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Labor's Only Real Weapon The Calculus of Union Strikes

The Calculus of Union Strikes

by DAVID MACARAY

“Labor cannot, on any terms, surrender the right to strike.”

—Louis Brandeis, Supreme Court Justice

An imperfect analogy:  Strikes are to labor unions what stiff fines and the threat of a prison sentence are to the IRS—something that is seldom used, but whose presence is vital to maintaining credibility.

Although most union officials are aware that by-laws can vary widely from union to union (even from local to local, within the same union), for nearly 40 years the executive board of Local 672 of the AWPPW (Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers) believed they were compelled by federal labor law to conduct their strike votes via secret ballot. 

It made sense.  Not only had they always done it that way, voting secretly on something as important as whether or not to give the negotiating committee strike authorization seemed like the only reasonable way to do it.  A simple majority of the membership was required for approval (versus, for example, SAG by-laws, which require a 75% mandate).

As it turns out, a union may conduct a strike vote by various methods: secret ballot, a show of hands, even by acclimation (voice vote).  Federal law is silent on the matter.  And in the case of voting by acclimation, it’s only when the differential between the “yeas” and “nays” isn’t discernible that you’re required to call for a show of hands.  Other than that, you’re free to pick your poison. 

These same choices also apply to ratifying a contract, which also came as a surprise to local leadership.  At Local 672, upon the conclusion of every contract negotiation, the membership was given a lengthy summary of the company’s final offer, after which they were asked to enter polling booths, close the curtains, and vote for or against the new contract.  It was wildly democratic.  It was private.  It made sense.  And we’d always done it that way.

Moreover, the membership was so conditioned to ratifying a contract in the privacy of a shrouded booth, people would have freaked out if they’d been asked to do otherwise.  If they’d been told to vote publicly—right there, out in the open, on the floor of the union hall—there would have been a raucous demonstration, if not a minor riot.

For the record, the only instances where secret balloting is required by federal labor law is in the election of officers and in matters involving money—e.g., raising the price of monthly union dues or initiation fees.  So, while strike authorization and contract ratification can be done publicly (with all the attendant peer pressure and gawking that go along with it), when it comes to money, the members must be allowed to vote by secret ballot.  It’s a reasonable law. 

Strikes themselves, although necessary, are traumatic, frightening undertakings.  And, weirdly, they are virtually all alike.  Despite significant differences between various industries and the unions affiliated with them, the cycle of emotions experienced by rank-and-file members during a strike is more or less identical.  The arc consists of four distinct phases: euphoria, somber resolve, serious doubt, despair. 

When you take a membership out on strike, you also have to realize that it’s going to be tough getting them to seriously consider going out a second time, especially if memories are fresh, and the strike was a particularly difficult one.  In fact, sometimes you can’t even get a membership to give you strike authorization next time around, not if they think a walkout is a realistic possibility. 

And who can blame them?  A strike is a brutal thing, a case of self-inflicted economic homicide.  Just because it is, undeniably, the only real (rather than frivolous) weapon a union brings to the bargaining table doesn’t make it any easier getting through one.

Figuring out how to call a strike in such a way that it satisfies two key requirements—i.e., getting the company’s attention and, at the same time, not spooking or financially crippling the membership—is how the notion of a “tactical” or “rolling” strike first took shape. 

One of the problems with traditional strikes is that once you take the momentous step of pulling the plug, you never know how long you’re going to be out of work.  Even if your reasons for shutting down were eminently sound, and even if your membership was prepared for it, given the unpredictability of the company’s response, you can never know the immediate outcome.  You could be out three weeks or three months. 

Also, if you go on strike for a particular purpose, it only makes sense that you stay out until you’ve achieved that purpose, otherwise the whole thing comes off looking like a monumental waste of time and money.  But what if there’s a standoff?  What if management is as stubbornly locked into its position as the union committee is locked into theirs?  Prolonged stand-offs can lead to sieges, rather than mere strikes, and sieges can massacre a union.

That’s where the idea of the rolling strike comes in.  In a rolling strike the union goes ahead and gives its 10-day notice to terminate the existing contract (such notification is required by law), exactly as it would at the outset of a “regular” strike.  But in addition to announcing that the employees will be shutting down the operation at, say, one minute after midnight on such-and-such a date, the union also announces that they will be returning to their jobs at, say, 7:00 am, on such-and-such a date, five days later. 

In short, a rolling strike is not open-ended; it has a clear and pre-determined life-span.  This type of industrial action fulfills two objectives:  You do the unthinkable, you shut down the company, you damage its ability to make a profit off your labor; but you also severely limit what that damage will be—both to the company’s productivity and to the membership’s pocketbooks.

An example of a tactical strike was the one recently called (on July 14) by service workers affiliated with AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) against the University of California, in which AFSCME members stayed out for five days before returning to work.

The danger in these things is that there’s no guarantee the company will let you come back to work when you’re finished.  Because your 10-day notice has expired, technically, you have no contractual agreement with them; and with the contract terminated, there is no governing language prohibiting the company from locking you out.

This doesn’t mean they will lock you out, only that it’s legal for them to do so.  While some companies are happy to get everyone back to work after a rolling strike, with no lingering hard feelings (as was the case, apparently, with the University of California and AFSCME), other companies may see it differently. 

Other companies may view your little mini-mutiny as a form of treason and decide that their rebellious and “ungrateful” employees need to be taught a lesson.  So you walk out all sassy and confident, with the intent of returning five days later, armed with increased leverage, and the company surprises you by keeping you out for two months.  That’s a textbook case of how a tactical strike blows up in your face.

Without question, the best strikes are the classic ones—the ones where you catch the company off-guard, where the membership is totally committed to the action, and where the shutdown results in tangible improvements in the areas you were going for.  There used to be lots of those strikes, going back not only to the 1930s, but well before that.

Today, unfortunately, unless you’re the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union), strikes have become far less effective.  Still, until something better comes along, strikes are labor’s only weapon.  And, in truth, tough as things are, we need more of them, not less.        

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net