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New Worlds: Collective Action

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As the Writers Guild strike continues into its fourth month, it’s time for us to talk about not just what guilds, unions, and the like can do for their members, but how they do it.

Actually, this is a lot broader than just labor organizations — it’s a basic principle of many kinds of groups, serving many kinds of interests. It’s the metaphor encapsulated by the old story (whose origin I don’t know) of someone being told to break a single stick, then failing to break a bundle of sticks tied together. What’s vulnerable on its own is stronger in company . . . and a lot more powerful in striking back.

Collective action is one of the main ways the weak get strong. Whether it’s peasants rebelling against a cruel overlord or screenwriters trying to make sure the studios don’t replace them with AI — or, heck, an army — a group of people working in solidarity can accomplish a lot that would be impossible for each of them on their own. Strikes are the most visible example of this, but it generally starts well before that point, in the form of collective bargaining.

We use that term primarily in the context of employees negotiating with employers, but it could apply equally well to any situation where a group of people are defending their individual interests by banding together to demand concessions en masse. (Rati Mehotra’s upcoming novel Flower and Thorn includes the communities that gather magical flowers from a desert forming collectives to demand better prices from the merchants who buy those flowers from them.) Whether it’s a pay raise, better hours, improved safety, or other concerns — often several considerations bundled together — the collective basically says, Do what we ask, or this all stops.

When that fails . . . then you get a strike, with everybody downing tools (or equivalent for the context) and bringing their business or industry grinding to a halt. A brief strike doesn’t cause too much pain — it establishes the determination of the strikers, and sometimes that’s enough — but the longer it goes on, the more money the owners of the business (or purchasers of the goods, or whatever) lose or at least fail to earn. Since owners tend not to like that, increasing duration means increased pressure to come to the bargaining table.

Of course, that’s a knife with no hilt. By stopping work, strikers also lose money — and the sort of people who feel compelled to strike often have straitened finances already. So the pressure’s applied on both sides, with workers often accepting less than a full grant of their demands because at least it means they’ll be able to pay rent. (That’s one of the reasons you might come to the table with multiple demands, so you have points on which to concede in order to succeed elsewhere.) As in any negotiation, though, a lot depends on what each side stands to gain or lose. Since the screenwriters are currently having trouble making a living from their jobs anyway, and facing a future in which it’ll be all but impossible, their incentive to hold firm is strong.

But, well, there’s always the risk that someone will cave. Strike-breakers, colloquially referred to as “scabs,” are people who either abandon the strike or never join it, crossing the picket lines — be they literal or metaphorical — to go on working. Many of them are driven by desperation, needing the money too badly to accept the cost of stopping, even if enduring that pain now would mean less pain later. Others may have ideological or personal differences with the leaders of the strike; some may have taken side bargains with the bosses, prioritizing their individual interests above the greater communal good. Either way, they tend to be reviled by those who remain in solidarity with their fellows.

Sometimes “reviled” is far too mild a word. The violence around these kinds of situations, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, isn’t just between the bosses and the workers; it can be among the workers, too. The Northumbrian song “Blackleg Miner” (referring to a strikebreaking coal miner) includes the verse

So do not go near the Seghill mine
Across the way they stretch a line
To catch the throat and break the spine
Of the dirty blackleg miner.

and ends on the ominous exhortation to not wait until your dying day to join the union, “for that may not be far away / You dirty blackleg miner.” Outright murder may be relatively rare in a labor context, but beatings absolutely happened — possibly still do, for all I know. Verbal abuse and shunning certainly are and have been fair game. And I’m not going to say murder never happened at all: in Muromachi-era Japan, medieval peasant communes used any means necessary to maintain solidarity against their noble and samurai overlords, even to the point of burning down the houses of those who violated the local order . . . with their entire families inside.

Brutality on that scale is hard to excuse, but in general you can see why people at odds with far stronger powers will go to great lengths to stop their fellows from undermining their efforts. Solidarity is the bedrock on which collective action stands; if that starts to crack, the entire enterprise can come crashing down. Not all the methods used to maintain it are awful, though. Verbal encouragement plays as much of a role as verbal abuse does, with exhortations and rallying songs urging strikers to stand fast. If one family is in even more dire straits than the others, those who have only two pennies to rub together may still share one to keep their comrade from having to choose between strikebreaking and starvation.

And, of course — as we’re seeing right now — outsiders sympathetic to the cause can and do help, donating money or vital supplies to ease the hurt on the strikers. They can also apply pressure of their own against the individuals in power, by refusing to buy that company’s products (a boycott can be seen as kind of a purchaser’s strike) or speaking up to change public opinion on the matter. Once again, though, that can cut both ways: those with power may equally be fighting in the arena of public opinion and trying to make the strikers’ situation even worse. When strikes are legal, that last avenue may be limited to things like unexpectedly trimming the trees that were shading the picket line during a heat wave, but when they’re not . . . labor history is full of police laying into strikers with fists and batons or even guns, adding blood and sometimes lives to the cost of stopping work.

And yet, they still stopped. Because sometimes, the alternative was even worse.

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2 thoughts on “New Worlds: Collective Action”

  1. “It’s the metaphor encapsulated by the old story (whose origin I don’t know) of someone being told to break a single stick, then failing to break a bundle of sticks tied together”
    Aesop’s Fables. Which gives you an idea of how old that story and idea is

    I would not that sometime you get scabs who are given permission to do so! Brandi Chastain, for example, joined the training camp 1996 Olympics US Women’s team despite the fact that a strike was going on by the US Women’s team. Chastain had not originally been on the roster for the team, and was only included because the team was on strike. When called up to the training camp, along with other scabs, Chastain asked Julie Foudy (co-captain of the women’s team and leader of the strike) what she should do. Foudy insisted Chastain go to camp and thereby impress the coach enough to get a spot in the team, so that when the strike would end, she could be on the team.

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