Striking back! Labor strategy in the pandemic
A transcript of a Tempest Collective panel
Paul KD: Welcome everybody. This panel is “Striking Back! Labor Strategy in the Pandemic.” I’m really excited for this panel. It’s being brought on by Tempest Magazine.
We’re approaching two years of the pandemic. It’s been marked by a lot of things. I think we can safely say that a lot of the labor struggle that we’ve seen over the last couple of years (where there is some) is at least indirectly and oftentimes directly tied in with the way the pandemic has gone and the way the politics of the pandemic have worked out.
My favorite thing I think about is going down to the John Deere strike in the fall in Iowa and seeing a shirt that says “Deemed essential in 2020, prove it in 2021. Can’t build it from home.” I think that message of the essential worker just at the bare minimum has really affected people. Obviously many, many cases that we’re going to go into this panel are on specifically COVID- related things, but it has been something that has been in the air, and I’m really happy and excited to be able to talk about it with these four great speakers.
First of all, my name is Paul KD. I use he/him pronouns. I’m a member of the Tempest Collective. I’m in Minneapolis where I’m a member of UFCW Local 663 and Twin Cities DSA.
We have Joe Burns, who is a veteran union negotiator and labor lawyer. He is currently the director of collective bargaining for the Association of Flight Attendants, UWA. He’s the author of Class Struggle Unionism, which is coming out this March from Haymarket. He’s also written Strike Back and Reviving the Strike.
We have also Elizabeth Lalasz, who is the steward in Chicago with National Nurses United, serves on the steering committee of the Chicago DSA Labor Branch and is a member of the Tempest Collective.
We’ll have Kim Moody who is a founder of Labor Notes in the US and author of several books on labor and politics, including On New Terrain and the forthcoming Breaking the Impasse, both with Haymarket Books. He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Westminster in London and a member of the University in College Union and the National Union of Journalists.
And we have Kirstin Roberts who is a member of the executive board of the Chicago Teachers Union and chair of their early childhood committee and a preschool teacher at Brentano Elementary, and a member of Chicago DSA.
Coming up first, we’ll have Elizabeth to kick it off.
Elizabeth Lalasz: Thank you, Paul, and thank you everyone, and to Tempest collective for this panel, which, I think, it is incredibly important to be talking about all of these things at this time.
As the pandemic goes into its third year, it continues to be a catalyst for continued radicalization and working-class consciousness. It has accelerated dissatisfaction, sometimes explosively with the pre-COVID working conditions that we had been suffering under, which were abysmal for many, many workers, coupled with a growing awareness of the massive inequality between the rich and the working class.
Over 2021, Cornell University’s strike database reported that there had been 250 strikes involving small and large groups of workers across the country. Many workers were deemed essential in the US, from healthcare to Amazon workers, but this also surprisingly included manufacturing workers like those at Nabisco, John Deere, and Kellogg’s. This drove the strikes amongst the private sector union workers in the fall of 2021, which the AFL-CIO deemed a #Striketober, which morphed into #Strikevember, and on and on as workers continued to fight through the end of last year. There was clearly a new mood of resistance and a willingness to organize and, in many cases, strike.
I want to do a brief examination of some of these strikes — their patterns and results — to give just a sense of how these dynamics played out amongst workers within and across industries, from public to private sector.
I was one of those workers who struck in 2021. The strike I was part of was a 1200 registered nurses within the public sector health system here in Chicago. We struck in the mid-summer. The issues we struck over were around lack of staffing. We had lost a lot of people as part of the Great Resignation, with people leaving union jobs to take temporary jobs in my industry, and it was around wages and benefits with an employer who was demanding major concessions — doubling our healthcare [and] refusing to give us raises in the first years of our contract. But this employer had received a billion dollars in federal COVID relief money.
