Are Strikes Good for America’s Middle Class?

Chicago teachers themselves will say it: nobody wanted to go on strike.  But today, after ten months of fruitless efforts to negotiate a fair contract, the city’s classrooms are empty and educators are walking picket lines for the first time in 25 years.  At first glance, the strike looks like a negative outcome for everyone involved. Yet this morning a CNN.com opinion article makes a surprising case: the nation would actually be better off with more strikes.

That’s right: according to Chris Rhomberg, professor of Sociology at Fordham University, America would benefit from more disruptions of business and public services, more inconvenience, more striking workers sacrificing pay and worrying about their jobs, more rounds of tense negotiations.

And the strange truth is, he’s right. America would benefit from more strikes.

Rhomberg documents the declining number of work stoppages in America. During the 1970s, he points out, there were 289 major work stoppages a year, while in 2009 there were no more than five.  The decline in strikes has outpaced the decline in union membership numbers itself. And the waning of workers’ ultimate negotiating tool is one reason why American unions are losing power, contributing to growing inequality and -- I have argued – the decline of the American middle class.

Consider the history. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act is the bedrock of American employees’ rights to representation in the workplace. After decades of often violent labor conflict fought to emerge from subsistence wages and sweatshop conditions, the NLRA established a legal process for workers to form unions and negotiate contracts. Rhomberg notes that “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.”

But over time, a series of decisions by the courts and the National Labor Relations Board robbed the strike of much of its power. The Supreme Court ruled that employers could permanently replace striking workers. Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers, encouraging other employers to take a more hostile position toward unions. Other rulings continued to tip the balance of negotiating power away from working people and toward their employers. And, Rhomberg argues, as labor disputes became harder for unions to win, resorting to a strike made less sense.

As a result, working Americans lost ground. We’ve reached a place where large and highly profitable corporations pay their employees rock-bottom wages with little fear that they will organize and demand more. There are fewer good jobs and the middle class is in decline.

Yet just as political and legal decisions eroded the ability of working Americans to negotiate a fair deal on the job, new decisions could help to rebuild this power. We should rewrite our labor laws to make it easier for employees to form unions, increase penalties for violations of labor law, and facilitate agreement on a first contract. A recent Demos policy brief provides one blueprint for how to do this,  making the case that strengthening workplace rights is critical to rebuilding the middle class.

Chicago teachers don’t want to be on strike. But they do want fair pay, decent working conditions, and better public schools. A strike gives them a fighting chance to achieve them.

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