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Beyond armistice

Analysis by Gus Fromke |
October 28, 2015
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Armistice with capitalism

In the U.S., labor and capital have a violent adversity toward one another—a struggle that continues today but is increasingly downplayed or ignored by the nation’s elites. Only war between labor and capital can induce true worker solidarity and produce a conditional peace, or armistice. In the period following the great militant upheaval of the 1930s, labor, from a position of strength, was able to force an armistice upon a reluctant employer class. An armistice by definition cannot be produced when one side is weak but requires a fighting labor movement to bring management ‘back to the table.’ Yet, the notion of ‘class war‘ is almost abandoned by the labor movement and has become nothing more than wrought political slogan which promotes discourse over insipid subjects on Sunday morning talk shows. The time has come for workers, organizers and labor advocates to prepare for class war and push beyond an armistice with capital and force a political and economic supremacy.

Many labor activists today would like to model the labor movement along the lines of their modern perception of the Civil Rights Movement. In their view, the Civil Rights movement was a pat-yourself-on-the-back triumph of public morality. But in reality the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was one of direct action to break the back of segregation, of resistance to the violence of the local police, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist paramilitary forces that wanted to fight to the death to defend segregation. Both the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s (including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and others) and the Labor Laws of the 1930s, such as 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NRLA) came not from liberal Democratic legislators, but from the mass and militant movements of African Americans and the working class, respectively, in what were often more akin to insurrections than the peaceful protests or strikes more commonly thought of. For example the 1968 Civil Rights Act that banned discrimination in housing was signed days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. which had led up uprisings in more than 100 American cities.

Peace treaties after war

From the dawn of American capitalism one group of dissidents has a long and wretched history of war and peace—the Native Americans. After the Revolutionary War the U.S. government pursued various treaties with native tribes to establish peace. Peace meaning the non-disruption of capitalist society and western expansion. However, within many treaties Native Americans agreed to submission to the U.S. in their external political affairs. Treaties became vehicles of private land interests to permanently subjugate native tribes and pave the way for ‘settlers’ or ‘pioneers’ to expropriate Indian lands.

Fierce resistance from Native Americans against sordid treaties and encroachment forced the U.S. government to sue for peace. Yet, as treaties were mismanaged, bureaucrats empowered, and military force deployed, Native American strength ultimately diminished. The same set of circumstances plague today’s labor movement. The peace treaty known as the National Labor Relations Act and the bureaucracy it created provide nothing but false security to workers. As with Native American treaties, capital has outmaneuvered its opponent and perpetuated a stealth war of subjugation.

In the present day, labor unions are protected on paper. Union density currently sits at a mere 11.3% of the entire labor force—6.6% within the private sector. Labor skeptics argue that the statistics represent an indifference of modern workers to join labor unions—an argument with some basis. Labor union proponents will accurately argue that one in five workers are fired by their employer for attempting to organize a union at their workplace. Many more workers are harassed, intimidated or co-opted by their employers before any attempt to organize is ever made. Simply put, the current NLRA system does not provide the economic advancement and civil protections it once did. The NLRA as it currently stands does not cover public sector employees, it misclassifies many workers as so-called independent contractors or supervisors, it does nothing to enforce industry-wide or multi-employer bargaining, and it restricts several types of boycotts and outlaws general strikes. Today the NLRA is nothing but an archaic officialdom that lines bureaucrats’ and attorneys’ pockets.

Peace with capital, Part I

Red Cloud, Chief of the Oglala Lakota, united all the ‘hostile’ tribes of the Great Plains into a sharp arrow to pierce the hearts of their capitalist enemies. After Red Cloud’s War, for the first time, the U.S. had to admit it was beaten and sued for peace. Red Cloud won a sovereign war against the U.S. military and negotiated a peace treaty on his terms and the terms of his people.

In 1866, Red Cloud raised an army of 2000 Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors who attacked Fort Phil Kearny (in modern-day Wyoming) killing 80 enlisted men who were armed with the world’s most advanced artillery in what is now referred to as Red Cloud’s War. This successful siege against one of the greatest military powers sent shockwaves across the ‘civilized’ world and forced the U.S. to the negotiating table. The Peace Treaty of Fort Laramie banned U.S. troops and ‘settlers’ from the Powder River Country and the Black Hills. As soon as the last U.S. envoys left Red Cloud’s territory, Cheyenne warriors burned all military installations to the ground. It was said to be the proudest moment in Red Cloud’s life.

