Big Strikes and the sabotage of the labor movement

Marianne Garneau challenges the current focus on bringing back large strikes, arguing that the wellspring of labor militancy historically has been worker-led action on the shopfloor.

In the last couple of years, a new article of faith has emerged in left labor circles: the need to bring back the Big Strike. Such was the focus of Joe Burns’ Reviving the Strike, Erik Loomis’s A History of America in Ten Strikes, and Jeremy Brecher’s recently republished Strike!, but it is also now the line pushed by virtually every labor luminary. It is the centerpiece of Jane McAlevey’s recently concluded “Strike School.” Sara Nelson’s slow-burning campaign for head of AFL-CIO has involved talking up the possibility of a “general strike” among airport workers. There is a steady stream of op-eds advancing this line in Labor Notes, the Nation, Jacobin, and In These Times. The large-scale strikes in recent years in both the private and public sectors (Bath Iron Works, Marriott, Chicago Teachers Union, West Virginia teachers, Stop & Shop) are written up excitedly as what the labor movement needs more of.

Of course, this goal is laudable. Nobody thinks workers shouldn’t strike. It’s an exertion of class power, and it results in better contracts and possibly even moving the needle on broader social issues, not to mention increasing the confidence of the working class to wage class struggle. The point that we have to return to the days when workers exerted punitive withdrawals of their labor and exhibited broad working-class solidarity, even if it means defying the law, are well taken.

However, I want to question the narrative that the Big Strike is itself the key to reviving worker militancy, which is exactly the promise being made by all of these figures. I want to argue that the singular focus on the all-out strike has to be understood within a horizon in which we have retreated from shopfloor control over the workplace, to bargaining every few years over wages and benefits. Polemically, I want to argue that the historical context for the emphasis on the Big Strike is the retreat from these fights on the workfloor, which I take to be integral to developing the struggle capacity of the working class.

If you take a look back at the previous peaks of labor militancy that left labor theorists lionize, there was a completely different attitude, unrecognizable today, about what fights needed to be waged and where. Workers then prioritized struggles over the day-to-day control of work and insisted on settling these and other issues on the floor.

In some ways, the arc of 20th century labor history is the displacement of a labor politics that prioritized worker control on the job. A push for big strikes without an at least equally strong emphasis – in practice, not just in rhetoric – on reinvigorating shopfloor struggle is like demanding a wheel without an axle.

The early 1900s: Sabotage

In his delightful pamphlet “The Stopwatch and the Wooden Shoe,” historian Mike Davis traces the fight over work speedups and managerial control in the early 1900s. The “stopwatch” refers to Taylorism, i.e. the “scientific management” of workers then being introduced, through strict observation of the work process, de-skilling and automation of work, and squeezing more productivity by increasing output quotas while decreasing staffing. The “wooden shoe” refers to attempts to resist this through “sabotage” — the term was once thought to have originated with French workers throwing their wooden shoes or “sabots” into machinery.

Davis argues first and foremost that scientific management was not really “about efficiency, [but] about power.” The original goal of Taylorism was to break up “the work group,” which “constitute[d] a social unit for the individual worker almost as intimate and primal as the family.” Taylorist methods were a direct assault on these “counter-organizations”:

The inter-dependency of workers – previously expressed through their teamwork of conscious co-operation – would be replaced by a set of detailed task instructions prepared by management to orchestrate the workforce without requiring any initiative from the bottom up. Taylor also advised bosses to reduce on-the-job socializing of workers through vigilant supervision and frequent rotation. In principle, the only tolerable relationships within a Taylorized plant would be the chains of command subordinating workers to the will of management.

The centerpiece of Davis’s pamphlet is the struggle the IWW waged against Taylorism: “In contrast to the AFL’s narrow defense of endangered craft privileges, the Wobblies attempted to develop a rank-and-file rebellion against the rationality of Taylor and the speed-up.” They did so with what he calls “sabotage.” The word was thrown around a lot in IWW circles back then, with various meanings, but Davis identifies the key meaning as “a flexible family of different tactics which effectively reduce output and efficiency.” He observes that “the IWW focused especially on systemic sabotage through repeated slowdowns and short, sporadic strikes.”

