Restore the Right to Strike

The right of workers to withhold their labor – to strike – is among the most fundamental 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 fundamental 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 has led to a precipitous decline in the number of strikes. In 2009, the number of major strikes in the U.S. was the lowest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting data – just five major strikes, affecting 13,000 workers. The number has since risen in 2016 to 15 major strikes, affecting 99,000 workers, but this is a very low number considering two generations ago hundreds of strikes per year was normal for our country. 

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.

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.

Public employee strikes have been a major component of the recent labor fightback, with teachers in Chicago, transit workers in the San Francisco Bay Area, and others prepared to exercise their right to strike in defense of public services and good jobs. In one of labor’s most important ballot-box victories ever, the voters of Ohio in 2011 overwhelmingly turned back the Republican attack on public workers’ rights and restored the Ohio collective bargaining law, which includes the right of public employees to strike.

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. In the month of this convention, UE Local 1121 in LaCrosse, Wisconsin engaged in a 45-minute walkout.  This was the first job action in the 20-year history of the local, had 100 percent union participation, and resulted in the local achieving all of its negotiating demands.  Credible strike threats by many UE locals, including Local 274, Local 506, Local 766, Local 770, Local 777, Local 1107, and Local 1118 also helped to achieve excellent results at the bargaining table, including in several cases the elimination of two-tier pay structures. 

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, as exists in the UE-GE National Agreement.


  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. Recommends renewed education of members on UE strike policy and urges locals to seek the right to strike on grievances as part of their collective bargaining demands;
  3. Calls upon locals and regions to include as part of their political action work the restoration of the right to strike for private and public workers without retaliation or replacement as part of any comprehensive labor law reform;
  4. 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.