[Book Review] Strike Back: Using the Militant Tactics of Labor's Past to Reignite Public Sector Unionism Today

A Review of Strike Back: Using the Militant Tactics of Labor's Past to Reignite Public Sector Unionism Today by Joe Burns ... Brooklyn, NY: IG Publishing ISBN: 978-1-935439-89-9 (paperback)... The book costs about $17 in paperback (but reader know how book prices are in 2015).

Strike back.Many conservative whites today and you can see this in the Tea Party are bemoaning the fact that nobody cares about them; people care about blacks, about Latinos, about women, but they don't give a damn about the ordinary worker (usually expressed as ordinary working man who, in their version, is almost always white). We've heard this claim over and over again. Most progressives dismiss it almost automatically they're just whining. Yet, if one thinks about it, there is a considerable amount of truth to it.

The one organization that has supported working people historically is the labor movement. They have urged working people to join together, to create collective organization, to build solidarity and to fight for their rights, well-being and, in the best cases, for a better society for us all. Yet the US labor movement today is in deep shit: only 6.6 percent of the private sector today (2014) is unionized, while 35.7 percent of the public sector is unionized, for a total rate of 11.1 percent of all non-agricultural workers being unionized. And worst of all, there is no larger vision of how to restore the labor movement, how to get working men and women of all colors to unite and fight to rebuild the labor movement and this is most lacking at the top of the labor movement. Things are pretty pathetic.

Yet Joe Burns suggests there is a way out of this mess, and a way forward. In Strike Back, he argues the importance of public sector unionization. (His previous book, Reviving the Strike, focused on the private sector.) He notes the tremendous attacks being rained down upon public sector unions. He knows things are bad. However, he thinks we need to turn to labor's history to uncover the solution and he thinks there is a solution: we need to return to the militancy and the obstinacy of public sector workers in the 1960s and 70s.

Burns argues that labor activists have long ignored the efforts of public sector unionists in this era, using the 1930s and 40s with the upsurge of private sector workers in industry as the lodestar. Yet he points out that the 1930s are closer in time (70 years) to the Civil War than they are to today (80 years). And as he points out, there is a lot to learn from the 1960s and 70s. And throughout this short, but eminently readable book, he shares this history.

Burns doesn't do this, though, to glorify previous struggles he does it so we can learn from and use to prepare for battles today and tomorrow. And they have been escalating since 2011 in Wisconsin, as well as in Ohio, in Michigan, and they are about to hit Illinois big time with Governor Bruce Rauner. However, Burns points out their importance: public workers are being forced to fight for their existence against forces who want not only to destroy their unions, but to dismantle the public sector itself. Again, Burns wants to return to their roots: Public employee unions were born of struggle, of membership mobilization, and the self-activity of workers.

Of public workers, teachers have been the most militant. He writes about the efforts of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City in the 1960s, and then how teachers in Washington State mobilized. And then he reports on A Quarter Century of Strike Activity in Chicago. He talks about strikes and the threat of strikes, and their results: Through strikes real and threatened, the CTU was able to raise teacher salaries 90 percent between 1966 and 1974. He notes, Over the next fifteen years, the CTU would strike eight more times. And then he reports that the union came under conservative leadership and abandoned the strike for the next 25 years, until the 2012 strike. After reporting other struggles, he gets to the main point:

Rather than fight back, the predominant response of many teacher unions has been to attempt to appear reasonable and negotiate for change. The problem of that strategy is that there is little reason to believe that corporate education reformers are actually looking to improve public education.

Instead, their real goal is to privatize the educational system, destroy the autonomy of classroom teachers, and most importantly, get rid of unions.

Interestingly, while he lauds the CTU and its willingness to strike in 2012, he disagrees with the fuzzy version of social justice unionism that has emerged today as the main alternative to the work-place based, struggle-oriented unionism the labor movement once had, and so desperately needs again. Proponents of this modern form of social unionism have to varying degrees replaced workplace activism with community ties, arguing that unions must work with community groups to engage in campaigns for issues like living wage statues or increasing the minimum wage.

This is one of the few differences I have with Burns. He counter-poses workplace militancy with working with community organizations in a dichotomous, either/or approach, as if we must choose one or the other. Earlier he argues that public sector strikes have succeeded because of support from the larger community. I think he and union members would be better served with a both/and approach: our trade unionism cannot be confined just to our workplace, but must address community issues as well. But we have to get this combination right: I argue the emphasis should be on developing organization in the workplace, but that this unionization must embrace and consider community issues as well.

There is much in this book: Burns makes a strong argument that we need to revitalize our public sector unions, and that this must be made by the workers therein. He bemoans the passivity of labor, the unwillingness to challenge unjust labor laws, and especially injunctions. Basically, he argues that union members must change their attitudes that we need to change from collective begging to collective bargaining but that can only succeed if we have the willingness and determination to strike and win. As he shows, militancy encourages unionism and gets people to join, because the issue is power: unions are seen favorably when they use their power to make working lives better, and when they use that power to better their respective communities.

Personally, I think every member of public sector unions should check out this book and they should demand their unions purchase it in large quantities. There's a lot to learn, and Burns writes in a way that is clear and easy to understand. A revised labor movement is the greatest thing to end the complaints by the Tea Party types: get them involved in fighting for a better future, and you will see their bitching a thing of the past.


Kim Scipes is the Chair of the Chicago Chapter of the National Writers Union, UAW #198


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