Started From The Shop Floor, Now We’re Here: What It Takes To Organize A Strike

There were only fifteen strikes with a thousand workers or more in the United States last year.

With only 25,000 people on strike last year in a country with an active workforce of 157 million, it is absolutely no surprise that very few people have much direct experience in organizing a strike. Defanged by bad legal precedent and a broken labor law system, the strike hit its second-lowest year on record here in America.

At the same time, though, there have been several high profile strikes recently. CWA struck Verizon in 2016 and AT&T in 2017. In so doing, the union was able to fend off several horrendous attacks by management at both companies. 2018 has also had its share of high profile industrial action. West Virginia’s teachers went out on strike in defiance of the law with some clever organizing and was able to wrestle several concessions out of a hostile government, and the strike fever has, at the time of writing, spread to Oklahoma and Kentucky, and Arizona is showing symptoms.

But organizing a strike isn’t easy. It’s a whole lot of preparation and work culminating in a period of personal and economic uncertainty for every person on the line. All things being equal, most people just want to go to work, do their jobs, and go home.

All things aren’t equal, though, and that’s why it’s necessary to show the kind of work that goes into preparing for a strike.

Before I get into it, I should just say that this isn’t a comprehensive how-to of organizing a strike. There’s a lot of legal impediments and threats for all unions looking to undertake a strike, either public sector or private sector. In the former, there might be minimum thresholds for a strike ballot that a union needs to meet for a strike to be legal, or cooling off periods, or mandatory mediation before a strike can be undertaken. In the latter, due to NLRB v. Mackay Radio & Telegraph Co., the bosses can permanently replace striking workers if the strike is undertaken for economic gain.

There are ways around these laws, though. West Virginia’s education workers bypassed the ban of public sector collective bargaining and strikes by getting all 55 school superintendents in the state to close schools instead of having them be open and allow for an injunction to be filed against the unions in question. This is a strategy that’s being used in Oklahoma and West Virginia as well. In the private sector, there will be a concerted effort by the union to get the bosses to break the law and draw unfair labor practice charges in advance of any strike so that the union can undertake a ULP strike. This bypasses Mackay, as management cannot legally replace workers participating in a ULP strike on a permanent basis.

Also, not all unions are equal in size and strength. The smaller the bargaining unit, the harder it is to get people to strike, as fear of retaliation is a very real thing in these circumstances. At the same time, it also makes the actual mechanics of organizing a strike simpler, since you have fewer people to worry about bringing on-side. In the long run, though, bigger really is better and the more people you have out on a picket line, the more likely you are to win, especially when confronting massive institutional power like multinational corporations or the government.


Six Months Before You Strike

Let’s just get one thing out of the way: there is no such thing as a spontaneous strike.

Strikes are hard work. Even the most out-of-nowhere wildcat action has almost certainly been discussed for quite some time by the workers who undertake the action. Organizing people into escalating actions, educating workers on how union contract negotiations are going, or agitating against the bosses’ dirty actions is a process that takes time and cannot easily be rushed. More than anything, strikes require solidarity to succeed, and solidarity requires trust, specifically trust in your fellow worker and union member. People might go out on strike for principles or collective economic gain, but they stay out on strike because of the relationships they have with their union comrades.

So when it’s looking like a strike is necessary, the union leadership should start working on organizing their union towards those ends basically the day they decide that going out on the line will be necessary. They need to start up a program of house visits and one-on-one conversations to meet their union comrades where they are at and convince them that they need to be prepared to go out on strike in the near future. They need to start making preparations for a strike fund, either accessing one that already exists or starting to fundraise and build one. They need to create a plan of escalating actions to build visible support within the union’s membership to taking action.

They also need to reach out and do the same kind of organizing with community leaders. This goes double for public sector workers like teachers. More than once, a union campaign has been derailed from the pulpit after the bosses spread some money around, and by getting to faith leaders and local politicians first and hopefully before the bosses can buy them, union leadership can tap into a wellspring of public support. In each of these examples (priests and pols), parishioners and constituents (respectively) that will be on the line are the best choice to bring these folks into the fight, as they have a pre-existing relationship with the community leader being organized into supporting the strike.


Three to Four Months Before The Strike

By this point, the union leadership should have a fairly good idea of how much support for industrial action exists among their members. They have done this by running a campaign of visible and escalating actions. These are simple things: get a union member to ask everyone at a given jobsite to wear a sticker or a union button on a given day, or to wear a specific color on a given day. These actions have a two-fold effect. First, they give a visible assessment of the support for taking industrial action. If the union leadership asks everyone to wear red for public education on a given day and everyone at a school is decked out in red, that’s a good indication that the workers there support the potential strike.

