Strike Lessons from the Last Twenty-Five Years:
Walking Out and Winning

— Steve Early

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. (1) They’ve fostered new forms of worker organization – such as 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. (2) 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 political protest. In the past decade, 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, officially recorded “major” work stoppages have become a statistical blip on the radar screen of industrial relations – although the massive turnout of immigrant workers at escalating weekday marches and rallies in March, April and May of 2006 constituted political strikes on a scale usually witnessed only abroad. (3)

Every year, more than 20,000 union contracts are negotiated. Yet since 1992, walkouts by 1,000 workers or more have averaged less than 40 annually. In 2004, there were just 17, with only 316,000 union members participating (100,000 of them in a single four-day telephone strike). 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. (4)

Today, hardly anyone strikes for union recognition. Most workers win bargaining rights via representation elections or card checks. (5) Then they negotiate first contracts which, like almost all American labor agreements, contain a binding arbitration and no-strike clause. This means they are legally barred, during the life of the contract, from walking out over unresolved grievances.

As recently as the 1970s, such strictures were routinely ignored by tens of thousands of coal miners and other union members – despite fines, injunctions, damage suits, and contempt citations. Now, “wildcat” strikes – of any size – are extremely rare. When 18,000 General Electric workers staged an authorized strike in 2003 against impending medical plan changes – while their national agreement was still in effect – this option was available only because the GE contract is one of the few left with an “open-ended” grievance procedure. (6)

Thanks to court decisions sanctioning the use of “permanent replacements,” even contract strikes are a high-stakes venture in the private sector. If management chooses to play hardball and hire a substitute workforce, it can in effect “fire” strikers, thereby also nullifying their “right to strike” at contract expiration. In the public sector, the legal and financial risks of striking lie in severe statutory restrictions on work stoppages themselves. Public employee unions that walk out are automatically subject to injunctions and/or fines – except in a handful of states. In New York, members of the Transport Workers Union – who stopped NYC subway operations for three days in December, 2005 – incurred the unusually heavy penalties of the Taylor Act, which apply to both labor organizations and their individual members.

Labor’s contemporary timidity about using the strike weapon can be traced back to the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) disaster in 1981, when 12,000 striking employees of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) were fired and replaced by President Ronald Reagan. The government’s success in breaking the strike sent an unmistakable message to workers and employers everywhere. The 1980s soon became a dark decade of lost strikes and lockouts, in which many other anti-concession battles – at Phelps-Dodge, Greyhound, Hormel, Eastern Airlines, and International Paper – ended badly. (7)

The response of the national AFL-CIO and many of its central labor councils was feeble indeed; too many CLCs had become hollow shells, more pre-occupied with protocol and political endorsements than mobilizing members around strikes or boycotts. Fortunately, the resulting vacuum was filled by a variety of unofficial groups which organized mass picket lines and rallies, conducted plant-gate collections and solidarity tours, and “adopted” strikers’ families.

In the late 1980s, with backing from a few national unions, some of these rank-and-file groups coalesced into the Jobs With Justice network. (8) JWJ soon developed a strained relationship with the Lane Kirkland and Tom Donahue administrations of the AFL-CIO.

By 1995, discontent with the AFL-CIO leadership’s paltry strike support efforts was part of the climate for change enabling a reform slate to win control over the labor federation. But even John Sweeney’s “New Voice” victory didn’t occur in time to alter the balance of power on picket lines in places like Decatur, Illinois where factories operated by Caterpillar, Bridgestone/Firestone and A.E. Staley all became part of a single strike-bound “war zone” in the mid 1990s. (9)

Not the least of labor’s strike failings, in the pre- and post-1995 period, was its seeming inability to learn from either defeats or victories. Without summing up and sharing the lessons of these battles, how could anyone expect them to become the basis for future success, rather than a recurring pattern of failure? Nevertheless, most unions still shy away from any systematic strike post-mortems. Particularly during the 1980s – when the landscape of labor was littered with the wreckage of lost walkouts – the dominant tendency was to bury the dead and move on, quickly, to the next fiasco.

Labor’s own lack of bureaucratic interest in what went right or wrong on the industrial battlefield reinforces the idea that strikes are now futile, even suicidal. Meanwhile, the steady decline in work stoppages has reduced the pool of union activists with any strike background whatsoever. Few unions compensate for this experience gap by publishing and distributing up-to-date strike manuals or offering in-depth training on strike strategy and tactics, using their own (or other unions’) organizational case studies. (10)

Activists interested in the subject must turn to the body of literature cited in footnote 7 above or other unofficial sources of information like the Detroit-based Labor Education & Research Project (LERP) that produces the national newsletter, Labor Notes, and holds bi-annual conferences featuring panels and workshops on strike activity. In 1991 and again in 2005, LERP also published a Troublemaker’s Handbook, which contains much useful information about the planning and execution of successful contract campaigns and strikes. (11) A more recent book by attorney Bob Schwartz, Strikes, Picketing, and Inside Campaigns: A Legal Guide For Unions, is equally essential reading for would-be strikers. (12)

Despite the hostile bargaining climate of the last 25 years and labor’s haphazard approach to processing its own history, the vital lessons to be learned – and applied in future strikes – point in much the same direction. Among the necessary (if not always sufficient) conditions for strike effectiveness are the following: careful preparation and financing; membership mobilization and involvement; creative tactics and tactical flexibility; a message that resonates with the broader public; and a comprehensive campaign plan, which enlists all possible labor and community allies, at home and abroad.

