A Strike Kafka Could Love

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Tax officials in the Czech Republic, upset by budget reforms, have come up with a novel way of striking: by obeying every last letter of the tax code. "We will strictly adhere to all laws, deadlines and requirements," a union leader said, "which will paralyze the tax administration."

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  1. Like when union members strictly obey every safety reg, and produce 2 widgets per day.

  2. Yes, this is a well known trick done all the time by unions. Many ‘work slowdowns’ are this method. Among other things, they make plain the fact that workers often help their business by bending rules, and that experienced workers know which rules to bend.

  3. Aye, the I blogged something about this back when the longshoremen’s union here did something similar. Apparently it’s not that uncommon a tactic, called “work to rule” striking. The irony there was that Bush (if I’m remembering correctly) had to, in essence, order people to stop following federal regulations. In other words, failing to routinely flout those regulations constituted a threat to national security or something…

  4. For all the talk about slavery that sometimes appears on these comment boards (e.g., “I am enslaved by the IRS”, etc.) something approaching real slavery occurs when Bush issues an edict requiring someone to work on pain of going to jail.

  5. I’m not sure if “work to rule” necessarily refers to federal rules. I think that at least some of the time it refers to the union contract itself. The first time you encounter one of these things, it is shocking what they contain – an enormous amount of picayune boilerplate.

    Still, I wish every single state employee everywhere would “work to rule.” Frankly, the less these people accomplish, the happier I am, and perhaps strict work to rule by bureaucrats would actually motivate people to start repealing laws.

  6. Oh, Sammy, Bush didn’t really require people to work on pain of going to jail. He told them to obey federal law on pain of going to jail. No one was going to be jailed if they quit their job. They were going to be jailed for violating federal law governing strikes, etc.

  7. Work to rule and other labor actions are reviewed here at the IWW website.

    The Good Work Strike is my favorite. Double helpings? Bring ’em on!

  8. Er, that was a LOCKOUT by the employers, boys.

  9. “Oh, Sammy, Bush didn’t really require people to work on pain of going to jail. He told them to obey federal law on pain of going to jail. No one was going to be jailed if they quit their job. They were going to be jailed for violating federal law governing strikes, etc.”

    R.C., I respectfully disagree with you.

    First of all, in that case the longshoremen were not on strike; their employers locked them out (i.e., refused to let them come to work) for allegedly complying to the letter with safety procedures. Bush intervened and ordered the workers not to follow those procedures.

    Second, regardless of the semantics involved, a labor injunction indeed does require someone to go to work on pain of going to jail. While many condemned Poland’s treatment of the Solidarity workers at the Gdansk shipyards in the 1980’s, scarcely a peep ever emerges when a federal judge issues a labor injunction here.

  10. Sammy,

    Despite popular myth, the heyday of labor success did not follow the Wagner Act. The wave of industrial unionism really picked up momentum after Norris LaGuardia, which removed the federal government from labor disputes altogether (with a few exceptions like the Railway Labor Act). The unions didn’t need a helping hand from FDR. They just needed assurance he would keep federal jackboots and court injunctions out of the mix.

    The Wagner Act was needed by the bosses, who wanted the feds involved in enforcing labor contracts and certifying unions; and by the union bureaucrats, who obtained power to suppress wildcats and impose discipline on the rank and file. And it opened the door to stuff like Taft-Hartley, which illegalized most of the stuff that actually worked in the ’30s.

    Interestingly, General Electric was one of the heaviest supporters of federally sponsored industrial unionism, because it was more convenient to negotiate with a single industrial union for a legally enforceable contract, than to negotiate with dozens of craft unions that could still walk off the job when they changed their minds. The federally certified industrial union, in providing a unified bargaining agent that could keep the rank and file in line, performed very much the same function as a company union.

    I think it was probably easier to organize a shop back in the ’30s by sending a handful of guys in to announce “down your tools, boys, we’re on strike,” than it is to get workers today to jump through all the hoops required for NLRB certification.

  11. Sammy G:

    No, no–I meant they were analogous within a single enterprise, in the sense that they provided a single bargaining agent so the management did not have to deal with multiple craft unions.

    It is indeed “revisionist” history to suggest that big business was behind New Deal labor policy. It is a “revision” of the orthodoxy held, in mirror-image fashion, by both Art Schlesinger liberals and corporate conservatives, that the regulatory state was created for “idealistic” reasons over the opposition of big business. The role of big business in promoting such corporatist legislation in the Progressive and New Deal periods is pretty heavily documented by Gabriel Kolko (The Triumph of Conservatism), Thomas Ferguson (Golden Rule), and various works by G. William Domhoff.

    Both NPR goo-goos and corporate interests have a common interest, for different reasons, in pretending that such legislation was “anti-business”: it bolsters the liberal claim to idealistic motivation rather than service to one wing of capital, and it also hides the dependance of big business on the state for its profits. Both groups, for different reasons, have a deep fear of the real free market, although big business interests adopt faux “free market” rhetoric.

    In the case of FDR’s labor legislation, the main backing came from the faction of American capital that was capital intensive and export oriented. For heavy industry, labor costs were a relatively minor part of the total cost package, but the long-term planning process required social peace on the job and fairly stable wage rates. So they were more than willing to pay significantly higher wages in return for being able to rely on the federal courts and the labor bureacracy to enforce contracts on the rank and file.

  12. Kevin,

    I agree with some of what you say. Clearly, the Norris LaGuardia Act removed a key weapon that prevented successful labor organization. (Interestingly, it was a Republican-backed bill, sponsored by Sen. George Norris of Nebraska and Rep. Fiorello LaGuardia of New York.)

    But the Wagner Act, not Norris-LaGuardia, was more of a spur to organizing. (Actually, the real spur was the NRA Labor Board, which went out of existence after it was ruled unconstitutional just a few years before the Wagner Act.)

    Some of your comments are, respectfully, a bit bizarre. For example, a national union that represents employees in numerous bargaining units across the country is not in any way analogous to a company union; to suggest otherwise is to engage in Orwellian language games. And to suggest that the Wagner Act was pushed by industry for its own ends likewise is wrong and an exercise in weird revisionist history.

    Of course, the Norris LaGuardia Act largely was eviscerated in the 1970’s when federal judges brought back the labor injunction, reading an exception into Norris-LaGuardia for strikers that occurred during the pendency of a labor agreement if that agreemehnt contained an arbitration clause. But that’s another story . . . .

  13. Kevin,

    Sorry to have misinterpreted your earlier comments. What you say is very interesting and I suspect largely true. In a lot of ways, however, I suspect it was a matter of things working out well for those industries, rather than the initial plan itself. After all, it cannot be gainsaid how hated FDR was by many large corporate interests.

    It certainly appears to be true that independent worker activism has declined since the 1920’s (i.e., after the Wagner Act). Every so often accounts of independent collective activity emerge; they are disfavored by the courts. For example, in the mid-90’s a group of non-union employees at a Bob Evans restaurant walked off their jobs to protest the firing of a supervisor whom they respected. Ruling on a charge they filed, the NLRB held that they were engaged in protected activity and thus could not have been lawfully fired (only permanently replaced). The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit denied enforcement of the NLRB order, holding that the employees lost the protections of the law because they acted disloyally by walking out during a busy period. (Bob Evans v. NLRB, 7th Cir 1995).

  14. Not that this particularly germaine to the discussion here, but I found it humorous that a few years ago the bartenders for the CAW (Canadian Auto Workers) Union Halls went on strike (they belong to some other food services union) and the CAW’s response was to fire them all.

    Apparently, solidarity only lasts until it works against your own interests.

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