The other thing these kinds of preliminary actions do is identify leaders. The number one reason people don’t do things with their unions is that no one asks them to. Behind every sticker-up or button-up are dozens of people having hundreds of conversations with their co-workers, trying to organize them into a confrontation with the bosses. The kind of people willing to undertake this work will be the kind of people that will actually run the picket lines or become stewards to do more work after the strike.

Organizing escalating actions in the community also has to continue, especially for public sector workers. Getting local businesses dependent on union members’ livelihoods to put a sign up supporting the union is a powerful and effective way for the union to claim space in the public square and put pressure on the bosses to settle. Getting a faith leader speak supportively from the pulpit of your fight or at a union meeting is a good example of what an escalatory action might look like here.


One to Two Months Before The Strike

At this point, the union leadership needs to go to the membership and get a democratic mandate to strike. But this should be a formality if the leadership has laid the groundwork: any ballot for a strike should be overwhelmingly in favor. This should also be when the day of the strike is set.

It’s after a strike mandate is secured that serious logistical preparations are done. Materials needed to safely run picket lines need to be gathered. Bullhorns, coolers, signs, and flyers all need to be purchased or made in advance of the strike. Escalating actions should be continued and increased as the day of the strike approaches. Sticker-ups or button-ups should have other small actions on the job added into the mix, like rallying before or after work. Town halls or informational pickets to earn some media coverage are also worth considering, and need to include a community support component if possible.

In addition, the leaders who have been assiduously developed in the course of the escalating actions must now be trained to run the picket lines. Strikes can be fraught things, and the skills needed to de-escalate between union members and law enforcement (or scabs, if scabs are a concern) have to be taught to those who are responsible for good order on the line.


One to Two Weeks Before The Strike

This is it. The strike is just around the corner, and final preparations need to be hammered out. All the materials that got made or acquired to run a picket line need to be distributed to the strike captains so they have them available to distribute to the strikers. At this point, every worker should be wearing a button or a sticker about the strike the entire time they are at work, and discussions of the strike should be on the lips of every worker about to go out on the line.

A press event announcing the strike should take place around now, with union leadership and newly identified leaders speaking to the media about what the union is going on strike for and why it is necessary. The event in question doesn’t have to be a formal press conference. A big rally or informational picket in advance of the strike is an excellent alternative and would be a good dress rehearsal for the strike. Earning good media coverage through action helps the union get a counter-message out. This is especially vital when we are talking about a public sector strike, as politicians will inevitably try to smear the striking workers as callous and greedy.

This is also why having community leaders at your press event is a necessity, as it shows a broad base of support for the striking workers. In West Virginia’s teacher strike this year and the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012, bringing the parents of students into the fight was a key step towards in upending the narrative advanced by Jim Justice or Rahm Emanuel that the teachers were only in it for themselves.


Strike Day

All the hard work has built to this. The first day of the strike should be an all-hands affair, but if it’s a strike that has no set time limit the union might want to set a rotation so that people can get a break away from the lines. In addition, for those who aren’t able to actually stand out in the cold or heat for long periods of time, there’s other work that can be done. Preparing meals for strikers and caring for the children of single parents on the picket line is work that is just as vital to bringing victory as carrying a sign and marching.

Constant communication between the union’s leadership and the union is also a necessity. This is something that broke down in West Virginia: statewide union leaders called an end to the strike after negotiating a deal. In response, county level union leadership and the membership balked and stayed out on strike. To avoid this fate, the leadership needs to be sharing what they are hearing from the bosses about negotiations and addressing concerns that develop from the membership. Leadership needs to maintain the trust of the membership, and it does that by engaging in collective decision-making and full transparency to the workers on the line.

Like I said at the beginning, workers might go out on strike for principles or collective economic gain, but they stay out on strike because of the relationships they have with their union comrades, and the cornerstone of all healthy relationships is trust.

There is a tendency in some left circles to almost fetishize strikes. Their rarity has made them into something almost exotic to those of us looking to build a better world that the one we have now. Wouldn’t it be great if we just withheld our labor and forced the bosses to come to terms with us?

This romanticization is a mistake, and it’s possible to support striking workers without turning their struggles into a novelty. At the same time, the decline of the organized working class makes it harder and harder to share the knowledge and experience gained through struggle with the next generation. Sharing this knowledge as broadly as possible and encouraging people to take action where they can when they can is something we must do. This is part of why emphasizing of organizing community support for strikes is mandatory, and not just for the success of a specific strike: people might be afraid to strike their own employer, but they can learn how to carry off a strike by supporting someone else’s and find some courage in so doing.

In the end, there is no quick route to power for the working class. Only by doing the hard and frequently thankless work necessary to sustain the struggle can we start to set things right, and we do that by having an understanding of what it will take to win.