Chris Hedges: Strike! Strike! Strike!

The global ruling class is determined to prevent mounting protests against social inequality from employing the weapon that can bring them down.

Strike, Strike, Strike – by Mr. Fish.

By Chris Hedges

The ruling oligarchs are terrified that, for tens of millions of people, the economic dislocation caused by inflation, stagnant wages, austerity, the pandemic and the energy crisis is becoming unendurable.  They warn, as Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and NATO Secretary Genera Jens Stoltenberg, have done, about the potential for social unrest, especially as we head towards winter.

Social unrest is a code word for strikes — the one weapon workers possess that can cripple and destroy the billionaire class’ economic and political power. Strikes are what the global oligarchs fear most.

Through the courts and police intervention, they will seek to prevent workers from shutting down the economy. This looming battle is crucial. If we begin to chip away at corporate power through strikes, most of which will probably be wildcat strikes that defy union leadership and anti-union laws, we can begin to regain agency over our lives.

The oligarchs have spent decades abolishing or domesticating unions, turning the few unions that remain — only 10.7 percent of the U.S. workforce is unionized — into obsequious junior partners in the capitalist system. As of January 2022, private-sector unionization stood at its lowest point since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. And yet, 48 percent of U.S. workers say they would like to belong to a union.

As a result of crushing conditions workers have been subjected to for years, the nation is facing its first major rail strike since the 1990s. The transportation industry, of which most rail workers are a part, has a higher than average union density compared to other parts of the private sector. A rail strike could mean a loss in economic output of $2 billion a day, according to a trade group representing railroad companies. 

It was announced on Thursday by the Biden White House, which hopes to avoid the optics of forcing striking workers back to the job, that the leaders of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers Transportation Division (SMART-TD) and Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS), among others, reached a tentative agreement with major freight companies, including Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) and Union Pacific. The tentative agreement was made amid intense pressure from the Biden administration.

BNSF train in northern Arizona, 2016. (Clay Gilliland, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Union officials stressed that the wording of the agreement is yet to be finalized and workers may not see the details of the agreement for three to four weeks, after which point union rank-and-file members will still have to vote on the proposed settlement.

The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) and The Real News have done detailed reporting on the contract negotiations.                                  

BNSF announced a net income of nearly $6 billion in 2021, up 16 percent from the previous year. Union Pacific reported a net income of $6.5 billion, also up 16 percent from 2020. CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway have also posted large gains. 

The economic deregulation of Class 1 rail freight carriers in the 1980s saw the number of freight carriers drop from 40 to seven, a number expected to soon fall to six. The workforce has shrunk from nearly 540,000 in 1980 to some 130,000. Service on the nation’s rail lines, along with working conditions and wages, have declined as Wall Street squeezes the big railroad conglomerates for profits.

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It appears that the proposed contract will meet few of the railroad workers’ core demands including redressing years of declining wages, the need for cost-of-living adjustments to deal with inflation, an end to onerous attendance policies, guaranteed time off and sick days, massive lay-offs that have put tremendous pressure on remaining rail workers and an end to the practice of one-man crews. 

Rail moves roughly two-fifths of long-distance American freight and one-third of exports. It lies at the heart of a complex global supply chain that includes cargo ships, trains and trucks. It is almost certain that the Biden White House would intervene to prevent a nationwide rail strike, which would be a body blow to the nation’s tottering supply chain and shaky economy.

Strikes & the New Deal 

June 1934: Open battle between striking Teamsters armed with pipes and the police in the streets of Minneapolis. (Wikimedia Commons)

The oligarchs targeted unions after World War II. Through a series of strikes in the 1930s, unions pressured Franklin Delano Roosevelt into passing New Deal legislation. Unions gave workers weekends off, the right to organize and strike, the eight-hour workday, health and pension benefits, safe working conditions, overtime and Social Security. 

