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Where’s Solidarity for Americans? : Labor Is Losing Its Greatest Weapon, the Right to Strike

<i> Jonathan Tasini is a writer based in New York who specializes in labor and economics. </i>

The violent scene is all too familiar. Striking workers are dragged away by hundreds of police officers and security guards armed with automatic weapons. Workers and their families are harassed by government authorities and hired thugs. Union leaders are thrown in jail and fined for practicing peaceful civil disobedience.

The place is not Poland and the union is not Solidarity, which President Bush flew thousands of miles to salute as a beacon of freedom. This battle is taking place just a few hundred miles from the White House in the coal fields of Virginia and three other states. And it is a fight that underscores how American workers arguably have fewer rights than Polish workers.

On April 5, members of the United Mine Workers of America struck the Pittston Co. mines in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee after failing to agree to a new contract. By all measures, Pittston is a renegade company. It refused to sign a reasonable agreement reached between the UMW and the Bituminous Coal Operators Assn. Last year, it cut off health-care coverage to retirees and disabled miners. Even the National Labor Relations Board, no friend of organized labor, has charged Pittston with bargaining in bad faith.

While the company’s actions make a mockery of labor-management relations, the power wielded by the state against the strikers is far more troubling. The UMW has been fined several million dollars for exercising the legal right to strike Pittston. By contrast, Pittston was fined just $47,000 for a mine explosion in 1983 that killed seven miners. By court orders, strikers may not picket en masse in front of the company’s gates. Judges in Virginia and West Virginia have issued injunctions making it illegal to drive below the speed limit--a peaceful tactic used by the miners to slow down coal trucks.

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Although these rulings may seem aberrations, they are an example of a recent trend that is ruining labor-management relations. Meaningful collective bargaining can take place only in an atmosphere of equal power. To win wage hikes and better working conditions, workers have to be legally able to place economic pressure on companies, usually by withholding their work. Otherwise, companies have no incentive to strive for a fair contract.

But, for all intents and purposes, the right to strike is dead in this country. The Supreme Court has ruled that companies can permanently replace their workers during a strike. As a result, in the last few years unions have jumped through hoops to avoid sending their members to the picket line. For many workers, striking has meant the end of a job held for 20 or 30 years.

Now, even abandoning the strike won’t protect workers. The NLRB recently decided that a company can simply lock out its workers and permanently replace them, even if they want to stay on the job and do not want to strike. Added to court injunctions and huge fines, lockouts and the threat of permanent replacements have tipped the balance of power overwhelmingly to management’s side.

Companies have barely been able to contain their glee at the new legal environment, but in their rejoicing they must be under the spell of a severe case of amnesia. The legal frameworks--especially the National Labor Relations Act of 1947--were set up as much to protect companies as to even the balance between labor and management. In the 1930s and 1940s, labor militancy sent millions of workers into the streets; production at auto, steel, rubber and coal facilities was regularly disrupted. The country’s economic system stood face-to-face with an angry working class ready to revolt.

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Labor laws restored order. Although the postwar labor laws significantly favored management, union members felt that the system provided them some kind of protection. They bought into the process, which was always designed to protect the free-market system.

We now appear to have come full circle. The rush to eviscerate labor laws and bring down the full weight of the law on workers can only lead to a new militancy reminiscent of the 1930s. True, union leaders generally seem cowed and paralyzed from taking dramatic action. But, frustrated and disgusted by a declining standard of living, rank-and-file workers will press harder and rupture what is left of the collective bargaining process.

The signs are already there. A few unions routinely avoid the NLRB and labor laws in their organizing drives. In the last several years, union members have rejected contracts that their leaders have negotiated, threatening open defiance if better deals are not reached. In the Pittston strike, tens of thousands of miners have staged wildcat walkouts, against the wishes of their union, in support of the Pittston workers.

It’s not surprising that flag-waving politicians will embrace labor rights in Poland and the right to protest in China because they can also seize the opportunity to bash communist governments. President Bush sees Americans having a “special kinship with those who dream of a better future” in Poland. Those words ring hollow, however, to workers in the United States who cannot legally strive to improve their economic future.

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