Before the UAW strike against GM was, literally, ten minutes old, the long knives were already out. Pundits went on record predicting that the union had overplayed its hand, that calling a strike under these market conditions was not only a reckless gamble, but a betrayal of the membershipís trust and loyalty. They predicted the union would lose.
Someone should have reminded these commentators of a simple but inexorable truth known to every union officer, shop steward, and rank-and-file member in the country: You always lose in a strike. You lose the moment negotiations break down. You lose the moment you walk off the job. Indeed, you lose even when you “win.” Thatís why strikes have been called “the cure thatís worse than the disease.”
The arithmetic says it all. Hourly workers earn 100% of their annual wages over 52 weeks, which calculates roughly to 2% per week. Each week of work missed–all things being equal–represents approximately a 2% loss of income. Thus, if you strike over a 2% wage differential (the company offers 3%, the union holds out for 5%), and you stay out for a week, all youíve done, even if successful, is barely break even.
So, why strike . . . ever? Why volunteer to drink the Kool-Aid? The short answer is that you have no choice. Not if you have any investment in the long-term future, and not if you have even a passing familiarity with that principle our parents taught us–being willing to fight for what you believe in.
Collective bargaining is not a group-friendly activity; itís a ritual as masculine and self-absorbed as a Viking funeral. Despite what management and union PR people say to the contrary (forget those platitudes about “working together”), a negotiation is nothing more than a horrible argument over money. And because a strike is the only tactic that cuts directly into managementís ability to make money, itís the only tactic management fears.
As to the anticipated length of this GM strike, there are two reasons it will last longer than the few days or week that have been predicted. First, to punish the union for shutting them down, management needs to inflict a minimal level of pain. Being out of work for a week feels way too much like a vacation; being out for a month (when medical benefits run out) is a whole other deal.
Second, if being out for only a couple of days is all it takes to settle this thing, it means the differences werenít significant. But if the differences werenít significant, the parties would have settled already without forcing a shutdown. So, unless someone woefully misinterpreted opposing signals, the strike will continue until major concessions are made by one or both parties.
A reminder: The next time any of us thinks about crossing a picket line, we should note that these strikers are engaged in a delicate form of self-destruction, making the type of sacrifice none of us ever hope to make–taking a dangerous, principled stand with no discernible up-side.
DAVID MACARAY was president and chief negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org