Friday, February 11, 2011

Strike Out

On Tuesday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual report on strikes and work stoppages. Considering the long and continuing decline of the organized labor movement - the unionization rate in the U.S. hit an historic low of 11.9% of the workforce in 2010 - the numbers were not very surprising. As the Wall Street Journal reported:

Over the course of 2010, there were only 11 major strikes or lockouts involving 1,000 or more workers...The lowest year for work stoppages was 2009. Last year’s work stoppages “idled 45,000 workers for 302,000 lost workdays, a large increase compared to 2009 record lows, with 5 stoppages idling 13,000 workers for 124,000 lost workdays,” the report noted.

While work stoppages rose last year, they were historically low and can be seen as yet another signal of a highly challenged employment sector. High levels of unemployment resulting from the worst recession in generations have evidently made many workers gun shy in taking major action to secure better employment conditions.

The diminishing pool of organized workers also likely has something to do with what the BLS noted is a long decline in the trend for strikes and lockouts. “From 2001-2010, there were approximately 17 major work stoppages on average per year, compared with 34 per year from 1991-2000, 69 from 1981-1990, and 269 from 1971-1980.”

The government noted that work days lost to major work stoppages over 2001 to 2010 have fallen 90% from 1971-1980 period. Work stoppages were far more common before 1970. For example, there were 470 such events in 1952.

A quick look at the nearby graph tells a lot about the history of the American working class since World War II. An unprecedented strike wave hit the country after the war, when workers sought to make up for the sacrifices made by their unions to support the war effort. As labor-management relations calmed down and became institutionalized through widespread collective bargaining, the number of strikes went down during the 1950s and early 1960s. But as the system began to break down in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the number of large-scale strikes went through the roof. In 1970 alone, there were about 5,700 strikes involving some 3 million workers, many of them unofficial (often illegal) "wildcat" strikes called by the workers themselves without the permission of a union.

Workers weren't just responding to the pressures of inflation, which became one of the biggest socioeconomic problems of the 1970s. In many cases, they rebelled against the whole postwar deal between the unions and management, what Cowie calls the "unwritten rule" that "higher compensation and thus consumption could be promoted but the organization of production was not to be touched." (p. 43) In exchange for decades of soul sucking work in a dirty, noisy, dangerous factory, the industrial worker of the postwar years received a golden ticket into the world of middle class consumerism. By the early 1970s, more and more workers wanted more than just a steady paycheck - they wanted to make the conditions of their work less alienating and more humane. The "blue collar blues" gave rise to a rebel rank and file.

As Cowie tells it in his first chapter, these rebellions broke out in a number of different industries all over the country, but the strike that most clearly embodied the spirit of the time was probably the strike at the Chevy Vega plant in Lordstown, Ohio in 1972. The assembly line at the plant was the fastest in the world at the time, cranking out a hundred cars per hour (one every 36 seconds). Unsurprisingly, the toll on the workers on the line was enormous, and many responded by doing drugs and drinking on the job and by engaging in acts of sabotage. At one point before the strike, there were 5,000 outstanding grievances against the speed of the line. As Cowie describes it, the workers at Lordstown combined the class militancy of the 1930s with the countercultural impulses of the 1960s, a combination that terrified their bosses:

Like the other insurgencies, the Lordstown conflict was generational as the young, hip, and angry began to take over. The average age at the plant was only twenty-five years. As the treasurer of Local 1112 [the Lordstown United Autoworkers local], J.D. Smith, explained, 'It's a different generation of workingmen. None of these guys came over from the old country poor and starving, grateful for any job they could get. None of them have been through a depression. They've been exposed - at least through television - to all the youth movements of the last ten years and they don't see the disgrace of being unemployed.' Encapsulating a package of desires that simultaneously rested upon and challenged the accomplishments of the previous generation, Smith noted, 'They're just not going to swallow the same kind of treatment their fathers did. They're not afraid of management. That's a lot of what the strike was about. They want more than just a job for 30 years.' (p. 46)

The strike lasted for three weeks, and the results were mixed at best. Read Stayin' Alive to learn the details of the Lordstown strike and the other rebellions of the period - as you'll see, while many people at the time thought that they might be the harbinger of a new and more humane deal for working people, by the end of the 1970s it was clear that they were little more than the death throes of the golden age of the American working class - if they have been remembered at all. Cowie quotes the assessment of a labor lawyer who worked for Miners for Democracy, an insurgent movement within the United Mine Workers of America:

An attorney friend once asked labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan, 'What do you think historians will say when they try to figure out why, in the seventies, these guys in the Mineworkers and the Steelworkers rose up the way they did?' Looking at him as if he were 'nuts,' Geoghegan replied, 'What historians? It's as if the whole thing ever happened now.' (p. 260)

Let's Discuss
1) Have you ever been on strike? If so, what was it like? Did you live through any of the famous strikes in New York history, like the 1970 postal strike or the transit strikes of 1966, 1980, or 2005? Do you think that going on strike can ever help workers in today's circumstances, or is the strike just another embarrassing fad from the 1970s like bell-bottoms or pet rocks?

2) In response to the first post on Stayin' Alive, an anonymous commenter made the following observation: "A lot of economists and historians have pointed out that the decline of the economic power of the middle class may have caused a lot of economic stagnation over the past thirty years." I agree with this statement, as does the International Monetary Fund, one of the institutions that governs the global economy. The commenter recommends continuing education and as the best remedy for working and middle class Americans struggling to keep up with economic changes. Do you agree, or would you advocate other kinds of policies to improve the economic fortunes of American workers?


CK99 said...

Strikes may be able to help workers in some cases, but the tide has turned against them in recent decades. One might make the case that they have been used too reflexively and not strategically. One might recall the last NYC transit workers strike, in which the union miscalculated the degree of public support that they could expect. A strike that took place during the Christmas holidays and cold weather engendered public outcry. The situation was exacerbated when the public realized that the transit workers were asking for compensation and benefit terms that were beyond what the average private worker has come to expect. I fear that the current state and municipal fiscal crisis may make it more difficult for unions to use their traditional tools, and suggest that more positive "win-win" approaches that allow workers and management to partner in crafting solutions be the best way to go in the future.

Iconoclast said...

Education is great, but at what price? The costs of public and private education keeps going through the roof!!! How can we as a people keep funding it? Are those expenditures really making a difference? Do we have to rethink the educational model from the ground up?