So it was the first time we had struck in 40 years. And we did it because we felt like we had no choice. My strike is a touchstone for me because it echoes the grievances and demands of other workers’ struggles that I heard throughout the rest of the year, and shows that they are not just about an individual workplace or a certain type of worker, but is much more widespread.
In late summer, 1000 Nabisco food processing workers represented by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTGM) struck across five states. I helped to participate in some of the solidarity work through local organizing here. The last time there was a national strike at Nabisco was in 1969.
Workers at Nabisco were striking around wages and benefits, but also against what they called “suicide shifts,” which are back-to-back 12-hours shifts, being forced back sometimes seven days a week, leaving them no time at all to see their families and often not any time to rest in between shifts. (Just as a note, Nabisco had posted a 12% increase in profits in the second quarter of 2021, right before this strike.)
The issues that drove the Nabisco strike were similar, if not identical, to the ones behind another strike of workers represented by the BCTGM in Frito-Lay in Topeka, Kansas, just a month earlier in July. The Frito-Lay workers had the same sort of similar working conditions, like back-to-back 12-hour shifts. A lot of people had quit, so they were being forced back to work. But the settlement was disappointing to a lot of the rank-and-file workers. It’s hard to say, but, anecdotally, a sizable number of strikers on Facebook were announcing that they were going to vote “no” because nothing had been done really about changing these shifts, which we’re just harrowing for them to go through.
The largest of the October strikes was at John Deere. Again, I participated in some of the solidarity work locally. After workers rejected a tentative agreement between their union, the United Auto Workers (UAW), and the giant manufacturer of agriculture and heavy duty construction vehicles two times.
10,000 UAW members walked off the job, demanding higher pay increases and no further concessions to the corporation. John Deere’s profits had risen by 61% over the last few years and its CEO, John C. May, saw his salary grow by 160% during the pandemic. And the last time John Deere was on strike was in 1986.
I’m highlighting these strikes in manufacturing, in the private sector, which is the lowest percentage unionized workforce in the country. So they were significant. They were happening almost back-to-back around the same time.
At Kellogg’s, one of the global giants of breakfast cereals and snack foods, workers struck for 11 weeks until late December, when workers again, represented by BCTGM, ratified the latest contract proposal, which they had voted down twice before. The biggest issue for most of the 1400 strikers was ending the longstanding two-tier wage and employment structure, which condemned a large part of the workforce to lower wages and precarious employment. And while the union’s press release pledged that the new contract contained no concessions and the end of a permanent two-tier wage system, a lot of Kellogg’s workers felt betrayed particularly at the Battle Creek local in Michigan, which is where Kellogg’s corporate headquarters is located.
There’s much more to be examined that I can’t get into due to time, so I hope we take it up in the panel and the discussion, such as the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), their strike vote, which was overwhelming, and the disappointment over a tentative contract agreement, which many rank and file members opposed; the Starbucks organizing which is catching on like wildfire across the country…. This is just to name a few. I hope we take it up more.
And to conclude with some remarks overall about these strikes: last year’s strikes were very much I think the revenge of the essential worker, largely economic strikes against outrageous employer demands. There are some generalizable trends amongst the strikes and the votes, which I think are worth pulling out.
Working conditions for many rank-and-file workers were already horrific and COVID just made it so much worse. Workers know that their employers had made millions, if not billions, in profits during the pandemic or received those amounts in COVID federal relief money. But despite this, workers and their unions were not seeing that shared at the bargaining table, even after working these brutal nonstop hours and shifts. Add on top of this is the sense with COVID that your life as a worker doesn’t matter to your boss. And the only way to stay safe was for us to protect each other on the shop floor and through collectively organizing and fighting back.
Last, I think it’s significant because it also revealed just how out of touch union leaderships are with the rank-and-file members — in fact, in many instances, trailing behind their militancy. You see that in the rejection of the contract at Deere by the UAW members at least twice and then there were locals that did not go with the tentative agreement. The same happened with Kellogg’s.
These strikes mean workers are more willing to fight, but it’s not onwards and upwards from here. It’s not really even about contract wins, because they are victories relative to what came before, in many instances, completely concessionary contracts. But the fight to implement the gains won is intense. During my strike we won economics and we won staffing language, but we’re still fighting to see these gains almost six to nine months later after our strike. Our employer, as with many employers, are fighting workers at every step, sometimes firing them. Of course, you know, it is really about continuing the fight after the TA [tentative agreement] is signed.
I’ll just conclude with this. The pandemic is a social crisis, and with the omicron surge, it’s really revealed that driving us back to work is a bipartisan agenda for President Biden and the Democrats. The idea of going back to normal is really what they’re pushing, but there is no normal anymore. Going back to normal is code for keeping the economy going above the lives of working people.
There will be episodes of ongoing surges of the pandemic and bursts of explosive opposition, just as I think there were in 2020 with the Black Lives Matter movement. The strikes that happened in the last year may just be the beginning of workers fighting back. It’s uncertain where things will go, but it could be a precursor to bigger struggles to come, even with unionization numbers being as low as they are. Union contracts are coming up again this year, but it’s not just about contracts. It’s about what continues to develop in the consciousness of workers who are drawing political conclusions about the class dynamic of their workplaces and capitalism as a whole, and their willingness to fight their bosses and for more democratic unions and even more.
It takes politics, not just the right organizing structures. As a socialist and a union steward, I’ve done a lot in my union over many years, and there’s always more to do. But having a political vision of workers power from below and how to put that into practice in each of our workplaces, from the hospitals to the factories, warehouses, schools, and coffee shops, and everywhere and trying to reach out to those workers who are radicalizing through strikes, no votes, etc. — is really essential right now. We must figure out how to rebuild a labor movement with this in mind. That’s it, thank you.
Paul KD: Thanks a lot, Elizabeth. That was a great overview of the strikes and a great call to action at the end.
Next up, we have Kirstin Roberts. She’s a member of the executive board of the Chicago Teachers Union and chair of their early childhood committee. She’s a preschool teacher at Brentano Elementary and a member of Chicago DSA.
Kirstin Roberts: Hi, thank you guys for hosting this meeting. I also should say I’m a member of Tempest collective. I’m really happy that this meeting is being held and that there are so many people here who can join in this discussion.
A year ago when the vaccine was rolled out, we were hoping that this would be a year to collectively heal and move forward to fight on different fronts and around different issues. And yet I think we’re all coming to the realization that this struggle continues around safety in the workplace, around COVID safety in our society, around who lives, who dies, who gets treatment, who doesn’t get treatment… all of those questions are going to be with us for some time. So we need to make sure that these questions are being debated and discussed in our workplaces and in our union halls.
I want to talk a little bit about what happened most recently in Chicago, and give some political framework for that, some context, and maybe then leave it up to the discussion and other speakers to talk about what lessons we can draw out of that that are more broad, that go beyond just the experience in Chicago, which has its own peculiarities and dynamics, just like every struggle.
I wanted to start with a reflection from a school nurse who was one of the leaders in the nurses within the Chicago Teachers Union. A woman named Erica told my partner, Dennis, who was a school nurse in the Chicago public schools, that after we went back to work after our most recent job action, she had had COVID in 2020, and she almost died. She was in the ICU. She had a long, really slow recovery. She’d had many family members who suffered terribly from COVID. She would have gladly given up a lot more than four days’ pay to save others who look like her and live in her community from having that happen to them. (Erica is an African-American nurse.)
I’ve done a lot of meetings about COVID and about COVID safety, and I always start with an acknowledgement and a reminder about the millions that we have lost in this pandemic. I want them always to be in the front of our minds when we discuss these issues, to never forget the disproportionate burden that this disease has had on the poor, on people of color, on essential workers, on the disabled, and most of all, upon our elders. These people matter, and we fight alongside them and in their memory, and for the safety and justice that they deserved.
