Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Right to Strike: A Radical View



Workers face a common dilemma when exercising their right to strike. For the worst-off workers to go on strike with some reasonable chance of success, they must use coercive strike tactics like mass pickets and sit-downs. These tactics violate some basic liberties, such as contract, association, and private property, and the laws that protect those liberties. Which has priority, the right to strike or the basic liberties strikers might violate? The answer depends on why the right to strike is justified. In contrast to liberal and social democratic arguments, on the radical view defended here, the right to strike is a right to resist oppression. This oppression is partly a product of the legal protection of basic economic liberties, which explains why the right to strike has priority over these liberties. The radical view thus best explains why workers may use some coercive, even lawbreaking, strike tactics.


Corresponding author

Alex Gourevitch is an Assistant Professor of Political Science, Brown University, 36 Prospect St., Providence, RI, 02912 (


Hide All

I would like to thank the following people for very helpful individual conversations about this essay: Samuel Arnold, Joshua Braver, Candice Delmas, Leah Downey, David Estlund, Nicholas Frayn, Harrison Frye, Andreas Kalyvas, Karl Klare, Jeffrey Lenowitz, Frank Lovett, Chris Muller, Suresh Naidu, Jeppe von Platz, Peter Ramsay, Corey Robin, Julie Rose, Lucas Stanczyk, and Carla Yumatle. I am also grateful to political theory workshop participants at the following colleges and universities: University of Virginia, Princeton University, MIT, Brown, New School, University of Chicago (Human Rights Workshop), Stanford, Tufts, Dartmouth (Workshop on Economic Justice), Washington University, Columbia University (September Group), University of Pennsylvania, McGill University (Left Political Theory). I would also like to thank the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study for generously supporting a year of leave during which I was able to write and revise this article.