History has not been kind to Native American peace treaties as they have been systematically eroded over several generations because the U.S. never had any real intention of keeping its end of the bargain. On the contrary, Red Cloud assumed after the Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed that the U.S. would abandon its interest in the Black Hills. The Sioux chief even became an American statesman of sorts, traveling the country touting the then success of Native American peace treaties. Unfortunately, Red Cloud would be proven wrong when the U.S. seized the Black Hills in 1877. Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux, in what is now modern-day North Dakota and South Dakota, never trusted the “White Man’s Government” and led an sovereign movement until his surrender in 1881.

What we can learn from the history of Native Americans struggles is that our enemies do not rest and any peace or treaty is conditional and eventually will be followed by further attacks. For the labor movement, that meant the victories of the 1930s were constantly under attack as corporate America, much like the white settlers, never truly embraced the peace but viewed it as an opportunity to gather forces for a counter-attack.

Peace with capital, Part II

In the present day, capital has nearly destroyed the treaty and continues to desecrate its sacred script in order to force a strategic power-hold over labor. The labor movement’s response has been dismal if not derelict as its influence is systematically dismantled by right-wing politicians and the courts. Organized labor is disorganized, undisciplined and incapable of meeting today’s challenges.

Forty years ago the NLRA was widely recognized as providing tremendous rights and equity to millions of Americans. Most labor historians credit three violent strikes in 1934 as providing the catalyst for the NLRA: the Toledo Auto-Lite Strike, the West Coast Waterfront Strike, and the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike. These strikes were as much an insurrection against the government as they were against employer cartels. The conflicts centered on employee rights and legal protection of labor unions. Once the NRLA became law a massive influx of union membership ensued. According to Robert H. Zeiger, the decade following the establishment of the NLRA “represents the largest sustained surge of worker organization in American history.” A veteran organizer of that era called it an “era of invincibility, a time when labor was on top and management underneath.” During the post-NLRA period incomes rose for most average workers and remained stable through the postwar economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Union density quadrupled from 7% to 35% ,and this period was called the “Great Compression,” the antithesis of the Great Depression.

All three strikes of 1934 had stark similarities which made them successful: all were geographically centered (much like an occupation); all encompassed various workers of different employers (much like a general strike); and striking workers enlisted support from members of the community and applied countervailing force against strikebreakers and authorities. Workers employed military-like precision to secure their positions and protect their flanks. When strikebreakers moved against the picket lines the striking workers blocked the entry points. If force was deployed to break the workers’ ranks, counterforce was returned to protect those ranks. When authorities arrived to safeguard the strikebreakers’ activities the workers did not disperse and did not submit. If violence was instigated then violence was promulgated. In all instances the employer operations were immobilized and national attention was attained. Employer interests and federal politicians became frightened that working men and women could sustain picket lines with such discipline and solidarity. They were further frightened that workers were not intimidated by authorities and the brutal nature of the strikebreakers. The culmination of this widespread fear along with the political astuteness of national labor leaders laid the foundation of the NLRA.

It is easy to compare organized labor’s faith in peace treaties with Red Cloud’s in how they both understood they had reached a binding agreement with their adversaries. But truthfully, employer interests and capital, much like the U.S. dealt with Red Cloud, never had any real intention of conceding. Some labor leaders of wit like James R. Hoffa (Jimmy Hoffa) seemed to have known better while many others lost touch. Hoffa once quipped: “I've said consistently that no employer ever really accepts a union. They tolerate the unions. The very minute they can get a pool of unemployment they'll challenge the unions and try to get back what they call managements prerogatives, meaning hire, fire, pay what you want.”

The Iron Heel and capital’s offensive

In Jack London’s 1908 fictional novel The Iron Heel, readers are introduced to a dystopian society where vicious robber barons control the economic and political institutions of the U.S. and crush their opposition with an iron heel. The novel describes with incredible foresight the rise of a fascist power that begins its ascent with destroying labor unions and other leftist organizations. In the novel, London predicts the rise of worldwide fascism though he imagines it originating in the U.S., not Europe.