Strikes As a Community/Labor Cause

Even during the 1980s, there were contract campaigns that bucked the tide of concession bargaining. In 1989, simultaneous strikes by miners in Appalachia and telephone workers in the northeast both became successful examples of worker militancy and social movement unionism, rather than disheartening displays of labor disarray.

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) succeeded in making their 12-month walkout against Pittston, which began first, into a national labor cause, even though it involved only several thousand strikers in geographically isolated coal field communities. The union mobilized other UMWA members for sympathy strikes at non-Pittston mines, linked arms with recent presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, orchestrated waves of mass arrests, staged the first plant occupation since the 1930s, and created an encampment in southwest Virginia (Camp Solidarity) that became a magnet for strike supporters, of all types, from throughout the country.

Throughout the summer of 1989, the UMWA employed a corporate campaign, roving pickets, mass demonstrations, direct action, and civil disobedience. Whenever the company got a court injunction against certain activity, the miners responded by developing new tactics or reviving tactics of the past. (13) Throughout it all, as labor historian Jim Green notes, UMWA organizers “promoted and supported a local culture of solidarity and consciously transformed the strike into a people’s resistance movement against corporate greed.” (14)

In August of 1989 – after a New York City rally addressed by Pittston strike leader (and then UMWA President) Rich Trumka, 60,000 members of CWA and IBEW joined the miners in fighting medical benefit givebacks. Like Pittston, their employer – NYNEX – was trying to shift the burden of medical cost inflation onto its unionized workforce and, for the first time, to require employee premium contributions for health coverage.

The forty telephone worker locals involved had spent more than eighteen months getting ready for this showdown in New York and New England. They built up an active network of 4,000 stewards and “mobilization coordinators’ to distribute literature, organize displays of workplace solidarity, and counter management propaganda about the need for wage and benefit concessions. When negotiations deadlocked, months of membership education and on-the-job activity had already laid the groundwork for a high-impact strike.

Strikers participated in mobile picketing that was militant and creative. They followed scab trucks more aggressively and systematically than ever before – while also targeting top company executives and board members at their homes, businesses, universities, social clubs, and any corporate-sponsored events. There were mass arrests (about 400 in all), rallies of up to 15,000 people, 250-strike related suspensions or firings, and numerous incidents of sabotage.

The strikers distributed tens of thousands of stickers calling for “Health Care For All, Not Health Cuts At NYNEX.” They formed alliances with the Rainbow Coalition, National Organization for Women, Citizen Action, Physicians For a National Health Program, and other health care reform groups. In Boston, weekly mass meetings featured speakers from these groups, fellow strikers from Pittston and Eastern Airlines, plus innumerable public officials, labor, and community supporters. Strike-related rallies and publicity all emphasized the common bond among union and non-union, insured and uninsured, workers – and their mutual need for national health insurance (particularly after the strikers own medical benefits were cut off).

In New York, NYNEX made the bad mistake of applying to the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC) for a $360 million rate hike right in the middle of the four-month strike. CWA strikers gathered 100,000 signatures from consumers opposing the increase and got 130 state legislators – over 60% of the total – to lend their name to full page anti-rate hike ads in The New York Times and other papers.

The union also formed a coalition with religious, student, senior citizen and community organizations to intervene in the regulatory process. Press conferences were held with Jesse Jackson and consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and strikers distributed tens of thousands of pamphlets urging residential customers to “hang up” on NYNEX’s attempt to double their monthly bills.

In the fourth month of the strike, facing a major defeat at the PSC and the risk of longer-term disruption of its carefully cultivated relationships with politicians and regulators, NYNEX finally realized it was time to settle. The company threw in the towel on its efforts to introduce weekly payroll deductions for medical coverage; seventeen years later, telephone workers at Verizon (NYNEX’s New York/New England successor firm) are still among the 5% of all workers with employer coverage who make no premium contributions.

”You don’t know how grateful the Mine Workers are,” Trumka told a group of NYNEX strikers at the AFL-CIO convention in November, 1989 – just after their settlement and on the eve of one at Pittston. “Our struggle would have been that much more difficult if you had not won your outstanding victory.” (15)

Framing Strike Issues Broadly

In 1997, the contract strike made its biggest comeback in the post-PATCO era with the now-famous walkout by nearly 200,000 United Parcel Service workers. How the International Brotherhood of Teamsters framed their dispute with UPS was a critical factor in gaining broader public sympathy, along with a tremendous outpouring of rank-and-file union support for UPS drivers and package handlers. The IBT’s main objective was to create more full-time jobs – by thwarting management’s strategy of converting the UPS workforce into a largely part-time one.

As in the NYNEX strike, union activists tried to invest the contract fight with larger social meaning – in this case, by declaring in research reports, press releases, and innumerable interviews that “Part-Time America Doesn’t Work!” The UPS strike not only beat back the company’s concession demands and led to the creation of more full-time jobs. It became a rallying point for everyone concerned about the societal impact of part-timing, with its accompanying erosion of job-based benefits.

Unlike his predecessors, then-Teamster President Ron Carey refused to treat the second-largest contract talks in the country – only General Motors bargaining was bigger at the time – like a special interest game, played out of sight from the membership, their families, and the public. Carey-era IBT staffers Matt Witt and Rand Wilson recall that just “a few hours after picket lines went up, Reuters quoted UPS driver Randy Walls from Atlanta saying, “We’re striking for every worker in America!”

