What happened to strikes and civil disobedience?
January 26, 2017 7:26 PM   Subscribe

The default paradigm for political activism in the US today, especially on the left, is centered on protests, petitions, and contacting elected officials. But thinking about left-wing activism in the past, other tactics come to mind, such as strikes and various forms of civil disobedience. These seem to have largely fallen out of favor. Is this impression true and if so, what accounts for this?

When I think of political tactics used by the left in struggles of the past, both in the US and elsewhere, protests and mass demonstrations certainly come to mind, but so do a lot of other things: strikes, including nationwide general strikes; and various forms of civil disobedience, e.g. sit-ins, tax resistance, the recently-FPPed Mayday action, etc. I'm not hearing much about these tactics today, even though left-wing activism is obviously on the rise after the election and some of them might seem specifically appropriate a priori (e.g. tax resistance given Trump's tax history). There are occasional examples, like the 2011 Keystone Pipeline human chain protests at the White House, but they're not numerous. Why is this?

Presumably part of the answer about strikes specifically is weaker unions, but is lower membership all there is to it, or is there more (e.g. more restrictive strike laws)? Is it simply that there's no one who's in a position to effectively call a large-scale or general strike in the US today? And of course it's possible that my impressions are wrong in that either (a) such tactics were never that common and/or (b) people on the left are calling for them more than I'm aware of (or that they're starting to but it hasn't gathered steam yet). But my sense is that there's been a real shift away from some types of tactics and towards others. Why?
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Short answer: unions falling by the wayside. Unions set up to offer countervailing force to Management run things. Now, even blue collar workers have turned against unions, except in service orgainzations and govt postions. Then, with globalization, the threat of moving work offshore intimidated and weaked unions. Additionally, the the govt under Bush presidency
seemingly favored management rather than unions in the rulling body, the NLRB. Thus unions much weakened in recent years, beginning it seems, with Reagon firing the air traffic controllers who had gone on strike.
posted by Postroad at 9:03 PM on January 26, 2017 [9 favorites]

Shorter answer, also: Taft-Hartley Act is something you'll want to read up on, because it signaled the death knell for union strikes nationwide.
posted by sciatrix at 9:19 PM on January 26, 2017 [7 favorites]

More cynically, labor left has slowly lost to the interest and bought powers of lightly or unregulated multinational conglomerates, and general strikes have become untenable, while smaller strikes have become as laughable as me boycotting Denny's.

I have looked for scholarly references but came up lacking, hope someone else can share some.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:21 PM on January 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

This is an interesting question. I don't know, must be a hundred factors.

I agree weaker unions for sure, but I think as much in distancing leftists from the idea of a strike as anything else. You could do a national strike with no protections, the whole point is to get so many people to walk the protection is not primarily the union but the old 'you can't fire us all' idea.

I would say in the present day, even if we still did this thing, we'd be waiting for something that's a focal point. I think it's easier to organize a national strike around something (ie, repeal of Obamacare, firing honest prosecutors in justice, etc.)
posted by mark k at 9:41 PM on January 26, 2017

Laws that prohibit such strikes to discourage citizens like the Taft-Hartley Act. There is also a recent "initiative" under the new regime to ban protest by labeling it "illegal" like in Minnesota. Since unions are gone mostly there was very little cohesion to bring people together, until now.
posted by metajim at 10:52 PM on January 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I work in progressive advocacy. I think this is a really interesting question with a lot of potential answers, but a few ideas off the top of my head:

- The professionalization of activism. I work in a field (advocacy) that is growing rapidly but did not really exist as a profession 50 years ago. As advocacy and activism have become professionalized, I think a few things happened: 1. activism got "safer" since people's jobs and professional reputations are on the line (also, these organizations tend to be funded by foundations that don't want their money to go to illegal activities like direct action that involves arrest) 2. activism got more "strategic" and focused on changing specific policies as more technocrat-types got involved and 3. the people who lead advocacy organizations started to be closer to decision-makers (both in terms of having similar educational backgrounds and literally in terms of being friends).

- This generally part of the larger decline in civic engagement described in Bowling Alone.

- It's harder for things like civil disobedience and protest to "break through." I work for an organization that's known for civil disobedience, but we do less of it and more of other kinds of activism partially because over the years, it's become harder to get the attention of decision-makers and the media through traditional civil disobedience. You have to either be really creative or have a LOT of people at your protest - ideally both.

- To participate in an activity that risks arrest like civil disobedience, you either have to know that someone (or a group of people) has your back in terms of legal representation, time lost from work, etc. or you have to have enough privilege that you are not super-worried about it. Someone mentioned unions - they would in the past often support their members who got arrested or fired for participating in actions.

- Related: a lot of people feel very economically vulnerable these days. People who feel like they have absolutely nothing to lose may be very willing to participate in civil disobedience - but if you are middle class (or working class) and feel vulnerable, it's going to be hard to make that leap.

That said, we are in the middle of a period of a pretty dramatic upswing in mass protest and civil disobedience here in the US. It started with Occupy and BLM and has really skyrocketed with the Orange Menace. It's unlike anything I've seen in my lifetime and I am really interested to see where it goes.
posted by lunasol at 11:12 PM on January 26, 2017 [28 favorites]

Technology has changed everything and it is up to US to figure out new strategies.

Plus everything said above.

I just tried to research Net Neutrality and the new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and got sogged over by this recent Forbes article double-speak about how Pai is not actually against Net Neutrality and the "media" has it wrong - reading the double-speak requires more than a passing familiarity of internet issues and how the Internet used to work and how it is today. My brain exploded along the way. It was frightening. Forbes is a business publication so I guess their disingenuous bias should be expected. Still. Frightening.

...And this is the problem TODAY.

We know something is wrong, but it's so labyrinth and complicated, it's hard to know where to begin! Still. We are more connected than ever. Like water, let's errode the power structure creating this nightmare - let's find a way.
posted by jbenben at 11:13 PM on January 26, 2017

Related: a lot of people feel very economically vulnerable these days. People who feel like they have absolutely nothing to lose may be very willing to participate in civil disobedience - but if you are middle class (or working class) and feel vulnerable, it's going to be hard to make that leap.

I think this is a big part of it. It's bad right now, but it isn't yet bad enough for enough people for them to sacrifice the security that they currently have in exchange for a protest which may or may not have any effect and which will definitely negatively impact them personally.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:39 PM on January 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

Purely anecdotal, but I have noticed that the culture of general participation in strike actions as a show of solidarity has all but disappeared. As the daughter of a union organizer and representative, it was drilled into my brain that it is never ever acceptable to cross a picket line for any reason. During the recent Verizon strike I postponed my visit to the store by several days due to the labor action taking place out front. But I watched several people blithely crossing the line to go get their contract renewed or whatever. I was pretty disgusted, tbh, and it wasn't the first time I'd seen a bunch of asshats crossing a picket line to shop.
posted by xyzzy at 3:50 AM on January 27, 2017 [11 favorites]

Sympathy strikes are illegal under Taft-Hartley.
posted by corb at 5:50 AM on January 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've wondered the same thing since the late 80s. I'm as deeply uninformed now as I was then, but it has always struck me that a) we have been distracted/divided and conquered/let's you and him fight-ed/isolated from each other very effectively for a long time, and b) the culture of debt (in the US) has made it so more of us can live more comfortably than ever before, while under constant threat of losing it all if we don't work like frightened idiots, preventing a state of 'nothing left to lose' from occurring for a much larger number of people.

Also, I suspect we've lost certain units of cultural knowledge/commonality like 'Crossing a picket line has a meaning' - what are the rules nowadays? Is this my fight? Are they just demonstrating? What does a strike mean to the strikers, the community (in the geographical sense, because I'm not sure there's much else in most places), the entity being striked-against...?

Plus there's a pervading sense (reflected, I think, in a recent Ask about The Point of the womens' marches?) of it all being futile, there being no point to such things, and that just complaining is useless, that you're not allowed to talk unless you have a well developed and universally accepted, guaranteed-to-work alternative plan (like in an interview of Russell Brand by I think Jeremy Paxman?).

Plus just terror after Thatcher and Reagan, I guess? Like, Oh, you actually WILL declare war on your own people. Ok, then.

Again, just impressions, and I'm very interested to read what more informed minds than mine have to say, because this is super important, and we are in a position where some of the above obstacles are no longer the issues they once were - we've still got the debt/comfort issue, but other than that, the internet does have the potential to be the antidote to the other problems, which has not gone unnoticed by anyone anywhere with any power, but possibly we have a window of opportunity here.
posted by you must supply a verb at 6:02 AM on January 27, 2017

I think that the point that it isn't bad enough yet is really key. People have been increasingly economic vulnerable, but generally speaking, their lives haven't been on the line. Periods of strikes and unrest have been driven by reactions to truly horrific situations in which many lives were lost. In the early 20th century, consider the Triangle Factory Fire, the Battle of Blair Mountain, the Ludlow Massacre (just to name a few).

Also: Why is there no socialism in the U.S.?
posted by veery at 6:05 AM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

I believe the increasing militarization of police, combined with more draconian surveillance methods, also has an effect. Wikipedia has a good read on the topic.
posted by Jacen at 6:32 AM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yep, seconding Jacen's commend on Militarization and surveillance. See e.g. the full out weapons of war brought out recently at Standing Rock. I've gone to some protests over the years, and I feel like my odds of getting beaten or gassed have gone way up. And I say that as a straight white presentable professional, the kind of person who usually has the least to fear in that regard. This is of course subjective feeling, but subjective feelings matter when we're talking about strikes and civil disobedience.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:41 AM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would say that in a nutshell, it's a combination of Taft-Hartley, fading knowledge of the historical fight(s) for labor laws to protect workers, and the rise of militarized police and their itchy-trigger-fingers.
posted by desuetude at 8:15 AM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

What does a strike mean to the strikers, the community (in the geographical sense, because I'm not sure there's much else in most places), the entity being striked-against...?