London’s novel illustrates a coordinated, political and legal offensive against organized labor by employer interests. London found his impetus for The Iron Heel in the early 20th century when he witnessed the rise of union-busting detective agencies and strikebreaking labor firms. The Iron Heel of today is a manifestation of conservative billionaires who fund anti-union political groups and think tanks. Capital is winning the war as most workplaces are dominated by the employer through intimidation, manipulation and coercion. Labor unions are no longer the bulwark of the working class as they have been weakened and unable to incite fear. The public elite on the Sunday morning talk shows and editorial pages have yet to view the waning power of labor unions as a national threat to economic mobility. They do not want a return of vibrant labor unions—they prefer labor peace to be upheld on the employer’s terms.

As employer interests maintain control of the legal and political institutions which govern labor rights and protections in the U.S. they grow bolder in their war to subjugate labor unions—case in point: Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and various other examples that are not as blatant. The traditional weapon of workers to fight back against employers and capital has been the strike—there is no other act of warfare which possesses such a sharp impact. Unfortunately strikes are no longer employed as strategy to win political and economic conflicts. Take the following statistic, for example: in 1952 there were 470 strikes or work stoppages involving more than 1000 people in the U.S.; in 2011 there were 19, 17 of which were employer-initiated lockouts. Although there have been courageous strikes of late such as the Wal-Mart workers’ and the fast-food strikes, the conduct on the picket lines has been uneventful. If strikes have become mere stunts then they will remain inept, but if strikes are acts of political and economic war then they must be fought to win!

Civil disobedience examined

In 1849 Henry David Thoreau published his great American essay: Resistance to Civil Government, now commonly known as Civil Disobedience. Within his essay Thoreau draws attention to a tyrannical U.S. government which drove institutional slavery and was conducting the Mexican American War. Thoreau’s self-documented act of defiance was to suspend the paying of taxes as he did not want to finance a government he did not agree with. He spent a night in jail for his insubordination. Within his essay is the idea that if a man or women is appalled by the actions of their government, or in the case of labor their employer, then that person has an inalienable right to resist. This is the basis of all modern labor and civil rights protest. Thoreau’s essay also touches on class issues, the idea of continual revolution in the U.S. and the view that principle demands action.

Thoreau’s act of defiance is certainly considered ‘civil’ as there was no physical violence involved. Yet, this modern concept of civil disobedience is not entirely Thoreau’s actual view on resistance. It may be surprising for modern labor activists to learn that Thoreau was a strong supporter of the abolitionist vigilantes of the northern states preceding the Civil War. With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act it became a crime for northerners to harbor and protect runaway slaves from the South. Instead, they were legally bound to return the men, women and children to the southern gangs tasked to apprehend the runaways. In response, vigilante groups materialized in the North to protect runaway slaves from the whip lashes of insubordination and chains of bondage. These vigilantes protected the slaves from reprisal and openly battled with southern posses and local law enforcement. Many of the battles became deadly. John Brown, the most famous of all abolitionist vigilantes, was the subject of another of Thoreau’s essays: A Plea for Captain John Brown.

John Brown supported armed rebellion as a measure to abolish slavery in the U.S.. He led the Pottawatomie Battle (some say the first battle of the Civil War) during which five men were killed in 1856 and later Brown became a Civil War icon during the unsuccessful raid at Harpers Ferry to start a liberation movement among enslaved African Americans. After his capture he was tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the murder of five pro-slavery Southerners, and inciting a slave insurrection. Brown was found guilty on all counts and executed by hanging.

In his essay, Thoreau likens John Brown’s hanging to the crucifixion of Christ and defends the violent acts of Brown as “righteous.” He shuns the public opinion of his time which called for caution when dealing with the Fugitive Slave Act. He clamors for revenge of the fallen abolitionist. He writes, “When the present form of Slavery shall be no more… we shall then weep for Captain John Brown… we will take our revenge.”

American guerilla warfare

Guerrilla warfare in the U.S. has a very limited historical scope. Guerrilla tactics in the U.S. arguably began with American patriot Samuel Adams on the Boston Waterfront preceding the Revolutionary War. Adams said, “It does not take a majority to prevail... but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.”

Samuel Adams gained incredible fame as one of the greatest revolutionary organizers and strategists of all time. Adams was a radical deploying violence and political and economic pressure on the British bourgeois and colonial government. Marc Genest of the U.S. Naval War College examined the revolution as an insurgency campaign and identifies John Adams as the most pivotal figure of the American Revolution. According to Genest, Adams conceived the organizational structure which propelled the Revolution—the Sons of Liberty or as Genest calls it “The American Liberation Organization” (ALO). The ALO is described by Genest as a covert propaganda operation to promote instability within all aspects of British rule.

