Monday, April 5, 2010

Strikes and the analogy of war

Some people say that going on strike is like going to war. (For example, I sometimes say that.)

This analogy, like all analogies, is imperfect and if carried to an extreme, can be overwrought. A "simple" work stoppage need not take on the characteristics of violence and antagonism that one associates with warfare, or with the large-scale confrontations and militancy of the Gilded Age and the New Deal era. In fact, in the US today, most strikes are strictly regulated by law, and unions officially insist on scrupulous observance of the law. (There is the proverbial, and perhaps only anecdotal, "extra-legal" strike activity of longshore persons and teamsters locals. But the union leadership usually insists on observing the law, if only to establish plausible deniability.)

But my experience with the possible strike at my university has clarified for me one way in which the analogy appears to be spot on. Strikes, like war, force people to choose sides. The issues may be complicated: are the demands reasonable? should one honor the picket line even if one agrees with the demands? how much support from the membership need a union have before one feels a moral obligation to strike with it despite disagreements? will those who honor the picket lines maintain friendships with those who do not? As I've said before, neither the union nor the university is clearly in the right. But I am forced to make a decision.

There is, strictly speaking, no, or almost no, neutrality. But moral quandaries worthy of the name are complicated and messy.

To take what is an inappropriate but (I hope) well-known example, look at the Munich crisis in 1938, where Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, and the French Premier (Daladier?) basically gave Hitler carte blanche to seize the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia.

It's one thing to look back at 1938 and pronounce that Chamberlain was wrong at Munich and that if he had been firmer and more conciliatory toward the Russians (I understand that Stalin might have worked with the western allies to check Hitler). As we all know, the western nations went to war with Germany within a year anyway, and it might have been better for most involved to intervene sooner than later against him.

People say hindsight is 20/20. But that's not necessarily the case, even with Munich. I have read (but have no citation) that Stalin would have backed up the western powers over the Sudetenland issue. But could Stalin really be trusted? His non-aggression pact with Hitler in 1939 suggests that at best the Russian dictator was opportunistic. Perhaps the British and French public would be less inclined to defend Czechoslovakia than they would have been to defend Poland (on the assumption that once Germany invaded Poland, despite its promises after Munich, it was clearer to the everyday person who hadn't read Mein Kampf than before Munich that Germany was expansionist). Perhaps western intervention in Czechoslovakia would have been so ineffective and public support for the intervention so weak--Chamberlain was very popular when he brokered his peace agreement--that a peace settlement, after a brief war, might have put Nazi Germany in an even stronger position.

Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps. There's nothing we know for certain.

Obviously, the decision of whether to honor a strike by my graduate student union is nowhere near so momentous as that facing Chamberlain et al. in 1938. But no decision is really clean and clear cut. No matter how it might look in retrospect. And not making a decision--like the choice of Kazuo Ishiguro's butler in Remains of the Day--is often in itself a decision.

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