Now, our most recent CTU job action for safety during this pandemic was a pretty bruising battle for both sides, for the CTU, our members, but also for our bosses and, most importantly, Lori Lightfoot, the mayor of Chicago, who is our main boss.
And I think that the bruising nature of this battle really is reflected in some of the debates that are being had out with a really good deal of seriousness by the most active and conscious members of the Chicago Teachers Union. And for that, I’m very grateful. I’m grateful to have that discussion with my coworkers.
Now, I’m sure some of you around the country have seen some of the debates showing up in social media policy and a handful of fairly thoughtful articles by labor and education, journalists of integrity. But for the most part, these debates are conversations that are really happening in our union meetings, in building level safety committee meetings, and hallway conversations.
I want to share some of my reflections on the lessons learned and I really hope that other members of the CTU who might be on this call will say theirs as well. My main takeaway is, since the outbreak of COVID, our union has had to struggle to protect itself, to protect our students, and to protect our city from the impact of this virus.
And we’ve had to think about physical safety, economic safety, and emotional safety, which is always an important component for teachers when we’re thinking about our students. I think this latest action was just a continuation of this two-year fight for safety. It’s just the latest chapter. And I think there will be more in the future.
I think we fought well and I think we fought hard, but ultimately we were locked out and we did give up four days of pay. What we gained most importantly was a pause of in-person schooling at the height of the Omicron surge, and it helped to bring case numbers down in the city. Certainly there were lives saved because of that.
We made some fairly small gains in safety protocols in our buildings, including a way for the building-level safety committees — which were a gain of last winters’ remote work actions and teach outs — but we now have won a way for those safety committees to democratically vote to move a building to remote instruction if cases are surging out of control. So, there were some gains.
I think the attention we brought to it is the reason that we now have doubled the number of students who are getting tested on a regular basis, which is also very important. We had a dismal test rate in the Chicago public schools prior to this.
Despite debates over whether this struggle was a win, a loss or a draw, we had a very close vote on getting back into work and the acceptance of this agreement. I think it was 45% against and roughly 55% in favor. So, we are not all of one mind on this question. I personally voted “no.” Lots of coworkers who I have utmost respect for voted “yes.” So it’s an ongoing question and conversation.
I think one of the most astonishing things that I don’t want to lose sight of is that we went from an exhausting, pretty brutal first semester of in-person pandemic schooling, to … we basically went into Thanksgiving, came back. People were starting to get sick. We’re all exhausted, but it became clear it was spreading. And in less than six weeks, part of which was over holiday break, we organized a job action in the midst of an Omicron surge that was able to stop in-person schooling across our entire district. That requires an enormous amount of solidarity on the part of CTU members. And many, many SEIU members also joined the action.
Our union came out of it alive. We survived an onslaught of slander and scorn and attacks by national media and many very powerful politicians. No one could be blamed for wondering, in the midst of those attacks, if we had maybe gone too far, if we had lost or somehow broken important relationships of trust and solidarity with working class parents and students in Chicago. I can’t blame people for asking that question, but I think the answer came down very definitively on the second day we were back to work, when thousands of high school students and middle school students across Chicago walked out of class and gathered in protest and peaceful civil disobedience in downtown Chicago in support of increased COVID safety protocols and in solidarity with their educators.
Now, the terrain from the very first phases of struggle has certainly changed. I think about the struggle to go remote and then I think about the struggle to keep, try and improve remote education. And then I think about the struggle last January when we were returning to make sure there were protocols in place that could keep the disease from spreading in our schools.
The struggle has definitely gone through different phases, but the terrain is really different today. We know a lot more about the disease. We know something about how it spreads. We’ve got vaccines. We know how to treat it better in hospitals. But despite all this knowledge, massive infections and deaths continue.
