22 votes

Are illegal strikes justified?

This question is inspired by the university of Michigan's grad student union's announcement that it will strike this week. As noted in the university's response Michigan state law prohibits state employees from striking and GEO's contract with UofM (signed in April) has a clause that prohibits work stoppages.

Are strikes performed in violation of the law (state or otherwise) or a contract justified? Why or why not?

26 comments

  1. [3]
    tesseractcat
    Link
    The law doesn't dictate what is moral. If you mean justified from a moral perspective, I imagine there are lots of situations where an illegal strike is justifiable. If you mean justified from a...

    The law doesn't dictate what is moral. If you mean justified from a moral perspective, I imagine there are lots of situations where an illegal strike is justifiable. If you mean justified from a legal perspective, then it depends on the legal system.

    35 votes
    1. Flashynuff
      Link Parent
      Good point. Since I'm specifically talking about strikes done in violation of the law, I think that only leaves moral justification.

      Good point. Since I'm specifically talking about strikes done in violation of the law, I think that only leaves moral justification.

      4 votes
    2. vord
      Link Parent
      I should get that as a bumper sticker. So many things are justified as 'wrong' because it is illegal. Maybe it is the law that is wrong. Hence why law is mutable.

      The law doesn't dictate what is moral.

      I should get that as a bumper sticker. So many things are justified as 'wrong' because it is illegal. Maybe it is the law that is wrong. Hence why law is mutable.

      3 votes
  2. [3]
    moonbathers
    Link
    I'm inclined to say yes, but it's not something I stand as firmly on as other things. Strikes are one of workers' main ways of holding power and if they can't, then how are they going to have some...

    I'm inclined to say yes, but it's not something I stand as firmly on as other things. Strikes are one of workers' main ways of holding power and if they can't, then how are they going to have some power to make sure they're treated fairly? I know there's still collective bargaining, but is that enough?

    19 votes
    1. [2]
      nacho
      Link Parent
      Collective bargaining with a large degree of organization into unions is extremely powerful. With or without strikes. A problem in the US is the low degree of organized workers. That leaves not...

      Collective bargaining with a large degree of organization into unions is extremely powerful. With or without strikes.

      A problem in the US is the low degree of organized workers. That leaves not only collective bargaining, but also strikes as pretty impactless. This pushes the power strongly in favor of the employer, which can always speak with a single voice. additionally, in this situation a strike can be countered with a lockout of non-union workers thus pitting workers against each other rather than organized against the employer alone.


      A country where strikes are widespread, like France, sees lower impact of these because businesses can plan around them.

      Unions that sit on large war chests ahead of bargaining can generally just get away with the threat of a strike that can last for a long time because they've got money to back the threat that they could ruin a business that doesn't treat them properly. The threat isn't empty.

      In many places that can even mean that unions agree with employers that every other year they won't strike when only pay is negotiated. Then in every other year when other benefits are negotiated, strike is on the table and an incentive to be fair in the in-between years too.


      In areas where you need to have an actual reason for firing people, and can't just fire them whenever it suits you, workers can have rights that don't just hinge on a workers' movement.

      Bundling of worker healthcare, or home insurance or other basic goods into employment rather than paying people an amount so they can get their own necessary personal services is also a strategy for shoehorning people into having to stick around at an employer.

      Again, in areas of "at-will" employment, that reliance only goes in favor of the employer, not reciprocally. To me that is a sign of a power imbalance that society should regulate differently.

      13 votes
      1. vord
        Link Parent
        And this is why so much anti-union policy in the USA is about preventing them from building up those assets.

        because they've got money to back the threat that they could ruin a business that doesn't treat them properly

        And this is why so much anti-union policy in the USA is about preventing them from building up those assets.

        2 votes
  3. [9]
    Eric_the_Cerise
    Link
    Personally, I don't think it is ever justified to make it illegal to strike. To this day, I still have trouble even understanding how that's even possible. I mean, how do you make a law that...

    Personally, I don't think it is ever justified to make it illegal to strike. To this day, I still have trouble even understanding how that's even possible.