I think this is a big factor, with the ever increasing consolidation and reach of multi-national corporations, along with opaque and confusing economic and general informational understanding makes it difficult to know what is actually happening, how things work or how to prevent undesired events from happening and to essentially have any impact as a group unless your numbers are enormous or you can find some key location to effect a stoppage of.

Shutting down one Walmart does nothing to Walmart other than perturb them a little over your ungratefulness. You most likely will never come into contact with the owners or corporate officers of the important businesses in the world, and thus the responsibility for decisions and who one hopes to effect are distant, elsewhere, so effects can't easily be rendered tangible.

There is a complexity to our world now that makes so many economic and political actions seem almost closer to forces of nature than anything one can directly effect. Only those we elect can be dealt with directly in some cases, but with the safety of gerrymandered districts and promises of financial reward for not giving in, protesting politicians can seem useless as well. We simply do not have the same level of power as workers or citizens as people did 100 years ago or more.

We would need far greater numbers to have anything like the successes of the earlier strikers or of protesters even 50 years ago. Politicians and corporations learned from those previous actions and have adapted. They can because they are more nimble in their single mindedness than any group of sufficient size could be in their enormity. It's too easy to threaten, cajole, or confuse the masses to often get unity in response, that's the lesson our politicians have learned, while corporations have relied on their own growing economic power in addition.

Can strikes or civil disobedience still work? Perhaps on the level of the women's march or of the persistence of BLM and DAPL where enough violence happens to draw media attention, but that violence will also drive off some who might have been sympathetic. When even those alleged to be more or less on one's same side, like the Democrats, have trouble standing strong for DAPL and BLM, those same protests being dealt with by the more deeply opposed Republicans will have to attract much more attention to get half as far I fear, which means more violence and accompanying sacrifice.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:56 AM on January 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

I don't think it's quite right to blame militarization of cops for this particular problem. Considerable state and private violence accompanied the strike actions of the late 19th/early 20th century. The Pinkertons had no shame about kicking the crap out of strikers. I think that's a factor that's being overlooked here--that, as a practical matter, once you're out of the context of the relatively ritualized strikes of the mid-20th-century auto industry, long-term strikes do tend to involve violence (on both sides, though obviously the state/employer is generally worse). People need to be in desperation to join in that kind of action.
posted by praemunire at 9:03 AM on January 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

It's a combination of factors. For me, aside from what gusottertrout said, the major ones would be:

1)Times change. What was effective in another era may not be now.

2)The police and media have learned how to neutralize protest or to make protest counterproductive.

3)I suppose “it's not bad enough yet” is a factor, but for me a bigger one is that, for the life of me, I can't see how getting arrested helps if you're not a celebrity. The police will gas, beat, or shoot you, which will at minimum, damage your health and compromise your ability to do activist work. Also, while you are in jail, you suck down resources from your fellow protestors (bail, lawyer, etc.) that could otherwise be used for more constructive purposes.

4) Internal antagonism from the Left is also a big factor for me. There is a very active and vocal segment who care a lot more about attacking those they deem Insufficiently Progressive than they do about making actual progress. I've had those folks throw stuff in my face, grab my sign, and start aggro with the cops, regardless of pleas from march organizers. (To answer the obvious question: I have reason to know that they were NOT police provocateurs.)

So I'm done with that. These days, I prefer methods that might be described as “water flowing around the stone” or “below the radar.” Less impressive-looking, but (I can only hope) effective in the long run.
posted by Weftage at 9:08 AM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

In addition to the many great answers above, I also think that government actions today are deliberately designed and targeted to make civil disobedience harder. If there isn't an explicit law against me doing Thing X, just a budget decision to pull all government funding from Thing X programs so that it becomes nearly impossible for me to afford Thing X...that's harder than just "screw you, I'll do Thing X, jail me if you must".

Meanwhile, where civil disobedience is possible--"hey government agencies, you can't tweet" "screw you, we'll tweet on our own time"--it is indeed happening.
posted by capricorn at 11:33 AM on January 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

From an old, bitter lefty, because of the prevailing belief you can engage in class warfare without fighting. Nonviolence can be a good tactic or even strategy, but sometimes it ain't.

Its going to be a while before someone stands up to TPTB and says " I haven't read Marx's Capital, but I've got the marks of capitalism on me." as a threat. If someone knows how to hurt the upper 10% enough to make them give up some wealth and power without violence they should speak up because appealing to their better natures hasn't been working out too well so far.
posted by ridgerunner at 12:10 PM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Sympathy strikes are illegal under Taft-Hartley.
Just to clarify, refusing to cross a picket line is not a sympathy strike so long as your action does not constitute a stop work action. For example, I can avoid doing business with a company that is currently being picketed but if I were a unionized electrician scheduled to do work on site, refusing to cross the line in solidarity could be actionable.
posted by xyzzy at 6:42 PM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

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