08 January 2013

Labor Roundup: The Strike in an Age of Austerity, part I

Permanent Crisis has featured some excellent discussion on the relations between concrete social mobilizations and the potential for the development of radical or critical forms of consciousness (e.g., here and here). This post is an initial contribution to that line of analysis, and takes as its object the evolving nature of the strike both as a social phenomenon and as a specific tactic. I focus here mainly on the recent return of old-school strike tactics and union militancy; future posts will first address the role of the strike in the radicalization of existing unions (e.g., CORE and the Chicago Teachers Union), and then the strange things that happened under the aegis of the “general strike” during the Occupy mobilizations (see here).

As has been extensively documented on this blog and elsewhere, the massive financial collapse that hit the core of the capitalist global economy in the autumn of 2008 kicked off what could turn out to be the terminal crisis of neoliberalism. The intervening four years between then and now has seen the gradual onset of a deep recession of global scope, forcing people all over the world to endure prolonged unemployment, slashed wages, the scaling back or elimination of vital public services, and, in the United States, the renewal of a deeply reactionary, nationally coordinated program to destroy the last ramparts of organized labor through an attack on public employees. Thus far, all the major political parties of the European Union, as well as the Republican and Democratic parties in the U.S., have marched in lockstep in their support for and imposition of these draconian economic measures, which they see as necessary for propping up an economic system that is clearly failing. The broad bipartisan support for these programs across the board, along with a still relatively scarce supply of credit – the main vehicle of economic growth under neoliberalism – suggests that the “austerity state” is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Consequently weve seen a sharp spike in leftist or left-ish collective action over the last few years as people fight to prevent the sacrifice of hard-won social benefits, living wages, and public services upon the altar of the market. While its true that most of these mobilizations have been essentially rearguard actions aimed at preserving whats left of the Fordist social compact, and are hence basically defensive in orientation, they nevertheless possess some features that, however tentatively, seem to signal the potential for a switch to a generally offensive political orientation. In particular, some of the strikes that weve seen over the last few years suggest a growing awareness on the part of working people of the means that are necessary to effectively confront neoliberal state and economic power. In addition to this, the very qualities of neoliberalism as a distinct mode of production have opened up the possibility of new forms of strike action even as they have foreclosed many of the old. For the moment, the deindustrialization of the economy seems to have made inviable the mass strike in its classic Liberal and Fordist forms, which took advantage of centralized production complexes (e.g.) or the ability of a single union to disrupt entire supply chains (e.g.). Despite this, the strike itself persists as a dynamic political practice, reminding us of Rosa Luxembourgs observation that the strike is above all a quintessentially historical phenomenon that has no essential and transhistorical character.i

I should mention that this analysis is extremely schematic, as it is restricted to the U.S. and focuses only on a few of the most noteworthy strikes of the last four years or so, and then only on a few of their most salient aspects that might point beyond neoliberal society. Accordingly, it does not engage with the momentous uprisings that have swept across Europe, the Middle East, and other parts of the world since 2008. That said, I hope to provide some insight into evolving forms of radical subjectivity that might help us get a handle on what a contemporary leftist and genuinely anti-capitalist political practice might look like today.