    I mean, how do you make a law that punishes someone for not going to work? That's frankly (a mild version of) slavery. And then, if you discuss it with a few hundred co-workers and you all decide to stop going to work ... what's changed?

    16 votes
    1. Happy_Shredder
      Link Parent
      Yeah. By making strikes illegal the state is saying that business owners can do whatever they want, fuck the workers. That workers should just suck it up and suffer. That seeking a better life is...

      Yeah. By making strikes illegal the state is saying that business owners can do whatever they want, fuck the workers. That workers should just suck it up and suffer. That seeking a better life is invalid.

      It's fucking insane.

      8 votes
    2. [7]
      JXM
      Link Parent
      It doesn't do that though. You aren't forced to work. You can quit with no repercussions from the government.

      I mean, how do you make a law that punishes someone for not going to work?

      It doesn't do that though. You aren't forced to work. You can quit with no repercussions from the government.

      1 vote
      1. [5]
        Eric_the_Cerise
        Link Parent
        Of course it does. That's the very definition of illegal. "Repercussions from the govt".

        Of course it does. That's the very definition of illegal. "Repercussions from the govt".

        6 votes
        1. [4]
          JXM
          Link Parent
          My point was that you won't face any more repercussions than you would from any other employer. You'll get fired, but nothing else happens. At least in this specific case.

          My point was that you won't face any more repercussions than you would from any other employer. You'll get fired, but nothing else happens. At least in this specific case.

          2 votes
          1. [2]
            Flashynuff
            Link Parent
            Not if you're an international student -- you might be deported if you quit, are fired, or otherwise lose your graduate student status.

            Not if you're an international student -- you might be deported if you quit, are fired, or otherwise lose your graduate student status.

            3 votes
            1. JXM
              Link Parent
              But that's all true regardless of a strike, unless I'm misunderstanding.

              But that's all true regardless of a strike, unless I'm misunderstanding.

          2. Eric_the_Cerise
            Link Parent
            IDK about this specific case. OP isn't asking about one specific case. I do know there are many anti-strike laws where people face all kinds of punitive govt actions ... loss of pension/retirement...

            IDK about this specific case. OP isn't asking about one specific case. I do know there are many anti-strike laws where people face all kinds of punitive govt actions ... loss of pension/retirement benefits (sometimes including money the workers voluntarily paid in), loss of license, barred from ever working again in their chosen profession, etc.

            Just my opinion, of course, but laws like that should be categorically illegal, and lawmakers who try to pass such things, should themselves be subject to punitive action.

            Back in the day, air traffic controllers went on strike and Reagan categorically fired them all. I'm fine with that ... that's an honest risk of striking. I'm cool w/that.

            1 vote
      2. PendingKetchup
        Link Parent
        There was that time in New Jersey 2001 when a judge ordered striking teachers to work, they didn't, and 228 of them went to jail until the union called off the strike. I'm not sure if any of them...

        There was that time in New Jersey 2001 when a judge ordered striking teachers to work, they didn't, and 228 of them went to jail until the union called off the strike.

        I'm not sure if any of them wanted to or tried to quit their jobs to get out of the whole mess. But apparently while it's hard to write a law compelling people to work, it's easy for a judge to order it. Maybe it's involuntary survitude imposed as a punishment for having been duly convicted of going on strike illegally?

        3 votes
  4. Atvelonis
    (edited )
    Link
    A legal system is a human construct and not, as far as I'm concerned, tied in any philosophically permanent way to morality. In theory, it is the manifestation of society's collective moral...

    A legal system is a human construct and not, as far as I'm concerned, tied in any philosophically permanent way to morality. In theory, it is the manifestation of society's collective moral beliefs. In practice, it is the manifestation of a powerful subset of society's collective moral beliefs plus various practices that benefit them personally, whether they're aware of them or not. It's not even like you can reach a certain point where the theory holds true in practice, because by virtue of implementing any sort of theoretical framework for morality, you recognize that it is a person or society who is implementing it, both of which are wont to make arbitrary and potentially immoral decisions.

