On May Day, tens of thousands of Americans took to the streets. Invoking labor’s militant past, Occupiers in many cities called it a “general strike.” But few have asked why even the traditional strike has become almost an anachronism for America’s labor movement. In 1974, there were 424 major work stoppages, each involving at least 1,000 workers. By 2009, only five such stoppages occurred.
It’s easy to see this trend as damning evidence of labor’s irrelevance and the need to find a fresh wellspring of social and economic change. It’s even easier to place the blame squarely at the feet of conservative union leaders. Both these views lack nuance. Labor unions face a legal framework stacked against them. Laws can’t be casually broken: Unions have an important responsibility to their members and the financial assets they safeguard. Yet it’s worth remembering that past labor leaders believed in industrial action on a scale that would seem revolutionary even to radicals in the movement today. Figures like Samuel Gompers, Dave Beck, George Meany and Walter Reuther thought the strike was the most effective weapon of the working class. The decline of this venerable tactic has been devastating to our unions.