Walls was just one of thousands of rank-and-filers who were equally “on message.” Many months of intensive education, discussion, and internal communication within the union’s newly-created “member-to-member networks” built a broad consensus about UPS bargaining goals – and how best to articulate them. UPS is notorious for its authoritarian systems of workforce control and systematic internal propagandizing; nevertheless, the company was caught off-guard by the public pummeling it took. “If I had known that it was going to go from negotiating for UPS to negotiating for part-time America, we would have approached it differently,” UPS executive John Alden confessed later to Business Week. (16)

According to Witt and Wilson, “Polls showed that the public supported the strikers by more than 2 to 1 ... While some argue that unions must shun the ‘militant’ image of their past in order to maintain support from members and the public, the UPS experience shows the broad appeal of a labor movement that is a fighter for workers’ interests.” (17)

Some unions have tried to borrow from the Teamsters’ playbook at UPS in more recent contract struggles against health care cost shifting. The question facing unions was how to broaden their defense of negotiated medical benefits – when 40 million Americans have no coverage at all? When most retirees lack employer-paid health benefits? And when workers without unions pay much more for their medical insurance than union members do (even where the latter now make premium contributions, along with co-payments and deductibles)?

If organized labor resists benefit cuts in a way that projects the broader demand for “Health Care For All,” it can help create pressure for a political solution that replaces job-based coverage with a system of national health insurance. By positioning themselves as the champion of all workers “not just those with a membership card” unions also stand to gain far greater public sympathy and support. Labor’s record in this regard has been mixed – even as the difficulty of fending off benefit concessions has increased due to the emerging simultaneous management attack on health insurance and pensions.

One of the best local examples of coordinated contract-related agitation for health care reform was the June 5, 2003 “Health Care Action Day” sponsored by Massachusetts Jobs with Justice.

This cross-union effort at rank-and-file education and workplace activity was endorsed by more than fifty community groups and labor organizations, including nurses, state employees and utility workers. The sponsors distributed more than 65,000 stickers demanding “Health Care For All.” Then they did the mobilization necessary to get many of their members to wear them on the job on June 5.

To increase public visibility and press coverage that day, JWJ also organized informational picketing and noon-time rallies around the state, which called for a health care system that “covers everyone, is publicly financed, and saves money ... by reducing bureaucratic waste.” Among the most active participants were General Electric workers, whose national contract was due to expire in several weeks and who had already struck for two days in January over medical coverage, and members of CWA and IBEW at Verizon, whose regional negotiations had just gotten underway. (18)

The UFCW’s 2003–2004 grocery workers’ walkout in Southern California was far less successful in making the connection between management demands for benefit cuts and the need for universal medical coverage. The strike involved 60,000 workers at three major supermarket chains. Many of the strikers were 20-hour-a-week part-timers whose plight could easily have dramatized the need for real health care reform.

Instead, as David Bacon observes, UFCW “picket lines had an air of desperation after the first few weeks.” (19) The protracted walkout failed to develop anything near its full potential for community and political support or favorable media coverage; instead of striking a strong and popular political theme, it became a monument to union dysfunction and disorganization. (Since this debacle, the UFCW has become more active in funding state-level health care reform initiatives, however.)

In its 2003 talks with GM, the UAW ended up holding the line on health care cost-sharing – but that line then crumbled under the weight of the auto-makers mounting losses. In late 2005, the union agreed to re-open its national agreement, allowing contract wage increases to be diverted to health care and negotiating retiree medical benefit cuts – a $1 billion concession. As The Wall Street Journal reported, this deal immediately created “ripples well beyond the auto world, potentially affecting labor relations in industries ranging from telecom to aerospace.” (20)

This agreement occurred at the same time that major corporations – first Verizon, then IBM, followed by GM – were making front-page announcements about curtailing their “defined benefit” pension coverage for hundreds of thousands of non-union workers and managers. Through a combination of pension plan freezes, switches to individual retirement accounts, and cut-backs in retiree health coverage, these companies and others – whether profitable or under financial strain – are trying to rid themselves of billions of dollars in future “legacy costs.”

The increasingly pension-less majority of Americans has, at best, a 401(K)account with a paltry balance. Thus the union battle cry, “Hands Off Our Pensions,” isn’t going to resonate any better now than the special-interest-sounding “Don’t Cut Our Private Medical Benefits” has in the past. The new challenge facing unions is how to turn anti-concession fights over everything associated with retirement security into everyone else’s fight too. A narrow “frame” will only leave the dwindling number of workers with decent medical and pension benefits out on a limb by themselves – while it gets sawed off – with no one protesting because their own coverage was similarly pruned long ago.

Stay On The Job – Or Strike Selectively

Union members with a long history of strike activity are sometimes reluctant to deviate from past practice when a contract expires. Yet responding flexibly and creatively to management strike preparations makes more sense than a knee-jerk response that may lead to disaster. Even in the UMW, where the tradition of “no contract, no work,” was deeply ingrained, miners at Pittston worked without a contract for 15 months – before their nine-month strike began in 1989.

As Dan LaBotz notes in Troublemaker’s Handbook 2, “some strikes are lost when a union simply hits the bricks, without taking the measure of the opponent and what it will take to win ...” That’s why smarter unions are now experimenting with limited-duration walkouts, combined with inside campaigns, to reduce the risk and cost of protracted shut-downs. (21) Working to rule, working without a contract, “striking while on the job” before walking off the job – are all a good way of “testing the waters” and “looking before you leap,” while gradually ratcheting up the pressure against employers.