    Unless you are God, your law holds no moral value in and of itself; that you have made something illegal does not make it immoral, and vice versa. The Sovereign in Hobbes' Leviathan approaches such a position, but I fail to see how anyone not utterly brainwashed by the state would genuinely recognize that as being the case, and not just an arbitrary decision made by some powerful subset of society. Fundamentally, agreeing that the moral authority of a monarch represents The TruthTM supposes either that they are infallible (i.e. God) or that they aren't (i.e. the Sovereign), but in the latter case you're going to pretend that they are for the sake of operating a government. There's nothing wrong with that—until we can find a way to write and implement un algorithme du gouvernement parfait, I'd rather have a functioning but morally arbitrary state than not recognize any authority figures whatsoever just because it's technically philosophically valid—but we do have to recognize that our legal systems are not the will of God. They are the will of whoever writes them, and everything about the human condition is morally subjective.

    I have very little sympathy for corporate or governmental entities whose employee benefits are so lacking that said workers feel compelled to engage in a strike. I'd personally consider any "agreement" between a company and an employee not to strike to be something approaching coercion, or a matter of "I"m only signing this because I literally need to do so to receive money, and therefore live." I don't believe that the act of two parties consenting to a contract makes that contract moral if the system behind it is itself immoral; such a contract, as a byproduct, is also immoral. If anything, the fact that the strike you're referring to is illegal makes it all the more pressing: these workers are risking both their livelihoods and their freedom in order to demand more favorable conditions. Surely they would not attempt this without a good reason. Strikes are difficult to organize and can backfire quickly.

    Opponents of unions enjoy making remarks about how greedy they are, and that workers just need to live with the hand they've been dealt. I understand this perspective, but it's not very constructive. Without getting into a case study that I don't care about involving some corrupt union head, I would argue quite strongly that strikes don't happen arbitrarily. They happen because there's an absurd amount of income inequality in the world, and the ones who have the power to change that simply choose not to for their own benefit. I see nothing wrong with a demand for more equal income on behalf of workers; I'm not one to entirely reject the doctrine of "work harder and get richer" (it's a nice incentive), but there's only so much of a bonus that anyone on the top of the totem pole actually deserves. The people on the bottom are struggling, and dismissing their lived experiences because they threaten the power dynamic that you've internalized is problematic for a whole host of reasons.

    8 votes
  5. [7]
    JXM
    Link
    Any strike can be justified. It's just a matter of trading off between what the people going on strike want vs the impact a specific strike will have on society. For example, the Graduate Student...

    Any strike can be justified. It's just a matter of trading off between what the people going on strike want vs the impact a specific strike will have on society.

    For example, the Graduate Student Union going on strike has minimal impact but police officers going on strike would be a big problem for society (Yes, I realize that the police are a huge problem but for purposes of this example, let's assume they're operating as they are supposed to).

    So we don't allow certain groups to strike. That said, I think "all government workers are barred from striking" is way too broad a restriction. These types of provisions should be limited to people who are absolutely essential to society functioning.

    7 votes
    1. [6]
      nacho
      Link Parent
      If I were essential to society functioning, that doesn't mean society can dictate things I have to do unless the trade-off is justified. Otherwise me and all my colleagues in similar positions...

      If I were essential to society functioning, that doesn't mean society can dictate things I have to do unless the trade-off is justified.

      Otherwise me and all my colleagues in similar positions will move elsewhere and then society is screwed.

      Forced labor is a very powerful motivator to move away from because it removes self-determination and any feeling of contributing even though you know you're essential.


      As an example, the Norwegian medical doctor's union (that has 100% participation except those who've been excluded for misconduct) went on strike a couple years back after government wanted to unilaterally force an exception on them so they had to work more hours than is allowed by the labor regulations that apply to everyone who works period.

      That was a way in which government wanted to save costs in the national healthcare system. This happened after the doctor's union has been saying for years that they need to fund more university spaces for educating new doctors to meet the demand of an aging population the coming years and decades.