The Return of Union Militancy in U.S. Labor Struggles

A major strike of the Eastern Seaboard Longshoremens Union was only narrowly averted recently after the U.S. Maritime Alliance, the association of shipping and distribution companies responsible for commerce in east coast ports, rather quickly agreed to some key concessions in order to head off a potential strike. This was probably because only a couple of weeks earlier, a strike of some 400 clerical workers at the Port of Los Angeles won decisively after a brief 8 days after it became evident that 10,000 of their fellow dockworkers would honor the picket lines, effectively shutting down the biggest port on the west coast. Their union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), made headlines a little over a year ago when a rogue local in Longview, WA initiated a wildcat strike in which they not only refused to work, but also smashed things with baseball bats, blocked and overturned supply trains, fought the police and company guards, and generally caused problems for multinational shipping conglomerate EGT. The company had refused to honor an agreement with the Port of Longview requiring them to bargain in good faith with the union. The strike action, which was not officially sanctioned by ILWU brass (and which, notably, was more fairly covered in Business Insider than in the NYT), came after months of peaceful picketing and protest that were completely ignored by the company. According to the Portland Occupier, the final outcome of the conflict after several months of tense negotiations appears to have been a significant victory for the union, which succeeded in forcing the company to do away with scabs and honor the initial, agreed-upon contract to hire union labor for their business in west coast ports. Perhaps even more significant, the Occupy movement played a major role – at least according to some of the unions own officials – in advancing the goals of the striking workers, bolstering their numbers and contributing to the efforts to block grain shipments and shut down the various ports.

The west-coast longshoremen were not the only union to recently return to old-school strike tactics. Over on the east coast, the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) launched one of the biggest private sector strikes in years against Verizon Communications in August of last year. While the ultimate outcome for the union lies somewhere between a defeat and a stalemate, during the strike itself some 45,000 workers stopped work and exhibited some of the creativity and energy reminiscent of the militant, confrontational side of organized labors past. Flying pickets, harassing and denying scabs access to work sites, and mass picketing were some of the tactics utilized by the union to try to combat the expected strikebreaking tactics of the company. As per usual, the company obtained a barrage of court-ordered injunctions against the strikers that effectively neutralized most of their tactical advantages, but, despite this fact, two unions that only represent about 30 percent of the workforce of a multinational telecom conglomerate were able to force the latter back to the negotiating table after a little under two weeks of work stoppage. The spontaneous outburst of militancy seems to have caught Verizon offguard and, although the patently company-friendly labor law of the U.S. allowed Verizon to drag out subsequent negotiations for over a year, eventually yielding major contract concessions from the union, it is still an instructive case for getting a grip on the role and utility of the strike as an instrument of the left today.

The CWA/IBEW strike, along with the earlier walk-out of the ILWU, both suggest how the strike is changing under neoliberal conditions. There is, however tentatively, a burgeoning class consciousness on display here, for instance, through which a narrowly economic focus on winning benefits for the members of any individual union is being displaced by an explicitly political awareness, a sense that the struggle of ones union is inextricably connected to the wellbeing of workers everywhere, unionized or not. This was also a major element in the progressive discourses of the Madison mobilizations of early 2011 (the UW-M Teaching Assistants Association provide one example). This is directly related to the course of neoliberal historical change: the sustained, across-the-board assault upon union strength of the past 30 years has led to a situation wherein the vast majority of union members, in both the private and the public sector, are having to fight tooth and nail merely to hold on to what they still have. Spokespeople for the CWA evinced a keen awareness that their very existence as a union was on the line, and that Verizon fully intends to eventually squash them out of existence – hence the bitter hatred of and confrontations with the scabs. Far from the “business unionism” of the Fordist period, the workers of the CWA, the IBEW, and the ILWU are agitated and ready to scrap – the labor struggle as a whole has become decisively politicized for them. This may explain the willingness to grab the baseball bats and confront scabs, company guards, and the representatives of state power over union rights: it may be the case that a collective imaginary is re-forming around the old dichotomy of Capital vs. Labor, prompting union workers to return to the “youre either with us, or against us” mentality of the 1930s.

The conditions conducive to the mass generalization of this attitude were not in place in Fordist America, when wages and benefits rose with productivity and the great bulk of the industrial working class was sharing in the profits of capital and the prestige of nationalism. These were the conditions for the mass identification of industrial workers with the space and time of the “nation,” which – aided by the great post-war purging of radical Socialist and Communist organizers from union ranks – decisively replaced class solidarity as the primary form of political universality during the Fordist period. But the basic form of society from which that type of subjectivity emerged and that made it possible is long gone, and, while it has taken some time, it would seem that workers are beginning to wake up to this reality. It would seem that the very inhumanity of neoliberalism is paradoxically generating a renewed sense of solidarity within the famously sectarian and divided U.S. labor movement. While this renewed solidarity, if it is genuinely emerging, does not in and of itself point beyond capital, it does presage a form of collective identity that is capable of acting in ways that we havent yet seen by a mass subject in the neoliberal era.