Between 1968 and 2003 blue-collar workers at Yale – later joined by white-collar university staffers organized in the mid-1980s – went on strike eight times. In March of 2003, HERE Locals 34 and 35 had been working without a contract for 13 months. So, joined by graduate student teachers and Yale-New Haven hospital workers, they organized a high-impact 5-day strike to press their joint demands. The walkout was accompanied by daily rallies and picketing, culminating in a march by 10,000 strikers and community supporters – the largest demonstration in New Haven in more than 30 years.

As in the past, the union’s strike schedule was tactically flexible, tied into the academic calendar, and,at least initially, limited in duration. “As negotiations continued through the summer, the unions built for an open-ended strike,” write Steve Hinds and Rob Baril. “That strike began in August, when Yale students returned for the Fall semester. The Rev. Jesse Jackson played another active role in this strike, spending an entire week at strike-related events, including a 24-hour sit-in with Yale retirees demanding pension improvements.” (22) Faced with civil disobedience, community pressure, and mounting bad publicity, Yale sued for peace in the form of a long-term contract that doubled pension benefits by 2009.

During the same summer and fall, thousands of telephone workers – who had struck five times in the previous two decades – were engaged in regional bargaining with Verizon. Verizon is the successor company of NYNEX, target of the four month 1989 CWA-IBEW strike described above. In the words of New York Verizon tech Pam Galpern, it’s a firm with “deep pockets, a highly automated work process, and virulently anti-union top management.” According to Galpern:

”Verizon was itching for a strike ... Management thought it could outlast the unions, impose its concession demands, raise health co-pays, and eliminate strong job security language that was limiting its ability to move jobs to lower cost states or overseas.” (23)

In addition, a walkout in August 2003 would have temporarily nullified the effect of an arbitrator’s ruling in late July that directed the company to re-hire 3,400 workers laid off the previous year in violation of the contract.

Confronted with widespread evidence of effective contingency planning by management, IBEW and CWA shifted gears, throwing their corporate adversary off balance. For more than a month, 75,000 union members took the unprecedented step of working without a contract – while welcoming back the thousands of laid-off workers who were beneficiaries of the arbitration victory. Verizon incurred enormous strike-preparation costs, without getting the opportunity to replace its existing workforce, as planned, with an army of 30,000 managers and contract workers it had lined up around the country. Instead, there was a high-level of on-the-job activity – and public agitation against the company, from Maine to Virginia.

The combined pressure of working to rule, informational pickets, community-supported demonstrations, the arbitrator’s ruling upholding the job security language, and the expense of the company’s unused contingency plan led Verizon to abandon two of its most important concession demands: that workers pay health care premiums and accept the loss of lay-off protection. (24)

As this Strike Encyclopedia was being compiled in early 2006, the debate about striking vs. “inside campaigns” was still a big part of strategy discussions among rank-and-file foes of deep wage and benefits cuts sought by Delphi Corp., the nation’s largest auto parts supplier. At Delphi, workers were faced with a situation where walking out might actually facilitate the company’s downsizing and plant-shutdown plans. So some activists began to draw on the union tradition revived in the 1980s by UAW Region 5 staffer (and, later, national executive board member) Jerry Tucker. (25)

UAW dissident Greg Shotwell, a Delphi worker in Coopersville, Michigan, argued at meetings and in a widely circulated e-mail manifesto that “workers will rule when they work to rule!” According to Shotwell, “if UAW members at Delphi go on strike, they will play into the hands of CEO Steve Miller ... We need to stay inside to preserve income, save jobs, and fight back. The aim is to leverage negotiations. We can control the flow of parts by ensuring quality and following rules. If we follow very rule in the book, production will slow to a crawl.” (26)

Use Lockouts to Union Advantage

One sign of an effective “inside campaign” (or selective strike) is that union members end up being locked out – by an employer unwilling to pay workers for “striking while working” after their contract has expired. Whatever the claimed reason for a lockout, such action puts the onus of responsibility for the dispute on management. This can make it easier to generate public sympathy for the workers involved and definitely puts them in a stronger legal position than strikers under state and federal law.

As attorney Robert Schwartz points out in his book Strikes, Picketing, and Inside Campaigns, employers who lock out their employees “may have to pay for unemployment benefits, cannot hire permanent replacements, and may incur an NLRB back-pay order” (if the Board finds evidence of bad faith bargaining, unilateral changes, or other unfair labor practices affecting negotiations). In 34 states, locked-out workers can qualify for jobless pay, while strikers are eligible for UI benefits in just one state (New York) – and there only after a seven-week waiting period.

Most important of all, as Schwartz notes, “hiring permanent replacements makes a lockout unlawful.” In a strike, if there is no Board-finding of bargaining-related Unfair Labor Practices (ULPs) and management properly implements its permanent replacement strategy, workers who walk out may have to wait a lot longer to reclaim their jobs after the dispute is ended, because an employer is under no legal obligation to displace their replacements. (27)

Relying on these relative advantages alone is not a winning strategy, however. In West Virginia, 1,700 mill workers locked out by Ravenswood Aluminum Company applied many of the lessons of the Pittston strike in a wide-ranging corporate campaign orchestrated by the United Steel Workers of America. In particular, the union targeted fugitive financier Marc Rich, with the help of European labor allies. (28) Despite massive hiring of replacement workers and other union-busting measures (which produced remarkably little scabbing), Ravenswood was finally forced to end its lockout and settle with the USWA.

A more recent lockout – which shut down all West Coast ports in September 2002 – also ended in an important defensive victory, because of similar union dexterity in handling a complex bargaining showdown. When their agreement with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) expired on July 1, 10,000 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) initially worked under day-to-day contract extensions for two months. Meanwhile, its corporate and political enemies raised the specter of dire threats to “homeland security” if the ILWU chose to strike.

There was little progress in negotiations, so the union refused to extend any further. Amid mounting tension, the negotiating committee called for strict membership adherence to all waterfront safety standards. Management, in turn, “accused the union of ’working to rule’ and using safety complaints to slow work down.” (29) The ensuing retaliatory lockout triggered “doomsday predictions about the economic damage of a ‘strike’” with the mainstream media “often forgetting or ignoring the fact that the PMA had locked out the workers.”

Under increasing pressure from the PMA and its biggest customers, President Bush acted on October 8 and went to Federal District Court in San Francisco to enjoin the lock-out and open up the ports. The 80-day cooling-off period prescribed by the Taft-Hartley legislation, never before used against an employer lock-out, provided that both parties had to work at “normal and reasonable rate” during the 80 days and “continue to negotiate and seek an agreement.” (30)

As ILWU Organizing Director Peter Olney observed later, the PMA’s original strategy was to get this “injunctive relief” and then press for severe economic and criminal sanctions against the ILWU based on evidence of a renewed “employee slowdown.” Fortunately, the employers association “overplayed its hand.” Just prior to Bush’s filing for a Taft-Hartley order, federal mediator Peter Hurtgen – with backing from the White House – proposed a 30-day extension of the old contract instead. The union agreed but the PMA did not.

According to Olney, “when it came time for the Justice Department to decide whether to go after the ILWU for criminal contempt citations, the Department demurred and signaled to the PMA that they would have to negotiate a contract with the ILWU without the increased leverage of court-imposed penalties.” (31) The subsequent settlement, ratified overwhelmingly in January 2003, increased pensions substantially, averted health care cost shifting, and restored some outsourced work in return for gradual elimination of about 400 clerk jobs due to the introduction of new technology.

Never Strike Alone

Successful strikes require multiple forms of solidarity – preferably from other workers at the same company, non-striking members of the same union, and unionized workers generally. There is no sadder sight in labor than a small group of workers – not to mention a large one – ending up on picket lines powerless, impoverished and alone.

In Barbara Koppel’s 2002 HBO documentary on the Overnite strike, American Standoff, we meet many such victims of what Newsday labor reporter Ken Crowe called a “banzai strike.” As Crowe reported at the time (and recalled later in Labor Notes, when he reviewed Koppel’s film), “1,500 unprepared, unsupported workers” were called off the job in 1999 at 40 Overnite trucking facilities around the country. (32)

The drivers and dock workers who participated in Teamster President James Hoffa’s much-hyped “unfair labor practice” strike had little success, even at the outset of their three-year attempted shutdown. The company’s non-union workforce was four times larger than the minority of Overnite workers who had voted for union representation earlier in the 1990s, when Ron Carey was IBT President and the union had a well-funded, patiently developed and nationally coordinated Overnite campaign.

The union’s Overnite worker support apparatus was no longer in place by 1999, however. Teamster freight locals failed to sustain effective mobile picketing of Overnite trucks and some quickly became “no-shows” at other strike events. “From the very beginning,” complained one dismayed AFL-CIO Field Mobilization staffer, “it was a quasi-strike – a virtual walk-out, with no strategy behind it other than taking the workers out ...” (33)

”When we went out, we was guaranteed we would have 100,000 Teamsters to back us,” says one embittered striker who appears in Koppel’s film. “And what have we had? We’ve had a little money, yeah, but we haven’t had shit from the damn Teamsters!”

High profile strikes and/or lockouts in the 1980s – at Hormel and International Paper – were among the many that foundered for similar reasons. In much stronger, long-established bargaining units only one part – or a small part – of an employer’s total workforce was engaged in the struggle. Workers in other plants had no union or were represented by different unions; union contracts had no common expiration date; and, under management pressure or through lack of national union coordination, locals pursued their own bargaining agendas. The result was contract concessions elsewhere that undercut strike resistance to the same giveback demands, regardless of how determined the strikers themselves proved to be.

In the airline industry, lack of coordinated bargaining, fragmentation in the pattern of union representation, and acrimony between unions has produced some of the worst case examples of this “divide and conquer” scenario. (34) Strike preparation in such an environment should include a careful assessment of management’s ability to weather a walkout – and a realistic estimate of the union’s likely strike impact, including the reaction of necessary allies.