      The doctors had a large strike, where only those non-essential stopped working. This led to a mass-cancelling of all sorts of surgeries, treatments etc. and seriously angry regular folks. A national support strike from completely unrelated workers led the government to have to acquiesce on their toughest demands. And the amount of MDs being educated each year was increased.

      All the while the strike didn't run afoul of the law barring strikes that "threaten lives and safety"


      There are very, very few groups who can't strike.

      For example, the Norwegian military officers union went on their first ever strike in 1998. That was a purely political strike unrelated to their worker rights directly. National security was not threatened as those who were told to strike were carefully selected.

      Similarly, when the same union had workers selected to strike as part of the 10.000 government workers on strike from a host of different types of jobes in 2005, national security was not threatened.

      The government had to back down from threats that there would be disciplinary reactions for those the union selected to go on strike who actually went on strike. That's because there is a legal duty to strike: If selected to go on strike, you are required to do so. The strike was judged to be legal

      If society functions on individual people, or a small number of people to function, that's something to be resolved in a non-crisis situation before someone gets sick, or something happens. Society needs redundancy to keep us safe. IF an unforeseen event were to take place, people could return from strike and quickly be mobilized. A strike is not a vacation.

      4 votes
      1. [5]
        JXM
        Link Parent
        Your comment strikes me as weird. It sounds somewhat like you're disagreeing with me but all of your examples prove my point. They all show that those strikes were able to safely balance the needs...

        Your comment strikes me as weird. It sounds somewhat like you're disagreeing with me but all of your examples prove my point. They all show that those strikes were able to safely balance the needs and demands of those striking and the needs of society.

        Forced labor is a very powerful motivator to move away from because it removes self-determination and any feeling of contributing even though you know you're essential.

        It isn't forced labor at all, and calling it that does a disservice to those who are truly enslaved. Workers prohibited from striking aren't forced to work. They can go find a different job. Forced labor doesn't allow for that.

        1 vote
        1. [5]
          Comment deleted by author
          Link Parent
          1. [4]
            JXM
            (edited )
            Link Parent
            We're saying the same thing here. You're saying people should be allowed to strike because it has been (and still is) an essential way that workers get new rights. I'm agreeing and saying people...

            We're saying the same thing here. You're saying people should be allowed to strike because it has been (and still is) an essential way that workers get new rights. I'm agreeing and saying people should be allowed to strike, with rare exceptions where larger public safety outweighs the rights of a small group of employees (and honestly, I can only think of maybe three or four situations where this would apply).

            I work in a local government job and I have been working crazy hours and insane amounts for the past seven months now too, so I really do sympathize with your situation.

            2 votes
            1. [3]
              vord
              Link Parent
              I think this is the crux of any potenial disagreement. In the USA this is pronounced. By banning any 'essential' workers from ever striking, you take away their biggest bargaining chip against...

              I'm agreeing and saying people should be allowed to strike, with rare exceptions where larger public safety outweighs the rights of a small group of employees

              I think this is the crux of any potenial disagreement. In the USA this is pronounced. By banning any 'essential' workers from ever striking, you take away their biggest bargaining chip against abuse short of collectively quitting and never returning. Essential worker unions will almost certainly try to minimize damage to society except in extremes.

              3 votes
              1. [2]
                JXM
                Link Parent
                That's why we need more unions. That's why I think it should be limited to extremely narrow cases. The best example I can think of is something like a firefighter. If they go on strike, they'd do...

                Essential worker unions will almost certainly try to minimize damage to society except in extremes.

                That's why we need more unions.

                By banning any 'essential' workers from ever striking, you take away their biggest bargaining chip against abuse short of collectively quitting and never returning.

                That's why I think it should be limited to extremely narrow cases. The best example I can think of is something like a firefighter. If they go on strike, they'd do real, measurable damage to others in society. People die. Is there a solution to that? I think having a strong union can help to work around some of these issues.

                1 vote
                1. vord
                  Link Parent
                  I'd say the solution is to let them strike and use their own professional judgement on how to keep society safe. If society ever got to the point firefighters would need to strike and endanger...