IWW member Louis Adamic (writing in 1931) reported finding the following definition in an IWW pamphlet, originally authored by French anarchosyndicalist Émile Pouget, and translated to English by wobbly organizer Arturo Giovannitti “while he was in jail at Lawrence, Massachusetts, on framed-up charges for his part as a wobbly leader in the famous textile workers’ strike”:

any conscious or wilful [sic] act on the part of one or more workers intended to reduce the output of production in the industrial field, or to restrict trade and reduce profits in the commercial field by the withdrawal of efficiency from work and by putting machinery out of order and producing as little as possible without getting dismissed from the job.

Davis notes that “unfortunately we [historians] know very little about the actual development of job-action tactics and sabotage within the concrete context of individual factories” but that it was clear that it involved “The daily building of collective organization on a plant level and the ceaseless guerrilla warfare against management’s despotism.”

Adamic reports an example he learned on the job from a fellow wobbly:

He taught me the technique. He said: “Don’t take so much on the shovel, kid. Don’t break your back. Which reminds me of what a bunch of stiffs did down in Bedford, Indiana, back in 1908, when the boss told ’em their wages were cut. They went to a machine shop and had their shovels shortened, and said to the boss, ‘Small pay, small shovel’.” 

David Montgomery, in Workers’ Control in America, also describes the ways workers in this period resisted through

the spontaneous formation of small informal groupings, which were the focal points of the immigrants’ daily experience. In fact, the impersonal quality of the mill or dock itself made both sanity and survival depend on personal attachments to other workers. Older hands taught newcomers the techniques of survival and the covert forms of collective resistance — “lift it like this, lotsa’ time, slow down, there’s the boss, here’s where we hide, what the hell!”

Bruno Ramirez, in his When Workers Fight: The Politics of Industrial Relations in the Progressive Era, 1898–1916, echoes this overall framing: “daily warfare at the work place… direct action, sabotage, passive resistance, and striking on the job… occurred during the years when the diffusion of scientific management techniques in the United States had become most widespread”.

He notes that the IWW “were not the inventors of these tactics. Restricting the workers’ output and withdrawing one’s efficiency from work… had become universal practices among industrial workers.” However, the IWW played a critical role “For in IWW practice and theory, what had in most cases been spontaneous workers’ resistance was seized upon and elevated to a central form of anticapitalist struggle to be carried out in a conscious and organized manner.”

Davis argues that the IWW’s “industrial ‘guerrilla warfare’ was a direct response to scientific management”: the union’s Industrial Worker newspaper “repeatedly editorialized the need to counteract the stop watch with prudent use of the wooden shoe.” “Sabotage was conceived as both a means of achieving some degree of shop control in scientifically managed factories, and also as an integral part of the ‘greviculture’ (strike culture) preparing the American working class for the Social Revolution.”

Significantly for Davis, this constituted an alternative form of organizing: “a bold and coherent action strategy was emerging on premises radically different from the liberal goal of ‘institutionalized collective bargaining.’” In contradistinction to the AFL, Davis says, the IWW recognized that the fight against Taylorism had to be waged by the mass of ordinary workers, at the ground level, on an ongoing basis. The IWW’s “industrial” approach organized the “unskilled” immigrant and female workers in contrast to the AFL’s focus on skilled craftsmen. It involved “a mass tactic requiring some form of continuing, although clandestine, mass organization in the plant or mill.” Davis concludes, “Without romanticizing the IWW, we should take it seriously as the only major labor organization in the US which seriously and consistently challenged the capitalist organization of production.”

(Montgomery relates a story of IAM machinists in Bridgeport: “The resistance of these workers to speedup and management’s authority tended to take the form of continuous, covert, self-organization by small informal groups at work.” It turns out they were organized by “an erstwhile wobbly, Samuel Lavit.”)

The IWW’s struggles themselves sometimes exploded into large-scale strikes (Lawrence is a celebrated example), but the wobbly approach – organizing as it did the masses of “unskilled” immigrant workers on the front lines of scientific managerial discipline — involved direct worker empowerment to wage day-to-day “guerrilla warfare” in the shop.

The 1930s: battles large and small

The 1930s are remembered for a number of massive, historic strikes but a more detailed look at that history shows that these workers were likewise concerned with the pace of work and managerial discipline, and their main form of struggle was waged day to day on the shopfloor.