The red baiting of the 1930s and 1950s was directed primarily at labor organizers and radical unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known as Wobblies, or the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In the crusade against “reds,” the most militant unions and union leaders, some of whom were Communists, were turned into pariahs. A series of anti-labor laws, including the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and Right-to-Work laws, which outlaw union shops, were put into place.

Taft-Hartley Act — Frontal Assault on Unions

When the Taft-Hartley Act was passed about a third of the workforce was unionized, peaking in 1954 at 34.8 percent. The act was a frontal assault on unions. It prohibits jurisdictional strikes, wildcat strikes, solidarity or political strikes and secondary boycotts, whereby unions strike against employers who continue to do business with a firm that is undergoing a strike.

It forbids secondary or common situs picketing, closed shops and monetary donations by unions to federal political campaigns. Union officials are forced by the act to sign non-Communist affidavits or lose their positions. Companies are permitted under the act to require employees to attend anti-union propaganda meetings. The federal government is empowered to obtain legal strikebreaking injunctions if an impending or current strike imperils “national health or safety.” 

The act disempowers labor. It legalizes the suspension of civil liberties, including freedom of speech and the right to assembly. U.S. courts, including the Supreme Court, with judges drawn from corporate law firms, have since issued a raft of new anti-union rulings to keep workers in bondage. The right to strike in the U.S. barely exists.

Widespread strikes, a necessity if American workers are to prevail, will be declared illegal, no matter which party is in the White House. Those who lead strikes will be targeted for arrest, and corporations will attempt to replace workers with scabs. It will be a very, very ugly fight. But it is the only hope.

[An interview with Seattle Socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant about organizing tactics and the importance of union militancy can be viewed here.]

Bill Haywood, early 20th century labor organizer, IWW leader. (Wikimedia Commons)

The earlier generation of labor organizers understood that union organizing was about class war. “Big” Bill Haywood told delegates at the founding convention of the IWW in 1905:

“Fellow Workers, this is the Continental Congress of the working-class. We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working-class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working-class from the slave bondage of capitalism. The aims and objects of this organization shall be to put the working-class in possession of the economic power, the means of life, in control of the machinery of production and distribution, without regard to capitalist masters.”

Let his words be our credo.

After the end of World War II, two generations of workers in the United States were blessed with a period of unprecedented prosperity. Wages for the working class were high. Jobs were stable and came with benefits and health insurance. Unions protected workers from abuse by employers.

Taxes on the wealthiest individuals and corporations were as high as 91 percent. The public school system provided a quality education to the poor and the rich. The nation’s infrastructure and technology were cutting edge. Steel workers, auto workers, mill workers, construction workers and truck drivers were part of the middle class.

In 1928, the top 10 percent held 23.9 percent of the nation’s wealth, a percentage that steadily declined until 1973. By the early 1970s the oligarch’s assault against workers expanded. Wages stagnated. Income inequality grew to monstrous proportions. Tax rates for corporations and the rich were slashed. 

Today, the top 10 percent of the richest people in the United States own almost 70 percent of the country’s total wealth. The top 1 percent control 31 percent of the wealth. The bottom 50 percent of the U.S. population hold 2 percent of all U.S. wealth. Infrastructure is outdated and in disrepair. Public institutions, including schools, public broadcasting, the courts and the postal service, are underfunded and degraded. 

[You can see an interview I did with Louis Hyman, professor of economic history at Cornell University and author of Temp: The Real Story of What Happened to Your Salary, Benefits and Job Security, about the decades-long assault on workers here.]

The oligarchs, as they did in the 19th century, exploit workers, including child labor, in Dickensian sweatshops in countries such as China, Vietnam and Bangladesh. 

[You can see my interview with Jenny Chan who with Mark Selden and Pun Ngai wrote Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn and the Lives of China’s Workers here.]

Workers, bereft of union protection and lacking industrial jobs, have been forced into the gig economy, where they have few rights, no job protection and often earn below the minimum wage. 

Recipe for Revolt

Cost-of-living protests in London in February. (Garry Knight, Flickr, Public Domain)

The rise in global food and energy prices, coupled with the weakening of democratic institutions and impoverishment of workers, have become a potent recipe for revolt. 

