• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

SPRING FUNDRAISER

Is it time for our Spring fundraiser already? If you enjoy what we offer, and have the means, please consider donating. The sooner we reach our modest goal, the faster we can get back to business as (un)usual. Please, stay safe and we’ll see you down the road.
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Calculus of Union Strikes

“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

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

May 26, 2020
Melvin Goodman
Trump Administration and the Washington Post: Picking Fights Together
John Kendall Hawkins
The Gods of Small Things
Patrick Cockburn
Governments are Using COVID-19 Crisis to Crush Free Speech
George Wuerthner
Greatest Good is to Preserve Forest Carbon
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
The Covid-19 Conspiracies of German Neo-Nazis
John G. Russell
TRUMP-20: The Other Pandemic
John Feffer
Trump’s “Uncreative Destruction” of the US/China Relationship
John Laforge
First US Citizen Convicted for Protests at Nuclear Weapons Base in Germany
Ralph Nader
Donald Trump, Resign Now for America’s Sake: This is No Time for a Dangerous, Law-breaking, Bungling, Ignorant Ship Captain
James Fortin – Jeff Mackler
Killer Capitalism’s COVID-19 Back-to-Work Imperative
Henry Giroux
Criminogenic Politics as a Form of Psychosis in the Age of Trump
Binoy Kampmark
Patterns of Compromise: The EasyJet Data Breach
Howard Lisnoff
If a Covid-19 Vaccine is Discovered, It Will be a Boon to Military Recruiters
David Mattson
Grizzly Bears are Dying and That’s a Fact
Thomas Knapp
The Banality of Evil, COVID-19 Edition
May 25, 2020
Marshall Auerback
If the Federal Government Won’t Fund the States’ Emergency Needs, There is Another Solution
Michael Uhl
A Memory Fragment of the Vietnam War
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
Make a Resilient, Localized Food System Part of the Next Stimulus
Barrie Gilbert
The Mismanagement of Wildlife in Utah Continues to be Irrational and a National Embarrassment.
Dean Baker
The Sure Way to End Concerns About China’s “Theft” of a Vaccine: Make it Open
Thom Hartmann
The Next Death Wave from Coronavirus Will Be the Poor, Rural and White
Phil Knight
Killer Impact
Paul Cantor
Memorial Day 2020 and the Coronavirus
Laura Flanders
A Memorial Day For Lies?
Gary Macfarlane – Mike Garrity
Grizzlies, Lynx, Bull Trout and Elk on the Chopping Block for Trump’s Idaho Clearcuts
Cesar Chelala
Challenges of the Evolving Coronavirus Pandemic
Luciana Tellez-Chavez
This Year’s Forest Fire Season Could Be Even Deadlier
Thomas Hon Wing Polin
Beijing Acts on Hong Kong
George Wuerthner
Saving the Lionhead Wilderness
Elliot Sperber
Holy Beaver
Weekend Edition
May 22, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Hugh Iglarsh
Aiming Missiles at Viruses: a Plea for Sanity in a Time of Plague
Paul Street
How Obama Could Find Some Redemption
Marc Levy
On Meeting Bao Ninh: “These Good Men Meant as Much to Me as Yours Did to You”
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Shallò: 120 Days of COVID
Joan Roelofs
Greening the Old New Deal
Rob Urie
Why Russiagate Still Matters
Charles Pierson
Is the US-Saudi Alliance Headed Off a Cliff?
Robert Hunziker
10C Above Baseline
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
The Fed’s Chair and Vice Chair Got Rich at Carlyle Group, a Private Equity Fund With a String of Bankruptcies and Job Losses
Eve Ottenberg
Factory Farming on Hold
Andrew Levine
If Nancy Pelosi Is So Great, How Come Donald Trump Still Isn’t Dead in the Water?
Ishmael Reed
Alex Azar Knows About Diabetes
Joseph Natoli
Will Things Fall Apart Now or in November?
Richard D. Wolff
An Old Story Again: Capitalism vs. Health and Safety
Louis Proyect
What Stanford University and Fox News Have in Common
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail