Belfast Telegraph

Public sector strikes couldn't happen in the US

By Jim Dee

Given the cataclysmic potential of the European debt crisis, it's little wonder that many Americans worry that its shockwaves could cross the Atlantic as well.

But in the short term at least, one European reality that is unlikely to hit America any time soon is the trade union movement's muscle-flexing that Northern Ireland saw last week.

Unions in America have come a long way since the likes of Cork-born Mary Harris Jones - aka 'Mother Jones' - spearheaded the organising of coal miners in Virginia, West Virginia, Kansas and Colorado in the late-1800s.

Gone, too, are the days of the expanding US trade union movement that Easter Rising leader James Connolly witnessed at first-hand while organising for the Industrial Workers of the World on America's east coast in 1908-1909.

Such was labour's political power in the 1930s that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt championed the creation of the National Labor Relations Board as part of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933 in order to protect workers from intimidating bosses. And, after the Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional, FDR used an executive order to restore it.

The last general strike in America was in 1946 in Oakland, California. It occurred after 400 retail workers went on strike and police intervened on behalf of the employer.

Some 130,000 workers downed tools in solidarity. The two-day strike ended when the city government vowed not to dispatch police in future labour disputes.

The Oakland strike was one of six general strikes in the US in 1946 - the most in one year. The next year, Congress passed the Labor Management Relations Act (also known as the Taft-Hartley Act), which effectively outlawed general strikes by declaring that "a general strike in support of other workers is illegal".

In spite of Taft-Hartley, the unions' successes in the post-Second World War era helped push them to their highest membership rates. In the 1950s, they represented 30% of the private sector workforce.

Today, although 36% of government workers belong to unions, only 7% of the private sector is unionised.

Of course, the sharp decline of union membership was anything but accidental.

Ronald Reagan struck the first major blow in what has been a decades-long conservative jihad against the unions when he fired more than 11,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organisation (Patco) in August 1981.

The demise of Patco was followed by an acceleration of free-trade agreements that made it easier for businesses and industries to shutter American factories and move operations overseas.

The resulting job insecurity helped further undermine unions. In the 30 years since the Patco showdown, US unions lost three million members.

Ironically, union-busting tactics by Republican-controlled legislatures in the wake of the Republicans' 2010 victories at both federal and state level have revived the US union movement.

In spite of recent gains, Ronald Reagan's legacy looms large over America's labour movement.

For example, the number of American workers who participated in industrial action in 2010 was only 2% of what it had been before Reagan dissolved Patco.

And that means that, however much Americans may support unions' right to exist, strikes of the kind seen in Northern Ireland last week aren't likely to occur in America any time soon.

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