The workers in the 1936-1937 sit-down strikes in rubber and auto plants, for example, were upset most of all with the “stretch-out” aka speed-up of work. Their main means of fighting it was ongoing disruption. Montgomery says:

“Quickie” strikes forced managers to revise piece rates and pay for “down time,” to slow assembly lines, to correct unsafe or unhealthy conditions, and to sack unpopular foremen. For example, in the two months after a CIO strike had forced Goodyear Rubber Company to recognize the union and establish a 36-hour week in all production departments, there were fifteen sit-down strikes in the company’s Akron plant. Newly unionized workers there openly enforced lower production quotas … and during one dispute imprisoned twenty supervisors and members of the company’s hated “flying squadron” in one room of the plant.

The power which unionizing workers won on the job at this time was far more significant to them and to their employers than whatever wage gains they won. Shop stewards and committee men and women, backed up (often physically) by the employees in the departments they represented, translated the inextinguishable small-group resistance of workers into open defiance and conscious alternatives to the directives of the management.

When the labor left looks back upon this era, it remembers only the Big Strikes – the sit-down in Flint that secured the UAW broad recognition and a contract, for example – not the day-to-day control on the job. But the latter was the true lifeblood of worker militancy at the time. Martin Glaberman, in his seminal Punching Out (1952), points out that that contract won by the Flint sit-down was “one mimeographed page.”

But the old timers look back on that as the contract under which the greatest gains were made because the bargaining and the decisions were made by the workers on the job… [T]here wasn’t enough in it to prevent the workers from doing pretty much as they pleased. Foremen, for the first time, asked the steward how much production the department would get so he could plan accordingly. The steward consulted with the men – and then gave his answer to the foreman.

…It was common practice in the auto shops for negotiations on the shop level to consist of a steward, surrounded by all the men in a department, arguing with the foreman. No one worked until the grievance was settled – and most of them were settled in the workers’ favor without the red tape of a bargaining procedure, appeals, and umpires.

A similar account is given by Nelson Lichtenstein in his State of the Union:

At the shop-floor level, day-to-day conflict over production standards and workplace discipline permeated the structure of work and authority in most factories and mills. The early union contracts were sketchy and ambiguous, and their meaning was worked out in battles large and small. Few workers accepted the distinction between contract negotiation and contract administration; thus shop-floor assemblies, slowdowns, and stoppages proliferated during the first decade of the new industrial unions. Among workers, militancy and organization were dialectically dependent…

With respect to both the pace of work, and grievances, immediate handling on the floor was paramount:

At Studebaker it became standard practice for shop stewards to meet every morning to plan their approach to the day’s work. Exercising effective control over the company’s piece-rate pay system, they thought of the foremen as “just clerks.” In the farm equipment industry, stewards held a veto over the work norms set by supervision, and at Armour’s main Chicago plant, packinghouse union stewards developed a tactic they called “whistle bargaining.” Each steward wore a whistle around his or her neck. Whenever a supervisor declined to discuss a grievance, the steward gave a blast on the whistle and the department halted work. When the issue was resolved, the steward whistled twice and production started once again.

The lifeblood of worker militancy was in fact these day-to-day fights which are now mostly ignored. Relatedly, little attention is paid to how the militancy from the period subsided. The story is told explicitly in Melvyn Dubovsky’s Oxford Encyclopedia of American Business, Labor, and Economic History. The “Treaty of Detroit” the UAW signed with General Motors in 1950 specifically traded away worker inputs on production for a generous economic package. The 5-year contract “dramatically increased workers’ wages, protected them against inflation, and instituted a pension plan and company-provided health care.” But the “billion-dollar” contract was worth it to GM because the company (quoting social critic Daniel Bell) “’regained control over … crucial management functions… — long-range scheduling of production, model changes, and tool and plant investment.’” (That is, to this day, the pretext for abruptly shuttering plants in the midst of a labor dispute.) This “end of the bitter conflict that had roiled labor relations” since the 1930s soon

spread across the unionized sector of the economy. In industry after industry, union leaders traded away their claim to a voice in corporate decision making for agreements that gave their members better pay and a widening array of benefits: not only retirement funds and healthcare plans but unemployment compensation, paid vacations, and holiday time as well. The trade-off ushered in a period of peaceful relations, just as Bell had predicted, but it was not a peace between equals. Instead organized labor became a junior partner in a corporate-dominated ‘labor-management accord,’ its power circumscribed by the prerogatives that it had conceded… [emphases added]

Glaberman echoes the point:

The more “victories” they recorded, the bigger and more technical the contracts became… The initiative was taken away from the workers and given to the officials. A contract is a compromise. That establishes that, no matter what union gains are recorded, the rights of the company to manage production are also recorded. And in the grievance procedure it takes the power out of the hands of the workers and puts it in the hands of stewards and committeemen.

The stories of the working class in the 1930s and the post-war period carving out a new wage bargain or “class compromise,” as told by the today’s labor left, frequently leave out the major concession that was given in return: fighting on the shop floor. But Lichtenstein, for his part, is unambiguous: “It was a product of defeat, not victory. That defeat has a name… ‘collective bargaining.’” Large-scale collective bargaining over wages was specifically meant to supplant shopfloor assemblies, slowdowns, and “whistle bargaining.” The only labor tactic meant to remain was the periodic contract strike (which capitalists set upon in short order to neuter).

The 1960s: Worker revolt

A few decades later, Stan Weir would document the unstable terms of this class truce in his 1966 “A New Era of Worker Revolt.” The speech-turned-pamphlet examined the recent wave of wildcat strikes in the auto and airline industries and on the ports, which he argues were spurred first and foremost by a rejection of speedups. As in the 1930s and at the turn of the century, the core issue was control over the work process day to day. Weir argued that these open revolts, “waged primarily for an improvement in working conditions” have involved workers “develop[ing] a leadership of their own inside the plant.” He quotes a Fortune magazine editor observing that “there has been a dramatic shift from the familiar faces to the facelessness of the rank-and-file.” This, Weir says, makes sense since, in the case of GM for example, “At the present time, under the official grievance procedure, it takes up to 8 months to get settlements of speed-up grievances that are filed by workers who, in the middle of a particular day’s labor, find the condition of their lives impossible.” Workers simply had to take matters into their own hands.

Weir comments that that put workers at odds with official union leadership, who were instead almost singularly focused on bread-and-butter issues. He gives multiple examples of workers rejecting pay raises in contracts negotiated by union officials because they came with no changes to speedups. He draws explanation from A. V. Gouldner’s Wildcat Strike: union leaders are “geared to fighting wage-struggles. They’ve had studies made about the corporation’s profits. A strike is made easier if it has the support of the International.” On the other hand, they “shy away from working condition fights” because “employers… consider working conditions and line-speed their sacrosanct property. Bargaining for working conditions meets with maximum employer resistance.” But workers themselves cannot ignore the day-to-day nature of work.

Paraphrasing Gouldner, Weir notes that “A fight for working conditions cannot be waged every three or four years at contract time. It’s a day to day fight inside the plant which develops new leaders who can challenge the incumbent leaders” (emphasis mine). Whether union leaders feel threatened by this or not, the simple fact is that fighting over working conditions looks different than fighting over wages. The two struggles have entirely different social lives. On the hand there are union officials with an intense focus on bread-and-butter issues and a bargaining table where wage issues tend to dominate. On the other hand there is a shopfloor where there is a daily struggle for power, with employers trying to impose worse conditions for the sake of profits. The latter has to take place among the workers themselves, through self-organization, on an ongoing basis, much like the wobbly model Davis wrote about in resistance to Taylorism and the slowdowns and stoppages labor historians documented in the 1930s.

This point about leadership is significant. Note that Weir is not describing a process of submitting different individuals for officer or steward positions. He is arguing that the struggle creates the leaders, not vice versa. Just as shopfloor power has a different life than the grievance procedure and contract negotiation, shopfloor leadership and union officer leadership are different in kind. The workers in these revolts objected to the entire framework of “work now, grieve later.” To them, an emboldened leadership at the helm of the bargaining and grievance machinery would have been entirely beside the point.

Shopfloor fights today

The 1960s (and into the 1970s) are looked upon by many as the last era of worker militancy, before the beginning of labor’s precipitous decline. By common consensus, the middle decades of the 20th century marked a retreat in bargaining to bread-and-butter issues. Over the whole period we are sketching, from the early 1900s to the 1970s, contracts as we now know them became the norm. Their hallmark features indicate capital’s prioritization of ending militant shopfloor struggle: grievance arbitration, no-strike clauses, and broad management rights clauses. It’s hard to conceive at this point that grievances used to be settled on the shop floor, or that workers used to regularly resort to sabotage and slowdowns to establish the pace of work.