Instead, amidst dreadful choices and angry members, magical thinking sometimes prevails when strike decisions are made. As Macalester College labor historian Peter Rachleff observed about the 2004–5 strike by the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association at Northwest Airlines:

AMFA members, particularly the mechanics, were confident that NWA could not operate effectively without them. Not only were their skills, licenses, and certificates of value, but they felt that their informal knowledge of their airline’s plans, rules, and practices made them irreplaceable. (35)

While feisty, democratic, and militant, AMFA is still “a small union” with “no strike fund.” It was “not affiliated with the AFL-CIO” and “had little connection with other unions since its emergence on NWA property six years ago.” Nevertheless, Rachleff writes:

”With the other NWA unions...facing demands for major concessions, AMFA hoped for significant support, perhaps even sympathy strikes (Taft-Hartley’s prohibition of which doesn’t apply in industries regulated by the Railway Labor Act). AMFA also hoped for help from non-NWA, non-airline unions, who they expected would recognize what stakes they had in this struggle.” (36)

When AMFA struck, however, the pilots, flight attendants and IAM-represented baggage handlers all continued to work – while trying to negotiate their own separate concessionary deals under the gun of the company’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. The 4,400 striking mechanics and cleaners were quickly replaced and reduced to futile airport terminal picketing. As Rachleff, a leading Twin-Cities AMFA supporter, painfully concludes, Northwest management effectively implemented “a well-conceived, well-funded union-busting strategy [that] has caught the attention of corporate managers not only in the airlines industry but throughout the economy.” (37)

Rather than recognizing everyone’s stake in a major fight against wage cuts and contracting out, many labor officials either denounced AMFA (because it had defeated the IAM, IBT or Transport Workers in NMB elections) or simply ignored its pleas for help. Some national unions did discourage their members and staffers from flying on the airline. More significantly, the UAW donated $800,000 to AMFA from its own substantial strike fund. But most revealingly, neither the AFL-CIO nor its new rival, the Change To Win Coalition (CTWC), played any helpful official role (with the AFL actually sending out directives discouraging Central Labor Councils assistance to AMFA.) Fortunately, left-wing labor activists were able to build some rank-and-file backing for the Northwest strike in cities like Boston, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Detroit – just as they did in the 1980s for other “renegade unions” (like UFCW Local P-9 during its strike against Hormel). (38)

The lesson of AMFA should not be lost on a new generation of would-be strikers expecting to rely on the generosity or strike support capacity of national labor federations. Before (rather than after) walking out, workers must line up solid commitments of grassroots labor and community support by approaching local solidarity coalitions, like those affiliated with JWJ.

The best kind of solidarity, of course, starts closest to home – with coordinated bargaining and strike activity by as many workers as possible employed by the same company or in the same industry. In early 2006, as this Strike Encyclopedia was being compiled, one of the labor’s most ambitious efforts to align separate contracts to maximize union bargaining clout was unfolding in the hotel industry.

UNITE-HERE’s “Hotel Workers Rising” sought to build on its past experience with citywide contract campaigns – by linking these efforts, for the first time, in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and eight other urban centers. Between June and November 2006, 60,000 workers in 400 hotels – ⅔ of the union’s hotel membership – had the ability to strike for a new contract. Among them were thousands of San Francisco hotel employees who worked without a contract for nearly two years, after they were locked out in 2004 and then returned to work without a new agreement.

As California labor journalist David Bacon wrote after that preliminary skirmish, if hotel workers succeed in getting industry-wide bargaining, “they can begin to challenge one of the most basic assumptions about the U.S. workplace: that service workers, and immigrants, are destined by nature to get wages at the bottom.” (39) While carefully framing its coordinated campaign as a fight to make “America work for the working poor,” HERE’s key demand was the same issue that triggered the Bay Area lockout: company-wide card check and neutrality agreements applying to giants in the industry like the Hilton, Starwoods, and Marriott hotel chains.

Take Strike Financing Seriously

Regardless of what form worker militancy takes, it is essential to provide adequate financial support for workers and their families. Even if members of a union are not all out on strike together and most are still working, they can help each other out by setting aside a fixed portion of their dues money for strike assistance. One bottom-line requirement in every union should be a national fund that pays out guaranteed weekly benefits of at least $200 to $300 – for strikers, workers fired for alleged “picket line misconduct,” or for the disciplinary casualties of concerted in-plant activity.

In 1989, the 20,000 CWA members who struck NYNEX for four months didn’t have that kind of safety net. They depleted the entire $28 million dollar balance of CWA’s then-underfunded Defense Fund, which doled out the money through local strike committees based on determinations of individual need. To make it through the final weeks of the walkout, CWA had to arrange a special $15 million low-interest loan from the Japanese telephone workers federation, Zendentsu.

In the wake of this experience, convention delegates voted to raise CWA’s standard dues from 1.15% to 1.3% of base pay – with the additional revenue earmarked for a new Member Relief Fund (MRF), that would pay out fixed weekly benefits (which increase to $300 in the fifth week of any strike). Local unions were also strongly encouraged to build up their own supplemental strike funds – which the larger ones have done.

Skeptics about this “strike benefit” approach cite the experience of the United Auto Workers during the second of its two Caterpillar strikes in the early 1990s. As Chicago Tribune reporter Stephen Franklin reported in his 2001 book, Three Strikes, the UAW boosted its payouts to $300 a week for Caterpillar strikers and, each month, also paid “about $600 per member for health benefits.” By December 1995, however, between 1,000 and 5,000 UAW members had still deserted the fight and the union was forced to sue for peace under terms overwhelmingly rejected by the remaining strikers. (Solidarity House sent them back to work anyway; after another contract rejection vote in 1998, a settlement was finally approved – because it included amnesty for 150 fired strikers.) (40)

The alternative strike financing philosophy is best expressed by the always independent – and tough-minded – United Electrical Workers (UE). In its excellent and very detailed guide to Preparing for and Conducting a Strike, the 25,000-member UE parts company with the few national unions “that pay strikers a set amount per week, regardless of need.” UE believes that “the purpose of such financial assistance is not to pay people for being on strike but to make sure that no one is forced back to work because they cannot afford the basic necessities of life ... The goal is make sure that all strikers are able to survive for as long as it takes to win an acceptable settlement.”

