Kevin A. Carson
Center for a Stateless Society Paper No. 10 (Third Quarter 2010)
The Effects of Government Policy
Commentators on the libertarian Right frequently assert that the effectiveness of organized labor depends on the use of force—either direct force by pickets or the indirect force of government labor regulations—to exclude scabs from the work force. Murray Rothbard, for example, in Man, Economy, and State, wrote from the assumption that the only function of unions was to exclude non-union workers and thereby enable union workers to extract a monopoly price for labor.1 A corollary assumption is that the conventional strike is the primary weapon of labor struggle. Thomas DiLorenzo of Mises.Org states both these assumptions explicitly:
Historically, the main “weapon” that unions have employed to try to push wages above the levels that employees could get by bargaining for themselves on the free market without a union has been the strike. But in order for the strike to work, and for unions to have any significance at all, some form of coercion or violence must be used to keep competing workers out of the labor market.2
Such arguments reflect considerable ignorance of the actual history of labor relations in the United States.
The predominance of the conventional strike as we know it, as the primary weapon of labor struggle, is in fact a byproduct of the labor relations regime created under the Wagner Act. The primary purpose of Wagner, in making the conventional strike the normal method of settling labor disputes, was to create stability and predictability in the workplace in between strikes, and thereby secure management’s control of production.
And making strikes the only normal form of labor action made them less effective when they were used. In the system of labor relations extant before Wagner, strikes were only one part of the total range of available tactics. Unionism, and the methods it normally employed, was less about strikes or excluding non-union workers from the workplace than about what workers did inside the workplace to strengthen their bargaining power against the boss. Although what we would call conventional strikes were sometimes used, it was at least as common to engage in labor struggle of the sort the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) call “direct action on the job.”
The Knights of Labor, in their day the most successful American labor union that had so far existed, downplayed the use of strikes against particular employers. Their efforts focused mainly on organizing producer cooperatives, boycotting offending employers, and engaging in public information campaigns.3 Of course it was quite common, given the Knights’ status as dominant labor federation, for workers to establish a K. of L. local as a prelude to going on strike. But this was not the strategic focus of the union as envisioned by Grand Master Workman Clarence Powderly.
Where conventional strikes were used, they were much more effective without the strictures later imposed by Taft-Hartley. The great CIO organizing strikes of the early ’30s were planned the way a general staff might plan a military campaign. They achieved strategic depth by organizing sympathy and boycott strikes all the way up and down the production chain, from raw material suppliers to retail outlets, as well as by teamsters who refused to carry scab cargo.
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