Is The Strike Dead? Not According to Bob Schwartz. . . .

Three years ago in Boston, downtown streets and office buildings were the scene of inspiring immigrant worker activism during an unprecedented strike by local janitors.  Their walk-out was backed by other union members, community activists, students and professors, public officials, religious leaders, and even a few “socially-minded” businessmen.  The janitors had long been invisible, mistreated by management and, until recently, ignored by their own SEIU local union.  Simply by making their strike such a popular social cause, they achieved what many regarded as a major victory.

On the same day that the janitors’ dispute was settled, a much larger strike — at Overnite Transportation — ended quite differently in 2002.   Faced with mounting legal setbacks and dwindling picket line support, the Teamsters were forced to call off their nationwide walk-out against America’s leading non-union trucker.  The four thousand Overnite workers involved were not able to win a first contract.  And, since their three-year strike was suspended, all have lost their bargaining rights in a series of “decertification” elections.

The contrast between these two struggles — one hopeful and high-profile, the other tragic and now-almost-forgotten — raises important questions about the state of the strike and the future of labor in America.  Maintaining “strike capacity” is no less important than shifting greater resources into organizing new members — and just as essential to union revitalization and growth.  Unfortunately, developing new ways to walk out and win has not been a big part of recent debates about “changing to win.”

Labor’s strike effectiveness and organizational strength have long been connected.  Throughout history, work stoppages have been used for economic and political purposes, to alter the balance of power between labor and capital within single workplaces, entire industries, or nationwide.  Strikes have won shorter hours and safer conditions, through legislation or contract negotiation.  They’ve fostered new forms of worker organization — like industrial unions — that were badly needed because of corporate restructuring and the reorganization of production.  Strikes have acted as incubators for class consciousness, rank-and-file leadership development, and political activism.  In other countries, strikers have challenged — and changed — governments that were dictatorial and oppressive (plus union leadership no longer accountable to the membership).

In some nations — like Korea, South Africa, France, and Spain — where strike action helped democratize society, general strikes are still being used for mass mobilization and protest.  In recent years, millions of Europeans have participated in nationwide work stoppages over public-sector budget cuts, labor law revisions, or pension plan changes sought by conservative governments.  In Brazil, voters have even chosen a one-time strike leader, Luis Inacio (“Lula”) da Silva, to serve as president of their country.

In America, meanwhile, “major” work stoppages have become a statistical blip on the radar screen of industrial relations.  As the recent experience of transit workers in New York City and mechanics at Northwest Airlines has shown, striking continues to be a high-stakes venture as well. It involves considerable legal and financial risks, particularly in the public sector, where walk-outs are severely restricted and, as in New York, subject to draconian penalties.  Since 1992, walk-outs by 1,000 workers or more have averaged less than 40 annually.  In 2003, there were only 14, with just 129,000 union members participating.  In contrast, at the peak of labor’s post-World War II strike wave in 1952, there were 470 major strikes, affecting nearly three million workers nationwide.

Robert M. Schwartz
Robert M. Schwartz

As strike activity continues to decline in the U.S., the pool of union members and leaders with actual strike experience shrinks as well.  That’s why union activists need to analyze, collectively and individually, their strike victories and defeats — summing up and sharing the lessons of these battles so they can become the basis for future success, rather than a reoccurring pattern of failure.  Attorney Bob Schwartz‘s new book, Strikes, Picketing, and Inside Campaigns: A Legal Guide for Unions, makes a valuable contribution to this educational process.  It’s the latest in a series of easy-to-read guides from Work Rights Press, which also publishes the author’s best-seller, The Legal Rights of Union Stewards.  As in his previous books, Schwartz provides useful sample letters, legal notices, and answers to commonly-asked questions — in this case, about the many different types of union picketing and strike activity.  There are also relevant case citations, tracking the development of labor law in this area over the past 25 years.

Beginning with the PATCO disaster in 1981, when thousands of striking air traffic controllers were fired and replaced, the U.S. labor movement entered a dark decade of lost strikes and lock-outs.  Many anti-concession battles ended badly — at Phelps-Dodge, Greyhound, Hormel, Eastern, Continental Airlines, International Paper, and other firms.  The lost-strike trend discouraged many unions from using labor’s traditional weapon.  Among those that did, set-backs continued into the mid-90s, at firms like Caterpillar, Bridgestone/Firestone, and A. E. Staley, whose Decatur, Illinois plants became part of single strike-bound “war zone” in 1994.

Even during this difficult period for strikers, there were contract campaigns that bucked the tide of concession bargaining — and Schwartz’s book discusses some of the tactics and strategies they used.  In 1989, for example, sixty thousand members of the Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers waged an effective 4-month strike in New York and New England over threatened medical benefit cuts at NYNEX.  Telephone workers made extensive use of the mobile picketing tactics and targeted top officials of the company and their allies in places where they least expected it.  (See Chapter 8 of Strikes, Picketing and Inside Campaigns, entitled “Follow That Truck,” and Chapter 6, “Making It Personal.”)

At the same time, the United Mine Workers succeeded in making their 12-month walk-out against Pittston — in geographically isolated Appalachian mountain communities — into a national labor cause.  The union mobilized its members for sympathy strikes at other companies, linked arms with Jesse Jackson, used civil disobedience tactics, staged the first plant occupation since the 1930s, and created an encampment in southwest Virginia (Camp Solidarity) that hosted strike supporters from around the country.  Even an avalanche of injunctions, fines, and damage suits did not deter the miners and their families.

West Virginia aluminum workers, locked out by Ravenswood, then applied many of the lessons of the Pittston strike in a wide-ranging corporate campaign orchestrated by the United Steel Workers of America.  The USWA leveraged international union connections to put mounting pressure on key financial institutions and investors who were tied to the employer.  (See Chapter 5 of Schwartz on finding the pressure points of “integrated businesses,” including their “foreign connections.”)  Despite massive hiring of replacement workers and other union-busting measures, Ravenswood was finally forced to end its lock-out and settle with the USWA.  Since that victory, the ILWU and Bay Area hotel workers have both turned the table on offensive lock-outs by employer associations trying to thwart shop floor action or a selective strike.  (Consumer-oriented picketing — and boycotts like the one HERE Local 2 has pursued since its 51-day lock-out in San Francisco — are discussed in several chapters, including one entitled, “Buyer Beware.”)

In 1997, the contract strike made its biggest comeback in recent years with the now-famous walk-out by 190,000 United Parcel Service workers.  The backing of Teamster drivers has long been appreciated by other strikers.  As Schwartz notes (in Chapter 9, “Honor Thy Line”), IBT contract language has been a boon to other unions who count on Teamster drivers to respect their picket lines.  In 1997, it was time for the rest of labor to return the favor, which unions did in a tremendous outpouring of support for UPS drivers and package handlers.

How the Teamsters framed their dispute with UPS was a critical factor in gaining broader public sympathy.  The main strike objective was creating more full-time job opportunities — to thwart management’s strategy of converting the UPS workforce into a largely part-time one.  “Part-Time America Doesn’t Work!” the Teamsters proclaimed, in a successful effort to invest their contract fight with larger social meaning.  The UPS strike not only beat back the company’s concession demands and made job security gains.  It became a rallying point for everyone concerned about the societal impact of part-timing, with its accompanying erosion of job-based benefits.

Unions engaged in more recent struggles against health care cost-shifting have tried to borrow from the Teamsters’ playbook at UPS — by linking their strikes to the movement for health care reformWhen 18,000 General Electric workers staged a 2-day nationwide walk-out in 2003, to protest medical plan changes, many locals organized around the slogan, “Health Care for All, Not Health Cuts at GE!”  Strike-related rallies and publicity emphasized the common bond between union and non-union, insured and uninsured workers.  (The UFCW’s 2003-2004 strike and lock-out, involving thousands of grocery workers in southern California, was  less successful in making the connection between management demands for benefit cuts and the need for universal medical coverage.)

