Dan La Botz
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Wildcat strikes across the US as pandemic spreads, 1 April 2020
- Wildcat strikes across the US as pandemic spreads, 1 April 2020, Red Flag
- Across the United States, we are seeing workers walk off the job in wildcat strikes in response to the employers’ failure either to shut down the workplace or to make it safe. The strikes are too few to call them a strike wave, but we should be aware that on their own initiative workers are taking what practically is the most powerful action they can: withdrawing their labour. The strikes are taking place in both the private and public sector, in both unionised and non-union workplaces large and small.
- For 150 years, workers have struck over safety and health in myriad industries, most memorably in the twentieth century the miners’ strike over black lung. But we have not seen anything exactly like this before – wildcat strikes over health and safety in response to an epidemic, with workers making strong demands on the employers and sometimes winning. And these strikes are taking place in the midst of politicians’ ignorant and sometimes deceitful statements and government failures at all levels. Consequently, these strikes – even when only directed at a particular employer – have not only an economic but also a political character. We’re now seeing such strikes in a variety of industries in several states.
- Surely there must be other such strikes and sit-ins that haven’t been covered by the press, and we know there are many other protests by all sorts of workers, particularly important among them teachers and nurses, though we do not include those in this discussion, important as they are. The wildcat strike holds a particular place in the history and theory of the labour movement, as well as today reaction to the bosses and the government during the coronavirus pandemic. We notice that these strikes involve both highly skilled and highly paid workers – such as those at the General Dynamics’ Bath shipyard – and also lower paid workers such as those at the Purdue chicken processing plant in Georgia and the bar and restaurant in Portland, Oregon. One can make the case that black workers – Pittsburgh sanitation, Kathleen, Georgia, Purdue chick, and Memphis Teamsters – play a leading role in the strikes. Yet workers at Bath shipyard are overwhelmingly white, while autoworkers are black, Arab, white and Latino, and GE’s Lynn jet engine plant also has a racially mixed workforce. No doubt workers of all genders can be found in these protest, and we hear both men and women giving voice to the workers’ concerns. While the central demands are about workers’ health, we can see that already they begin to raise demands about wages, benefits and working conditions, as well as job security.
- What is most extraordinary about these actions is that union officials have not called them. In some cases, there is no union. In other cases, such as auto, there is a union and workers are forced to strike against it as well as the company. In certain cases, such as the Bath shipyard, it seems that union officials may have tacitly supported the workers’ walkouts, though the situation is unclear. Sometimes these unofficial strikes violate a union’s contractual non-strike provisions or in the case of public employees such walkouts may also violate the law. Yet workers have organised themselves to carry them out with few resources beyond social media and traditional word-of-mouth, in order to protect their health and to save their jobs.
- Wildcat strikes can be looked upon from two sides. The wildcat strike usually erupts either because there is no union or the union’s leaders have failed to provide leadership to fight the boss. Leftists have sometimes romanticised the wildcat as the authentic expression of the workers’ will, an act that developed spontaneously out of the workers’ resistance to the boss. Some see it as the harbinger of the general strike that will overthrow capitalism and bring the workers to power. At the same time, one has to recognise that workers had to go on a wildcat strike because they hadn’t taken control of their union and couldn’t use the union as the expression of their power. The wildcat is both an expression of workers’ direct power at the point of production, but also a demonstration of their failure – because of the power of the bosses and the labour bureaucracy – to build a democratically controlled union that could express their will.
- When workers recognise this, at least in a period of social upheaval, they have in the past sometimes attempted to take power in their unions and turn them into fighting organisations. Wildcat strikes then can become the source of energy that fuels rank-and-file movements, as has been the case in heavy industry for more than a century and among public employees for 75 years. The great advance of American workers in the 1930s that led to the founding of the Congress to Industrial Organizations and a vast expansion of the American Federation of Labor derived from just such wildcat strikes in the rubber plants, the auto industry, among electrical workers and many others. Workers walked out by the thousands, some occupied their plants, while others created mass picket lines, fought scabs and police. Wildcat strikes spread during the Depression decade like a virus through the United States, drawing in small industrial shops and retail workers. A similar thing happened in the 1960s and 1970s with teachers and public employees who walked out in illegal strikes to found their unions. Rank-and-file upheavals also transformed the United Mine Workers in the 1970s and shook up other unions as well.