The Rarity of Labor Union Strikes in Today’s Economy and Labor Market and Lost Hope at NLRB

New Orleans   In Social Policy magazine we’ve published in the current issue a solid description of the ups and downs of a group of nursing home workers in Connecticut.    The piece focused on the lessons learned in the course of a strike that the workers and the union felt was successful.  We also published in an earlier issue last year an excerpt of a book calling for a revitalization of the role of strikes in labor relations.

Looking at a chart in the Wall Street Journal, it seems clear that workers are “voting with their seat,” rather than “voting with their feet” and hitting the street.

The 21st Century is not a striking century for workers and their unions.   The graphic recorded both strikes and lockouts, and it goes without saying that a lockout is a management tactic to coerce a unionized group of workers to accept certain terms and conditions of employment, in the same way that a strike is a tool for workers to try and bring a company to heel or , these days, back to reason.   The chart indicted that in this century only once has there been more than 20 of these things and in some years, hardly a handful.

Caterpillar, the tractor maker, is once again a screaming canary in this mind shaft and trying to force its workers in plants to take frozen wages over 6 year contracts, with fewer and fewer seniority rights for shifts or jobs.  Workers in Joilet, Illinois seem to have come to that cold place in the night where you may know the boss may beat you, but he’s going to have to whip you first.

No one pretends that this is a winning strategy, only that when there was no other recourse they then had no choice.

At the same time the “reforms” of the more activist Obama appointed members of the NLRB seem to have stalled again.  The simple “notice” provision which would have required a posting of the law and protections for workers to organize freely at all workplaces, seems to have been stymied.  The rules on quicker elections seem lost in a deep quiet zone as well, where perhaps no news is good news, since the only safe bet would be lawsuits trying to block the rules.

The election, if lost, would eviscerate the NLRB in the same way we now see the right moving to de-unionize the public sector in state after state.  Where does this leave workers?  Fewer strikes, more lockouts, and fewer victories from either one may argue for more corporate campaigns, but watching the Walmart corruption press rise and fall and the shell game of corporate social responsibility, and the diminishing “power” of the press, and it is clear that there is no silver bullet here.  In the same way we need to adopt new organizing strategies, we need the same new thinking for action tactics.

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