The ebbing of worker militancy is too often attributed to the purging of socialist and communist leadership in the unions. Instead, there were historically identifiable ways in which the state and its courts, business, and even union leadership itself pushed the unions into a “pure and simple unionism” that traded the struggle for power and control over work for orderly bargaining over wages and benefits (before taking those away too, once unions had been weakened). Union officials, in turn, helped push that vision of unionism on their members.

Having said that, it remains possible for workers to fight back on the job. We have covered a couple of examples on this site. At Canada Post in Edmonton in the 2000s, workers exercised tremendous pushback on speedups and forced overtime through very disciplined, bottom-up work refusals, short wildcats, and mass marches on the boss. (Interestingly, an all-out strike in 2011 – the kind lionized by current left labor discourse – killed the momentum that had been building on the floor, and further killed morale when workers were legislated back to work.)

Likewise, workers at Stardust Diner in NYC (I am an external organizer on the campaign) quickly settle grievances over health and safety and other working conditions by shuttering the busy restaurant with a walkout. They regularly refuse work they find unacceptable for reasons of understaffing or onerousness. Meanwhile this enhances their capacity for winning bread-and-butter gains: a brief sit-down secured the cooks an additional $2.50 raise shortly after the 2019 New York State minimum wage law went into effect. All of this is done outside of formal bargaining or labor relations processes, arguably necessarily so.


In today’s calls to revive labor militancy, there is virtually no talk of wresting back control of the shopfloor and the day-to-day struggle Davis, Weir, Glaberman, and these other labor historians wrote about. Yes, there is a renewed emphasis on membership mobilization, a desire to educate the “rank-and-file” about the issues, to involve them more in bargaining, and to steadily build towards strike capacity through button campaigns, marches on the boss and petitions. Occasionally unions favor stewards settling some grievances on the spot. But the question of wresting back control of work through sustained, ground-level disruption or “sabotage” is considered closed.

Meanwhile, speedups continue to be a problem as employers try to wring every last ounce from workers at all levels. In fact, productivity became decoupled from wages in the 1970s, not long after the last death throes of worker disruption on the job as described by Weir. The loss of power in the shop precipitated a loss of power overall with which to fight back against this decoupling, and against the punishing exactions of “lean production.” And yet I cannot think of a union today that endorses its workers regularly halting work over the issue (other than the IWW).

The IWW’s approach to organizing unskilled workers through “sabotage” during the advance of Taylorism had a logic to it. As IWW lawyer Austin Lewis (cited in Ramirez) put it:

where the cost of production is calculated to a nicety and where delay or interruption or the noncoordination of interdependent parts of machinery implies not only an immediate money loss but tends to the annihilation of the business itself, if continually repeated, places the safety of the capitalist property and the making of capitalist profits more and more in the hands of the working class.

On this understanding, the tool to fight employers for power was arguably not the all-out strike at all. Ramirez quotes another “IWW spokesman” writing in 1913: “the employer can better afford to fight one strike that lasts six months than he can fight six strikes that take place in the same period.” Even when strikes were not meticulously circumscribed by the life of the contract, balloting requirements, mandated cooling-off periods, the legal hiring of scabs and permanent replacement of workers, fines and injunctions — even when they were total withdrawals of labor — they were considered the blunter instrument.

But let us grant that the Big Strike needs to come back. I submit that the focus on big strikes is the abandonment of this other terrain that is arguably even more crucial to developing and maintaining worker militancy. The prelude to the loss of effective mass strikes was the labor movement’s entry into a framework that traded shopfloor leadership and struggle for orderly collective bargaining until the Big Strike (and actually a neutered version thereof) was the only tactic left. At every step, that retreat ran contrary to, and was opposed by, the membership itself. The calls today to reinvigorate union militancy through bold and inspired leadership generally set aside this tradition of settling issues on the floor. Bringing militancy back it is not just a question of putting someone else at the helm of the existing grievance and bargaining processes, and well-mobilized ranks building towards the all-out strike. It has to be a question of organized and unruly work groups politicizing work and pushing back on the job, building the power to call the shots to management — workers once again exercising that kind of control over their daily lives. The Big Strike will not be effectively revived until this tradition is as well.