in fact, media gimmicks and marketing strategies rather than strikes.

    Harder, much harder, to figure strategy when the “workers” are some of the most skilled musicians in the world. But a picket line of thousands demanding that their right to culture be preserved (even if each individual might not choose to partake), would certainly change the nature of the talks. Like the Detroit Institute of Arts, this is a cultural treasure belonging to the area as a whole, not just a few rich folk. But that’s another post…

  4. The UAW has never successfully unionized a southern U.S. auto plant – that may be about to change. If it does we can probably thank foreign unions. From Matt Yglesias:

    “…when German companies come to the United States, they typically don’t carry German-style labor relations with them. On the contrary, they’ve generally flocked to southern states where wages are lower and labor law makes union organizing extremely difficult. But Volkswagen’s existing works councils have started giving the company a hard time about the fact that there’s no works council at its Chattanooga plant. All the other VW facilities around the world have one, so they think the Chattanooga plant should have one too. “

  5. Hey Steven –

    Thanks for the twitter convo. Lots of good stuff in your post here – particularly in how networking with other Unions is crucial to the survival of the labor movement. In my right-to-work-for-less state, our local is trying to do that as much as possible through involvement with labor councils, etc. In my area, the AFM and IATSE locals are actually in frequent communication with each other. We also have a good relationship with the IUPA, whose national offices are here.

    I have to correct you on a major distinction – the Minnesota Orchestral Association locked out its musicians; they did not go on strike. Whether or not that’s a “public opinion” distinction is probably worth another discussion.

    In the orchestra world, a strike (or lockout) doesn’t have the same effect on the organization as in other industries. Since ticket sales usually don’t cover all the expenses, when the orchestra doesn’t play, the management saves money. (They still pay themselves, of course, as is happening with the Minnesota Orchestra Management.)

    As far as the AFM nationally goes, we’ve had new leadership for the last three years that has made major strides in transparency, promoting solidarity within its ranks, rebuilding its organizing efforts, and becoming active within the broader labor movement. That’s a tall order for any union administration, so I wouldn’t give up on it just yet. To give you an idea, at the most recent AFM national convention this past summer, this happened: http://theafmobserver.typepad.com/2013_convention_diary/2013/07/a-remarkable-happening.html

  6. Real unions don’t network. They work together, in solidarity. Because that’s how they win. Just sayin’.

  7. I think the recent grocery workers union backed down management through three means. They had 98% support for a strike. The Teamsters was going to refuse to deliver in solidarity with the grocery workers. And, though I don’t know how much influence it had, the stores were flooded with calls and customer comments telling them that if the workers struck they would lose business. So community support was a plus not in terms of the strike fund but in terms of how much the strike would cost the companies. In terms of boycotts: you are right that boycotts can be oversold. In fact the UFW destroyed itself by depending on boycotts when it could have won strikes. (The UFW today is more of a historical society than a union, though I guess it has few (very few) actual locals.) Boycotts can be effective though. The CIW (Council of Immokalee workers) has won a great deal via use of boycotts. I hope it works out better for them in the long run than it did for the UFW. The basic thing about boycotts is they like any tactic it depends on circumstances and context. Boycotts can be very effective in some cases, not so effective in others.

    One difference between boycotts and strikes – boycotts are less scalable. If you have enough support you can boycott anything, but you can’t boycott everything (leaving aside the few people who decide to move into the woods and live off the land). But a strike in theory, and occasionally in practice can grow into a general strike. So if you have enough support, you can strike against everything. Of course general strikes have their own problem – in that they are tremendously costly to those engaging in them. But in addition to success in obtaining limited goals, such as the general strike in San Francisco, there is one historical case of general strikes resulting in serious political change:. The plebians won political power in ancient Rome through a series of general strikes. Each time they left the city and retreated to a sacred mountain until their demands were met.

  8. Cynthia – bad choice of corporatespeak on my part. Fair enough. Whether that remark was meant for me, a local union that has been crippled by two lockouts, or a group of people who have been locked out for a year, I’d suggest that insulting people isn’t the best way to work together in solidarity. Because that’s how we lose. Just sayin’.

  9. I think it’s a helpful reminder. Speaking in corporate terms is the first step to thinking in corporate terms, and that’s pretty dangerous to solidarity, no?

  10. Chaos: Other than, of course, supporting the strike and hoping they gain support from other workers in the area, I’m not sure what you’re asking. Did you have a specific question?