Samuel Adams did the ‘dirty work’ of the American Revolution; he led the Stamp Act Uprising, the Land Bank Riots and the Boston Tea Party and he turned a small episode involving the deaths of five unruly patriots by the hands of untested British soldiers into a national incident known today as the Boston Massacre. In Russell Bourne’s Cradle of Violence: How Boston's Waterfront Mobs Ignited the American Revolution, Adams is credited with inciting mob violence, spreading misinformation and leading a mass movement of sailors, dockworkers, rope spinners, fishermen, oystermen, exploited apprentices, runaway slaves, the unemployed and sometime pirates for open rebellion.

General Francis Marion of the South Carolina Militia Commissions and Continental Army is recognized as perfecting guerrilla warfare in the U.S.. Known as the Swamp Fox, Marion led a band of miscreants during the Revolutionary War to ruthlessly terrorize British Loyalists and regulars. The South Carolina Militia under Marion marauded throughout the swamps and countryside ambushing British supply chains and beachheads. During the last two centuries guerrilla warfare has been most identified with labor strife and strike activity. Regrettably, modern labor tactics are now heavily focused on legal actions and ‘mainstream’ political party engagement. Contemporary guerrilla tactics are now most identified with the American Tea Party movement.

The Tea Party movement has become the guerrilla movement of the 21st century. Tea Party activists are identified as rebellious, angry and reckless. The Tea Party movement is indeed a minority, both in size and scope, but an incredibly powerful minority. The Tea Party movement almost defeated President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, nearly denying the president his signature legislative accomplishment. The Tea Party movement forced a federal sequestration, nearly forced a federal default on two occasions, and most impressive of all, propelled a federal government shutdown for 16 days. The Tea Party movement has demonstrated its ability to upset the U.S. economy and intimidate elites.

The Tea Party movement has lost popularity over the past year or so. The recent loss of momentum is not because of tactical overreach, but because of its demagoguery and harshly divisive nature. To many, the Tea Party movement represents privilege, exclusion, xenophobia, selfishness and hatred. Morally speaking, the Tea Party movement is bankrupt, but when it comes to power the labor movement and the American left eats the Tea Party’s dust. Though, at one time, the American labor movement had the ability to upset the U.S. economy and intimidate political, economic and media elites. In some quarters the labor movement still remains powerful enough to disrupt geographical areas or sectors of the economy. Also, in the past few years the Occupy movement did attempt to shut down entire cities but were eventually subdued by a coordinated government intervention.

In 2009 the Tea Party nearly blocked President Obama’s entire legislative agenda. To witness a town hall meeting in the summer of 2009 during the public debate on the Affordable Care Act was a truly invigorating spectacle. Extremely motivated men and women arrived at public town hall meetings for federal politicians visibly angry, disturbed and irate. They let their public officials have it; there was shouting, accusations, pushing, shoving and the most supercilious politicians left the meetings mortified. A genuine movement was born!

The Tea Party movement was then and continues to be financiered and propagated by employer interests, conservative billionaires and right-wing think tanks. Nevertheless, it is sustained by average people. It was an unpredictable and aggressive movement in the summer of 2009 and continues to be so today—only on a grander scale. The Tea Party movement has been unapologetic and unafraid to push ahead.

The activation of the emerging immigrant movement

Immigrants, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, are the fastest growing demographic in the U.S. Whether legal or not, immigration has been a divisive issue among natural born citizens of the U.S. since at least the mid-1800s. As will be illustrated further, immigrants of the past overcame the obstacles of incendiary prejudice through unity. In the True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of mass Movements, Eric Hoffer writes, “Mass migrations are fertile ground for genuine mass movements. It is sometimes difficult to tell where a mass migration ends and a mass movement begins—and which came first… migration in the mass strengthens the spirit and unity of a movement.”

Documented in Anthony Bimba’s The Molly Maguires, a book detailing the lives of Irish immigrant Pennsylvania miners in Schuylkill County, mass immigration to the U.S. in the mid-1800s was a direct response to the Immigration Act of 1864.

