An Examination of Strikes in the US throughout History to Today
It seems that almost every day, we hear about more labor strikes and threats of strikes across the US, and around the world. I always preach to anyone who will listen that it is important to be educated on union and social movements and tactics that could affect your company and employees; very few union actions are spontaneous. Join me as I explore the history of strikes and labor disputes in the US, examine Labor’s origins in Anarchism, offer a structural analysis of the current state of unions, explain why strikes are making a come-back, and conclude with suggestions on how to avoid them in your organization.
Ricardo Torres President & CEO – PSLC
We have been witnessing a wave of strikes this year, which are generally uncommon in the US. These strikes have engulfed both public servants and private enterprise. Over the past two months, workers from nearly every industry have struck in the US, and many of the largest strikes have taken place in traditionally conservative (“Red”) states. The biggest news stories have focused on teachers and university staff striking, but Spectrum-Time Warner Cable workers in NY have been on strike for two years, and Idaho’s Lucky Friday Mine workers have been onstrike for over a year with no signs of stopping.
This wave of strikes has also spread worldwide over almost every continent. Teacher strikes alone are taking place on four continents. From the US and Mexico in North America to South America (Chile, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador) to Europe (UK, France, Germany, Spain), and across the length of Asia (Israel, Turkey, South Korea, Cambodia, India), almost every region of the world has experienced headline-grabbing labor strife which, in some countries (France), are shaking their governments to the core.
Brief History of US Labor Disputes
The norms of strikes and public discord have been evolving for over acentury in the US. We have a rich (and long) history of questioning authority and debating the political structure and proper role of government, which lead to our independence from England. However, our questioning of authority has never been relegated solely to government, but has extended to every aspect of life, including employer/employee relationships.
The history of labor disputes in the US is long, and even extends to our earliest days as colonies. In the pre-revolutionary period, workers stood up to protest perceived wrongs in the workplace as early as in 1636, when Richmond Island fishermen (an island off the coast of Maine) boycotted jobs. There is also an argument to be made that the 1773 Boston Tea Party was a form of labor strife. This is debatable, but the actual Sons of Liberty were comprised of men from every level of society, including guildsmen and common laborers.
There was never much support for penalties against strikes in much ofour country’s history, as while strikes were not illegal, they were very rare and labor laws were all but nonexistent. It was not until 1746that strikers were prosecuted, after a carpenters’ strike in Savannah, GA (JR Commons, Principles of Labor Legislation
, 1916, ii-iii). This is the only known prosecution of strike activity from the colonial period.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the legality of industrial unionswas ambiguous. As under English Common Law, it was illegal in the US toconspire in any form. This included conspiring to raise wages and even conspiring to perfectly legal ends, such as improving general working conditions. There were conflicting opinions, of course, as the First Amendment clearly allowed for the freedom to associate in groups, and the principle of being able to appeal to the government for redress can easily be argued to provide a moral imperative to allow for appealing to any entity in power for redress. It was not until the landmark decision in “ Commonwealth vs. Hunt
” in 1842 that the legality of unions was settled.
I will be the first to admit that our country’s labor history has been ugly. Once labor unions were finally recognized as legal, it only took a single generation for strikes to become deadly. Over the centuries, there have been many labor unrests that have captured the public’s attention, many of which involved not only the death of workers, but also noninvolved citizens. There has also been a particularly vile undercurrent of racism and belief in white supremacy from labor’s leaders that was not generally held by the mass of workers.
The first great strike violence in the US began with the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which began in West Virginia and spread across the country throughout the year. Many of these strikes did not result incasualties, but almost all involved strikers rioting, setting fires, destroying property and attacking militia called up to put down the riots. Several resulted in bloodshed, death, and destruction:
•The Baltimore railroad strike resulted in the 5th and 6thRegiments of the Maryland National Guard being called up on July 20, 1877 to quell the strikes at the B. & O. headquarters. The 5th were generally unopposed, but the 6thfought their way through sympathetic Baltimore citizens and strikers until finally firing on the crowd, which resulted in 10 civilians killedand 25 wounded. In retaliation, the rioters injured several militia members and burned and destroyed B. & O. property, cars and engines.