  11. Adam> didn’t mean to insult you, figured you picked up the language from the leadership. But I do think that the language of past union struggles should not be lost; there is a certain power, especially if the stories are told and the lessons carried on. Just because union bureaucracy is rotten to the core doesn’t mean that workers organizing isn’t powerful.

  12. skzb: Just wondering how it fits into the overall scheme of things and whether it’s particularly relevant to any of the points you were making. Which you seem to have answered.

  13. Cynthia, I’ve got an entire post here about incorporating terms, even an adversary’s terms, and giving them new meaning. My lines of reasoning got snarled somewhere, though, and I decided not to post the under-developed thesis. There’s no use trying to argue a point I haven’t thought through. Not to mention I’ve seen your wit firsthand, walking unarmed into a debate with you would be extremely unwise. Just know that I think there’s a point there. Don’t know where, though.

    Anyway, moving on, because that was a rather small aspect of the discussion anyway and I’ve got thoughts on the rest too.

    Steve, I feel like the ‘public’ part of ‘public opinion’ is out of place. What I mean by this is that I can’t find the people that make up the public, so they’re either mislabeled or I’m not interpreting something correctly. The workers are fighting against the unreasonable profit margins at their expense. The corporations are fighting to keep their profit margins, in basically any way possible.

    This fight concerns the workers, the large percent of the population, and the elite, a much smaller remaining percent of the population. Where is the rest of the public in this situation that isn’t in the fight, and therefore on the worker’s side? The ‘public’ is a third party here, where it’s opinion can be swayed by either party and the importance is arguable. But the workers are the public, so I don’t understand the disconnection.

  14. Wow. Sorry, I am but an egg, and do not yet grok. I guess I somehow forgot that there’s an entire middle class that looks down on the workers and aspires to be the elite. That’s obviously the ‘public’ I was looking for. Again, wow. Um. . . can we just forget I said all that other stuff? Sometimes working 50-hour weeks can wear on the brain, I guess.

    I’m just going to shut up now and listen to “The Factory” by Warren Zevon.

  15. Ryan: Actually, I pretty much agree with all of that, so don’t go withdrawing it on my account. The “middle class” (in the strict economic sense of the term) is pretty damned tiny, and without much power.

  16. Seems like the term “middle class” is being used two ways here.
    One is those for whom the attitude of aspiring to be the elite is economically rational: the tiny population OGH mentions.
    The other is the population who aspire to being part of that first group… which is much larger.

    So somehow the upper class is taking advantage of that ephemeral connection. Somehow a fairly large number of people are acting as though they would in the present benefit from conditions that only benefit the very rich.

    If that level of yearning could be harnessed for making changes that would actually give more people better lives, well, there’s your new labor movement!

  17. I’m not using “middle class” in a way that has anything to do with aspirations; only with relationship to production.

  18. I agree that the PATCO business was an important part of the destruction of the labor movement, but IMHO, the crucial thing was the Taft-Hartley act in around 1946. It did two things (well, more. but these were the most important). It abolished the closed shop, which I approved of especially since I was around in Philly around 1960 when the construction unions used an illegal closed shop to prevent blacks from getting jobs. Even the construction bosses were willing to hire a few token blacks to buy peace but the unions resisted and maintained the right to restrict membership.

    But the destructive effect was in allowing states to ban union shops. And all the southern states promptly did. And you can’t run a union unless you can compel membership of every employee. Not ban membership, but compel it. And inevitably the industrial base moved south and the union movement was effectively destroyed or neutralized. Of course those jobs then fled the US entirely, but that’s a different matter.

    In Quebec, where I now live, unions are alive and well. And when a Walmart unionized, it was promptly closed. Of course they denied that was the reason. And if you believe that…

    BTW, the Taft-Hartley act was vetoed by Truman and passed over his veto. With the help of many Democrats, although I suppose a lot of them were Southern.

  19. With SIU crews operating the ships and the longshoremen handling the cargo, the CSU strike in Saint John was, for all intents and purposes, over. A good Canadian union had been destroyed by a corrupt American union, led by gangster Hal Banks, who was supported by the American labour movement, the Canadian government and the Shipping Federation of Canada. The strike was now ineffective in Saint John, but the vibrations from the strike would be felt in the city for many years. Men who had been close friends before the strike would never speak to each other again. Some would be expelled from membership in their union and blacklisted on the waterfront, while others would be rewarded with cushy government jobs—for example, Edward Charlton would become a conciliation officer with the New Brunswick Department of Labour.

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