The device was a success. The stream of immigration swelled, within a few years carrying between 2 and 3 million workers to this country. They poured into the mills and mines to do the hardest and lowest paid work. At the same time they composed a tremendous reserve of labor which the capitalists could use to beat down still further the standard of living of the American working class and combat the tendency among the workers to struggle for better conditions.

Bimba identifies the growing collectivity of the immigrant experience and cites that as mass immigration swelled so did the mass movement for an eight-hour workday. Therefore, mass immigration didn’t just bring willing workers to willing employers, but it also brought the hopes and dreams of the immigrant masses and with them a willingness to fight for those very hopes and dreams.

Just as it was then, today immigrant ‘cheap’ labor is used as a scapegoat for natural born citizens to blame newcomers rather than employer interests and politicians for low wages, poor benefits and high costs of living. The conflict of today is the same conflict of yesterday. Phillip S. Foner’s multivolume set History of the Labor Movement in the United States details in great depth the impact of immigrant labor in the U.S. both economically and politically. Foner describes the situation of mass immigration in the mid-1800s from the perspective of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

The attitude of the AFL leadership toward foreign-born workers was an attitude of racism, of contempt and outright hostility, plus a reactionary policy of placing barriers to the entrance of the foreign-born to the country and to the trade unions. They advanced the thesis that these workers were unorganizable and unable to fit into the pattern of American trade unionism as exemplified by the AFL.

Foner subscribes that the AFL’s barrier to worker unity for immigrants would not be challenged until the birth of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905.

Since immigrants are of minority status once they enter the U.S., an attempt must be made to interpret the predicament of a minority immigrant during assimilation. Hoffer writes, “In a minority bent on assimilation, the individual stands alone, pitted against prejudice and discrimination. In the case of a member of a minority group who wants to blend with the majority, failure intensifies the feeling of not belonging.” According to Hoffer this is why minorities are the most likely to join a mass movement. He suggests that the compact collectivity of a mass movement serves as a substitute for assimilation.

The IWW’s constitution has a motto: “An injury to one is the Concern of all.” “Race, creed, color, and sex were made no bar to membership, and any immigrant with a valid union card was eligible for immediate membership.” Immigrant workers would soon find the IWW a “congenial organization” whereas immigrant industrial workers whose foreign birth became a vehicle for ridicule in the commercial press where they were called “Hunks,” “Bo hunks,” and “Dagoes” found dignity and status within the IWW.

As the emerging immigrant population of the late 1800s and early 1900s began to unify under the compact collectivity of the Industrial Workers of the World, immigrants would soon become crucial to the labor movement and the economic vitality of the country. In three major IWW strikes: the McKees Rocks Strike, the Lawrence Strike, and the Mesabi Range Strike, it were the immigrants themselves who led the charge for better working conditions and assimilation.

In the McKees Rocks Strike in Pennsylvania there were 16 different nationalities among the 5000 workers employed at the Pressed Steel Car Co. where the strike occurred. In July, 1909, the workers began to engage in walk-outs, work stoppages and soon a full scale strike. Though the IWW leaders were involved in the McKees Rocks Strike, according to Foner, it was merely in a supporting role. It would soon become evident that these foreign-born workers were entirely capable of maintaining a strike.

A group of foreign-born strikers had experiences in revolutionary and labor struggles in Europe. They realized early in the strike that only a vigorous, military strategy would achieve victory. These strategies, though used often in Europe, were new to the American labor movement and would influence the conduct of strikes among the foreign-born workers for many years to come.

After six weeks of bitter strife these workers returned to the Pressed Steel Car Co. with their demands met, recognition of the union, and most importantly, with their dignity intact.

The strike proved foreign-born workers were not, as so many AFL leaders repeatedly insisted in excusing their failure to organize them, an ‘ignorant mass,’ “content to work under conditions no decent human would tolerate.” It proved foreign-born workers were militant strikers and had much to contribute to the American labor movement.

Foner’s conclusion would again be demonstrated in the Lawrence Strike at the textile mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Foner would say of the enduring strikers: “These neglected, downtrodden masses—foreign-born, unskilled, half of them women—had proved to the entire labor movement that they were capable of maintaining the discipline, spirit, unity, and faithfulness to unionism, essential to victory. They proved, too, that theirs was the true Americanism.”

