International Workers Day 2023: Bring Back the Power Of The Strike

Union organizing elections increased by 50% last year, and unions won 72% of them. These included high-profile organizing victories at Amazon, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, MIT, Boston University, and many other workplaces. Public support for unions polled around 70%, the highest level of support since 1965. 

Despite the victories and increased support for unions, only one Amazon workplace is organized, and no negotiations for a first union contract have started there. Starbucks management has walked out of negotiating sessions and has refused to bargain at 45 stores nationwide in the last 18 months. No Starbucks store has won a first contract.

Only 35% of union election victories win a first contract within a year, and 44% fail to force the corporations to agree to a contract more than three years after winning a union vote. US labor law does not mandate a deadline for first contracts; it only states that corporations must “negotiate in good faith.” This process does not have to result in an agreement. 

In 2022, unions gained 200,000 more members than in 2021, totaling over 16 million union workers. However, union density decreased again in 2022, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The percentage of workers in unions dropped from 10.3% to 10.1%. Unions didn’t organize enough workers to increase union density in the workforce compared to the number of nonunion jobs.

Though union election wins are great achievements, the true battle is in the question of improving workplace conditions and pay, where companies and bosses will use any and every weapon to not give up their profits. How can the labor movement organize on a mass scale to grow by forcing large corporations to recognize unions and agree to first contracts?

International Workers’ Day and Mass Strikes

There are several common threads throughout US history that point the way forward for the labor movement today. The movement around the first International Workers’ Day in 1886, industrial union struggles in the early 20th century, and the rise of public sector unions in the ‘60s and ‘70s all have lessons that we can apply to the struggle facing workers today. Workers won every significant upsurge in union membership and strength through mass strikes, defying anti-union laws, and moving towards independent political action. Socialist ideas and groups played leading roles in many of these battles and unions.

International Workers’ Day’s roots go back to the 1886 nationwide strike in the US culminating in the famous Haymarket Massacre. Many workers involved were already familiar with strikes such as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, sometimes called the “Great Upheaval” or “Great Uprising,” which led to a general strike in St. Louis. The St. Louis General strike was organized by the Knights of Labor and the socialist Workingmen’s Party, which included Marxists. A mass outdoor meeting of the St. Louis workers adopted a resolution of the Workingmen’s Party that included the following:

“Whereas, The United States government has allied itself on the side of capital and against labor; therefore,

Resolved, That we, the workingmen’s party of the United States, heartily sympathize with the employees of all the railroads in the country who are attempting to secure just and equitable reward for their labor.”

Resolved, That we will stand by them in this most righteous struggle of labor against robbery and oppression, through good and evil report, to the end of the struggle.”

United States Workingmen’s Party, 1877

The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada (FOTLU) called for the 1886 general strike, demanding an eight-hour workday. Over 300,000 workers in cities like New York, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago went on strike and rallied in the streets for “Eight hours for work. Eight hours for rest. Eight hours for what we will.” Chicago had the largest number of strikers at around 40,000, with estimates of 80,000 or more joining street protests. Later that year, FOTLU changed its name to the American Federation of Labor (AFL). 

Despite severe political and government repression against the left and the labor movement and the vicious imprisonment and execution of the Haymarket Martyrs, within a few years, the left and the labor movement was resurgent in the US. At its 1888 convention, the AFL called for another general strike for the eight hour day and in 1889 the socialist Second International declared May 1st as International Workers Day, leading to general strikes on May Day in 1890 for the eight hour day in the US and Europe. The mass strikes in 1886 and 1890 won shorter work hours, built workers’ power, and strengthened unions.

General and mass strikes, together with mass street protests, continued into the 20th century at key moments of upsurge and rapid growth in the US labor movement. These include the Seattle General Strike in 1919 and the general strikes of 1934 led by multiple different socialist and communist organizations in Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Toledo. There were also mass “sit-down” strikes (workplace occupations) from 1936-1937, the Oakland general strike in 1946, and the mass public sector union organizing and strikes of the 1960’s-1970’s. The public sector union strikes were infused with the energy of mass protest movements for Civil Rights, women’s liberation, and against the Vietnam War.