•Local law enforcement officers refused to fire on the Pittsburgh strikers, so several state militia units were called up on July 21, 1877in response to a request from the Pennsylvania Railroad. After being attacked by thrown rocks, the militia bayonetted and fired on strikers, killing 20 and wounded 29. The strikers retaliated by trapping the militia in a roundhouse, razed 39 buildings and destroyed over 100 engines and over 1,000 cars. On July 22, 1877, the militia fought their way out of the roundhouse and city, killing an additional 20 people.
•Additional strikes in Pennsylvania included Reading, in which militia shot 16 citizens after strikers committed arson and burred the only railroad bridge connecting to the west. In Shamokin, PA, rioters looted the depot and prompted the mayor to organize a city militia, which killed 2 civilians and wounded a dozen others. A city posse in Scranton, PA, fired upon a crowd of strikers, rioters, and bystanders, killing four and wounding between 20-50 others.
•The Chicago railroad strike brought out crowds of 20,000 people, expanded to shut down railroad traffic across the state and produced sympathy strikes from coal miners. After over a week of riots, the mayorof Chicago recruited 5,000 men as a volunteer militia, reinforced by the Illinois National Guard and US Army troops, to suppress the uprising. Violence ensued, culminating in the Battle of the Viaduct, in which a crowd of 10,000 men, women and children were confronted by authorities. Ultimately, 20-30 men and boys were killed and at least 100civilians and 13 authorities were wounded.
Started Peacefully, but Ended Even Uglier
The St. Louis General Strike also began in July of 1877, but the railroad workers were joined by thousands of workers from multiple industries to strike for an eight-hour day and a ban on child labor. Also, in contrast to the other strikes, the mayor of East St. Louis did not call up authorities, but instead deputized the strikers, who took onthe role proudly and closed down saloons to prevent drunken rioting andprotected railroad property from vandalism.
Initially, the railroad strikers were joined by steamboat and levee workers, who were predominantly black. An early rally demonstrated that the white workers were more than willing to cooperate with blacks and follow their lead in peaceful protest in East St. Louis. However, the Marxist-socialist Workingman’s Party-led strikers in St. Louis experienced incidents of violence and calls for bloodshed. Further schisms were revealed when the rank and file strikers were led by a group of black rivermen, but the socialist Workingman’s Party leadershiprefused to be led by non-whites. Executive committee member Albert Currlin admitted that they attempted to disperse the crowd, and his stated reasoning was to prevent white strikers from following the African Americans. These truly racist attitudes poisoned the strike as the party leaders refused to take the stage at a rally the next day. This weakness was exploited and on July 27, 1877, authorities in St. Louis attacked the strike’s headquarters, killing 18 and arresting 70.
The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor began as a secret organization that rejected socialism and anarchism, promoted the social and cultural uplifting of the workingman, and demanded the eight-hour workday. It was originally fairly inclusive, only barring members based on professions that they did not consider to be productive. Their desireto have a diverse membership to obtain as many points of view as possible brought together both men and women as members, as well as members of various races and religions. As membership grew, they droppedsecrecy and membership rituals to mitigate concerns of Catholic members. At the same time, they shortened their name to Knights of Labor(KoL) and transformed into what we would now recognize as a union. However, they betrayed their inclusiveness by being one of the foremost backers of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and explicitly excluding Chinese from membership.
Despite their early promise of disavowing strikes as “relics of barbarism” and including women and blacks, the Knights’ light leadershipstructure provided a great deal of autonomy to local assemblies. This allowed for segregated assemblies in the South and the Rock Springs massacre of 1885. White KoL minersin Rock Springs, WY, already angry at Chinese for strike-breaking the previous decade, blamed Chinese workers for driving down wages, killed at least 18 Chinese strike-breaking miners, burned 78 Chinese homes and prompted a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment that saw Chinese driven out oftowns across the nation.
