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The Only Effective Strike Is a Disruptive Strike

Under capitalism, property rights will always come before workers’ rights to decent pay and conditions – the only way to fight back is through strike action.

Striking building workers raise their fists in salute during a rally in the Bois de Vincennes, Paris, 13th June 1936. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Every liberal democracy recognises, to some degree, that workers have a right to strike. That right is protected in law, sometimes in the constitution itself. Strikes are also one of the most common forms of disruptive collective protest. After a long decline in the number of strike days, many countries in the West have seen a rapid increase in strike action in the past year  — with Britain’s historic strike wave leading the way.

Yet strikes present a dilemma for liberal societies. For most workers to have a reasonable chance of success, they need to use some coercive strike tactics, such as mass picketing. But those tactics often violate the law — recent trade union laws in Britain have significantly limited the ability of workers to picket effectively  — and infringe upon what are widely held to be basic liberal rights. On what basis, then, can the right to strike be justified?

The Dilemma

A strike is a work stoppage to achieve some end. But work stoppage means different things in different parts of the labour market. Higher skilled, low-supply workers — who are harder to replace and as a consequence typically enjoy better wages, hours, and conditions — can carry off a reasonably effective strike with little coercion and no significant law-breaking. So long as they exercise adequate discipline, they can slow or stop production altogether.

Take the 2016 Verizon strike in the United States. Although the telecom company tried to use replacement workers, the replacements could not do the job effectively. After seven weeks, the company still was unable to service existing lines, let alone install new ones. It ended up conceding on important worker demands.

Lower skilled, high-supply workers in sectors like service, agriculture, or basic industry are in a different situation. In part because they are in greater supply, these workers tend to have less bargaining power and therefore usually face lower wages, longer hours, and worse working conditions. They are also more vulnerable to forms of illegal pressure, wage theft, and other abuses. These are the workers we intuitively think should have the strongest case for a right to strike.

Yet even if all of those workers walk off and respect the picket, production will often continue rolling because replacements, otherwise known as ‘scabs’, are much easier to find, train, and put to work. The collective refusal to work doesn’t pack quite the same punch. This is one reason why McDonald’s workers in the United States, for example, have stuck to single-day strikes — there’s every chance they would be replaced otherwise.

To have a better shot at succeeding, the majority of workers often have to use some type of coercive tactics. They must prevent managers from hiring replacements, prevent replacements from taking strike jobs, or prevent work from getting done in some other way.

To be clear, by coercive, I don’t mean violent. Historically, it has not been workers but the state and employers’ private thugs who have committed most of the strike-related violence. Workers have suffered violence when exercising perfectly legitimate forms of coercion, such as during Britain’s Miners’ Strike of the 1980s. Classic coercive tactics can include sit-down strikes (occupying the workplace to prevent work from being done) and mass pickets (surrounding a workplace so no people or supplies can get in or out).

Both tactics fly in the face of liberal capitalism. A basic principle of political morality in any liberal capitalist society is that all persons enjoy basic liberties on the condition that they extend the same basic liberties to everyone else and that these liberties are enshrined in law. You are free to exercise your basic liberties so long as you do not coercively interfere with others in the enjoyment of their liberties.

Coercive strike tactics are inimical to a number of these basic liberties. They violate the much-vaunted property rights of owners and their managers, they abridge the freedom of contract and association of replacement workers, and they threaten the everyday, background sense of public order of a liberal capitalist society. It is no surprise then that these tactics are mostly illegal in both Britain and the United States, as are many other solidaristic tactics that were once a standard feature of union activism.

But again, in many cases, if workers can’t strike effectively, they don’t have a meaningful right to strike. This is also a debate that has arisen since early January in Britain with the new ‘Minimum Service’ law, which is designed to prevent workers from shutting down what are seen as key services and industries during strike action. The only way to resolve this dilemma is to ask what, here and now, has priority: the basic liberties of liberal capitalism, as they are enforced in law, or the right to strike? And if it is the right to strike, what kind of right is this and how can it be justified?

The Facts of Oppression

Class-based oppression is inextricable from liberal capitalism. While meaningful variation exists across capitalist societies, one of the fundamental unifying facts is this: the majority of able-bodied people are forced to work for members of a relatively small group, who exercise control over productive assets and who, thereby, enjoy control over the activities and products of those workers. There are workers, and then there are owners and their managers.

Workers are pushed into the labour market because they have no reasonable alternative to looking for a job. They cannot produce the goods they need for themselves, nor can they rely on the charity of others or count on adequate state benefits. This structural compulsion is not symmetric. A significant minority of the population has enough wealth — whether inherited or accumulated or both — that they can avoid entering the labour market. They might happen to work, but they are not forced to do so.

The oppression stems not merely from the fact that some are forced to work. After all, if socially necessary work were shared equally, then it might be fair to force each to do their share. But in our societies only some are made to work. And they are forced to work for others, producing whatever employers pay them to produce.

This structural inequality feeds into a second, interpersonal dimension of oppression. Workers are forced to join workplaces typically characterised by large swathes of uncontrolled managerial power and authority. This oppression is interpersonal because it is power that specific individuals (employers and their managers) have over specific individuals (employees). We can distinguish between three overlapping forms that this interpersonal workplace oppression takes: subordination, delegation, and dependence.

Employers (owners and their managers) have what are sometimes called ‘managerial prerogatives’ — legislative and judicial grants of authority to make decisions about investment, hiring and firing, plant location, work process, and the like. Managers may change working speeds and assigned tasks, the hours of work, or, as Amazon currently does, force employees to spend up to an hour going through security lines after work without paying them.

They can fire workers for Facebook comments, not abiding by dress codes, or for refusing to accept shifts even when they have no care for their children. They can give workers more tasks than can be performed in the allotted time, demand that employees stay in the workplace overnight, require employees to labour in extreme heat and other physically hazardous conditions, or punitively isolate workers from other coworkers.

What unifies these seemingly disparate examples is that, in all cases, managers are exercising legally permitted prerogatives. The law does not require that workers have any formal say in how those powers are exercised. In fact, in nearly every liberal capitalist country (including social democracies like Sweden), employees are defined, in law, as ‘subordinates’. This is subordination in the strict sense: workers are subject to the will of the employer.

There are additional discretionary legal powers that managers enjoy not by legal statute or precedent but because workers have delegated these powers in the contract. For instance, workers might sign a contract that allows managers to require employees to submit to random drug testing or unannounced searches. In the United States, 18 percent of current employees and 37 percent of workers in their lifetime work under non-compete agreements. These clauses give managers the legal power to forbid employees from working for competitors, in some cases reducing these workers to near indentured service.

This leads to the third face of oppression: the distributive effects of class inequality, or ‘dependence’. The normal workings of liberal capitalism elevate a relatively small group of owners and highly-paid managers to the pinnacle of society, where they accumulate most of the wealth and income. Meanwhile, most workers do not earn enough: either to meet their needs or to save such that they can be self-employed or start their own businesses. The few that do rise displace others or take the structurally limited number of opportunities available. The rest remain workers, dependent on their job.

In virtue of workers’ dependence on their job, managers generally have the material power to force employees to submit to commands or even to accept violations of their rights. A headline example is wage theft, which affected British workers to the tune of £35 billion in 2019. Employers regularly break labour law, by disciplining, threatening, or firing workers who wish to organise, strike, or otherwise exercise their supposedly protected rights.

In other cases, workers have been refused bathroom breaks, denied legally required lunch breaks, or pressured to work through them, forced to keep working after their shift, or denied the right to read or turn on air conditioning during break. There are also the many cases of systematic sexual harassment, in those broad swathes of the economy where something more than a public shaming is needed to control bosses.

In all these instances, employers are not exercising legal powers to command. Instead, they are taking advantage of the material power that comes with threatening to fire or otherwise discipline dependent workers. This material power to get workers to do things that employers want is a function of the class structure of society. The oppression lies not just in some capitalist bad apples but in how these powers are used in most cases: profit-maximization.

Defenders of liberal capitalism insist that it provides the fairest way of distributing work and the rewards of social production. They often speak in the idiom of freedom — especially freedom of contract and the freedom to use one’s property as one sees fit. Yet liberal capitalism fundamentally constrains workers’ liberty, enabling the exploitation of one class by another. It is this oppression that explains why workers have a right to strike and why that right is best understood as a right to resist oppression.

The Right to Resist

Workers have an interest in resisting the oppression of class society by using their collective power to reduce, or even overcome, that oppression. Their interest is a liberty interest in a double sense.

First, resistance to that class-based oppression carries with it, at least implicitly, a demand for freedoms not yet enjoyed. A higher wage expands workers’ freedom of choice. Expanded labour rights increase workers’ collective freedom to influence the terms of employment. Whatever the concrete set of issues, workers’ strike demands are always also a demand for control over portions of one’s life that they do not yet enjoy.

Second, strikes don’t just aim at winning more freedom — they are themselves expressions of freedom. When workers walk out, they’re using their own individual and collective agency to win the liberties they deserve. The same capacity for self-determination that workers invoke to demand more freedom is the capacity they exercise when winning their demands. Freedom, not industrial stability or simply higher living standards, is the name of their desire.

But if all this is correct, and the right to strike is something that we should defend, then it also has to be meaningful. The right loses its connection to workers’ freedom if they have little chance of exercising it effectively. Otherwise, they’re simply engaging in a symbolic act of defiance — laudable and justifiable, perhaps, but not a tangible means of fighting oppression. It is, therefore, often perfectly justified for strikers to exercise their right to strike by using effective tactics, even when these tactics are illegal.

Still, the question remains: why should the right to strike be given moral priority over other basic liberties? The reason is not just that liberal capitalism produces economic oppression but that the economic oppression that workers face is in part created and sustained by the very same economic and civil liberties that liberal capitalism cherishes. Workers find themselves oppressed because of the way property rights, freedom of contract, corporate authority, and tax and labour laws operate.

Deeming these liberties inviolable does not foster less oppressive, exploitative outcomes, as its defenders insist: quite the opposite. The right to strike has a stronger claim to be protecting activity that serves the aims of justice itself — coercing people into relations of less oppressive social cooperation. Simply put, to argue for the right to strike is to prioritise democratic freedoms over property rights.

One might object that it sounds like I am saying there are no restraints on what strikers may do. I am not saying that either. My point is to explain why a specific set of strike tactics, which has been the centrepiece of the strike repertoire whenever the majority of workers have had it in their mind to walk out, is not limited by the requirement to respect those economic liberties that are violated.

There are all kinds of things strikers shouldn’t do just to win a strike. There are many reasonable questions to raise about when to strike, how to make strike-related decisions, what to do about harms to third parties, and the like. But that is a complex and separate problem of political ethics. We can only tackle those problems once we have first acknowledged the shortcomings of liberal capitalism and the prevailing political morality that surrounds it.

The stakes in all of this are high. If one does not agree that workers are generally justified in engaging in mass, disruptive, and, yes, unlawful activity as part of exercising the right to strike, then one is committed to arguing that the state is justified in violently suppressing strikes — a violence with a long and bloody history. Some might very well draw the latter conclusion. But they should be clear about which side they’re choosing.

Either workers are justified in resisting the use of legal violence to suppress their strikes or the state is justified in violently suppressing coercive strike tactics. No amount of dressed-up rhetoric about liberty and justice for all can shroud that inescapable fact.