In early April I was invited to sit in on a planning call with worker rights organizations and unions for a May Day general strike. May Day has not traditionally been a big day for labor action in the United States, but it is in many other parts of the world. In the spirit of global solidarity, “alt-labor” and progressive unions have long hoped to make it more so here. The first May Day since Trump rode to electoral victory on an anti-immigration and anti-immigrant platform seemed to them like a good opportunity. By collectively withholding their labor on May 1, the organizations hoped to demonstrate their constituents’ indispensability to the nation’s economy. I have always viewed contemporary calls for a general strike as grossly unrealistic, but I was trying hard to suspend my disbelief.  

Given how compromised the right to strike actually is, why not trade it away?

The groups on the call reported that undocumented immigrants were terrified by the stepped-up detentions and deportations, but there was also a strong desire to fight back. Despite their increasing vulnerability to mistreatment and with the recognition that their status undermines labor standards for all workers, immigrant workers—as Pope, Bruno, and Kellman point out—have been organizing for worker justice and immigration reform. They have sometimes done so through unions, but mostly through worker centers and related national networks such as the Food Chain Workers Alliance, Enlace, Interfaith Worker Justice, Restaurant Opportunities Center United, and the National Guestworker Alliance. These groups tend to pursue their ends through direct action, legal advocacy, administrative reform, and mobilization for changes in public policy. 

As each organization shared its plans during the call, a clear pattern emerged: worker centers and other community-based organizations were determined to carry out a strike on May 1; the unions were not. They had no-strike clauses in their contracts, which they felt had to be respected.

Workers have to contend with employer interference at a level that contradicts the ideal of free and fair elections.

In other words, while unions were indisputably better resourced and their members a bit better off economically—and certainly in a much stronger position to weather a strike institutionally—alt-labor organizations were planning to organize the strike. Remarkably, I sensed no tension on the call over this. The worker centers seemed to understand the unions’ feelings, reassured them of that, and thanked them for their support.

As Pope, Bruno, and Kellman point out, the trouble started long ago. The principle underlying the National Labor Relations Act was a kind of industrial citizenship in which unions would be the vehicle and collective bargaining the mechanism through which American workers would have a say in their workplaces, industries, and economic policy more broadly. The theory of collective bargaining underwriting the act was that each side needed to be able to exercise economic power sufficient to compel the other to negotiate. For workers, that fundamental power was the ability to withhold labor and stop production. That power, however, was undermined from the beginning. The act never outlawed permanent striker replacement, and a series of Supreme Court rulings even expanded employers’ right to do so. A decade after its passage, the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 (also known as Taft-Hartley) delivered major blows to labor’s power by outlawing closed shops and secondary strikes. And, despite subsequent NLRB decisions more favorable to unions, employers routinely engage in intimidation, firings, lockouts, and striker-replacement actions. Justice, when it does come for affected workers, is far too limited and far too late.

Workers during a union drive have to contend with employer interference at a level that, as Gordon Lafer argues, completely contradicts the American ideal of the free and fair election. Likewise, striking union workers are protected from permanent replacement only under an extremely constricted set of conditions. Perhaps it is for this reason that unions have accepted no-strike clauses in their contracts. Given how compromised the right to strike actually is, why not trade it away?

All of this goes a way toward explaining why alt-labor organizations choose to incorporate as 501(c)(3) nonprofits rather than unions. Not being a union allows them to engage in a broader range of tactics, including the secondary boycott and, yes, even the strike. But having the freedom to do these things is not the same as having the capacity. Unions have the capacity but are often reluctant to use it.

Here is where I part ways with Pope, Bruno, and Kellman. They argue that the problem is structural: that national unions with big treasuries and “tit for tat relationships with elected officials” cannot be expected to engage in “risky and polarizing actions” and that their “immediate incentives all point toward the narrow needs of their particular union’s members.” They blame the conflict on exclusive representation. I am not sold on their diagnosis. I think the problem is more one of organizational culture.

Unions will be able to build greater solidarity if they re-center consciousness raising and popular education.

Labor unions, because they have built up significant institutional capacity, have been able to make a major difference in the lives of their members and contribute people and money to key progressive fights. In truth, these institutions are accountable to their members in ways that most other progressive organizations are not. Members expect unions to protect their institutions, steward their collective resources, and cultivate cooperative relations with employers.

This is a good thing. But how do lasting institutions harness the energy and vision of movements? Unions will have more degrees of freedom and will be able to build greater solidarity if they re-center consciousness raising and popular education, cultivating cultures of relational organizing, and militant action—including striking.

In her book No Shortcuts (2016), Jane McAlevey offers several case studies of unions that are doing this right now, under current labor laws, including the public-sector Chicago Teachers Union, the health care workers of 1199 New England, and the UFCW at Smithfield.

When May Day came, there was no general strike of immigrant workers. Audacity of vision was not enough; reach had far exceeded grasp. The actions that took place were modest in size. Many of them had one thing in common: unions mobilized their members, after making arrangements with signatory employers for workers to arrive later to their shifts. The unions also paid for permits, buses, signs, sound systems, and box lunches.