During the KoL’s decline that began in 1886, they organized a strike of black sugar plantation workersin Louisiana in November 1887, which is the largest strike in the industry and the first strike conducted by a formal labor organization. The striking black workers and their families were evicted from plantations and gathered in Thibodaux, LA. White paramilitary forces attacked Thibodaux on November, 23, 1887, and over the next three days, hundreds of black men, women, children, and elders were killed or wounded. This massacre, numerous KoLorganizers disappearing over the next year, and white Democrat legislators passing laws disenfranchising blacks, codifying racial segregation and other Jim Crow laws heralded the end of organizing agricultural workers in the South for the next half-century.
In the spring/summer of 1894, the strike by workers of the Pullman Company started a turning point in US labor law. The American Railway Union (ARU) under Eugene V. Debs did not represent the Pullman workers at the time the strike was voted on, but the ARU was present at the meeting and the workers obviously believed the ARU would back them. As the Pullman workers did not actually work on railroads, the ARU had to be creative in supporting them. The ARUdelegates passed a motion to boycott Pullman cars unless the railroads quit their relationship with Pullman or Pullman granted concessionsto his workers.
Switchmen refused to handle Pullman cars, which caused the railroad companies to fire them and hire nonunion workers. This resulted in otherunion members walking out in solidarity with the switchmen. Within a month, 125,000 workers from multiple railroads were boycotting Pullman cars. Debs was pleased that his plan had worked, but he failed to account for mob mentality. After he spoke at a peaceful rally at the endof June 1894, the crowd broke into angry groups and began rioting, ultimately derailing a train.
While the initial claims of the Pullman workers had merit (Pullman had reduced wages after demand for cars dropped but had not reduced rents or utility fees in the company town in which most of his workers lived with their families.) and they had the general support of their Chicago community, the American Federation of Labor and the Railroad Brotherhoods opposed the boycott. In addition, the boycott effectively blocked interstate commerce, which cost the strikers the support of the public. The final nail in the coffin for the strikers was the fact that the train they derailed included a US Postal car, which the President isconstitutionally responsible for. This allowed the federal government to become involved, and President Grover Cleveland directed his AttorneyGeneral, Richard Olney, to obtain an injunction against the ARU, the first injunction against a labor action in our nation’s history.
This injunction allowed President Cleveland to treat the boycott and strike as a federal matter, and he called up US Marshalls and federal troops to enforce it. The resulting town-by-town enforcement by the military led to panic and violence on the part of the strikers, which resulted in the military firing upon them. This violence then led to further outbreaks of violence in response. In total, 30 strikers were killed and 57 were wounded.
After the strike, President Cleveland and Congress designated Labor Day as a federal holiday as an olive branch to labor. The state of Illinois also interceded and forced Pullman to sell off its residential holdings and the town of Pullman was incorporated into Chicago. The strike also resulted in the precedent that an injunction could now be filed blocking strikes and gag orders could prevent union leaders from communicating with strikers.
The 1905 Chicago Teamsters’ strike began as a sympathy strike in solidarity with clothing cutters at Montgomery Ward and other clothing manufacturers and retailers. However, the strike was plagued by corruption from the beginning, as Teamster President Cornelius Shea had purposefully delayed the sympathy strike until after the Chicago Mayoralelection to not undercut support for candidate Edward Fitzsimmons Dunne. After the Teamsters joined the strike on April 6, 1905, strikers and their supporters engaged in almost daily violence with strikebreakers and police. By the end of July 1905, when the strike ended, 21 people had been killed and 416 were wounded. Due to the extreme violence, depth of inter-union solidarity, and blatant corruption of the union bosses, this strike dramatically decreased public support for unions across the country. It was revealed that Shea and other strike leaders had demanded and accepted multiple bribes to strike against rival businesses and to stop various strikes.
There were other, even bloodier, conflicts during the early part of the 20th century, but, other than the West Virginia Coal Wars (1912-21),they were generally local and did not involve multiple unions.
What Else Did You Expect?
Many people may be shocked at this racism and violence, as unions frequently present themselves as being for the “little guy” and their constitutions invariably reference the Declaration of Independence in regards to equality and justice ( AFL-CIO
SEIU , and
UAW ).How can we reconcile their words with their actions? Easily: unions from their earliest beginnings were developed to prosper in chaos and collectivization.
