Skip to main content

America would be better off with more strikes

By Chris Rhomberg, Special to CNN
updated 11:30 PM EDT, Mon September 10, 2012
In June, Chicago school teachers protested a decision by the board of education to rescind a 4% annual raise.
In June, Chicago school teachers protested a decision by the board of education to rescind a 4% annual raise.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In Chicago, public school teachers are set to go on strike
  • Chris Rhomberg: The strike has mostly disappeared from American life
  • He says declining union membership isn't the only reason; the laws have changed
  • Rhomberg: Weakening of rights to organize and to strike has serious consequences

Editor's note: Chris Rhomberg is an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University. He is the author of "The Broken Table: The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Labor" (Russell Sage Foundation).

(CNN) -- In Chicago, thousands of public school teachers and support staff represented by the Chicago Teachers Union have walked off their jobs after reaching an impasse in contract talks with the city.

Last month, 780 machinists at a Caterpillar Inc. parts plant in Joliet, Illinois, voted to end their three and a half month strike, accepting a six-year contract that contained almost all of the concessions the company demanded.

These contemporary disputes hide a dramatic historical fact: The strike has almost disappeared from American life.

The numbers are stark. During the 1970s, an average of 289 major work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers occurred annually in the United States. By the 1990s, that had fallen to about 35 per year. And in 2009, there were no more than five.

The decline in strikes cannot be explained solely by declining union membership. According to a study by sociologist Jake Rosenfeld, unionization among private-sector full-time employees fell by 40% between 1984 and 2002. But the drop in total strike frequency was even greater, falling by more than two-thirds.

Chris Rhomberg
Chris Rhomberg

What has happened to the strike, and what does it mean?

Since the 1970s, the forces of economic globalization and technological changes have put increasing pressure on employers and employees. Neither of those forces by themselves, however, requires the disappearance of either unions or strikes, as is shown by the example of other industrialized nations such as Canada, Britain, Australia and many European countries. Rather, the most important difference in the U.S. experience has been a profound change in the legal and institutional order governing labor relations and workers' rights.

We have essentially gone back to a pre-New Deal era of workplace governance.

Union: Chicago teachers to go on strike
Mayor: Teacher strike 'unnecessary'

Before the 1930s, American unions confronted a legal environment that historians have described as "judicial repression." During that time, federal courts repeatedly struck down workers' rights to organize and act collectively, making unions themselves all but illegal.

In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) created a process for legally recognizing union representation and managing private-sector labor conflict. The result was historic democratization of the American workplace and economy. The strike was a crucial part of this system: While the law was intended to reduce industrial strife, it also relied on the right to strike to protect the integrity of the bargaining process.

The prospect of economic sanctions served to push both employers and employees to compromise and negotiate their way toward a peaceful agreement. Thus, the right to strike was explicitly protected in the language of the NLRA and affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1960.

From the beginning, though, employers gained a crucial advantage. In 1938, the Supreme Court ruled that while workers could not be fired for striking, they could be "permanently replaced," a distinction with little difference in reality.

For much of the post-World War II period, employers generally accepted unions in sectors where they were already established.

But in 1981, President Ronald Reagan summarily fired the striking federal air traffic controllers. Reagan's actions announced a critical turn in the federal government's attitude toward workers' rights. As a result, employers quickly adopted more aggressive tactics against unions and their strikes.

Decades of conservative federal court and NLRB decisions have now turned the law upside down.

For example, in 1983 the Supreme Court allowed permanent replacements to sue their employer if they were dismissed in favor of returning strikers, making a negotiated settlement of such strikes much more difficult.

In 1989, the court ruled that the federal Railway Labor Act governing transportation unions did not require employers to lay off employees who crossed picket lines in order to reinstate more senior strikers after an economic strike. That case brought a blistering dissent from Justice William Brennan, who found no basis for the court to favor crossover workers "unless it is perhaps an unarticulated hostility towards strikes."

At the bargaining table, the threat of replacement dovetails with legal rules that give management unilateral power to impose its last offer on declaration of impasse. As labor law scholar Ellen Dannin notes, the NLRB issued a series of decisions under the Reagan administration that lowered the number of bargaining sessions needed to show impasse, reduced the obligation to provide information to the union and gave employers freer rein to seek concessions, including total discretion in wages. These decisions have made it easier for employers to reach impasse and then implement their desired terms and conditions.

The previous mechanisms that once encouraged settlement are now reversed: Managers have incentive to reach impasse quickly and terminate bargaining, while unions often must scramble simply to avoid deadlock.

Disputes over impasse and implementation have featured in many high-profile labor struggles of recent years, involving Caterpillar, Bridgestone-Firestone, the Detroit News and major league sports. Even profitable employers can make extraordinary demands, and increasingly firms have chosen to lock out their workers and operate with replacements, as the National Football League is doing with its unionized referees.

In effect, we have returned to a policy of judicial repression.

The government may no longer send in troops, but ruinous legal and financial penalties threaten unions that go beyond tight restrictions on collective action.

For some, the disappearance of strikes may seem like a good thing, an end to the disruptions and occasional inconvenience they may cause. But there are more serious consequences to the loss of workers' rights to organize and to strike.

The decline of unionization has contributed to the rise of economic inequality in the U.S. over the past several decades. More than that, it also signals a historic de-democratization of the institutions that traditionally served to hold corporations accountable and govern our working life, from the scope of collective bargaining on the job to the protection for workers' rights under the law.

"This is a difficult decision for all of us to make," said union President Karen Lewis about the Chicago teachers' call for a strike. Work stoppages involve real sacrifices, not least of all from the striking workers.

For the sake of our economic and political future, however, America would be better off if we had more strikes.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

Chicago parents: What are you doing to keep your kids busy? Share your story with CNN iReport.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chris Rhomberg.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT