Letter from Santa Barbara: Reviving the Sympathy Strike

Letter from Santa Barbara: Reviving the Sympathy Strike

The concept of “sympathy” has seen better days. Since the 1970s, as the politics of poverty moved from social movements to NGOs, the language of “sympathy” has become, in the minds of many activists and academics, irredeemably tainted—an iron fist of imperial arrogance ensconced within the velvet glove of “concern.” To “sympathize,” in this view, is to “other-ize,” and once one has “other-ized,” the game has been lost.
“Sympathy” has been under fire from the other side as well, by a leadership class deeply invested in the benefits of generalized apathy (what the recently departed Marxist theorist Norman Geras called the “contract of mutual indifference.”)

My place of residence, Santa Barbara, California, is rarely thought of as a historically important crucible of this “contract of mutual indifference.” But UC Santa Barbara was for many years the institutional home of Garrett Hardin, the ecologist who popularized the notions of the “tragedy of the commons”—which for TED Talk types proves that mutualism always spells disaster—and “lifeboat ethics,” which by reducing moral choices to questions of rationing is hardly an “ethics” at all. Hardin’s ideas may have done more damage to “sympathy” than any other not hatched in the economics department of the University of Chicago.

Today—November 20, 2013—Santa Barbara presents itself, along with other UC campuses, as a different kind of protagonist in a new chapter of the politics of “sympathy.” My union, UAW Local 2865, which represents teaching assistants and graders across the University of California system, joins the California Nurses Association and UC’s Skilled Crafts’ Unit in a “sympathy strike” in support of AFSCME Local 3299, which represents 22,000 workers in the UC system. The issues on the table include: a cruel, unilaterally imposed 1.5 percent wage cut (announced as UC upper management awarded a bevy of “incentive bonuses” to well-compensated bureaucrats), threats to pensions, and management retaliation against AFSCME participants in a strike last May. If ever there was an occasion for a “sympathy strike,” this is certainly it.

Readers may be forgiven for not knowing what a “sympathy strike” is: even in a popular labor dictionary for activists, “sympathy strike” gets only a one-sentence description. But at one point in U.S. labor history—the post–Civil War Gilded Age, a moment so much like our own—the “sympathy strike” and the related “secondary boycott” were the key tools of gaining public support for working-class goals. They worked extraordinarily well.

As legal scholar William Forbath has written, it was the very success of the sympathy strike and the secondary boycott that led elites to turn their attentions to the courts in the 1880s and ’90s, seeking legal remedies for working-class protests that led to declining dividends. The courts responded with the invention of a particularly odious legal novelty—the “labor injunction,” which Forbath calls a “bar on classwide legislative reforms” rooted in a Brahmin hatred of “broad, class-based forms of collective action and mutual aid.” As a result, unions gradually abandoned “some of labor’s most potent weapons,” the most important of which was the “sympathy strike.”

As the miseries of rule of “government by injunction” and the pathologies of its stepchild, “business unionism,” became increasingly galling, a new regime was gradually imposed, culminating in the Wagner Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938—but this step towards a democratic labor politics did not go so far as to validate “class-based forms of collective action and mutual aid.” Quite the contrary.

With a union movement fighting declining membership and a steady assault from the neoliberal center and right, it has become (perhaps properly) unfashionable to sound a note that was once central to New Left labor history: the New Deal regime of collective bargaining—proceeding sector by sector, bureaucratically and legalistically, with strong commitments by labor leaders against the withholding of labor power as a bargaining tactic, and strong guarantees against “sympathy strikes” and “secondary boycotts”—represented a political defeat when compared to the broad, class-wide social vision of an earlier union culture. But what else can we say about a historical process that has led to a situation like today?

Consider the strange fact that only reason that UAW’s members can strike sympathetically today without breaking the law is the existence of a series of loopholes regarding the timing of contract expiration.

Keeping our mouths shut and hoping that the Democratic Party passes the upgrades to the Wagner Act that have been on the table since the Carter administration hasn’t been working. In 2008 and 2009, labor intellectuals and activists tried to mobilize around the abominably named Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a misguided strategy that became politically impossible with Scott Brown’s election to the Senate. Since then, the labor movement has been toying with a variety of leader-led public relations initiatives and waiting to see how Obamacare shakes out. Meanwhile, the young people who are currently coming of age may well be the most radicalized, and radicalizable, since the 1930s. They need more from the labor movement than a purple T-shirt.

What they need—what we all need—is not “employee free choice,” whatever that means. What we need is the ability to reimagine “sympathy,” and to put it to work, as UAW 2865 is doing today.

If the connotations of “sympathy” continue to irritate, perhaps a redefinition could make it useful again. In music, prior to the invention of electrical amplification, “sympathetic strings” were added to stringed acoustic instruments to amplify and sustain sounds that would otherwise fade into silence too quickly. Because of the complex nature of resonance, tuning, and psychoacoustics, sympathetic strings often sound like a rippling chorus of accompaniment. “Sympathetic strings” amplify and sustain—but they also have a certain autonomy and unpredictability. They incline towards resonance—but they are not forced or manipulated.

Perhaps “sympathy” can be thought of along these lines—as a political means of amplify and sustain, without the connotations of smothering overinvestment or narcissistic gratification. In our new Gilded Age, a commitment to a politics of “sympathy” drawn on these lines—and a renewal of the “sympathy strike” as the key tactic—seems like the most promising path to a world we are not ashamed to live in.


Kurt Newman is a graduate student in history at UC Santa Barbara and a member of UAW 2865. The views expressed here are his alone.


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