Unions are based on the concept of Anarcho-Syndicalism, a branch of anarchism that focuses on the labor movement. Syndicalismis a French word meaning “trade unionism”; hence the “syndicalism” qualifier. Syndicalism is a revolutionary trade unionist movement that views labor unions as a force for revolutionary social change, replacingcapitalism and the State with a new society democratically self-managedby workers.
Chapter 5 of Rudolf Rucker’s
Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice , he lays out the specific actions to be taken to achieve their goals:
By direct action the Anarcho-Syndicalists mean every method of immediate warfare by the workers against their economic and politicaloppressors. Among these the outstanding are: the strike, in all its gradations from the simple wage-struggle to the general strike; the boycott; sabotage in its countless forms; anti-militarist propaganda; and in particularly critical cases, such, for example, as that in Spain today, armed resistance of the people for the protection of life and liberty.
With these methods available, especially sabotage and armed resistance, violence is inevitable when people who have no use for property rights clash with those who do.
The most important idea behind anarcho-syndicalism is class solidarity: proletariat vs. bosses. After my 20-plus years as a union official, I tell management today that no matter what position I held, from strike director to National Organizing Coordinator, my objective was always to beat the pants off any management person or company I dealt with. I was programmed to consider them my enemy and treated them as such.
Various Union Structures
Most early unions pushed for and operated under a Craft Unionismsystem, where it is easier to force companies to negotiate within skills. Craft unionism is perhaps best exemplified by the many construction unions that formed the backbone of the old AFL prior to theformation of the AFL-CIO Federation. Each union is organized per craft skill, or specific work function.
Some Unions operate under an Industrial Unionism system, where all workers in the same industry – regardless of skill or trade – are organized into the same union. This gives workers across theindustry more leverage in bargaining and strike situations as, if a strike were to occur, the union could decimate a company or industry. Italso allows for pattern bargaining under which a trade union gains a new and superior entitlement from one employer and uses that as precedent to demand the same or better results from another. The Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) was a federation of unions that was created due to frustration with the refusal of the AFL to organize unskilled and semiskilled factory workers, including the resistance of the AFL to organizing black workers. The CIO formalized its break with the AFL when it held its first convention in 1938.
A General Union is a labor union which represents workers from any industry or company, rather than just one organization or sector of industry. White-Collar Unions originally organized non-manual workers, but organize employees or professionals whose work is knowledge-intensive, non-routine, and unstructured.
Anyone who has followed labor news knows that the industrial unions like the UAW have been bleeding members, while white-collar unions are growing; but what is the real story? According to the
Department for Professional Employees at the AFL-CIO, while the total “number of professional and technical workers who were union members increased by approximately 300,000 workers” between 2003 and 2012, “the density of union members … fell from 18.1 to 17.1 percent” during the same time.
What Has Changed?
From all appearances, unions are weaker and the national “leadership”is not showing any true leadership through strategies to get themselvesout of this downward spiral.
Part of the problem is self-inflicted. Over time and with sane labor laws that have been enacted to protect workers’ rights, safety and protection from discrimination, unions have become increasingly obsoletepartially in response to some of their greatest successes in worker protection initiatives they pushed for in the early part of the 20thcentury. They have continuously struggled to stay relevant, although employers sometimes make their job easier with poor management practices, policies and procedures.
Another part of the problem, which I argue is the greater cause, is that Anarcho-Syndicalism does not lend itself well to large organizations. The core tenants of Anarcho-Syndicalism revolve around self-governing, but a large organization requires leaders to keep the group focused. When I worked with then AFL-CIO organizing director Richard Bensinger at the George Meany Institute, we worked on a high-level advanced organizing strategy training program to standardize and reprogram organizing tactics across the national union landscape. Our goal was to set up a so-called “National A-Team” organizing program that would be dispatched across union lines to assist and lead large organizing campaigns and to take out petty politically-motivated hiring practices. Understand that within the centralized form of unionized power structure that exists with the US Federation system that there arerealities that cannot be overlooked. The US union system ultimately breaks down to multiple systems or departments within the federation from the international to the region to the locals, who are each beholden to their own political autonomies and vulnerabilities, which makes it almost impossible to reach any consensus. In other words, it isonly partially centralized. The frustration we felt trying to overcome the politics of the local leadership led us to coin the phrase “we love democracy, but not too much democracy.”