The Mesabi Range Strike in the iron-ore mines of northeastern Minnesota was another example of immigrant miners representing 35 different nationalities leading a major strike. Although the two previous strikes arguably resulted in victories for the workers and Foner concludes that the Mesabi Range Strike comparably did not, he still contends that it was a display of immigrants enduring in the struggle to both assimilate and secure their economic power.

The American Crystal Sugar lockout, Long Shore Workers and a book about strikes

In the summer of 2011 workers at American Crystal Sugar Co. rejected a concessionary contract offer from corporate management and the lockout of 1300 union workers commenced. American Crystal Sugar Co. is located in the remote areas of northwestern Minnesota and eastern North Dakota. The company shut out its union workforce and moved in a scab force provided by a ‘labor firm’ from the Twin Cities. The labor firm is called STROM Engineering and keeping up with its fascist overtone, many union workers called these scabs “STROM Troopers.” The STROM Troopers were moved into the rural towns adjacent to the five large sugar refineries and placed in motels and provided transport by white vans to and from the sugar beet refining operations. It was indeed a scab army much in accordance with Jack London’s The Iron Heel. Many union workers became confused as to what they should do and whether they had a union force to match the ever growing scab army.

A labor lockout is referred to as ‘management’s strike.’ A lockout can occur under the NLRA when the union and company management are unable to reach a collective bargaining agreement. The employer has the legal right to lock out its workforce and reject their labor. The only legal difference between a lockout and strike is that the employer cannot permanently replace the locked-out workers. Nevertheless, an employer can continue a lockout indefinitely. Morally, however, a lockout appears to carry a great deal of betrayal and resentment from the locked-out workers towards the employer. This is regrettable because it creates an overriding sense of victimhood and humiliation. The workers at American Crystal Sugar were victims in every sense of the word, but they soon found that victimhood has a genuine elasticity with the local news papers and the surrounding communities.

In the modern labor movement it is challenging to gain public sympathy for workers who are mistreated by their employers. The editorial pages, career politicians and leading academics are mostly apathetic to the plight of non-professionals and many times downright hostile to manual laborers. In the case of unionized workers of the so-called professional class, the elite carelessly snub those who can hypothetically quit their jobs if they are unsatisfied. Workers in the private sector have often maligned the pay and benefits of workers in the public sector because private employers are continually eliminating pensions and employer-paid paid health coverage.

As time tolled, the locked-out union workers at American Crystal Sugar lost the contract dispute and after a fifth vote elected to return to work under the original concessionary contract offer. After 18 months the workers’ struggle for public sympathy failed. The fight was lost not with roar but a whimper. The rural communities became polarized and the union became demoralized and demobilized. If you’re going to pick a fight then you better fight to win. This lack of fighting to win is why organized labor continues to lose as both an institution and a movement. Who wants to side with victims?

In the summer of 2011 there were two more items of immense interest that could have taken the American Crystal Sugar lockout in a different direction. Joe Burns’ book Reviving the Strike was published only a few months before the lockout commenced and its tracts were foretelling of the crisis facing not only the workers of American Crystal Sugar but of the entire labor movement. The book is a bold analysis and commentary of organized labor especially during an era of least resistance. Without a doubt, organized labor is apprehensive about its own survival and whether it will remain relevant with emerging industries, changing demographics and concessionary inclinations. The book’s central premise is simply this: if labor doesn’t even fight then how can it ever hope to win? The locked out workers at American Crystal Sugar took the first step and picked a fight, but lacked an authentic agility and adaptability to maneuver. In Reviving the Strike, Burns identifies the legal dilemmas of the modern labor movement under the Taft Hartley restrictions and provides a plan for organized labor to maneuver around such limitations. Labor law is broken in the U.S. and organized labor must no longer rely on the conventional methods of concerted activities!

In addition to Reviving the Strike, in the summer of 2011 the West Coast Long Shore Workers (ILWU) set a resounding example for the entire labor movement. The ILWU Local 21 raided the port of Longview Washington and disrupted operations for the multinational conglomerate EGT Development. Local 21 cited contract violations by EGT as its core grievance. ILWU members organized mass pickets of hundreds to block trains from bringing grain to the EGT terminal and dumped grain from train cars, cut brake lines on trains and smashed windows in a guard shack. Throughout the confrontations, more than 125 protesters were arrested. In the end, the ILWU beat back EGT’s violations and won an acceptable agreement.