Weekly earnings, adjusted for inflation, decreased by 3.4 percent from August 2021 to August 2022, and real hourly earnings fell by 2.8 percent in the same period. Hourly earnings, adjusted for inflation, have fallen for the past 17 months.

The lopsided priorities — billions of dollars in “security assistance” being sent to Ukraine by the Biden administration and other NATO members — predictably saw Russia slash gas supplies to Europe. Russia will not resume the flow until sanctions imposed on the country are lifted. Russia provides 9 percent of European Union (EU) gas imports, down from 40 percent before the invasion. Big oil, meanwhile, is posting obscene profits as it gouges the public. 

George Galloway interviews Chris Hedges on Sunday.

The most vulnerable countries — Haiti, Myanmar and Sudan — have descended into chaos under the economic onslaught. Social spending in such countries as Egypt, the Philippines and Zimbabwe have been slashed. Nor are the industrialized nations immune. About 70,000 people in Prague took to the streets on Sept. 4 to protest rising energy prices and call for a withdrawal from the E.U. and NATO.

Industries in Germany, one of the world’s top three exporters, are crippled, paying as much for electricity and natural gas in a single month, post-Russian-invasion, as they did for all last year. Protesters from across the political spectrum in Germany have called for regular Monday demonstrations against the rising cost of living.

In the U.K, already beset with 10 percent inflation, energy companies are expected to increase their rates by 80 percent in October.  Electricity bills in the U.S. have increased 15.8 percent over the past year. Natural gas bills have risen by 33 percent in the U.S. over the past year. Total energy costs in the U.S. have risen by 24 percent in the last 12 months. Consumer staples, the food and items needed for daily survival, have increased by an average of 13.5 percent. This is only the start.

At what point does a beleaguered population living near or below the poverty line rise in protest? This, if history is any guide, is unknown. But that the tinder is there is now undeniable, even to the ruling class.

The United States had the bloodiest labor wars of any industrialized nation. Hundreds of workers were killed. Thousands were wounded. Tens of thousands were blacklisted. Radical union organizers such as Joe Hill were executed on trumped up murder charges, imprisoned like Eugene V. Debs, or driven, like Haywood, into exile.

Jan. 13, 1920: Men arrested in Palmer raids awaiting deportation hearings on Ellis Island. (Corbis Images, Wikimedia Commons)

Militant unions were outlawed. During the Palmer Raids on Nov. 17, 1919, carried out on the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, more than 10 thousand alleged Communists, Socialists and anarchists were arrested. Many were held for long periods without trial. Thousands of foreign-born emigrés, such as Emma GoldmanAlexander Berkman and Mollie Steimer, were arrested, imprisoned and ultimately deported. Socialist publications, such as Appeal to Reason and The Masses, were shut down. 

The Great Railway Strike of 1922 saw company gun thugs open fire, killing strikers. Pennsylvania Railroad President Samuel Rea alone hired over 16,000 gunmen to break the strike of nearly 20,000 employees at the company’s shops in Altoona, Pennsylvania, the largest in the world.

The railroads mounted a massive press campaign to demonize the strikers. They hired thousands of scabs, many of whom were Black workers who were barred by union management from membership. The Supreme Court upheld “yellow dog” contracts that forbade workers from unionizing.

The establishment press, along with the Democratic Party, were, as always, full partners in the demonization and defanging of labor. The same year also saw unprecedented railway strikes in Germany and India.

To prevent railroad strikes, which disrupted nationwide commerce in 1877, 1894 and 1922 the federal government passed The Railway Labor Act in 1926 — union members call  it “The Railway Anti-Labor Act” — setting out numerous requirements, including the appointment of The Presidential Emergency Board, which Biden set up, before a strike can be called.

Our oligarchs are as vicious and tight-fisted as those of the past. They will fight with everything at their disposal to crush the aspirations of workers.

