So seeing as the last article was something more along the lines of an introduction. I thought I would dive right in and give something more like a proper first. I want to lay a solid foundation, so I am going to deal with the issue of labor law right off the bat.
So the primary law governing labor activism in the United States ( the body of law I am most familiar with ) is the National Labor Relations Act, commonly referred to as the Wagner Act. The law is without a doubt intended to restrict our rights as workers especially since it was amended in 1947 by a piece of legislation known as the Taft Hartley Act. That piece of legislation was a response to a militant strike wave that threatened the ability of corporations and capitalist institutions to govern profitably. Understanding this from the outset does not mean we can realistically ignore the law, any more then it means we have to helplessly and futilely obey it. It just means knowing what we can do legally and what we are not supposed to do, as well as what your boss can and cannot do legally. But be aware, if he/she is threatened, make no mistake, your boss will be prepared to break laws to achieve his/her objectives.
So what is the significance of the NLRA? What many labor activists throughout history recognized is that the difference between slave labor and free labor hinged on the right to strike. The right to refuse work. If you are unable to refuse work then a situation exists no different then involuntary servitude. Hence the frequent reference to wage slavery by labor movements even prior to the US Civil War. But just being able to quit your job has no meaning if that means you substitute one horrible boss for another. The ability to quit work only has meaning collectively as that is the only way to effect a company or employer. The NLRA acknowledged this in law and so recognized the right to strike. It was a piece of legislation that merely rubberstamped what the workers at the time had essentially already legalized in practice, through many mass strikes. The intent was to concede just enough to prevent revolution. Just after World War II, and during, workers were striking on a mass scale again. This time Congress sought to reign that activity in by passing legislation to restrict strike activity. All of this legislation is still in effect today. Which means our strengths and weaknesses are still institutionalized in current labor law.
The key language in the NLRA for our purposes is section 7 a which states that
“employees shall have the right to self organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective-bargaining or other mutual aid or protection, and shall also have the right to refrain from any or all of such activities except to the extent that such right may be affected by an agreement requiring membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment as authorized in section 8 a 3 ”
The issue here is that workers with or without a union, in any workplace, has the right to organize and take actions ( strikes etc ) and cannot be retaliated against. In theory at least. But subsequent legislation and court decisions have severely restricted these basic rights. For one thing, striking in sympathy with another group of workers at a different company is not protected by law. Though many have done just this and won, it has been in spite of courts that they have had their victories. Certain picketline activity is unprotected, such as mass pickets that physically prevent strikebreakers from going to work. Though again, many have used this tactic and won. Again in spite of the courts.
Other activities have also been restricted. Deliberate slowdowns have been found by courts to be unprotected. And again, see above. Do you detect a theme here? We cannot rely on courts to protect our rights. We have to get knowledgeable about what those rights are, and vigilantly defend them against unjust laws that have amended them to the point of being meaningless.
So what are the restrictions on employers? For one ,they, by law anyway, cannot retaliate against you for participating in or initiating actions to improve wages or conditions of work. This applies to union and nonunion alike. It is known as concerted protected activities. Leafleting, meetings, strikes, demonstrations all fall within this concerted protected activities category. They cannot knowingly Institute any kind of surveillance or otherwise try to control or influence a group of workers wanting to organize. We all know that without a force capable of enforcing the law on bosses, the law goes unrespected. So on to our next topic.
What sort of tactics do employers use to squash attempts by workers to improve their lot? Number one, divide and conquer. They like to create a segment of the workforce that is loyal to management, and use that force to create fear and dissent amongst and between those that want to organize and those who are undecided. They often like to back this up with discipline against labor activists and/ or promises to improve the situation of undecided workers. One common tactic is the ” captive audience meeting “, in which the employer brings everybody together to either scare and intimidate, or to build sympathy towards management. Most employer tactics fall under the categories of the carrot or the stick.
So how do you respond to these tactics? In a word, intensifying activity. People do not organize for the sake of organization, actions organize people. A strike is not just an event, it is an organization. Actions that neutralize the employer’s ability to discipline can take the stick away from him/her. And if that carrot is too small, our actions can make the boss come back with a bigger carrot. If after a leafleting action one activist is written up for a petty offense in retaliation, a group of workers can respond with a two hour strike for instance. Making it known that retaliation will not be tolerated. This lays the groundwork for future actions. You have to judge the forces at hand, and work hard at building those forces continuously in order to pull off progressively more daring actions. But that topic is for a future article.
So in conclusion, there is law on the books that is useful, if severely limiting. But we need to know it. And we need to know how to and how not to use it. We need to be organized enough to at least defend these minimum rights if we are to advance towards bolder ones. Punks can play an important role since we are not predisposed ,on the average, to taking the bosses word for it. My next article will cover the issue of building a core organization at the workplace capable of at least enforcing minimum rights. So bear with me. Cheers and solidarity!!!
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