Hide All
American Civil Liberties Union. 2017. “ Privacy in America: Workplace Drug Testing.” Accessed June 1, 2018.
Anderson, Elizabeth. 2015. “Equality and Freedom in the Workplace: Recovering Republican Insights.” Social Philosophy and Policy 31 (2): 4869.
Anderson, Elizabeth. 2017. Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don't Talk About It). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Andrias, Kate. 2016. “The New Labor Law.” The Yale Law Journal 126 (2): 4770.
Arnold, Sam. 2017. “Capitalism, Class Conflict, and Domination.” Socialism and Democracy 31 (1): 106124.
Atleson, James. 1983. Values and Assumptions in American Labor Law. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press.
Axt, Deborah. 2013. “End Wage Theft: Stop the Billion Dollar Swindle.” Cornell University International Labor Relations School Digital Commons,
Barth, Erling, Bryson, Alex, Davis, James C, and Freeman, Richard. 2014. “ It's Where You Work: Increases in Earnings Dispersion across Establishments and Individuals in the U.S.” NBER Working Paper No. 20447.
Bennett-Smith, Meredith. 2012. “Indiana AT&T Technicians File Class Action Lawsuit Citing Grim Break Conditions.” Huffington Post, August 14, 2012.
Bertram, Chris, Gourevitch, Alex, and Robin, Corey. 2012. “Let It Bleed: Libertarianism and the Workplace,” Crooked Timber July 1. Accessed June 1, 2018.
Borman, David. 2017. “Contractualism and the Right to Strike.” Res Publica 23 (1): 8198.
Bunker, Nick. 2016. “Why It's Time to Rethink Non-Compete Agreements.” Washington Center for Equitable Growth, April 7. Accessed June 1, 2018.
Burns, Joe. 2011. Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America. New York: Ig Publishing.
Cohen, G.A. 1988a. “Are Disadvantaged Workers Who Take Hazardous Jobs Forced to Take Hazardous Jobs?” In History, Labour, and Freedom: Themes from Marx, ed. Cohen, G. A.. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 239–54.
Cohen, G. A. 1988b. “The Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom.” In History, Labour, and Freedom: Themes from Marx, ed. Cohen, G. A.. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 254–85.
Egelko, Bob. 2011. “Employers Must Pay if They Deny Lunch Breaks.” San Francisco Chronicle, February 18, 2011.
Eisenbray, Ross. 2015. “Wage Theft by Employers is Costing U.S. Workers Billions of Dollars a Year.” Economic Policy Institute. February 13. Accessed at:
Emerson, Ramona. 2011. “13 Controversial Facebook Firings: Palace Guards, Doctors, Teachers and More.” Huffington Post, October 17, 2011.
Ezorsky, Gertrude. 2007. Freedom in the Workplace. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Garrison, Jessica, Bensinger, Ken, and Singer-Vine, Jeremy. 2015. “The New American Slavery: Invited to the US, Foreign Workers Find a Nightmare.” BuzzFeednews, July 24, 2015. Accessed June 1, 2018.
Gernigon, Bernard, Odero, Alberto, and Guido, Horacio. 1998. International Labour Organization Principles Concerning the Right to Strike. Geneva: International Labour Office.
Gourevitch, Alex. 2015. “Police Work: The Centrality of Labor Repression in American Political History.” Perspectives on Politics 73 (3): 762–73.
Gourevitch, Alex. 2016a. “Chronicle of a Strike,” Jacobin, May 18. Accessed June 1, 2018.
Gourevitch, Alex. 2016b. “From Strike to Shop Floor,” Jacobin, June 6. Accessed June 1, 2018.
Gourevitch, Alex. 2016c. “Quitting Work but Not the Job: Liberty and the Right to Strike.” Perspectives on Politics 14 (2): 307–23.
Greenberg, Joseph. “Worker Subordination in Sweden” (unpublished manuscript). Accessed June 1, 2018.
Greenhouse, Steven. 2009. The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker. New York: Anchor Books.
Hayek, F. A. 2011. The Constitution of Liberty: The Definitive Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Henwood, Doug. 2005. After the New Economy. New York: The New Press.
Hertel-Fernandez, Alexander. 2015. Who Owns Your Politics? The Emergence of Employee Mobilization as a Source of Corporate Political Influence. Washington DC: New America Foundation.
Hess, Amanda. 2013. “How Sexy Should a Worker Be? The Plight of the Babe in the American Workplace.” Slate Magazine, July 29, 2013.
Hsieh, Nien-He. 2005. “Rawlsian Justice and Workplace Republicanism.” Social Theory and Practice 31 (1): 115–142.
Hsu, Tiffany. 2011. “Amazon Warehouse Employees Overheated Ahead of Holiday Season.” Los Angeles Times. September 19, 2011.
Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk. 2014. 574 U.S.
JOMO. 2013. “Caring on Stolen Time.” Dissent, Accessed June 1, 2018.
Judson, Tim, and Francisco-McGuire, Cristina. 2012. “Where Theft Is Legal: Mapping Wage Theft in 50 States.” Progressive States Network,$FILE/130326%20AttachE.pdf
Lambert, Josiah. 2005. “If The Workers Took a Notion”: The Right to Strike and American Political Development. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Leader, Sheldon. 1992. Freedom of Association: A Study in Labor Law and Political Theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Little, Lyneka. 2013. “AT&T Workers Claim Lunch Break Violations.” ABC News, August 15, 2013.
Lyons, David. 1998. “Moral Judgment, Historical Reality, and Civil Disobedience.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 27 (1): 3149.
Malmberg, Jonas, and Johannson, Caroline. 2014. “The Right to Strike: Sweden.” In The Right to Strike: A Comparative View, ed. Waas, Bernd. Alphen aan den Rijn: Kluwer International Law, 525–36.
Maltby, Lewis. 2009. Can They Do That? Retaking Our Fundamental Rights in the Workplace. New York: Penguin.
Mill, John Stuart. 1909. Principles of Political Economy. London: Longmans, Green and Co. Accessed June 1, 2018.
Mishel, Lawrence, and Davis, Alyssa. 2015. “Top CEOs Make 300 Times More than Typical Workers.” Economic Policy Institute Report, June 21, 2015.
Mohun, Simon. 2014. “Unproductive Labor in the U.S. Economy 1964–2010.” Review of Radical Political Economics 46 (3): 355–79.
National Employment Law Project. 2013. “Winning Wage Justice: A Summary of Research on Wage and Hour Violations in the United States.”
National Labor Relations Act. 1935. 29 U.S. Code 102. Accessed June 1, 2018.
O'Neill, Martin, and Williamson, Thad. 2012. Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond. London: Wiley-Blackwell.
Oxfam Research Report. 2015. Lives On the Line: The Human Cost of Cheap Chicken. Boston: Oxfam America Inc.
Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Pope, James Gray. 2004. “How American Workers Lost the Right to Strike, and Other Tales.” Michigan Law Review 103: 518–53.
Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice (revised ed.), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rose, Julie. 2016. Free Time. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Rosioru, Felicia. 2013. “The Changing Concept of Subordination.” In Recent Developments in a Labour Law, ed. Kiss, Gy. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 150–85.
Saez, Emanuel, and Zucman, Gabriel. 2014. “Wealth Inequality in the United States Since 1913: Evidence from Capitalized Income Tax Data.” NBER Working Paper Series, Working Paper 20625.
Shelby, Tommie. 2016. Dark Ghettoes: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Shenfield, Arthur. 1986. What Right to Strike? London: The Institute of Economic Affairs.
Song, Jae, & Price, David J., Guvenen, Fatih, Bloom, Nicholas, and von Wachter, Till. 2015. “Firming Up Inequality.” NBER Working Paper No. 21199.
Stanczyk, Lucas. “The Shared Burdens of Social Cooperation.” In From Each: A Theory of Productive Justice (unpublished book manuscript), Chap. 2. Accessed June 1, 2018.
Stanczyk, Lucas. “Marginal Liberalism” (unpublished manuscript). Accessed June 1, 2018.
Stanczyk, Lucas. 2012. “Productive Justice.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 40 (2): 144–64.
Storey, John. 2014. Managerial Prerogative and the Question of Control. London: Routledge.
Strauss, Eric M. 2013. “Iowa Woman Fired for Being Attractive: Looks Back and Moves On.” ABC News, August 2 2013.
Urbina, Ian. 2013. “As OSHA Emphasizes Safety, Long-Term Health Risks Fester.” New York Times, March 30.
Vega, Tanzina. 2012. “In Ads, the Workers Rise Up. . . and Go to Lunch.” New York Times, July 7, 2012.
Velasco, J. D.Fired Gay Water Polo Coach and Supporters Protest at Charter Oak Board Meeting.” San Gabriel Valley Tribune, October 7, 2011.
Weeks, Kathi. 2011. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
White, Ahmed. 2010. “The Depression Era Sit-Down Strikes and the Limits of Liberal Labor Law.” Seton Hall Law Review 40 (1): 181.
White, Ahmed. 2011. “Industrial Terrorism and the Unmaking of New Deal Labor Law.” Nevada Law Journal 11: 561628.
White, Ahmed. 2014. “Workers Disarmed: The Campaign Against Mass Picketing and the Dilemma of Liberal Labor Rights.” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Review 49: 59123.
Wolff, Edward N. 2012. “The Asset Price Meltdown and the Wealth of the Middle Class,” Accessed June 1, 2018.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

The Right to Strike: A Radical View



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.