There was not, and has not been since, a more inspiring demonstration of power by the modern labor movement. The contract dispute that the ILWU had with EGT was very similar to the dispute that forced union workers to vote down the concessionary offer at American Crystal Sugar. The only difference being the ILWU was willing to fight to win!

Disappointingly so, the ILWU Local 21 is the exception, not the rule. The rule is for organized labor to resolve grievances in the courts or at the ballot box—despite the legal system’s slow and tenuous results and our democracy’s continued failure. In modern times aggressive labor tactics have yielded to legal adjudication within the sphere of our litigious society. In the present day workers are too afraid—too afraid to organize and too afraid to strike. It’s not necessarily because the penalties of anti-union employers are too lax or strike opposition too great—it’s because workers are have not been readied to act!

What is to be done?

Labor politics

The labor movement is married to the modern Democratic Party only out of mutual self-interest. The Democratic Party is no longer responsive to the needs of America’s working class. It’s time to recognize that a labor party or workers’ party is the only way to go. There is a possible solution that may assist the labor movement in taking over the Democratic Party and creating a real labor party in tandem—it’s called dualism. Dualism allows the labor movement to formulate a political party but also support the Democratic Party. Much like the Irish Republican Army, the American labor movement needs a political wing—not just clever lobbyists or flush political action committees. The concept of dualism declares that a candidate for public office must win a direct primary ballot by registered labor party members before said candidate can receive a full party endorsement. This process is completely internal to members of the state, federal and local labor parties. The labor party endorsed candidate must still get the endorsement of a major political party to make it to the general election ballot in all 50 states. Major labor unions that participate will endorse a candidate based on whether said candidate gets the endorsement of the labor party.

Labor unions and activists can openly recruit members to serve on national committees, state committees, and district and precinct committees. The labor party must be inclusive for all Americans and have a national convention, state conventions, district conventions and precinct conventions. The party will need a democratic platform formed at the regional levels. Candidates will be endorsed at convention, but must win a mail or electronic primary ballot by all registered members of the respective regional parties. National endorsements will hinge on a national primary ballot by all party members.

Dualism can provide for a real political party to have key influence on major political candidates. Moreover, labor unions can then campaign internally for the labor party candidate rather than the usual Democratic Party archetype. Internal registration process, direct ballot for endorsement, a real democratic platform and party conventions will provide credibility for an apathetic working class.

Labor action

Key strikes and lockouts in the U.S. must become a major priority with the labor movement and for all organized labor institutions. The directing and motivating of picketers, raising money for strike and action funds and the generating of community engagement has become more important than expertise in labor law. Local unions conducting a strike or suffering a lockout need direct assistance to provide leadership on all aspects of effective strike strategy. National labor organizations and/or other labor organizations must provide capacity for rapid deployment of a strike force or action network to direct Local unions or rank-and-file members involved in major work stoppages.

During the 1934 Toledo Auto-Lite Strike brilliant strike tacticians such as Reverend A.J. Muste, Art Preis and Louis Budenz, all leading radical groups, converged on Toledo to direct and build momentum for the strike. Much like the IRA, the American labor movement needs a paramilitary wing—not just a team of lawyers or public relations experts. In 1936 the UAW formed paramilitary groups who wore tactical-style uniforms and would form union caravans that traveled vast distances to reinforce picket lines when employers brought in strikebreakers. It is alleged that Michigan Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, already Detroit’s toughest labor leader, was so impressed with the UAW’s militant fighters that he asked to join his local union with the UAW.

An outside team of seasoned strike tacticians who can move into a territory and hold local union officials and picketers accountable plus direct the actions, the fundraising, and the community engagement is a necessity in an era of concessions and lockouts. Most important of all, the strike force must be able to push the limits of modern labor law which restrict labor union activity during work stoppages. They must not be afraid to engage in economic disruption.

Pushing the limits

All labor unions must develop a legal defense fund

Before America’s greatest surge of unionization after World War II, workers had little protection from violent strikebreakers, Pinkerton detectives and police brutality. The legal system favored employers during labor disputes and most striking workers were jailed for vagrancy or disturbing the peace. Politicians, judges and police were all in the pockets of employers large and small. Organized crime figures provided muscle for employers under their ‘protection’ rackets. During labor disputes mass arrests were common for striking workers. Miraculously, however, workers fought on and built an enduring labor movement.