The natural problem for unions have been that this semi-centralized system leaves them exposed to cynicism by their members and constant sabotage from other power-seeking union officials. Many national union leaders have also become engulfed in national politics and have abandoned the grass-roots style of leadership that made unions so powerful. I remember getting frustrated when, as a union official, I worked in Washington, DC and travelled around the country watching how members were forced to stand in line to speak with some of these national leaders with their security details at their side, as if they were rock stars. At this point, how were the union leaders any differentthan the so-called bosses the proletariat was fighting? I told some of the leaders that they needed to get to know these members on a local level and start visiting facilities or local halls unannounced; this would have spread through the membership rank and file like a bush fire.Just as in the national political system, in the unions, all politics are local.
When the union leaders fear to do anything but protect their own turfand have become afraid of their own shadows, the breakdown of leadership nationally is nearly complete. Lack of union leadership is one of the major causes that lead to the failure of many strikes over the past 30 years. Without the strike hammer also came the decline of organized labor.
Injunctions Have also Played a Role
Court-ordered injunctions on strike activities have had an astoundingeffect on most large labor strikes. Union officials fear violating any injunctions, which can incur significant fines, that have the intent on limiting strike workers’ numbers on the strike line. When I was a strikedirector on the Detroit Newspaper Strike, we went from having over 5,000 strikers and supporters from around the country surrounding the main printing facility on weekends (with the intent to prevent the Sunday edition from being delivered) to just 20 people at each gate. In aconversation I had with Richard Trumka in 1995, during the Detroit Newspaper Strike, he told me that he wallpapered his office with the injunction papers to keep the strikers focused on winning the strike.
As mentioned above, there have been many strikes in our country’s history that have captured the national attention and create a moment, but not a movement. A prime example that we have not discussed yet is the PATCOstrike in 1981, where striking air traffic controllers ignored President Ronald Reagan’s return to work order. Forty-eight hours later,Reagan fired 11,359 striking air traffic controllers.
When the negotiations began in 1981, PATCOwas largely controlled by its militant wing, known within the union as the “choirboys”. The union demanded significant wage increases and threatened to strike. The union overplayed their hand when the government made what many considered an excellent counter-offer and broke significant new ground by actually negotiating over wages. PATCO could have declared victory, but the so-called “choirboys” organized an overwhelming defeat of the tentative contract.
The criminal justice system and courts responded. Union leaders and members were arrested, jailed and fined. PATCO’s$3.5 million strike fund was frozen, the strike was broken, and the government eventually decertified the union. Reagan’s actions and the results marked a turning point is US labor relations. Many historians have since stated that if the strike is labor’s only true weapon, then practically the entire movement was disarmed after the PATCO strike.
Why did PATCOfail? A general strike is one of the most potent and effective weapons in the Anarcho-Syndicalist’s arsenal. I think the biggest hit from the start of the strike was the Machinists and Pilots unions, whose workers were closest on the job to the controllers, offered no support to PATCO.Also, then AFL-CIO president, Lane Kirkland, did not have the stomach to call for a national strike, despite persistent calls from many local unions and rank-and-file members. Showing the ultimate failure of large Anarcho-Syndicalist organizations, Kirkland went ever further than failing to support his “brothers” and said that he opposed “anything that would represent punishing, injuring or inconveniencing the public at large for the sins or transgressions of the Reagan administration.” The entire theory of Anarcho-Syndicalism revolves around the proletariatsticking together and specifically “punishing, injuring or inconveniencing” the public at large to achieve their goals.
Success Despite Injunctions
On April 5, 1989, after the miners of the Pittston Coal Company had worked without a contract for 14 months, Richard Trumka declared a strike until healthcare for retirees, widows and disabled miners was reinstated. Job security and pay were also major issues in negotiations.
