The most powerful forms of worker action, illegal in the USA

The worst active anti-union law in the United States was not Scott Walker’s recently passed assault on collective bargaining by state employees, but a law that makes many of the most powerful ways for workers to fight back against such a law illegal: the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act (wikipedia). That law makes many practical collective responses used by unions around the world illegal acts (technically “unfair labor practices”) in the United States. Nearly all of these are recognized as part of the fundamental right of freedom of organizing, recognized by international conventions to which the United States is a signatory. Among these actions are:

  • Jurisdictional strikes—A strike to demand that work be performed by members of the union
  • Wildcat strikes—Strikes called from the workplace floor, for new demands or in direct response to events
  • Solidarity strikes—A strike by one workplace in solidarity with a strike at another
  • Political strikes—Strikes in support of demands that extend beyond a single workplace, such as the minimum wage, overtime rights, or national health care
  • Secondary boycotts—The refusal of workers at one company to handle goods from another company during a strike there
  • Secondary picketing—Picketing (say be striking workers at one workplace) intended to get workers at a second shop to engage in a secondary boycott

If you haven’t worked for union or gone out on strike, you probably have never heard this list, and the first items that are illegal probably sound like basic elements of free speech. Harry Truman, whose veto of the Act was overriden, would agree with you. He called the law a “dangerous intrusion on free speech.”

Today, as union members, people who believe in the right of workers to represent themselves, and people who hope for a better life for themselves and their communities debate how to respond to Scott Walker’s union-busting bill in Wisconsin, far too many effective forms of nonviolent collective action require formally breaking the law. Increasing numbers of union activists have brought up the general strike, a coordinated work stoppage by multiple unions, and ideally the public at large, as a means of exerting pressure. General strikes are in fact ideal ways for workers to press demands on a government: Spanish and Italian workers have repeatedly pressed for wage increases through general strikes; Bolivians have used general strikes for a broad range of goals; the French used them to oppose raising the retirement age; and most of Western Europe established the worker protections they enjoy under threat of general strikes. It is indeed an exciting time now in Wisconsin because this extremely powerful tool is being broadly considered. However, incorporated unions have to consider the legal risks in not just calling a general strike, but in taking steps beyond wearing a common color in solidarity (one of the other proposals being planned right now). Meanwhile, right-wing opponents are covering this debate under the headline, “Socialists, Unions Plotting Illegal Strike in Wisconsin.”

We should remember that illegal does not mean immoral, or wrong-headed. Like the right to bargain collectively, the right to strike and the right to strike together to press common demands are basic forms of democracy; they are rights that everyone has, as even our government has recognized at the international level. Rolling back laws that turn rights into crimes should be on our agenda, whether those laws are from 2011 or 1947.

One thought on “The most powerful forms of worker action, illegal in the USA

  1. Why should those types of strike be legal when the corresponding behavior by management would be an antitrust violation? Solidarity strikes, secondary picketing, general strikes, and the like are an attempt by a union to monopolize the labor market through demands unrelated to the dispute at hand, and are hardly different from, say, a cartel of oil companies deciding to refuse to sell fuel to businesses who support environmental regulation (a political strike analog) or a cartel of shipping companies refusing to hire members of a union that has expressed sympathy with a striking union in an unrelated industry (a secondary strike). The “freedom” you seek here is one that’s always been denied to business; why should labor get to play by different rules?

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