Alexander Herzen, speaking to a group of anarchists about how to overthrow the czar, reminded his listeners that it was not their job to save a dying system but to replace it: “We are not the doctors. We are the disease.”

All resistance must recognize that the corporate coup d’état is complete. It is a waste of energy to attempt to reform or appeal to systems of power. We must organize and strike. The oligarchs have no intention of willingly sharing power or wealth. They will revert to the ruthless and murderous tactics of their capitalist forebearers. We must revert to the militancy of our own.

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning NewsThe Christian Science Monitor and NPR.  He is the host of show “The Chris Hedges Report.”

Author’s Note to Readers: There is now no way left for me to continue to write a weekly column for ScheerPost and produce my weekly television show without your help. The walls are closing in, with startling rapidity, on independent journalism, with the elites, including the Democratic Party elites, clamoring for more and more censorship. Bob Scheer, who runs ScheerPost on a shoestring budget, and I will not waiver in our commitment to independent and honest journalism, and we will never put ScheerPost behind a paywall, charge a subscription for it, sell your data or accept advertising. Please, if you can, sign up at so I can continue to post my Monday column on ScheerPost and produce my weekly television show, “The Chris Hedges Report.”

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14 comments for “Chris Hedges: Strike! Strike! Strike!

  1. mgr
    September 21, 2022 at 09:54

    Yes. And in the same vein, the one power that the public inherently and always has is the power to boycott. Don’t buy those goods, don’t participate in those services. So long as you feed the beast, you supply it the power to abuse you.

  2. WillD
    September 20, 2022 at 23:13

    Throughout history, the rich and powerful have tried, and succeeded up to a point, to supress the vast majority of their populations when times got hard. BUT, they always failed to completely shut down dissent and had to give the population more and more rights and freedoms when they revolted. Over the last few hundred years, populations have won more freedoms and rights than ever before.

    I think that history will continue to repeat itself this time. Governments will use their military might to supress uprising, but ultimately that won’t work for long. It will be bloody, no doubt about that but eventually the sheer mass of people fighting back will force change.

  3. John Reed
    September 20, 2022 at 21:56

    Peace! Bread! Heat!

  4. September 20, 2022 at 17:47

    “At what point does a beleaguered population living near or below the poverty line rise in protest…We must organize and strike. The oligarchs have no intention of willingly sharing power or wealth. They will revert to the ruthless and murderous tactics of their capitalist forebearers. We must revert to the militancy of our own.”

    Get “must” out of there. This is war-thinking as if the only power we have is might, but you rail against that when you write about Ukraine.

    It’s not that your argument comes from left field. In fact, it’s right down the center so to speak, of what has gotten us to this peril we are in, where our militarism is our weapon to fix the world. This is a primitive methodology that we need to transcend.

    So what else could do the job? We need a voice. Beyond gadflies like you, we need something all people of goodwill can be signatories to. I’ve called this prospect the Human Survival Party. Its voice would come from an ad hoc Wisdom Council comprised of the most respected people in the country. I’ve suggested you start. You pick one, the two of you pick the third, etc., and if the body that was asssembled deliberated on what they would do –which is easy on the internet — everyone would listen.

    If not that, what? What else could we do that doesn’t have a strongarm aspect to it, that could achieve ends in different ways?

    • Lois Gagnon
      September 21, 2022 at 09:22

      “Gadfly?” Chris Hedges? Wow! Way to not be taken seriously.

  5. Rick Krzyczkowski
    September 20, 2022 at 14:06

    Is history going to repeat? Is it time for the guillotines to come out?

  6. firstpersoninfinite
    September 20, 2022 at 13:14

    Excellent historical overview! Chris Hedges is on the spot. Dissent is now considered extremism by anyone in the halls of power, including those millions of middle managers studied so brilliantly in “Bullshit Jobs” by the late David Graeber. They will do their masters’ bidding because their wages depend upon it. It takes the dissent of at least 9% of the population to produce even the idea of permanent change occurring. The only other option is to watch the planet and those around us unfurl. Well done!

