“Strike” by Peter Cole

Peter Cole is an associate professor of history at Western Illinois University and the author of the recently published University of Illinois Press book Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia.


As I, a labor historian, hear yet another news story about a major strike, even I cannot help but wonder what is going on?  50,000 United Auto Workers (UAW) strike Chrysler and another 75,000 GM, 5,000 members of the California Nurses Association striking hospitals in Northern California, the Broadway stagehands strike and the film and television writers strike… the list goes on.

To me, these strikes indicate that the US labor movement still has a pulse and is willing to use its ultimate weapon, the strike.  For decades, American workers and their unions have been in retreat as employers—and their seemingly willing hand maidens, governments—make it ever harder for the US labor movement to protect and improve the lives of workers.

But, once upon a time, just a few generations ago, strikes were commonplace, thousands happened every year, routinely involving tens of thousands of workers. The willingness of workers to strike, among other factors, resulted in tremendous gains for all workers, not just union ones.  For instance, after WWII, blue-collar workers earned middle class incomes.  And, as a result, America was far more egalitarian: a much smaller income gap between the rich and the rest of us, i.e. less economic inequality, which correlates with a more democratic society.

The union I study struck repeatedly.  The results?  Dramatic improvements in the lives of Local 8’s members (higher pay, shorter hours, fairer hiring process, less abusive foremen) and the advancement of ideals like racial and ethnic equality.

It is to the benefit of American workers that we have seen a marked increase in large, high profile strikes. Ultimately, the strike is the best friend of workers in a marketplace, and world, where competition, not cooperation, is the norm. The sooner American workers realize that they have power, the better off they, we, will be.

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