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When Mad-Dog Radicalism Is the Winning Play


Okay. Here is a quiz.

Naturally, the title is not at all a giveaway to the right answer. 😏


Once upon a time there were two sets of French coal miners.


One set of miners had a very reasonable moderate union. Union leaders narrowly concerned themselves about raising the pay and improving the working conditions of miners. They worked closely with management and understood the overall economics of the coal industry. They did not ask for anything that would be financially unsustainable for the coal companies. They did not ask for anything they did not think they could win. They avoided unnecessary strikes. They only engaged in conflicts when their demands were reasonable and when they were sure they had enough strength to guarantee that they would win.


The other set of miners had a Communist union. The goal of the communist union was to overthrow capitalism. Coal strikes were merely a highly visible symbol to inspire other workers to rise up themselves. The Communists struck to see wages quintupled. The Communists struck to protest French foreign policy. The Communists struck when the Soviets told them to. They lost and lost and lost and lost.


Which set of workers ended up with the highest wages?


*  *  * 


If you guessed the moderates, then you were wrong. I told you the title was a hint.


The communists got vastly higher wages than did the reformists.


What’s going on here?


Management knew that the reformists did not want to strike. The reformists would only strike if they thought they could win. So, if management went all out and won a labor strike, the reformists would be too afraid to go out and strike again. It made perfect sense to throw all of the company resources into crushing the first reformist strike. After that, the moderate union would be a tame little lapdog that would do whatever the company wanted. It would never ask for much money. It would never be unreasonable. You could buy the reformist union off for pennies.


Beating the communist union would accomplish nothing. They would strike whenever Stalin’s officials told them to. They would strike whenever the Communist Party in Paris needed a big worker demonstration to show their power in a political demonstration. They didn’t care if they won or lost. They didn’t care if their demands were realistic or unrealistic. All that mattered was getting workers into the street.  And they were going to do that no matter what.


So there was no sense in trying to “crush” the communists. They were going to be like the undead in a zombie movie that would rise up over and over no matter how many times they got shot by the sheriff.


So how did management solve their communist problem? They tried to keep individual workers as happy as possible. They did not give the communists anything when they went out to strike. (This made all the strikes losses.) But after the strike, they gave individual workers raises left and right and up and down. They did their best to be “cool boss of the week”. The result is that the workers were very well paid; they were being well paid not to join the communists.


*  *  *


What does this story tell us about bargaining strategy today?


Well, the Communist strategy only worked because workers had enough economic power to really hurt management when they went out on strike.


If they were weak, management could have simply crushed them, hired replacement workers and gone on with normal business.


The only way you get to play radical games and win is when you can really hurt your opponent in the coming conflict. In this period (the 1920’s), France needed coal desperately. The companies could sell all the coal they wanted at top prices. If the workers went on strike, the company would not get their sales, and their customers would all buy German or British coal instead. If the workers went out on strike, they could utterly wreck company profits, by taking away sales that would never come back. So management had to do whatever it would take to keep the workers from going out.


Nowadays, most workers are not as strong as 1920’s French coal miners. Workers strike at Walmart? Big deal. Management fires the workers and hires new ones. Workers at Ford Motors go out on strike? Big deal. No production means that cars become scarcer on the lots. The dealers do not have to wheel and deal and offer discounts to sell you a vehicle. You want a Ford F-Series truck? Sorry, the factory ain’t making them now ‘cause of the strike. We got two left on the lot. You want one of ‘em, you pay sticker price.” Not exactly a scenario that moves management to tears.


Nowadays, we also have globalization. Workers get too expensive. Management just shuts down your factory and moves production to the Philippines. French coal companies could not just move their operations to somewhere cheaper. If you wanted to sell coal from Mine X in France, you had to produce your coal in France with French coal miners. 


So to pull the French coal miner radicalism trick, you have to have a meaningful negotiating threat against the company, and you have to be confident the company will not close your operation down and move elsewhere. This does not apply to most bargaining situations.


But this does not mean the tactic is never usable.


English workers had a field day with this in the 1960’s and 1970’s. They would all be divided up into rival unions and the unions would have rival shop foremen competing for the best deal for their local workers. So all sorts of random rump factions of workers would be going out on strike for this crazy reason or that crazy reason; if the workers down the street went out on strike, your local union steward would be a complete sellout if he didn’t have his own strike later. So two days later, or a week later, your local steward would call a surprise strike. The company would be hit by four more surprise strikes during the rest of the month. Production was absolutely chaotic. But wages and conditions were quite fine. (Margaret Thatcher brought all this to an end in the 1980’s; the English unions still got a nice twenty to thirty year run off the technique.)


There are American unions that could pull this off. There are San Francisco unions with very credible bona fides as believing in radicalism for its own sake.


There are industries that can not relocate overseas and which lose serious money whenever there is a big strike. Note that even in today’s heavily non-union environment, most of America’s airline companies are still unionized. Pilots, flight attendants, ground mechanics and baggage handlers are all unionized. If any one of these groups goes out on strike, planes don’t fly. When a flight gets cancelled, the airline companies get no chance to get their money back. People cancel trips, or arrange to fly with other airlines. Often the airline is on the hook for paying for the alternative ticket.


There are more opportunities to go radical when unemployment is low and replacement workers are hard to find.

There are more opportunities to go radical when businesses are facing customers who just won’t wait.


That said, the mad dog strategy is extremely fragile. Business conditions turn, and management can go on the counter-offensive. Workers need to think not only about their bargaining positions now, but what their bargaining positions might look like ten years from now.


My own personal preference is for non-zero-sum growth. I like enduring relationships between bargaining partners that lead to mutual growth for all. I became a development sociologist rather than a conflict sociologist because more income is created by increasing economic growth than by fighting over the distribution of income in a smaller economy.


But there are times when workers do have to fight for the gains that might potentially be on the table. Much of the increase in worker welfare that was produced in the twentieth century came from the rise of a labor movement, the rise of union wages and the rise of pro-union political parties that delivered national health care and old age security to workers. When the economy will support higher pay for workers, workers still have to fight to get what is rightfully theirs.


If you are going to cooperate, cooperate. If you are going to fight, fight. Once you are committed to a fight and strong enough to fight, one-hundred-percent radicalism works better than middle-of-the-road namby-pambyism.


Whichever strategy you are going to take, it generally makes sense to go all out.

For More Information

For more details on the French coal mining story, see my book When Strikes Make Sense and Why from Plenum Press.

For the opposite story of how all-out take-no-prisoners radical anti-unionism turned into an effective strategy on the managerial side, see Thomas Kochan, Harry Katz and Robert McKersie’s union-management classic, The Transformation of American Industrial Relations.

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