And under Trump, it was really easy to blame him personally and to blame his supporters, to blame radical Republicans and the right wing for this state of affairs. But today we have to have a deeper analysis. The CTU’s political isolation in this last battle was real. The Biden administration backed Lori Lightfoot during this fight.
It is increasingly clear that the profitability of the US economy, as Elizabeth was talking about — no matter what the cost, returning that to “normal” has moved from a more conservative wing of US politics to really the center of US politics. There’s a bipartisan consensus that we are never going back to lockdowns. We are never going back to shutting down schools, et cetera. They have to normalize. They have to get us to ignore overcrowded hospitals. They have to shame those of us who resist, and paint us as selfish and hysterical in order to do this. If you look at some of the stuff we saw in mainstream newspapers and on Fox News… we’ve seen our leaders redbaited, we’ve seen the leaders of our union accused of just having political ambitions.
So, just to wrap up, I think we raised questions about who runs our schools, who keeps us safe and its connections really to all kinds of debates that are happening right now in education. We can talk during the discussion about what this is going to mean moving forward for the Chicago Teachers Union. We’re in the middle of an election year to either reelect or have a new leadership in our union. We can discuss all those questions that I’m sure people have. Okay, thanks so much.
Paul KD: Thank you so much, Kristin, that was really incredible. Next up we have Kim Moody. [He’s] a founder of Labor Notes in the US and author of several books on labor and politics, including On New Terrain and the forthcoming Breaking the Impasse, which are both available with Haymarket press. He’s currently a visiting scholar at the University of Westminster in London and a member of the University of College in Union and the National Union of Journalists.
Kim Moody: Thanks to the organizers of this and the first few panelists who provided a lot of really good on-the-ground feel for what’s going on, which is extremely important.
The COVID thing and the economic context of the last couple of years have been a disaster for the working class, which is one reason why we’re seeing new resistance. But it’s been a blessing for capital. Capital has made out like bandits on the basis of this thing. Domestic non-financial profits are at record levels at the end of 2021.
Profit margins—that’s not the profit rate in the Marxist sense, but the profits as a percentage of sales—have reached a historic, high level as a result of the pandemic. So whatever capital tells us when we’re going into bargaining about how poor they are, you can be pretty sure that with a few exceptions, they’re lying. At the same time, a kind of really unusual economic context has come out of this pandemic and out of the bigger sort of economic things. It’s an economic situation we haven’t seen for half a century since the 70’s. And let me just run through it really quickly.
The first is that inflation is now rampant. At the end of last year, it was running at 7%. It will probably moderate somewhat, but it’s already destroyed any wage increases that have been won in the last year or so.
At the same time, unemployment—and not just the official 3.9% figure—but if you look at all the different kinds of figures for unemployment, [they] are way down by actually historic standards of the neoliberal era. And so I wonder… you know, 7 million people got kicked off benefits in September. They must have caused more unemployment. And so I looked at all the kinds of figures you can look at to seek out where this reserve army of labor is hiding right now, and you can’t find them. They’re quitting jobs. They’re getting hired. Openings are at an all-time high. These things they call the Great Resignation have created an unusually tight labor market, which is really a good thing for upcoming bargaining, for what unions face in terms of the context.
And it’s also very unusual, and I would argue it’s probably unstable. That is, we cannot expect this to go on for a long time. If unions and workers are going to take advantage of this situation, they really need to do it this year. And this year happens to be a really good year to do it because there’s an unusually heavy bargaining schedule. Now we’re talking about official unions here and collective bargaining.
There will be additionally all kinds of other things going on — organizing drives, unofficial strikes by non-union workers as there have been, and other things. But just looking at the sort of official union contract expirations coming up in this year, there are almost 200 of these that cover over a thousand workers or more, some of them many more than that. So we’re not only looking at probably more strikes than last year, but possibly bigger ones as well. And I’m sure very hard fought too, because, as we know, the bosses are not sitting still for this. They’re enjoying these profits they’re getting and they will use them to break strikes and everything else.