To drive this point home, the UE guide includes the text of a fiery 1968 speech by national officer Jim Matles, explaining the basis for the union’s “policy on strike assistance:”

Somehow, the idea has gotten around among working people that there is a painless way of striking. A striker doesn’t have to picket anymore – he just comes down to the Union to get a weekly check since he is not getting it from his boss.

... We are not going to create any such illusions among our people. We have to try to handle strikes in the way the labor movement has handled them for generations. Our people have got to know, in the first place, that a strike means sacrifice ... (41)

Matles goes on to provide a still relevant warning about top-down control of fixed-benefit funds. He notes that, “time and again, the rank-and-file [have] turned down the terms of a strike settlement negotiated by the International, but the membership was forced back to work when the International cut off payment of weekly strike benefits.”

From Matles’ perspective in the late 1960s, the fact that “the real meaning of working people striking has been prostituted and corrupted” was “one of the most fundamental problems facing the American trade union movement.” Thirty-eight years later, a far bigger problem is the lack of labor movement-wide mechanisms for sustaining strikers and their families. Less than a month before the UFCW’s grocery walkout ended in February 2004, the AFL-CIO announced a belated “national campaign” to aid the 60,000 strikers. Yet, having no national relief fund of its own, the labor federation was unable to supplement dwindling UFCW benefits, except through ad hoc fundraising.

During the deliberations a year later about how the AFL-CIO should be changed, CWA lobbied for a system of “national strike insurance for all federation unions.” Under CWA’s plan, all strikers would be guaranteed to receive “at least $200 per week” and these benefits would “be funded from AFL-CIO per capita dues with rebates for unions that can fund their own benefits at this level.” (42) Unfortunately, this proposal received little serious consideration. In public debates about the idea, representatives of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) – which has no national strike fund – were particularly dismissive. The subsequent departure of SEIU and other Change To Win Coalition unions left the finances of the AFL-CIO in a greatly weakened condition, further reducing the possibility that a national strike fund would be created anytime soon.

Thus in 21st century America, labor as a whole continues to handle strikes “the way the labor movement has handled them for generations” – which is to say, not as well as the UE. And the challenge of shifting resources to expand individual union strike capacity has gone largely unmet. Those who will pay the price for this in the future are, of course, rank-and-file members – who deserve far better from unions, inside or outside the AFL-CIO, who say they want to “change to win.”