  7. vinnieoh
    September 20, 2022 at 12:41

    My comment to the Sept.13 piece “Who Owns the Railroads?…” had in mind what Hedges calls for here (“…people can only take so much…”)

    Specifically talking about unions, Hedges didn’t mention the other laws, variously proposed and passed intended to protect the wealthy and the status quo – i.e.. laws that make it “legal” to run over peaceful protestors in the streets, while a certain political faction of the duopoly diffidently says an insurrectionist mob attacking the capitol were just law-abiding citizens exercising their constitutional rights.

    When the tentative strike-averting deal was announced, media made it sound like the unions had won the workplace fairness provisions it had long wanted. We now see that hope may yet evaporate. When I made my comment, it looked to me like the strike would not be averted and I fervently wished for a general strike to be called by all unionized labor.

    Well, a person can dream, right? Even if the dream will be a living nightmare: (attribution unknown) “Better to die on your feet, than live on your knees.” (? syntax?) It has always been the case, and certainly quite true everywhere today that there is often a great chasm between what is “legal” and what is just and fair. The current SCOTUS is the poster child of that reality.

  8. Drew Hunkins
    September 20, 2022 at 10:57

    “The oligarchs have no intention of willingly sharing power or wealth. They will revert to the ruthless and murderous tactics of their capitalist forebearers…”

    The ruling class is currently in the process of holding in detention and unjustly punishing with punitive malice the Jan 6 Capitol protesters. Regardless of what their politics actually are, it’s the perceived populist potential of the Jan 6ers that scares the daylights out of our elites. This is why they’re being hammered with horrendously lengthy stays in solitary confinement.

    Yes, many of them have political views that are reactionary and distasteful, but many of them also have an economic populist streak which is to be welcomed, it’s also their true sin in the eyes of our overlords. It’s the isolationist views and econ populism that brings about their unjust punishment with lack of due process and equal protection. This injustice is either being ignored by the media or is righteously trumpeted as their just deserts.

  9. September 20, 2022 at 10:38

    Government intervention on behalf of the billionaire class is ruthless when it comes to workers¡ rights and worse when the Democrats are in power, as it is totally obfuscated and disguised, with the assistance of the compliant media. While the article’s arguments are more than just valid, I believe total boycotts may be a more effective weapon, but require society wide collaboration, not just that of those most directly involved. It is less burdensome to protesters, especially when more benign alternative products and services are substituted on a permanent basis and they should be indirect as well as direct. For example, boycotting a media source is best effected by boycotting those who advertise there. And of course, to the extent elections still have some validity, an optimistic perspective, refusing to be deluded continuously ought to have some impact, if the results can withstand the violent, no holds barred Deep State backlash; no sure thing as Mr. Trump quickly discovered.

  10. Great BooHoo
    September 20, 2022 at 10:07

    Im participating through the quiet quit mentality. Im fortunate enough to be able to do this, for now, but I do the absolute bare minimum. I simply dont care. They dont care for me, neither I do for them.


  11. ron ridenour
    September 20, 2022 at 07:02

    Right on, brother!
    Strikes and Civil Disobedience. Shut down work centers and colleges/universities. Revisit the 1960s.

  12. J Anthony
    September 20, 2022 at 06:43

    Well, he isn’t wrong. You’d think that these people weren’t so voracious and insane as to push hundreds of millions of people to this point, that to avoid such mass “social unrest”, which doesn’t help them any, they’d do the right thing, but nope. If anything it seems to be the intent to make as many as possible so desperate and deprived that everything blows. And it will blow. One can only imagine what that will look like, and it won’t be pretty. Perhaps they want it to happen so as to have an excuse to to “put the boot down” in ways we haven’t yet seen, or didn’t think possible.

  13. September 20, 2022 at 05:56

    What a WONDERFUL graphic. Mr. Fish has excelled.

    If one takes a little time, one can see the careful work. But one needs not. It just hits directly. A cursory glance delivers the message.

    Brilliant graphics, Mr. Fish.

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