The red state rebellion of teachers has once again demonstrated the incredible power of collective action. Ignoring legal restrictions on their right to strike, tens of thousands of teachers in so-called red states struck anyway, forcing reactionary politicians to the bargaining table. In doing so, they upended decades of bipartisan neoliberal attacks on public education, won concrete gains for tens of thousands of teachers, and mobilized a new generation of teacher activists.
Those looking for a way to revive the labor movement after decades of defeat and decline can’t ignore the importance of the strike weapon. Previous generations of trade unionists considered the strike to be essential to collective bargaining. The strike was how unionists forced employers to recognize their unions and was the key ingredient in the creation of a powerful labor movement from the 1930s through the 1970s.
At the height of the Great Depression, with unemployment well into the double digits, workers didn’t just withdraw their labor; they knew that to be effective, a strike had to cripple production. In one of the great upsurges of U.S. history, more than 400,000 workers engaged in sit-down strikes in 1937 alone, and millions more engaged in mass picketing—effectively blockading plants.
Socialist and communist activists played a key role in the upsurge and contended for power at the heights of national unions. Capital, however, is ruthless and relentless. Corporations used their influence in the courts and the legislatures to attack and undermine the right to strike. The Taft-Hartley Act outlawed some of labor’s greatest solidarity acts and worked to drive left-wing leadership out of the labor movement.
By the time of the employer anti-union offensive of the 1980s, decades of anti-labor judicial decisions meant that labor was fighting with its hands behind its back. Despite heroic effort, many strikes in the 1980s were busted, and unions were crushed.
By the 1990s, many in labor abandoned the strike for efforts such as organizing the unorganized; corporate campaigns led by union staffers to shame corporations; and social unionism, which emphasizes the need for unions to forge ties with community groups. All these are essential elements, but none can substitute for the power of a production-stopping strike based on solidarity. We need to revive the strike.
None of this is to say that reviving the strike will be easy. For the millions of workers engaged in once highly unionized landlocked industries such as trucking and groceries, we will need new militant tactics. For workers in production or other industries susceptible to outsourcing overseas we will need to utilize international solidarity. But one thing is clear: without a strong strike, we cannot have a powerful labor movement. As striking teachers recently demonstrated, when workers are in motion incredible things can happen.
What This Means for Socialists
For those who have not been part of a strike, it is an incredible experience. For striking workers, the constraints of daily employment cease, which usually leads to incredible energy on the picket line. Power relations in society are exposed as the courts and corporate media line up against us. People are forced to choose. As the old labor song asked, “Which side are you on?” Socialists, whether in unions or not, can play a key role by developing community support and helping to directly support striking workers, as many in DSA did during the 2016 Verizon strike.
Socialists and the labor movement need each other. To revive the strike, labor will need to violate judicial injunctions, confront the repression of the state, and reject the neoliberal framework that has governed labor relations for decades. That will take socialists, socialist ideas, and solidarity in local communities. A strong, militant labor movement— uncompromising in its struggle against capital—is key to developing a powerful socialist movement.