This explicit politicization of the struggle and identification with workers everywhere – regardless of union membership – hearkens back to the radical traditions of the Knights of Labor, the Industrial Workers of the World, and the early days of the C.I.O., and thus it should not be underestimated. It means that highly politicized, significant sections of the working class are again taking to the streets in the name of a broad social vision that goes beyond the stifling, atomizing individualism of neoliberal capitalism. Participation in a strike is often a transformative experience for people, as it energizes scores of workers at the rank-and-file level and, when successful, imparts a sense of empowerment, a feeling that people really can intervene to affect the basic conditions of life for the better. As such it is an indispensable source in the generation of sturdy, resilient oppositional attitudes, which, in the last analysis, must constitute the raw material in any project to decisively change the basic form of society.

That said, there are some significant additional qualifications that must be made at this point. Both of these strikes were part of an anemic private-sector union workforce mired in a deeply entrenched, mindless bureaucratic apparatus that is unique in the western world for its density and conservatism. Further, the self-understanding of many of the participants remains, for the moment, constrained by the persistence of the conservative legacy of a Fordist social imaginary that denies any basic contradiction between a workers right to a decent life and American capitalism, but goes no further than that. As such, the anti-capitalist moment is missing from the strikers self-understanding in these cases – the struggle is still understood to be directed towards a bloc of venal politicians and employers, rather than towards capitalism as a system. Nevertheless, the leaders and spokespeople for these unions articulate a vision of struggle that is genuinely socially general and attempts to include the wellbeing of workers everywhere. What kind of social and historical conditions would be required to bring this critical attitude to the bulk of the rank and file, and what are the subjective possibilities for action in this direction in the present moment? One such possibility lies in the internal reform of existing unions and the radicalization and mobilization of their members, which will be the subject of the next post in this series.

i. Rosa Luxembourg, “The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions,” The Essential Rosa Luxembourg. Chicago: Haymarket 2008, 120.


  1. Thanks Paul, interesting analysis. I agree that against the depredations of neoliberalism, an understanding of society as riven by class conflict seems to be once again rising to prominence. What I am trying to think about is how alliances between different groups or "interests" can come about given this understanding. How can unionized and ununionized workers, foreign workers, feminists, neighborhood activists, etc. find their common cause not only in the way that they conceptualize their struggle but in practical organizational terms?

    In my opinion such cooperation would be crucial, since I do not think that labor can be a strong enough force on its own. You note that labor was largely pacified by the Fordist social compact, but the late period of Fordism was also the last time that we have seen something like a revolutionary upsurge in this country, and it could be seen as revolutionary to the extent that it was able to channel different concerns into a more-or-less unified movement. In that case it was crucially the deep ambivalence and outright hostility of some elements of labor that constituted a devastating barrier to achieving the movement's goals.

  2. I agree that there seems to be a new militancy in some (still very restricted) parts of organized labor. But I want to push Deckard's question again, and express some skepticism that this militancy expresses a real understanding of a new universalism, even one restricted to labor.

    In the labor disputes of recent years, I can't remember seeing any sort of universal appeal by the unions involved. There seems to be no attempt to formulate a real social vision that could appeal to the whole society, or even just to other workers. Strikes remain very parochial in their expressed aims, and to the extent that unions have sought out allies among students or community organizing groups, it remains a fairly instrumental relationship focused on the immediate interests of the unions.

    Maybe I've missed some of this happening, or maybe it's there but not being expressed publicly, so I'd like to hear additional evidence or experience. But at this point I still don't see an emerging ethos that could really take on neoliberalism.

