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The Right to Strike

By Woojin Lim
Woojin Lim ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House.

On April 9, 1969, roughly 500 student activists took over University Hall to protest Harvard’s role in the Vietnam War. City and state police armed with riot gear, clubs, and mace were called to remove all protesters who had vowed nonviolent resistance. In the early morning hours of April 10, over 400 police officers stormed University Hall, between 250 and 300 arrests were made, and 75 students were injured. In response, by April 11, thousands of Harvard students, teaching fellows, and faculty had gathered in Harvard Stadium to strike.

Fifty years later, the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers declared a strike, fighting for increased compensation, health benefits, and neutral third-party arbitration for sexual harassment and discrimination. On December 3, over 500 demonstrators, wearing on their shoulders large blue-and-white “UAW on Strike” placards, marched routes throughout the Yard. In the strike of 1969, strikers fought for social justice; in the HGSU-UAW strike of 2019, strikers press on the fight for fair wages and working conditions.

The right to strike is a right to resist oppression.

The strike (and the credible threat of a strike) is an indispensable part of the collective bargaining procedure. Collective bargaining (or “agreement-making”) provides workers and employees with the opportunity to influence the establishment of workplace rules that govern a large portion of their lives. The concerted withdrawal of labor allows workers to promote and defend their unprotected economic and social interests from employers’ unilateral decisions, and provide employers with pressure and incentives to make reasonable concessions. Functionally, strikes provide workers with the bargaining power to drive fair and meaningful negotiations, offsetting the inherent inequalities of bargaining power in the employer-employee relationship. The right to strike is essential in preserving and winning rights. Any curtailment of this right involves the risk of weakening the very basis of collective bargaining.

Strikes are not only a means of demanding and achieving an adequate provision of basic liberties but also are themselves intrinsic, self-determined expressions of freedom and human rights. The exercise of the power to strike affirms a quintessential corpus of values akin to liberal democracies, notably those of dignity, liberty, and autonomy. In acts of collective defiance, strikers assert their freedoms of speech, association, and assembly. Acts of striking, marching, and picketing command the attention of the media and prompt public forums of discussion and dialogue.

The question of civic obligations, however, remains at stake. Perhaps those disgruntled with the strike might claim on a whiff that the strike impedes upon their own freedom of movement, educational rights, privacy, and so forth. Do strikers, in virtue of expressing their own freedoms, shirk valid civic norms of reciprocity they owe to members of the community, for instance, to students? No. The right to strike stems from the premise of an unjust flaw in the social order, that is, the recognition that the benefits from shouldering the burdens of social cooperation are not fairly distributed. Strikes and protests publicize this recognition and demand reform.

No doubt, work stoppages from teaching fellows, course assistants, and graduate research assistants — no sections, no office hours, no labs, no grades — may pose inconvenience and perhaps hardship in our present lives. Strikes may also impose a serious financial cost on both the employer and the employees. These costs and inconveniences, however, should not be ridiculed as outrageous, for they rightfully invite disruption.

The possible hazards that arise from a strike must be weighed against the workers’ welfare and just rewards and to the community. For instance, current graduate students who struggle in financials and mental health may be troubled with juggling teaching obligations. If graduate students are provided with pay security and adequate dental, mental health, and specialist coverage, their quality of teaching and research may improve in the long run. There are dangers to bystanders and neutrals when a strike occurs, but such considerations also arise when one lays down the right to strike.

That said, if we should defend the right to strike, it must be meaningful. Both parties involved should strive to strike a deal — no pun intended — in good faith, and not merely act upon purposeless forms of virtue-signaling or anger-venting on chaotic impulse.

Nonetheless, provided the facts of injustice and repression, affected members should not only be permitted but highly encouraged (and obliged) to uptake the call of justice to restore broken institutions — be that through joining the pickets or standing in solidarity.

Woojin Lim ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House.

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