Restore the Right to Strike

The right of workers to withhold their labor — to strike — is among the most important of human rights. No society can truly claim to respect liberty and deny workers the right to strike. International law recognizes the right to strike as a fundamental human right.

Rank-and-file control and anti-discrimination are foundational UE principles. Equally important is the call in the preamble to the UE Constitution to “pursue at all times a policy of aggressive struggle to improve our conditions.”

The growth of the labor movement beginning in the 1930s, including UE, was accomplished by significant worker militancy, sit downs, and strikes, which resulted in unprecedented progress for working people. 

Ronald Reagan's busting of the air traffic controllers’ union in 1981 accelerated the modern-day assault on the right to strike. Following the president’s lead, bosses began to “permanently replace” economic strikers. The threat of permanent replacement, high unemployment and the shrinking number of unionized jobs led to a precipitous decline in the number of strikes. Fortunately over the past two years an increasing number of workers have begun to take strike action against their employers, including massive, largely successful, statewide teachers strikes. 

Long-time labor activist Joe Burns did a valuable service to the labor movement when he wrote Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America (2011), in which he documents the decline of the strike and weakening of the labor movement. He argues many unions have forgotten what an effective strike is. A picket line, for example, is not meant to be “a weak form of moral witness,” but a blockade of the workplace to keep out strikebreakers and prevent the employer from operating. Burns offers useful ideas for beginning to rebuild labor’s power. His follow-up book on the public sector, Strike Back: Using the Militant Tactics of Labor's Past to Reignite Public Sector Unionism Today (2014) is equally important and useful.

The right to strike is vital to maintain and improve our wages, benefits, and working conditions, and to resist the attack on democracy by anti-working class elements. 

When Wabtec took over GE Transportation in February 2019 and attempted to impose unreasonable terms and conditions on the members of UE Locals 506 and 618 in Erie, PA, the locals struck for nine days (which, under Pennsylvania law, was ruled a lockout due to the imposition of terms and conditions). Although members of Locals 506 and 618 have held walkouts, this was the first full-fledged strike since the national GE strike in 1969-70, which lasted 102 days. Strike action forced the company back to the negotiating table, resulting eventually in a new, fair contract which preserved most of the conditions UE members had worked under at GE, including the right to strike over grievances.

Shortly after UE’s last convention, an eight-day strike by members of UE Local 234 in St. Johnsbury, VT backed the company off of draconian concession demands. A one-day strike in March of 2019 was crucial to winning a first contract for Local 1018 at Lanterman Regional Center in Los Angeles, and credible strike threats by many UE locals, including Local 121, Local 243, Local 329, Local 610, and Local 1135, also helped to achieve excellent results at the bargaining table.

In the public sector, workers in 39 states lack the legal right to strike. As UE’s public-employee members can attest, mandatory arbitration disempowers the rank and file in the negotiation of their own contract. Recent legislative attacks on public workers included rollbacks of the right to strike where it existed.

As was the case with the public-sector labor upsurge in the 1970s, just because a strike action is nominally “illegal” doesn’t mean it can’t be successful. The wave of strikes that began when West Virginia teachers walked off the job in February 2018 inspired workers throughout the nation. Teachers have held statewide strikes, sickouts, and other job actions in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, and Colorado to demand not only long overdue and substantive improvements to their pay and conditions, but also greater investment in public education — which benefits all working people.

Recent large-scale strikes by hotel and grocery store workers have also captured the public imagination, and the threat of job actions by federal and airline workers helped end the government shutdown in early 2019.

The strike is far from dead. A broad grassroots campaign by labor and its allies is necessary to reestablish our right to strike without limitation, and without the threat of being replaced. This includes the right to strike over grievances.


  1. Calls for the continued use of the strike as the primary weapon against the employer, characterized by careful planning and timing, full membership involvement, and mobilization of community and political support;
  2. Directs the national union to provide renewed member education on UE strike policy; 
  3. Urges locals to seek the right to strike on grievances as part of their collective bargaining demands;
  4. Calls upon locals and regions to include as part of their political action work a demand for the restoration of the right to strike for private and public workers without retaliation or replacement;
  5. Encourages UE members and locals to learn more about the need to restore the right to strike by reading Joe Burns’ books Reviving the Strike and Strike Back; and learn about their legal rights and effective tactics in strikes by reading Robert Schwartz’s Strikes, Picketing and Inside Campaigns; and the UE pamphlet Preparing For and Conducting A Strike: A UE Guide.