As Schwartz notes, some unions are now striking with greater tactical flexibility than before, experimenting with limited-duration walkouts and inside campaigns to reduce the risk and cost of protracted shut-downs.  HERE members at Yale University have repeatedly demonstrated creativity — and unusual solidarity between separate white-collar and blue-collar units — during their campus-based bargaining battles.  In 2003, Yale workers skirmished effectively with the university for the ninth time in the last thirty-five years.  Faced with aggressive picketing, mass rallies, and strike-related arrests, Yale sued for peace in the form of a long-term contract settlement.

In similar fashion, thousands of telephone workers in the northeast entered regional bargaining with Verizon in 2003 with a record of five strikes in the previous two decades — and a deeply-ingrained “no contract, no work” tradition.  Confronted with unprecedented strike contingency planning by management, members of CWA and IBEW shifted gears, to throw their corporate adversary off balance.  For more than a month, they worked without a contract (engaging in all the “job wobbling” activities described by Schwartz in Chapter 2, “No Contract — No Peace.”).  Verizon incurred enormous strike-preparation costs, without getting the opportunity to replace its existing workforce with an army of scabs, as planned.  The result was a new contract that preserved job security guarantees, plus fully-paid medical coverage for workers and retirees.  (In 2004, a four-day national “warning strike” by 100,000 workers at SBC Communications — some of whom had not been on strike in twenty years — produced similar results, while avoiding the risk of an open-ended walk-out.)

“Job wobbling” — in the form of work-to-rule and other “inside tactics” — has also figured prominently in recent rank-and-file discussions about how to respond to the deep wage and benefits cuts demanded by Delphi Corp., the nation’s largest auto parts supplier.  Both UAW leaders and some dissidents seem to have endorsed the work slow-down approach — in a situation where walking out might actually facilitate the company’s downsizing and plant-shutdown plans.

Regardless of what form worker militancy takes, it helps to have adequate financial backing for strikes and contract campaigns.  One bottom-line requirement is a big national strike fund, with the flexibility to pay out fixed weekly benefits (of at least $200 to $300 per week) — either for strikers or for the disciplinary casualties of concerted in-plant activity.  Some unions like CWA (which has a $360 million “Member Relief Fund”) also maintain a separate source of contract campaign funding — for use by workers who are prohibited by law from striking and for the payment of strikers’ medical expenses and/or COBRA premiums.  (See Chapter 10 of Schwartz, entitled “Benefit Daze,” for much valuable advice about COBRA coverage, unemployment claims, and related issues.)

Creativity, careful planning, and membership involvement are essential to success — whether a union chooses to stop work or pursue a non-strike strategy.  A big part of the internal planning process is sizing up the strengths and weaknesses of management’s position — and your own.  Before (rather than after) walking out, union members need to line up labor and community support through solidarity coalitions like Jobs with Justice or local central labor councils.  Otherwise, there is great danger that a small group of workers — and sometimes even a large one — will end up on picket lines isolated, frustrated, and impoverished.

Bob Schwartz’s new book is a unique tool to use in membership education, leadership training, and union strategy discussions about what to do when a contract expires.  In situations where striking is a necessary and viable worker response, Schwartz’s book outlines what it takes to make a walk-out effective, while helping unions anticipate likely employer counter-measures at the bargaining table, in court, and at the NLRB.  The author has pulled together an enormous amount of material that has not been readily accessible to non-lawyers in the past — even to activists relying on the official strike manuals of the few unions that have them.  Union members who fail to consult Schwartz’s book while preparing for a contract fight will not be as ready as they could be to deal with the many legal and organizational problems that may arise.  Any union bargaining team that doesn’t have a copy of Strikes, Picketing and Inside Campaigns is missing out on information and advice that will make the hard job of winning good contracts just a little bit easier.

Steve Early is a Boston-based international representative for the Communications Workers of America who has aided numerous strikes by telecom and manufacturing workers.  He is the author of a NYNEX strike history called “Holding The Line in ’89: How Telephone Workers Can Fight Even More Effectively Next Time.”  This essay was adapted from  the Forward to Strikes, Picketing, and Inside Campaigns: A Legal Guide For Unions by Robert M. Schwartz (Work Rights Press, December, 2005, 165 pp.).

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Strikes, Picketing, and Inside Campaigns is available in paperback for $24 from Work Rights Press: visit or call 1-800-576-4552.