Nonetheless, it’s an unusual situation. Not only are there more big contracts coming up, but they tend to be among those groups that, in the last several years, have been the most strike prone. And I’m talking about hospital workers. There’s over a hundred thousand of them. Teachers, again, 260-something thousand of them, with contracts coming up; and grocery, another group that has been striking a fair amount in the last few years, and probably will again. And in fact, [they] already have in Colorado. I don’t know the outcome of that strike—the union’s advertising is that [things are] going good—but I’ll wait to see further analysis of that. But nonetheless, it looks like people are going to be striking in large numbers—telecom workers, AT&T frontier again, and so forth.
Coming up soon — and this is an important — is the carhaul contract. These are the people who take newly made cars from the factory to the dealers. Now car sales are down. A strike by carhaulers — there’s 4000 of them in the Teamsters — would have a strong effect on the automobile industry under these circumstances.
Now, it’s also interestingly going to be a test of the new leadership of the Teamsters union. Perhaps we can go into that rather complex question a little bit later, but I think this will be an important thing. Remember, the last time the car haulers had a contract two years ago, they rejected their contracts twice (campaigns run by the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, so forth… rank and file-based contract objections). So this is a kind of situation that we haven’t seen for a long time.
Now to throw into this mix, there is what is being called the global supply chain crisis, and that is largely a function — and this is something I’ve been researching for the last few years a lot — this is largely a function of labor shortages of truckers [and] warehouse workers. Well, why? Because the wages are low for most truckers. Most of them are not union members. Same for warehouse workers and other related logistics employment.
So this crisis of the supply chains has demonstrated, on the one hand, that the capital is actually quite vulnerable, and on the other hand, that it actually has to do with labor.
If you read the literature on logistics, they love to talk about all the new technology, the internet of things and all this great stuff. But it always comes down strangely enough to the fact, well, there’s just not enough workers to do this stuff. You can have all the internet of things you want but if there isn’t somebody there to move these boxes, to drive these trucks, to move the trains, etc. etc., you are facing a problem.
Speaking of trains, this might be the first time in god knows how long that the very conservative unions in the freight rail industry have begun actually talking about having strike votes and so forth. And there’s a rank-and-file group, the Railroad Workers United, that is pushing across crafts , and pushing for that [the possibility of a strike].
There’s a new atmosphere in the United Auto Workers. They’re not a major factor in bargaining this year, but they may be a major factor of change in the labor movement.
There there’s a lot coming up that I think is important, and a lot for socialists — but the way, I’m also a Tempest member, just to get that out — a lot that socialists can do in terms of not only trying to get these things going where they are a member of one or another of these unions, but also the support work that can become important because unfortunately, the labor movement has gone for the last half century, strikes can tend to be isolated and so forth. Getting out mass support or at least kind of struggles is extremely important.
To conclude, the big unknown factor here or semi-unknown factor is, of course, the Biden administration. As we heard in Chicago, Biden did not hesitate to intervene on the wrong side of the CTU’s recent struggle. I’m told that Marty Walsh, the Secretary of Labor, is already talking to Sean O’Brien, the new Teamster president. By the way, they’re all buddies. And now just how that’s going to work, I don’t know.
The Biden administration is in a state of near collapse. But I think part of what they want to do is to demonstrate to their capitalist funders — and to the suburban votes that they hope they win so they don’t lose their majority in the midterm elections, which they probably will anyway — that they can be responsible and that they will probably try to intervene in these various strikes, either behind the scenes with what they used to call it back in the Johnson-Kennedy era “Jawboning”: you bring in the union leader to Washington, and you talk to them and try to convince them to do the reasonable thing and so forth.