The strike tactics of Richard Trumka and the UMWAwere explicitly nonviolent, yet many of the union members and supporters who flocked from all over the country did not share the union’s strategy. This resulted in mostly non-union-affiliated picketers(also known locally as “wildcat strikers”) throwing rocks at delivery trucks, cutting tires, breaking truck windows, and many more acts that damaged the company’s and strike-breakers’ property. The non-UMWA presence among the protesters was huge: by the height of the strike in 1989, there were around 2,000 UMWAunion miners on strike, along with 37,000-40,000 wildcat strikers. Thismeant that at certain times, there were nearly twenty times as many non-union strike supporters as there were union members, and many of these wildcat strikers were there solely to cause problems. Many of themwere from communist groups such as the Trotskyists, who were followers of Russian Marxist revolutionary
Leon Trotsky, who believed power is achieved through anarchy. I have had the misfortune of dealing with Trotsky followers and other communist groups on strike lines for many years.
Although the campaign ended in success for the miners, for the union,it was a mixed success as best. The union won a new contract the included reinstatement of health and retirement benefits to miners. However, the UMWA had poured many of its resources into the campaign and, at the end of the strike, was fined $64 million for contempt for over 400 separate violations of an injunction prohibiting unlawful strike activity. Many of the fines were eventually dropped and replaced by thousands of hours of community service. The Pittston Coal Company eventually
sold many of its coal facilities toa non-union company (Alpha Natural Resources). Another major victory for coal miners followed two years after the strike had ended: The Coal Act of 1992, sponsored by US Sen Jay Rockefeller, stated that all coal mines must provide their workers with health and retirement benefits andextended benefits from union companies to union miners who employers were no longer in business. However, Unions should beware of this pattern, as Pittston company officials regarded the Act as a betrayal oftrust; they negotiated in good faith with the union, only to have the government force them to enact benefits the union had given up. Why bother to deal with a union if the government will just tell you what todo anyway?
Despite the mixed success of the strike in the long run, it is still regarded as one of the most successful labor struggles of the later 20thcentury, especially in regards to the Coal Act. It was also a success for Trumka, as it skyrocketed him to national status within the AFL-CIO.
Is Strike Success Still Possible?
One thing that has been very noticeable with the recent US teacher strikes (as most of them were illegal, see
here and here ) is that the teachers
led the strike momentum and the union officials struggled to catch up. It was the rank-and-file union members who
set the goals to be met.
The most successful strikes in the 21stcentury have been when the members stopped listening to the union “leaders” and took the lead on demands from employers and got the support of the public at large. This requires strategic intelligence, which the teachers obtained through sympathetic media making the case for them to the general public.
Even the media stories that admit that teachers
received raises before they struck (Oklahoma and Arizona)then go on to explain why 9-5-5 & 20 percent raises are insufficient! They garner support from the public (who will almost neversee a 19+ percent raise over three years) by linking the strikes with subjects almost everyone can get behind: education tools and resources for students (think Helen Lovejoy of the Simpsons, ”
Won’t somebody please think of the children? “). A poll from the AP-NORCCenter for Public Affairs Research showed 78% say that teachers do not make enough money in the US, 52% support teachers’ walkouts for higher pay, and 50% say they would pay a higher tax bill if it meant more moneyfor teachers. However, the reporting on the situation (see previous links) present un-linked statistics regarding teacher pay, education funding, or some other metric without ever mentioning cost of living differences across the nation or the constantly
bloat in public education. Obviously, teachers in California and Washington, DC are paid more than teachers in Oklahoma: the cost of living in
Oklahoma is significantly less than New York. Therein lies the power of the narrative.
A similar situation was anticipated and confirmed when I was working on healthcare organizing strategies at the George Meany Union College. We drove connecting nurse and hospital professional organizing tactics with patient care. The response started as “I worked hard to become a nurse because I care for my patients, not to join a union to go on strike” and transformed to “I joined a union because I care about my patients.”
