Values and Public Policy postdoc, Minh Ly, writes on last month’s PEPA seminar with Alexander Gourevitch from Brown.

Nov. 18, 2015


“Justice By Other Means: When Striking Workers Coerce Other Workers”

Professor Alex Gourevitch, a political theorist at Brown University and author of “From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth,” presented a paper on the right to strike at the University Center for Human Values as part of its Program in Ethics and Public Affairs seminar series.  At the talk, Gourevitch asked, what are the moral grounds for the right to strike?  Can workers enforce the strike by preventing others from replacing them?
            The purpose of the strike, Gourevitch argued, is to reduce injustice in the workplace.  The right to strike is one of the central “rights of the oppressed,” or moral rights that people have to correct the injustices they are suffering.
            Workers face significant injustice in the workplace, because of the arbitrary power of managers.  Workers can be fired at will for their political beliefs or sexual orientation.  They can be locked overnight in warehouses, forced to labor in extreme heat, or coerced into changing their religion.  While American workers have reached their highest level of productivity in history, earning their companies record after-tax profits, wages have fallen to the lowest level as a percentage of GDP since 1929.
             The right to strike is “one way that workers assert their moral right to resist this condition of injustice,” said Gourevitch.  Although companies threaten workers with the loss of their jobs, the strike enables workers to threaten companies with the loss of profits.  This gives workers the leverage to seek better treatment, higher wages, and a safer workplace.
            For the strike to succeed, however, workers must be able to prevent others from taking their place. This raises the moral puzzle of how it can be justified for strikers to use force to stop workers from crossing the picket line?
            In Gourevitch’s view, replacement workers or “scabs” are actively undermining an attempt to address a serious injustice.  They enable a company to resume production and ignore the strikers’ claims.  It is morally justified to stop the scabs from undermining the strike’s efforts to reduce workplace injustice. 
            The paper was presented as part of a larger book project that will develop a political theory of strikes.  Previous theorists, such as Walter Benjamin, have viewed strikes as being largely symbolic or expressive.  Others have seen strikes as resembling civil disobedience. Contrary to these views, Gourevitch argued that strikes are a distinct form of collective action.  Their value is not purely expressive, but they have an important instrumental role in effectively reducing injustice.
            Following the talk, Professor Melissa Lane asked what follows from the distinctive features of strikes?  What are the implications for the state?  Gourevitch responded that in the United States, the government makes it more difficult to go on strike, because of the protection of private property, unfair labor laws, and corporate laws that favor managers.  Historically, police played a major role in forcibly suppressing strikes.  The right to strike is part of the rights of the oppressed to resist injustice from both the workplace and the state.
            Claudio López-Guerra, a LSR fellow at the UCHV, raised the worry that replacement workers might be very poor, and must work to meet their basic needs.  Workers might also abuse the right to strike and use it to advance unjust causes.  For example, teachers in Mexico have gone on strike to control the hiring process and allow them to pass on their positions as an inheritance.
            Gourevitch suggested that strikers might address the needs of poor workers by providing income assistance or extending health care coverage.  If there is harm to third parties, the moral responsibility for it should fall on the managers who perpetuate workplace injustice, and not the workers who are seeking to correct it.  While the right to strike might be abused, that is also possible with the many rights that are already widely recognized, such as rights to free speech and freedom of association. 
            Philip Pettit commented that the right to strike is less important than the right to unionize.  Business owners have the right to incorporate, or to form a powerful corporate body that shields them from liability.  The right to unionize is the workers’ counterpart to the business owners’ right to incorporate.  The union gives workers the ability to negotiate on more equal terms.
            Gourevitch asserted that the right to strike can be separated from the right to unionize.  In the United States, workers have often gained the right to unionize only by giving up the right to strike.  The right to unionize can also give excessive power to union leaders, who may have interests that differ from those of workers.  For example, Verizon workers recently wanted to go on strike, but union leaders refused.  Workers should have the right to organize, but unions should not be seen as their sole representatives.
            Professor Stephen Macedo raised concerns about the use of force.  Parts of the paper viewed force as a type of leverage that workers exercise when they threaten to stop production.  Other parts of the paper focused on force as including violence to stop scabs.  More coercive levels of force, said Macedo, require more demanding levels of justification.  He proposed that workers may have a moral requirement to use less coercive means before resorting to strikes.
            Expanding on his view, Gourevitch argued that workers may have to go directly to strikes when facing a highly unjust society.  If workers try other options first, as an “exhaustion requirement” would demand, managers would resort to legal and illegal measures against the workers.  For example, managers might deny labor leaders access to other workers, preventing the strike from being organized.
            At the conclusion of the talk, Professor Jeffrey Stout defended the symbolic value of strikes.  Strikes can have a dramatic effect in reversing the apparent relation between the oppressor and oppressed.  Before the strike, it appears that the oppressed workers are a dependent group.  The strike dramatizes how the oppressor is also dependent on the oppressed.  The strike sends the message to the oppressor that the workers have recruited members to their cause, they are willing to make sacrifices, and there is an implicit threat of more to come.
           Gourevitch answered that one criteria for a strike to be morally justified could be that the strike will make it more likely that future strikes will be successful.  The symbolic impact of strikes can still fall under the standard of instrumental value if it sends a strong message and gives workers a more effective sense of their agency.