Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Right To Strike

Charles Whalen writes about the 25th anniversary of the PATCO strike in "Echoes of a Broken Strike," which made my local paper today. Somehow, the article manages to conclude as follows:

Through the International Labor Organization (ILO), governments around the world have declared that the right to strike is part of the freedom of association. In short, it is a human right. The ILO has also found that the U.S. permanent-replacement doctrine undermines that right.

That's a fascinating perversion of language--one would not ordinarily think that freedom of association, particularly in the context of a human right, would be forfeited simply by owning the capital used in production. Here's how he develops his argument:
This week marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most devastating strikes in modern U.S. labor history. On Aug. 3, 1981, more than 12,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) walked off their jobs. It was not the first illegal strike by public-sector workers, but conventional means of resolving such cases failed to impress President Ronald Reagan: He discharged and permanently replaced those who would not promptly return to work. The U.S. labor movement has never recovered, and working families across the nation continue to pay the price.
It was an illegal strike. Reagan took an appropriate course of action. But as you can tell from the last line of this opening paragraph, Whalen wants to link this event to bigger changes in the labor market. The transition begins:

In the immediate aftermath of the PATCO strike, many observers reported that Reagan's action marked a turning point in U.S. labor relations.

History has shown this assessment was right on the mark. If it is true that the strike is labor's "only true weapon," as some unionists suggest, then practically the entire movement has been disarmed. This also indicates that the legal right of workers to organize and bargain collectively has little real meaning.
Hyperbole, anyone? Unionized workers have the right to act collectively--they do not and should not have the right to act coercively. Collective action prevents the employer from treating one union member as a substitute for another. That restriction has value. It obviously does not have as much value as a prohibition on using other workers as substitutes for the union members. This is what has Mr. Whalen so animated:

Private-sector companies have had the right to permanently replace workers during bargaining disputes since 1938. Until 1981 few employers took advantage of this option. In the 1950s and 1960s, for example, there was only one documented use of permanent replacements for about every 80 major work stoppages, according to a calculation by Joseph A. McCartin of Georgetown University. In the first 10 years after 1981, however, there was one documented use of permanent replacements for every seven work stoppages.
Private companies began calling the unions' bluff--that there was something inherently more productive about the union as a whole than other workers. That activity should have been a wake-up call to the unions--that their real value-added could come from promoting training, skill development, and continuing education by their members. I'd be the biggest supporter of organized labor you could find if unions were organized around this principle.

1 comment:

Arun Khanna said...

I agree. Workers have the right to act collectively. If workers want the right to strike then employers should have the right to seek immediate replacements.

On a different note, it would be efficient if unions were required to preannounce a strike.