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Striking a Balance?

August 16, 1997

Not long after Alan Greenspan announced that the United States was in the midst of the longest period of sustained economic growth in history, more than 180,000 United Parcel Service workers went on strike. UPS annually handles goods worth almost 5 percent of the gross domestic product and controls some 80 percent of the nation's delivery service. The company's high revenues and entrenched role in the economy mean that its workers are in a particularly strong bargaining position -- the sudden halt of operations has already cost the company millions and frozen a fair hunk of the country's total business exchange.

The impact such a strike will have, however, is difficult to control. The Atlantic Monthly has been covering labor-management disputes for more than seventy-five years; the following four articles discuss the effectiveness of strikes as a voice for the working class and as an instrument for settling its grievances.

  • In "The Lawrence Strike: A Study" (May, 1912), Lorin F. Deland clarifies and draws lessons from a well-publicized labor-management confrontation that took place earlier that year in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Deland notes that despite the intermittent violence during the strike, "If all this has brought but the single return of awakening public opinion to the dangers ahead, this wretched conflict has been a blessing in disguise."

  • In "What Do the Strikes Teach Us?" (May, 1946), Sumner H. Slichter studies the roles that government, management, and employees play in labor disputes. With more people on strike earlier that year than at any previous time in the country's history, Slichter asks the fundamental question: "Have strikes been worth the cost?"

  • In "Strikes and the Public Interest" (February, 1960), Archibald Cox focuses on improving legislation to better prepare the nation for strikes that might pose a legitimate economic threat. With the memory of the potentially debilitating steel strike of 1959 still fresh in the public consciousness, the author observes,"Theoretically, we can eliminate strikes and safeguard the interests of both employers and employees by substituting compulsory arbitration or government regulation, or we can have free collective bargaining and suffer the interruptions which threaten the national welfare."

  • Finally, in "Strikes and People" (December, 1966), Leland Hazard also advocates that the government establish itself as a third party in labor-management disputes. Prompted by the summer strikes that shut down New York's subways and grounded most of the airlines, he argues that an "Industrial Peace Commission" would expedite the settlement of stalemates that could paralyze the city, if not the country. "It is time for comprehensive legislation, not to abolish the strike, but to make its use more intelligent and intelligible."


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