Working people in other nations must be simply amazed that the Americans would let 800,000 workers get locked out while everybody else goes to work as if nothing was happening. After all, if we so much as shut down one airport, one railroad, one highway, or one city for half a day, we’d get whatever we wanted.
Call Congress. Then what?
Without making any excuses, one can look back in American labor history for some of the reasons that nobody has walked out in solidarity. The biggest one is that everybody waits for the unions to do it and, as the saying goes, it ain’t going to happen!
Unions have power, and because they have power, they have tremendous government supervision. Most union contracts have a “no strike” provision. Management would love to see a union violate their contract, because they would then be free to do almost anything they wanted, and the government would happily assist.
In the old days, unions got what they wanted primarily by striking. The Industrial Workers of the World had hardly any other tactics. At the same time, their legal status was about the same as bank robbers. Some of the most powerful unions, mostly in transportation, gained some legal status with the passage of the Railway Labor Act in the 1920s. In the 1930s, the Roosevelt Administration gave us the National Labor Relations Act. It set up the supposedly neutral National Labor Relations Board to referee disputes between management and labor. Legal at last, the unions went on the biggest organizing drive in history.
But there was a price. With government arbitration came a lot of government supervision. In 1947, Republicans came down hard on labor laws. That’s when the vicious “right to scab” laws were legalized in the infamous Taft-Hartley bill. Texas led the way. Republicans have made sure that labor laws worsened.
It may sound innocent to say that “secondary boycotts are outlawed,” but what it means is that unions cannot stop work in solidarity with other unions. Our fundamental principle, “An injury to one is the concern of all” is quoted a lot more than it is used, and it can’t legally be used at for major work stoppage.
Unions are calling for an all-out lobbying effort. A few unions, including one in Dallas, are hitting the streets, and that is a big step forward. But it’s not likely that they will go further.
Why doesn’t someone else do it?
Why is everybody waiting for unions to call walkouts? It’s because our solidarity with the rest of the working class is still fairly weak. From 1947’s Taft-Hartley Act to 1995, America’s unions did very little to promote their relations with churches, community groups, civil rights people, and protest organizations. They accepted their isolation.
With the AFL-CIO elections of 1995, unions began to get back on track. But it’s a long road from a national labor convention to a grass roots coalition at the local level. I’m very proud that my own AFL-CIO Council in Dallas has made giant strides, but not every council has and, even in Dallas, these coalitions are still quite young.
Most of the individuals with enough personal following to call a major action are politicians. If they called a walkout, or even spoke in favor of walkouts, their campaign funds would rupture. So don’t expect any of them, not even Bernie Sanders, to call for walkouts.
Maybe a rock star will.
Some impossible things happen
If Mr Trump really tries to keep the government shutdown going for an extended period, as he says he will, there will be work stoppages. They will succeed, too.
There is such a thing as “historical imperative.” It says that some things will happen, not because they are likely or even possible, but because they have to happen. Maybe Americans don’t understand our own labor history, and maybe we’re easily divided. Maybe we’re ignorant, but we’re not stupid.