All these mass strike movements were illegal, all were slandered by the corporate media, and the police and National Guard violently attacked many. Despite the severe repression, all these militant strikes were absolutely crucial to the creation and survival of organized labor. Workers won fundamental union rights and massive gains in basic living standards, including improvements in wages, benefits, working conditions, and social benefits for the whole working class, unionized or not.

It’s no accident that every upsurge of the left and the labor movement led to unions being attacked, repressed, pushed, and co-opted away from mass and general strikes. It’s also no accident that socialist ideas and strategies for the labor movement were attacked and smeared. The result is a labor movement today that suffers from severe declines in numbers, organizational strength, and political power.

The Right to Strike 

It should be a basic civil and human right for people who have to work for a living to be able to withdraw their labor in an organized, collective way legally. It should be a right to go on strike for better pay, benefits, and working conditions, in solidarity with other workers, or as a protest for political demands. Workers should not have to fear losing their livelihoods, getting attacked by cops and the courts, possibly ending up in prison, or even being killed by the capitalist state or corporate violence. There’s a long history of bloody repression against unions in the US. Corporations and the capitalist state routinely use police to try to break picket lines, courts to threaten or impose fines against unions for striking, and injunctions to limit or eliminate picketing or protesting. 

The legal right to strike is extremely limited in the US, and intentionally so. When their profits are at stake, corporations and their political parties will use any tools at their disposal to scare workers away from striking. A recent example is the attack led by Biden and the Democratic Party on the railroad unions. Biden and Congress rapidly moved to suppress a strike and impose a contract that most railroad workers voted down. All this was done through the anti-union Railway Labor Act (RLA), initially implemented by President Coolidge in 1926, to strip rail workers of their power to strike. Railroad unions at the time could bring the rail corporations and the economy grinding to a halt. Rail workers were targeted due to their essential role in the transportation of goods across the country, and the attacks on their right to strike came from both corporate parties. Truman (Democrat) wanted a law to draft striking railroad workers into the army and have the army seize control of the railroad system. Presidents Johnson (Democrat) and Reagan (Republican) used the RLA to stop strikes by railroad workers. In 1991 under Bush, nearly the whole Congress, by a vote of 400 to 5, “… lined up to take away rail workers’ right to strike… spurring the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes to endorse Labor Party Advocates.” 

A slew of labor laws back up corporate and state repression of the right to strike. The Taft-Hartley Act, for example, is filled with anti-union rules and regulations including outlawing the labor movement’s most effective tool to oppose corporate terror and build strong unions: the use of solidarity strikes. Legal language sometimes calls solidarity strikes “secondary strikes” or “sympathy strikes.” Solidarity strikes were used extremely effectively by unions. Every general strike is a big solidarity strike. The Los Angeles teachers union, in a brave and necessary defiance of labor law, recently organized a solidarity strike for other education workers in the LA school system., winning minimum wage increases to $22.52/hr in the school district.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), state and regional courts, and the Supreme Court are used to restrict and attack unions and union rights. The NLRB recently imposed a large fine on the United Mine Workers (UMW) union and over a thousand of its members on strike in Alabama. The strike was lost due to the legally-protected use of scabs, including cops herding scabs through the picket line into the mines for the corporate bosses and the lack of solidarity strikes from other unions to back up the weakened UMW in a fight against Warrior Met Coal.

As shown by several key rulings in recent years, the courts have attacked workers’ rights. For example, in the 2018 Janus decision, the Supreme Court took away the right of public sector unions to collect fees from non-members represented by unions and benefiting from union-negotiated contracts. This ruling overturned 40 years of precedent. 

A California State Court gave a huge boost to corporations with a ruling that reinforced a ballot question sponsored by Uber and other corporations, making it easier for them to misclassify drivers and other workers as contractors, not direct employees. Corporations increasingly misclassify workers as “contractors” to avoid union organizing, labor and anti-discrimination laws, and paying benefits like social security, retirement, unemployment, and healthcare. It’s estimated that the super-exploiter FedEx corporation cuts labor costs by 40% by misclassifying drivers as independent contractors.

The Supreme Court has accepted the case of a multi-national cement company brought against a local of the Teamsters Union that went on strike. The company, Glacier Northwest, part of a Japanese corporation, Taiheiyo Cement, claims it should be able to ignore the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and instead sue the union in state court to pay for economic damage the strike caused. If the Supreme Court rules in favor, corporations will have another weapon against unions and workers who go on strike – the threat of being sued. The Biden administration refused to oppose the case going to the Supreme Court and did not advocate for an NLRB process instead of the union being sued in a state court.