  3. I didn't mean to suggest that the reappearance of militancy suggests a new Subject that could really take on neoliberalism. I, too, don't yet know what that would look like, but I'm trying to discern signs that might point, in however limited a way, in that direction.

    As I tried to indicate, this is very much an intra-labor phenomenon - the CWA representatives in the Democracy Now clip explicitly cast the strike as a response to a general right-wing attack on working people, particularly unionized workers. They aggressively fight back because hard-won union rights and, thus, their own livelihoods, are on the line, but - and I think this is significant - they frame the fight as a counter-attack on right-wing forces that are themselves trying to fundamentally change society by destroying what's left of labor. Insofar as labor leaders and organizers continue to "wake up" to this fact, and assuming the right won't just benignly stop trying to destroy unions, then I think the generalization of a mentality that references Labor as a collective subject, tout court - and thus goes beyond parochial union interests - will remain a possibility and perhaps a probability. This was also very much in play in Madison two years ago (I remember seeing baby-boomer AFSCME workers marching and defiantly holding up "GENERAL STRIKE" signs). Admittedly, at the moment this is a small part of what is already an emaciated sector of organized labor, but even in its contemporary shape organized labor still represents some 15 million people in this country. That's potentially a much bigger numerical base than any other social movement that I know of.

    Now, regarding social vision, to me there appears to be a lot of evidence suggesting that some unions are increasingly interested in and capable of forming broad, cross-base political alliances. Here's the president of CWA:

    "We’re also doing movement-building that is needed if we are really going to build a 21st century democracy and a real chance for economic justice. When we say movement-building, that goes beyond coalition-building. In a coalition, local, regional, or national leaders work together; it’s grass-tops. The movement that we’re talking about is where people blend together around something, so it looks more like the Arab spring than a coalition. Our view is that members of groups - not just of labor unions but community organizations, immigrant groups, greens, students - need to build structures and work together. It won’t just be at the ballot box or pushing for constitutional change. It will be in the streets, and it will be difficult and at times messy. But it also needs to be easy for individuals and groups to get involved, to organize and to take action."
    Source: http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/13241-building-the-movement-to-reclaim-democracy

    Vague enough, but I'm inclined to see this as significant. Assuming he means what he says, if this doesn't count as a sufficiently broad appeal that at least aims at forming a social subject adequate to take on neoliberalism, what does? That's not to say that the specific program he outlines in the article is where the buck should stop, but it shows that he - and presumably large parts of the membership - are thinking in quite broad terms.


  4. As another example, I think it would be really hard to argue that the Chicago Teachers Union went up against Rahm and the Democrats, struck, and basically won last summer on the basis of parochial union interests. On the contrary, because of amazing preparation, ground level organization and community immersion, and media savvy, they were able to rally the support of the majority of the city and successfully present their social vision as the general interest of all its citizens. Similarly, the broad appeal of the sharp progressivism of their platform for Chicago school reform is undeniable. It in fact locates the general immiseration of public education in national corporate welfare, an extremely retrogressive tax system, out of control spending on defense, war, prisons, death, etc. (see "Chicago's students deserve fully funded education," here: http://www.ctunet.com/blog/text/SCSD_Report-02-16-2012-1.pdf) In other words, an explicit attempt is made here to link the decimation of public education to the same social forces that are bashing working people everywhere. That's a pretty broad appeal, I think. Now, CORE is a particularly energetic and effective example of union leadership, and so are exceptional in that sense, but, again, to the degree that unionized workers in general begin to see their situation in these terms - real wages have remained stagnant for over 30 years, the rich/corporations do not pay taxes and grow richer, etc. - and the right continues its fight to destroy them, I think it's probable that this inchoate tendency toward militancy, cross-union, and perhaps cross-social identification could continue to develop. This is how I see organized labor possibly playing a role in the consolidation of any socially general political imaginary that could potentially recognize and confront neoliberal power.

    I could go on but wow that was too long, so I guess I should stop there.