Today average workers need legal assurances before they will act. Therefore, in order to encourage direct action labor unions must institute a legal defense fund for workers who are on strike or locked out. Workers on strike must qualify for legal assistance for civil and criminal incidents involving strike activity.

To receive coverage in the defense plan, a striking worker must be involved in an incident relating to a strike, lockout or organizing effort. The defense plan will cover all striking or locked-out workers who are dues-paying union members. Members of the plan will have 100% coverage regardless of the final cost of representation in addition to full legal coverage for separate incidents no matter how many occur. Legal protection is not a perfect solution for all angst-ridden workers, but it can provide confidence for those who are concerned about civil and criminal penalties.

Direct action training

Direct action must have three main objectives: 1. to create a significant disturbance with the intention of generating awareness for a specific injustice, 2. to disrupt an operation, system or organization with the full intent of interrupting an active procedure or process, 3. to intimidate or pressure an organization or group into submission.

Modern labor activists are admittedly near experts at manufacturing a public spectacle, but have lost all willingness to disrupt or intimidate opposition.

In the 1930s, Minneapolis Teamsters Local 574 initiated one of the greatest strikes of the Depression Era, in addition to perfecting the most brilliant of strike tactics in American history. The most significant aspect of the 1934 Teamsters Strike was how Local 574’s leadership urged its followers to stockpile clubs, batons and bludgeons. From that point forward the strike was no longer a mere dispute, but war itself. Flying pickets were formed and sent from the union headquarters. They patrolled the streets in a vast fleet of cars and trucks to intercept all scab vehicles and unauthorized movements. A committee of 100 strikers was established to devise overall strategy.

Labor control

In 1934 the West Coast Waterfront Strike was not a strike entirely over economics, but primarily a strike over labor control. The leaders of that particular strike knew that if they could control the hiring process at the ports that they could then control all the work on the docks. The west coast seamen and longshoremen unions’ greatest triumph in 1934 came from the institutionalization of the union hiring hall. Outside the building trades, union hiring halls have become a thing of the past and labor control is firmly in the grip of employer interests.

The time has come for labor unions to look beyond the narrow prerogatives of the collective bargaining contract and to begin concentrating on the training and hiring process of tomorrow’s workers. At this very moment universities and colleges are banding with employer interests to create training programs and apprenticeships. New workers are becoming increasingly disposable in the modern economy and labor organizations have not begun to grapple with the issue comprehensively. Furthermore, there is widespread agreement that the number of college graduates taking unpaid internships has significantly increased since the 2008-2013 Great Recession. Behind Wal-Mart, the second-largest employer in the U.S. is Kelly Services, a temporary worker service. Lastly, according to the Labor Department data, roughly 284,000 college graduates are working minimum wage jobs—double the number who worked such jobs before the Great Recession.

The labor movement, its institutions and other labor organizations have a major stake in the future of the nation’s workforce and must develop a concrete plan for labor union supported training programs, apprenticeships and certifications to promote stronger labor contracts, greater job security and further participation in labor union activity.

Epilogue: The way we win

The assault on organized labor by capital is only going to intensify in the coming years and labor must fight to preserve what is has accomplished. Instead of playing victim, union workers must become fighters and must hold each other accountable. The only way labor is going get respect in America again is if it sets an example of strength.

When the current labor statistics demonstrated a 90-year low in national union membership it became imperative to foster a dialogue on a beleaguered labor movement. Most readers can agree that labor is at a critical moment and must elicit sincere introspection. It is appropriate to draw parallels between our time and the period before the passage of the NLRA—to examine the events, strategies and tactics of striking men and women from 1934. In Richard Maxwell Brown’s Strain of Violence, he concludes, “The last great spasm of violence in the history of American labor came in the 1930s… that accompanied the successful drive to unionize the automobile and other great mass production industries. A strain of labor violence survives…”

The way labor wins the war against capital matters as workers cannot use force unless they have faith in their principles. Labor cannot win the class war with martyrdom or on its past glories. Remember that labor’s most legendary martyr, Joe Hill, wrote in one of his last telegrams to Bill Haywood, leader of the Industrial Workers of the World, "Goodbye, Bill, I die like a true blue rebel. Don't waste any time mourning. Organize!”

Gus Froemke is a second generation trade unionist and Teamster member in Minneapolis. Froemke has been involved with national, state and local organizing campaigns for the past decade.

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