                  I'd say the solution is to let them strike and use their own professional judgement on how to keep society safe.

                  If society ever got to the point firefighters would need to strike and endanger people....perhaps that's the most important time for them to do so. The virtually unpaid prisoners fighting fires in California have more reason to strike than most.

                  4 votes
  6. no_exit
    Link
    I think unions are only useful to the extent they are willing to take radical action, including wildcat strikes. Grad students in California recently waged a successful one against UC Santa Cruz.

    I think unions are only useful to the extent they are willing to take radical action, including wildcat strikes. Grad students in California recently waged a successful one against UC Santa Cruz.

    7 votes
  7. kfwyre
    (edited )
    Link
    When people are opting to strike, full-well knowing it's illegal where they are, I think it says something about the severity of the situation they're facing. There is already a significant...

    When people are opting to strike, full-well knowing it's illegal where they are, I think it says something about the severity of the situation they're facing. There is already a significant implicit message communicated by the idea that people would be willing to unite and act in such a manner, because strikes are already awful and stressful and absolutely a last resort. Add to that the threat of additional legal repercussions, and it makes the necessity for the strike that much more clear, albeit by proxy.

    We saw this with the #RedforEd strikes in 2018, where most of these actions were technically illegal (if not all? I'm not sure on the laws for each state they occurred in). They happened because conditions were so bad that employees hit their breaking points. In West Virginia, they shut down schools in all 55 counties in the state. All 55 counties! Let me assure you that such a thing wouldn't happen, and you wouldn't be able to get all 55 communities on the same page, if they all weren't at their absolute rock bottom.

    Whenever strikes happen, especially public sector strikes, people like to point fingers at strikers for the harm they're causing, usually with regards to the denial of their services on which the community depends. It's worth considering, however, that such harm doesn't come out of nowhere. The decision to strike is not frivolous, and even if there were an instance where it was treated as such, it wouldn't actually happen because so many workers would oppose it that it wouldn't even get off the ground. A strike based on inconsequential or insignificant premises would be over before it even started.

    As such, more often than not the conditions for a strike are produced from a neglect by employers/government/leadership to do right by their employees that builds up over time, until there is a total loss of faith that leadership will do the "right thing", whatever that is for the particular instance, until their hand is forced through drastic measures. The road to a strike has plenty of off-ramps, and arriving at a strike means none of them have been taken. Something common and debilitating was affecting all 55 counties in West Virginia, for example. What a failure of leadership to attend to the needs of all the schools in the state that it drove thousands of people to illegally walk off the job in order to call attention to it.

    So, in response to your question, I think it's important that, when strikes occur, we interrogate the employer and other governing bodies to question what they have done to produce the conditions for a strike to even take hold in the first place. I think that's where the answer for whether or not they're justified lies. Furthermore, if an organization's best justification for opposing a strike is "it's illegal" rather than "here are all the things we have done to prevent this from happening", they're using the weakest possible defense for their platform. If they have nothing better than that to offer, they're probably the ones in the wrong.

    4 votes
  8. determinism
    Link
    Beyond withholding labor, what constitutes a strike? Picketing? Obstruction? Excluding those additional features, I don't see how those parts of the Taft-Hartley act which forbid "wildcat" or...

    Beyond withholding labor, what constitutes a strike? Picketing? Obstruction?

    Excluding those additional features, I don't see how those parts of the Taft-Hartley act which forbid "wildcat" or "jurisdictional" strikes, mass picketing, and strikes by federal workers were/are considered constitutional. I don't see any practical difference between a person withholding their labor individually and a group of individuals withholding their labor simultaneously. I don't see any difference between an individual standing on public property, holding a sign, and chanting grievances and a group of individuals doing the same.

    I was looking for discussion of the constitutionality of Taft-Hartley after I saw this discussion and couldn't find anything outside of a paywalled article on the subject from 1948:

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/2518887

    I'm assuming it was discussing the anti-communist portions which were overturned.