Here’s an interview with Joe Burns, union negotiator, U.S. attorney and author of “Reviving the Strike: How working people can regain power and transform America” (IG Publishing, 2011).
We contacted Joe after reading this book, which looks primarily at the situation in the U.S.A., and asked him what lessons other countries might take from his research. In short, he believes that we need to build a new unionism — one which is based on global solidarity and is willing and able to contest management decisions and, if necessary, stop production.
New Unionism Network: It’s conventional wisdom that the strike weapon is not what it was. In many countries, the number of days lost to industrial action has plummeted since the 1980s. Working people have very real fears that their jobs will be shipped offshore. What would your advice be to young unionists who are wrestling with this conundrum?
Joe Burns: First and foremost, it is important to understand that modern labor laws are set up for labor to lose. In the United States, employers have never accepted the right to strike. After seventy five years of anti-labor legislation and bad court decisions, U.S. labor law prevents successful strike activity. Workers are forced to fight battles isolated and alone, confronting massive corporations. A similar process has occurred in other countries, including England, Australia and Canada.
In these and other countries, from the 1930s through the 1970s, trade unionists built a strong labor movement. Their voice was backed by a powerful strike weapon. At the heart of this was union solidarity, in the form of industry-wide strikes involving hundreds of thousands of workers striking at once. Unions employed tactics that allowed workers to join together across industries to confront employers as a class. At the level of ideas, trade unionists contested the very right of management to unilaterally make business decisions.
For a generation of new trade unionists, the key to resolving problems of capital mobility and the shifting of work is to reject the underlying pro-management orientation of modern labor law. This means reviving the effective strike, employing solidarity across international borders, and contesting the very right of management to ship jobs around the world.
New Unionism Network: Reviving the effective strike; developing solidarity across borders; and contesting management decisions. What stikes me about this recipe is that it’s not too different for other countries. Even India and China, which have traditionally played host to “in-shoring”, are now starting to see jobs offshored. They’re going one step further, to Africa or into the closed registers of international labor agencies. Could it be that this recipe of yours is one for the international movement to consider?
I think so. We need to ask ourselves why, from the 1930s to the 1970s, strikes could bring entire industries to a halt. The answer doesn’t lie in national conditions, but in the nature of the strike. These earlier actions were intentionally geared towards stopping production. Tactics were based on the assumption that unless the employer felt economic pain, in the form of lost production and profit, then the strike would have little effect. The strike was not an end in itself. For this reason unions in many countries saw it as part of their organizing job to foster solidarity actions and boycotts, at times even spiraling into city-wide or national strikes.
In today’s modern economy, we need to consider how to achieve this at international level. We’re dealing with major multinational corporations who have no concern for national boundaries. Only we, as a global labor movement, can confront these corporations with a new unionism that is capable of shutting down production on a global scale.
Part of this must include a union philosophy that challenges the “right” of corporations to make unilateral business decisions. Underlying the current system of labor control in most countries is a pro-management ideology that assumes workers have no interest in the plants and corporations their labor has helped to create. We know this to be a false assumption. However, if management is allowed to ignore their employees, and prevent unionization and collective bargaining (by shifting work or through corporate restructuring), then working people cannot win. This is true no matter how determined and militant we are.
New Unionism Network: So if you had a single message for the international labour movement, expressed as directly and as simply as possible, what would it be?
In order to win against global corporations we need a new unionism — one which is based on global solidarity and is willing and able to contest management decisions and, if necessary, stop production.