Here is an example from an SEIU web article that highlights this strategy:
Healthcare Workers File Ballot Initiative to Improve Patient Care at Pomona Hospitals
[Dec. 19, 2017] POMONA, Calif. – Healthcare workers filed a municipal ballot initiative today for the November 2018 election that would improve patient care at hospitals in the City of Pomona, Calif. by increasing hours for housekeeping staff until the number of hospital-acquired infections is reduced.
A similar example can be found on an AFSCMEarticle celebrating hospital staff at two Connecticut hospital joining the Connecticut Health Care Association in 2016. It included such statements “They’re fighting for respect on the job – for their patients…” and “hospital workers didn’t waver from their convictions: safety and quality care must come ahead of profits.” Who could possibly argue that improving patient care is not good without sounding like a monster?
Mass Protests Are Always Beneficial in Disputes
The Occupy Wall Street movement focused the unions on mass protests, as they were very surprised by the movement’s ability to confront and frustrate authorities’ overwhelming effort to stop it. Unfortunately, union leadership figured it out what their predecessors already knew: a leaderless non-union-affiliated social movement could assist unions’ strike line restrictions and 2nd party boycotts of companies doing business with a union strike target. How many countries did the OWS movement or the WTO protests reach? Now imagine that combined with your next labor dispute.
It should be no surprise that social and union activity around the world does not happen in a vacuum; American and foreign labor federations continually coordinate with each on messaging to their members and general populations. Just yesterday, IUF members gathered at this year’s annual United Nations’ ILOConference to push for a global conference on violence and harassment in the workplace. This meeting was co-hosted by the international IUF and the AFL-CIO.
Workers want to be treated fairly and respected. It is management’s obligation to manage their employees in a fair manner while also being true to their responsibility of running an efficient and productive process. Consistent open communication and workplace fairness, not monetary benefits, are the best firewall to counter worker unrest. Having well-defined and followed rules are also very important; many times unions win organizing elections with the promise to bring stability (rules) to the job.
Are We in a Moment or a Movement?
To protect yourself, your business, and your employees, you must pay attention to social media, not just regarding strikes, but any social movement.
As we enter the halfway mark of 2018, we are already seeing more thandouble the number of strikes as all of last year and have warnings of further strike activity soon, from additional teacher unions across the country to casino workers in Las Vegas. The unions are attempting to find new relevance, like that they held when working conditions were abominable and unions still served their original purpose. Times have changed since the unions fought their original mission and, like any other business, they must adapt to remain relevant and justify their existence to sustain enough dues-paying members to keep revenues flowing. Unions do this today by seeking both moments and movements.
The difference between a moment and a movement is longevity and lasting change in culture. A moment may only give the unions a brief window to capitalize on it, but if done right, it is possible. A movement is deeper; it provides the unions long-term goals. Fight for $15 is a great example of a movement. If was designed by the SEIUand originally presented as a social movement by workers with the unionhiding behind the curtain and pulling the strings before they presentedthemselves publicly.
In 2018, the SEIU dramatically cut its funding towards the Fight for $15 movement. The question is: with zero successful SEIUunion campaigns to organize fast food workers, did the movement achieveanything? It can be argued that the union was successful: They did pushhard enough for minimum wage scales to be raised in some states. More importantly, they may have convinced the public (potential future members) that they are still relevant. While the SEIUmay not have organized a single fast food chain, they did get attention, enough that they are able to sustain their membership and begin to focus on other opportunities for further growth.
When discussing the recent rash of strikes, are we in a moment or a movement? It is too early to say, but with this being an election year, we can probably count on strike action picking up just in time for the people in line at voting booths to take notice.
Avoiding a strike includes understanding your people, the union, the contract and what employees want before negotiations start. There is almost always low-hanging fruit that employers with a union contract cangrasp to keep their employees satisfied.
With these new moments and movements beginning, employers need to understand that part of the “marketing” plan of unions is to indoctrinate the next generation into a new “labor” culture. Younger employees have not been working long enough to understand just how devastating strikes can be, both to the employer AND the employees.It is the union’s job to numb their members’ conscientiousness to the point that they are willing to vote to authorize future strike actions that will lead to a regeneration of opportunities in the new labor movement.