So, the rank and file of these unions that are facing contract expirations these days, even though the economic context is unusually good for them, at least for now, are going to be facing stiff opposition from their employers and almost certainly from the government as well. Once again, this makes these things a political question. This is not just collective bargaining in the narrow sense. We’re talking about a government that may be willing to intervene across industries to try to hold down wages and to prevent strikes and so forth.
The left, if it’s in a position to do this, or where it’s in a position to do this, can play a strong supporting role backing the rank and file and its efforts win some gains in this round. Thanks.
Paul KD: Thanks Kim. That was a really excellent overview of the economic effects of COVID as well as the general economic trends of the last few years.
Finally for our speakers we have Joe Burns. Once again, he’s a veteran union negotiator and labor lawyer.
He’s currently the director of collective bargaining for the Association of Flight Attendants, CWA. He is the author of Strike Back and Reviving the Strike and, coming out in March from Haymarket, Class Struggle Unionism.
Joe Burns: Okay, thanks Paul. And thanks everybody. I’ve enjoyed the previous discussion.
What I’m going to focus on is discussing the strike wave within the framework of class struggle unionism, and what it can tell us about our strategy going forward for those of us who want to build a militant, democratic and class struggle-oriented labor movement.
Over the last year or so, we’ve seen unprecedented coverage in the press over the series of strikes that has been called Striketober, Strike November, and there’s been a lot of attention to the striking, but a lot of it’s been fairly superficial. It talks about workers striking, but it doesn’t really get into a lot of the features of the strike wave that we really need to be looking at. So I’m going to look at it from the perspective of class struggle unionism.
Just to say a sentence or two about it: class struggle unionism, up until the 1980s, was really the main competitor to bureaucratic business unionism. It can really be summed up as class struggle unionists believe that labor creates all wealth, that workers are the source of value in a society, and that the employment transaction under capitalism is inherently exploitative.
Business unionism, on the other hand, has a far more limited slogan which can be summed up in “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”
I’m not really going to go into all the differences. That’s really a different talk. But starting from those two main propositions, you have very different forms of unionism.
So let’s talk a little bit about the strike wave and some of the features. And I think the first feature is it really shows us the power of the working class in motion. Obviously we’ve seen that in recent years with the Red State Teacher Revolt and the teacher strike wave, which followed it up and really showed the power of the strike and when workers get in motion. But this is the first time, really since the eighties, on a widespread basis, that we’ve seen the industrial section of the working class, in terms of production workers, go out on strike.
Now, it’s not anywhere at the level of the historic strike waves, but it’s very important. When you look at it, it’s very heartening, because when you look at the demands of the strikers, they’re very ambitious, and the workers actually want their bargaining teams to fight for it.
You got IATSE, the stagehands and so forth, fighting for control over residuals, weekend work and how much rest they get. You have workers fighting to eliminate two tier and weekend work. These are all issues that are very real on the shop floor. They go to productivity, they go to power, and they’ve been issues that have been largely ignored by the labor leadership and what we would call the labor bureaucracy over the past decades.
But we also see in the struggle that there’s a great gulf between the demands and the goals and the aspirations of the strikers and of the full-time union officials who are doing the bargaining at the table. And what you see is that, in a lot of these disputes, as the struggle goes on, the struggle really becomes redefined. So as a stagehand, as they get closer to a strike with IATSE, they stop talking about residuals and start focusing a lot more on easier to resolve issues of wages. And in a lot of settlements, that’s what you really see as they put a little bit of more money at it.
And they are a victory because they beat back some of the concessions, they get the workers on the move, but a lot of them are not capable of resolving these long-term issues. And therefore what you end up with is a situation where a lot of these contracts get narrowly voted in after the strike.
I think one of the underlying questions we have to ask is, workers are fighting against these work rules systems in these two-tiered systems, but where do they come from? They didn’t just come out of thin air. This has been a main response of business unionism of the last several decades to do these accommodations where they can survive and represent a subset of their workers who are in the first tier. It’s been a main feature of business unionism’s response, so we should not expect that business unionism is really going to be capable of fighting this.