  1. A combination of contract bargaining and legislative activity “in response to a series of strikes by African Americans – was responsible for securing recognition of Martin Luther King’s birthday as a worker’s holiday. For more on the MLK holiday’s “forgotten labor roots,” see William P. Jones, Working Class Hero, The Nation, January 30, 2006, 23-24.
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  2. See If The Workers Took A Notion by Josiah Bartlett Lambert, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, N.Y.), 2005, 259 pps. for a useful history of strikes and their impact on American society since the Civil War.
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  3. As Andrew Pollack noted in the Labor Standard, however, “the massive outpouring on May Day took place despite the urgings by some church, union, and community leaders ... to call off the boycott and street actions” that involved immigrants leaving their jobs. May, 29, 2006. Available electronically from Gangbox(@)excite(.)com (remove brackets).
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  4. See U.S. Department of Labor, Annual Work Stoppages Summary, published by its Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 19, 2004.
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  5. In one recent SEIU strike, janitors working for Unicco, a contractor of the University of Miami, conducted a two-month walk-out to win a procedure for union recognition based on a 60% card majority. See Jessica Gresko, UM Janitors Reach Agreement With Employer and Will End Strike, The Miami Herald, May 1, 2006.
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  6. See Chris Kutalik, In Mid-Contract, Unions Strike GE To Defend Health Care, Labor Notes, #287, February, 2003, page 1. GE workers also used their right to strike for four days in October, 2002 over the issue of outsourcing. See Alex Brown, GE Workers Strike Against Globalization, Labor Notes, December 2002, 16.
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  7. The lost strike trend of the 1980s was a boon to strike-related book publishing by journalists, law professors, labor educators, and even a novelist. Among these works are Barbara Kingsolver’s tribute to women’s role in the Phelps-Dodge walk-out, Holding The Line: The Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983, and Jonathan Rosenblum’s legal analysis of the same struggle, Cooper Crucible; Peter Rachleff’s Hard-Pressed in the Heartland and Hardy Green’s On Strike at Hormel, two insider accounts of the mid-1980s fight by UFCW Local P-9 in Austin, Minnesota; Julius Getman’s incisive study of the 1987–88 campaign against International Paper, The Betrayal of Local 14: Paperworkers, Politics, and Permanent Replacements.
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  8. Steve Early and Larry Cohen, Jobs With Justice: Mobilizing Labor-Community Coalitions, WorkingUSA, November/December 1997, 49–57.
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  9. For a vivid account of the overlapping industrial conflicts that gripped Decatur, Illinois, see Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean For Working Americans, by Stephen Franklin, Guilford Press, 308 pp., $23.95
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  10. For a copy of CWA’s strike manual or its frequently updated job action guide, Mobilizing For Power,& contact the author at CWA District 1, 100 Tower Office Park (Suite C), Woburn, Mass. 01801-2127. (781-937- 9699 or at Lsupport(@)aol(.)com) (remove brackets)
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  11. A Troublemaker’s Handbook: How to Fight Back Where You Work – And Win, by Dan LaBotz (Labor Notes, Detroit 1991) and A Troublemaker’s Handbook 2, (Labor Notes, Detroit 2005), edited by Jane Slaughter, which includes contributions from 72 other authors, including LaBotz and Strike Encyclopedia editor Aaron Brenner. These books are available for $12 and $24 respectively, from
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  12. Schwartz’s 165-page handbook is the latest in a series of his easy-to-read guides, which include the best-selling “Legal Rights Of Union Stewards.” Strikes, Picketing and Inside Campaigns is available for $24 from Work Rights Press at
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  13. James Green, Taking History To Heart: The Power of the Past in Building Social Movements, University of Massachusetts Press (Boston, 2000), 167.
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  14. LaBotz, A Troublemakers Handbook, 112.
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  15. For more on the NYNEX strike, see Steve Early, Holding The Line In ’89: Lessons of the NYNEX Strike, a 60-page report published by the Labor Resource Center (Somerville, Mass., 1990) Available from the author; Political Lessons of NYNEX Strike (Nov. 26, 1989) and A Labor Perestroika (Sept. 4, 1989), The Boston Globe; Striking NYNEX, Labor Research Review, #17, 1990; or The NYNEX Strike: A Case Study in Labor-Management Conflict Over Health Care Cost Shifting, in Proceedings of NYU Annual National Conference on Labor (Little, Brown & Co., 1991).
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  16. See Matt Witt and Rand Wilson, Part-Time America Won’t Work: The Teamsters’ Fight for Good Jobs at UPS, 179’187, in Not Your Father’s Union Movement: Inside the AFL-CIO, edited by Jo-Ann Mort, Verso Press (New York, 1999).
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  17. Witt and Wilson, 186.
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  18. Steve Early, Labor’s Health Problem, The Nation, July 7, 2003.
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  19. See David Bacon, Strike Force: Southern California’s Grocery Strike Couldn’t Change The Anti-Union Culture. San Francisco’s Hotel Strike Can, The American Prospect, Web Exclusive, Oct. 22, 2004
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  20. Kris Maher, GM’s Labour Deal Expected To Set Tone For many Sectors: Health Care Cuts Underline Unions’ Decline, The Toronto Globe and Mail, October 27, 2005, B-19.
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  21. Chris Kutalik, Finding Workplace Power, Z Magazine, June 2005, 23–24.
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  22. See Labor Fights For a Community Contract, Troublemakers Handbook 2, 191–193.
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  23. Pam Galpern, Telephone Workers Pressure Verizon From Within, Troublemakers Handbook 2, 131–134.
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  24. Galpern, 134.
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  25. See Inside Strategies, Chapter 12 in roublemakers Handbook (1991 edition), which recounts Tucker’s pioneering work on “inside campaigns” at Moog Automotive, Bell Helicopter, and LTV Aircraft Products.
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  26. See Greg Shotwell, Workers Will Rule When They Work To Rule, November 11, 2005 at See also, Auto Workers Consider Their Options at Delphi, Labor Notes, December 2005, and Winter of Discontent, The Oakland (Michigan) Press, November 27, 2005.
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  27. Schwartz, Strikes, Picketing, and Inside Campaigns, 133–137.
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  28. Kate Bronfenbrenner and Tom Juravich, Ravenswood: The Steelworkers Victory and the Revival of American Labor (Cornell University Press, Ithaca 1999).
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  29. Franklin, Three Strikes, 236.
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  30. David Bacon, A Union on the Line, The Nation, October 28, 2002, 23–25.
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  31. Peter Olney, On The Waterfront: An Analysis Of ILWU Lockout, New Labor Forum, Summer 2003, 33–40.
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  32. Ken Crowe, Review of American Standoff, Labor Notes, August 2002.
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  33. Early, The Nation, October 8, 2001, 24.
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  34. For a discussion of what should be done about this multiple union disarray, see Airborne Distress: How Can Labor Recover in the Airline Industry?, by Tom Kochan, Andrew von Nordenflycht, Robert McKersie, and Jody Hoffer Gittel (with responses from leaders of the IAM and AFA-CWA) in New Labor Forum, Summer 2005, 39–56.
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  35. Peter Rachleff, The Northwest Airline Strike: Where Is Labor Going?, Against The Current, November/December 2005, 6–12.
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  36. Rachleff, 9.
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  37. Rachleff, 11.
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  38. Steve Early, For Better Future, Labor Must Learn Form Lessons of Past, Labor Notes, #319, October 2005, 9.
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  39. See Bacon, Strike Force, The American Prospect, October 2004. See also Bacon’s Lockout KO’d: San Francisco Hotel Workers Triumph With Help From City-to-City Support, In These Times, January 17, 2005, 8–9 and Juan Gonzales, Hilton Target of Strike Plan, New York Daily News, March 3, 2006, 37.
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  40. Steve Early, Review of Three Strikes, WorkingUSA, Spring 2002, 161. For an excellent in-depth analysis of what went wrong at Caterpillar, see Victor G. Devinatz, A Heroic Defeat: The Caterpillar Labor Dispute and the UAW, 1991–1998, Labor Studies Journal, Vol. 30 No. 2, Summer 2005, 1–17.
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  41. See full text of Matles’ speech in Appendix E of Preparing for and Conducting a Strike: A UE Guide, available from United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, One Gateway Center, Suite 1400, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15222.
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  42. See Democracy in the Workplace – CWA Proposals for the AFL-CIO, adopted by the union’s national executive board in January 2005.
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ATC 124, September–October 2006