The capitalist class would like to reverse the upsurge in strikes, union organizing, and union popularity. In a less crisis-ridden economic situation, it’s possible that the corporations could give some concessions to try and demobilize the movement. With a recession looming, however, the ruling class is far more interested in using the stick than the carrot. As a result, more blatant state repression and violence targeting the labor movement is likely on the way. The labor movement should be prepared to respond with militant united action.

Federal workers are legally barred from striking. This didn’t stop a successful and brilliantly illegal wildcat strike of over 200,000 union postal workers in 1970. However, the law against federal workers striking enacted in 1955 was used against air traffic controllers in the PATCO union in 1981 by the Reagan regime. The lack of mass protest movements at the time and conservative union leaders left the PATCO workers isolated. The AFL-CIO leaders made no attempt to organize a general strike. This failure to act accelerated the decline in union membership and power.

Public sector workers have no legal right to strike at the state and city levels in all but about a dozen states. In Massachusetts, for example, public sector strikes are banned. Union educators have often challenged the law by going on strike for higher wages and more prep time, and against growing workloads and understaffing. They’ve won increases of as much as 14% over three-year contracts and have raised the pay of Educational Support Professionals by almost $10k (from a base of less than $20k to starting salaries of around $30k). Some of these strikes have been threatened with heavy fines by courts, judges, and local and state governments – all of which are dominated by the Democratic Party. The mayor of Woburn charged the town’s educators $250k in “damages,” including police details. Local judges charged the union upwards of $40k per day on strike in fines. Democratic governor Maura Healey was recently elected with union support and is considered “progressive” but Healey has explicitly stated her opposition to public sector workers having the right to strike in Massachusetts. 

The militancy and defiance of anti-union laws by education workers can combat decades of underfunding and privatization. In 1968, the two largest national educator unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, mobilized 450,000 members in over 100 illegal strikes that settled 1,000+ contracts. The 2018 West Virginia teachers’ strike was a state-wide, illegal wildcat strike led by rank-and-file workers and won 5% pay increases for all public employees. It sparked the Red for Ed movement in states like Oklahoma, Colorado, Kentucky, and Arizona, followed by strikes and workplace actions in other cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Oakland the next year. Over 375,000 educators in 2018-2019 were involved in these struggles, and even more can be won if strikes are coordinated between public sector unions.

Private sector workers supposedly have the legal right to strike without losing their jobs, but corporations use all sorts of legal maneuvers to try to break strikes. Corporate media spreads anti-union propaganda. Companies cut off health insurance. Cops, private security, and courts intimidate and attack strikers. Scabs or “permanent replacements” are hired. Big money buys these and many other tactics to break strikes and bust unions.

Amazon, Starbucks, UPS

It will take a credible threat of strike action, defying anti-union laws, and mass strikes for unions to organize Amazon or Starbucks and to win first contracts, especially pattern agreements. Getting a good contract for Teamsters at UPS could mean organizing a strike of over 350,000 workers. Unions need to unite for effective organizing and strikes. The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) cannot take on Amazon alone. Even large unions like SEIU and the Teamsters should not go it alone against the big corporations and their political parties controlling the government.

We need our unions to:

  • Go all out for the Teamsters at UPS, including organizing solidarity strikes and boycotts of UPS shipping and delivery services if the Teamsters go on strike.
  • Unite the AFL-CIO unions with independent unions for a mass organizing campaign at Amazon and Starbucks. Workers need united strike action to gain union recognition and first contracts.
  • Break with the two corporate political parties. We need a workers party so unions and the entire working class can fight politically to defend and extend the right to strike, unite the labor movement, and win crucial demands like a $25 an hour minimum wage, free universal healthcare and childcare, and a massive, fully unionized federal jobs program to build mass transit and public housing.

Unions and socialism were interlinked in the same struggles that led to International Workers’ Day. Socialists have been a crucial part of every major step forward for the labor movement. The capitalist class is once again moving onto the offensive against unions and working people as the crisis of capitalism deepens. The ideas, program, and vision of revolutionary socialism are needed more than ever for unions and the working class.