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Labor activist and author Joe Burns speaks to Jacksonville union members on ‘Reviving the Strike’

By staff |
April 23, 2013
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Jacksonville, FL - On April 21, union members from the Jacksonville area gathered in the IBEW 177 union hall to hear labor activist and author Joe Burns speak about his book, Reviving the Strike. Burns, an attorney and negotiator for the Association of Flight Attendants-Communication Workers of America (AFA-CWA), spoke about the struggles of working people in the U.S. and argued that reviving the strike weapon is the key to rebuilding the labor movement.

The event was organized by the North Florida Central Labor Council and the newly founded Young Workers Group in Jacksonville. The small but lively crowd included members of many different unions, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Communication Workers of America, the United Faculty of Florida, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers.

Burns began with a 25-minute presentation. Beginning with the importance of the strike in building the labor movement, Burns said, "In the 1930s, 400,000 workers engaged in sit-down strikes, everyone from autoworkers to women at Woolworth's counters. They took over the workplaces and demanded collective bargaining and that their rights be upheld, including their right to strike."

Burns continued, "The strike really did create the modern labor movement, but even if you look at the 1950s and 1960s, trade unionists were able to use the strike to transform an entire way of life for a whole generation of working Americans."

The next part of Burns' presentation focused on the negative effects of trade unions losing and abandoning the strike weapon. Among others, he pointed out, "If you look at income distribution patterns in the U.S., right now without the strike we're back to where we were in the 1920s, in terms of the skewed distribution of income and wealth in this country."

After his presentation, Burns led a robust group discussion and fielded questions from the audience.

Many of the union workers who attended were public-sector employees, whose right to strike is severely limited or banned by pro-business state and federal laws. Several questions focused on the illegality of strikes for public sector workers, to which Burns noted that most of the early strikes that won in the early 20th century were also illegal.

Burns noted a study done on strikes in the 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s. "Surprisingly, they found that workers struck at higher levels in states that outlawed strikes or collective bargaining then they did in states that allowed striking." He explained this trend, saying that "Workers had no choice. The only way workers could force them to the table was to engage in an illegal strike and during the high-point of public unionism, you could win those strikes, get rid of those sanctions and win a better contract."

The discussion eventually came to ways of getting rank-and-file workers more invested in their union. The audience voiced enthusiasm for a point that Burns raised about building a culture of solidarity in the union through day-to-day struggles. "Solidarity is not something that was just existing in the workplace. It was something built in the course of struggle. People drew courage from each other and they grew together by successfully confronting their employers."

One audience member brought up the camouflage uniforms worn by striking Mine Workers in the successful Pittston Coal Strike of 1989 as an example of this culture of solidarity in action. In Reviving the Strike, Burns wrote that these uniforms "helped create group cohesion and fostered an identity of a militant unit of guerrilla fighters up against a corporate behemoth."

The historic Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012, which used Burns' book as an inspiration, and the small series of strikes at Wal-Mart Supermarkets across the country in the same year came up in the discussion several times. In both of these instances, the willingness of a militant minority to stand up to management and lead inspired other workers to join the striking efforts.

"We think of the 1930s as a period when there were all these militant workers and they were just down for it [striking]," said Burns. "But that's not what it was like. The reason that the UAW did sit-down strikes was because they couldn't have won an election in the entire plant. They had a minority of the workplace who was willing to step forward, which is usually how it is." Burns called this "'Courage built upon courage," meaning that the more people that stepped forward, the more people had confidence.

After the lively discussion, the audience gave Burns a round of applause. Members expressed interest in forming a discussion group on Reviving the Strike and looked forward to Burns' next book, which focuses on public-sector unions.