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Revaluing the Strike

Rather than viewing strikes as a last-resort bargaining tactic, the labor movement must embrace them as engines of political transformation.

In the case of the NLRA, capitalists sacrificed the ability to use state or private violence to crush most kinds of strikes, but in return, they obtained the codification of a tightly circumscribed conception of what striking was: a necessary evil, only legitimate in the context of ongoing collective bargaining. The act states that union activities deserve state protection insofar as they are “fundamental to the friendly adjustment of industrial disputes arising out of differences as to wages, hours, or other working conditions.” While asserting a right to strike, then, the framers of the NLRA envisioned the incorporation of striking into a “friendly” pattern of collaboration between employers and unions, as a mechanism for keeping greedy employers in check and securing collective bargaining agreements sufficiently generous to avert more drastic forms of unrest. Labor peace through labor strength, in Nolan’s words. As the legal scholar Diana Reddy argues, “with the enactment of the NLRA, the strike became lawful as a bargaining tactic of last resort, not as a political right, necessary for co-determination.”

Even after the NLRA, workers did not immediately abandon the older conception of the strike as a political act. In 1945 and 1946, workers responded to the end of World War II with a massive surge of strike activity. These work stoppages, in which some 4.3 million people participated, were animated not merely by the desire to reach more favorable collective bargaining agreements with specific employers, but by the sense that the shape of the postwar economic order was up for grabs. Not to say that pay was unimportant: The prospect of the end of wartime price controls raised the specter of rapid price hikes, while industrial workers had for years largely forsworn wage increases for the sake of the war effort. But workers were disturbed as well by a more diffuse sense that management was going on the offensive: imposing production line speedups and implementing new labor-saving (or job-killing) technologies developed during the war, as well as beating the right-to-work drum with renewed zealotry (taking advantage of the demise of the National War Labor Board, which required workers at unionized workplaces to pay union dues). There were general strikes in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Stamford, Connecticut; Rochester, New York; and Oakland, California. By their very nature, these general strikes exceeded the confines of individual contract fights. In Oakland, 100,000 workers in 142 unions walked off the job to protest the city’s department stores’ ongoing union-busting. In Stamford, incited by the use of state police to crush a picket line at a lock-making factory, the strikers’ placards read: “We Will Not Go Back to the Old Days.” It was, in the words of the historian Philip J. Wolman, “a rebellion,” with strikes being deployed in service of an expansive working-class political project.