This leads us to our second point, which is that this strike wave has been primarily pushed by the workers involved, and in many cases has been despite the full-time union officials who are doing a lot of the negotiating.
If you look at a lot of the strikes, one of the key features is they involve failed tentative agreements. Volvo had three TAs go down and the fourth gets voted in. You have IATSE going up to the strike deadline and then narrowly passing, and there it didn’t even pass by a majority of the vote in one of the contracts. Even in a better union, such as the United Mine Workers, they go out on strike or you’re [demands are] met [?]. But then that TA a week into it gets overwhelmingly voted down. And I think we kind of know what happened in the UAW.
When we look at a lot of the features of the bargaining, there’s a lot of problems with how the bargaining and how the fight has gone. In a lot of the bargaining, the negotiations are kept as state secrets. The workers who go out on strike don’t even know what’s going back at the table. They don’t know about the tentative agreement. They call off a strike and they don’t even know it until they get back, until they go to the vote.
This really goes against a different form of bargaining, which involves the members every step of the way and letting them know what’s happening. In the worst examples, you get the Washington state carpenters where they end up voting down because they had a really strong rank-and-file group, and they’re voting down the agreement several times and on the fourth time they reluctantly go out on strike. And then in the fifth time, the vote passes, but then it becomes apparent that the district leadership of the carpenters had been fixing the votes and get put into trusteeship. So I think, obviously the strikes and strike wave is one of the very important features going on. But I think it’s important to note that this is really the opposite of a class struggle union like we heard about earlier about the Chicago Teachers Union, which operates based on transparency, but also in terms of taking a class stand. I think these are important points and I’ll cover it a little bit more.
But we are not going to be able to have a true strike wave without contending with the fact that our unions as currently constituted are incapable of engaging in that. The struggle to revive the strike cannot be separated from the struggle for a union democracy and rank-and-file power.
I want to talk briefly about the role of organizers in doing this. I think in the past couple of decades, left labor theory has really focused a lot on organizing skills, that we need skilled organizers, and there’s all different takes on it. But at the end of the day, I think many people saw their role as sort of coaxing workers into fighting employers. That’s never really tracked my experience as a unionist and as a bargainer. Inherent in the employment transaction is conflict, and that conflict is what really leads to the strikes. When you look at how the 70’s leftists and before saw their role as organizers, it wasn’t so much as their role was to organize the workers and make them go out on strike or do whatever, but it was really about building rank-and file-power. It was about struggle on the shop floor. It was about contending with the fact that many in the unions and the bureaucratic business unions didn’t want to fight. So it was really more about [the] class stand and transforming unions. And I think we can see that when we look at various industries and how we ended up with strike waves, and that being very important.
My time is running short, so I will focus on one more feature. Class struggle unionism requires class struggle tactics. When we look at a lot of the strikes that have happened, the employers still have the tools in their arsenals that they have used since the 1980s and before to bust strikes. In a lot of these strikes, you’re ending up with employers easily getting injunctions. At Warrior Met, all picketing was enjoined. At John Deere, the judge just uses John Deere’s language they wrote up, which is fairly typical, and limits it to four people (the number of strikers who could be on the picket line).
We can look at the victories, and that’s a very, very important, but we also have to look at [the fact] that we’ve had some very difficult bargaining — St. Vincent’s, which went on for 10 months — and we have to have a discussion about what sort of labor movement is it going to take to truly revive the strike.
So I’m just going to wrap it up. I think this strike wave really shows the possibility, the courage and solidarity of the workers out on strike and the solidarity of the top-tier workers with the next generation. I think it really points the way forward to how we’re going to revive the labor movement.
Featured Image Credit: Photo by Marcy Winograd. Image modified by Tempest.
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Paul KD View All
Paul KD is a member of UFCW Local 663, an activist in the labor movement in the Twin Cities, and a member of the Tempest Collective.