BOOKS & THE CULTURE Inside the Class War The History of a Double-Edged Weapon BY JULIUS GETMAN STRIKE! By Jeremy Brecher. South End Press. Revised and updated edition, 1997. 421 pages. $22.00. ipl he strength of organized labor depends on the effectiveness of the strike. Strikes are workers’ weapons for overcoming the economic and legal advantages which accrue to ownership in our sys tem. But the strike is a curious weapon, since it inevitably causes harm to those who employ it. Workers who strike lose wages, risk their jobs, and are the targets for public hostility and adverse legal actions. Why, then, do workers strike? Why have there been periods when mass strikes have spread across the U.S.? The conventional answer is that strikes are caused by union bosses, who risk little or nothing, and who lure unsuspecting workers into strikes to further their own power. Thus the bitterly antiunion National Institute for Labor Relations Research issued a publication entitled “Violence: Organized Labor’s Unique F;rivilege,” which explains strikes and the violence that sometimes accompany them purely in terms of the unbridled desires of union leaders, who must occasionally flex their muscles. “The union bosses sweep down frbm the castles from time to time seeking spOils… ,. The union bosses know that if they are not seen as tough enough, new leaders will push them aside. Consequently an incentive exists for the union boss to hold out and use violence; violence not only sends a Message to the employer, it sends a message to would be usurpers.” The union boss explanation for strikes and strike Yiblence is supPorted by the es: tablished array of labOr “experts’ \(that’ is; the ubiquitous Hubert Northrup’ of Penn’S Wharton school, his protege ‘ Arrnarid Thieblot, and Reed Larson of the National , Right to Work Foundation; The same explanation , has often ‘been employed by courts and accepted by juries. The eXplanation is, ho.w,eyer, fundamentally, wrong .as Jeremy Brecher’s excellent book, Strike!, demonstrates. , pic strikes are in fact begun and ex panded,b,y rank and file union mem bers, often over the determined and understandable oppOsition of their own . leaderS.’ Strikes occur when workers are aney ,and” feel ‘OtherWise pOwerless. When the strike iMptilse,SpreadS, it brings :out class consciousness and militant initiatives ally missing from’ rorn the U.S. labor movement. At such times, formal Jabor leaderS fre, quently .feel threatened’ and often powerless. Brichee,s -.bOok *scribes the spread of strikes and the resistance of union leaders during several key periods of labor history, beginning -With the “Great Upheaval of 1877,” when “Strikers seized and closed the nation’,s . most important industry, the railroads, and crowds defeated or won over first the police, then the, state militias, and in some cases even the federal troops. General strikes brought .work to a standstill in . a dozen major cities, and strikers took over authority in communities across the nation.” 13recher is, able to convey dramatically . the dynamic by which strikes spread, beginning with , the 1877 railroad , strikes,. when,”switchmen roamed through the rail, road property with .,.,stripers from the East who’d ridden in to spread.the strike, calling opt other workers and, closing down the . railroads ,.,, the stockyards and several packing houses,. The next day, the strike spread still further: , streetcars, wagons and . buggies , were, . stopped; , tanneries, stoneworks, , clothing factorie,s, ,lumber ; yards, brickyards, furniture factories, and .a large distillery were closed in, response to roving crowds.” A Pittsburgh, July .22, 1877. The Pennsylvania Railroad upper roundhouse the day after a battle between strikers and the Philadelphia m ilitia. Photo courtesy the American Social history Project 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER FEBRUARY 27, 1998
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