Why the labor strike is back in the United States

Photo from AP: General Motors workers chanting "No contract! No work!" circle the Flint Assembly Plant entrance on 19 September

The United States is experiencing the biggest across nation strike that has been seen in a long time. Forty-nine thousand workers at General Motors have ben on strike for almost three weeks. This is the latest in a series of major strikes that have involved teachers, nurses and others. Bryan Schatz writes (Mother Jones 30 September 2019), the strike is back.

General Motors employees chanting “No contract! No work!” circle the Flint Assembly Plant entrance on September 19, the fourth day of the UAW strike against GM.Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP File

The largest private sector strike in more than a decade is now in its third week. The walkout of more than 49,000 General Motors auto workers comes on the heels of a series of successful strikes by workers around the country—teachers and nurses and beyond.

Though it had fallen out of favor, the strike—the most effective weapon workers have at their disposal—is back with a fervor not seen in decades. Why? “Workers are pissed off in this country,” says Jane McAlevey, a veteran labor organizer and author of Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell) and No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age. But that’s only part of the explanation, McAlevey says. Workers strike when they see that strikes work. Her next book, A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy, will be released in January 2020.

I recently spoke with McAlevey by phone to discuss America’s wave of walkouts, why the strike disappeared, why the Chicago teachers strike in 2012 is so important, and how to effectively organize a strike. McAlevey had just returned from an hourlong run when I reached her. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Ah, yes, the Holy Trinity. So I thought now would be a good time to get a better idea of strike strategy and what makes striking so important, when organized properly. For a long while strikes had really fallen out of favor. But in the past few years, we’ve seen quite a lot of them, and quite a few successful ones at that. What has changed?

The reason we’re seeing so many is because there have been so many successful strikes. Workers learn to strike when they watch other workers strike and win. That’s where the formula is playing out right now. To put a pinpoint on it: Most people are saying they began in February 2018 with the West Virginia strike.

I think the truth is the beginning was the Chicago teachers strike in 2012. It’s that incredible education strike that took Chicago by storm for nine days, that really began to raise workers’ expectations that the strike could win again in the post-Reagan environment.

What’s the history there?

Basically, what happens is Reagan replaces 12,000 air traffic control workers who were striking in 1981. This wasn’t like replacing workers who were easy to replace; it was replacing hard-to-replace people with a very serious skill. And he didn’t just fire 12,000 workers; he destroyed their lives. Many of those workers never got jobs again. They destroyed the union—it went bankrupt.

So that’s 1981, and that was coming on top of pulling out of the financial crisis in New York City in 1976. The ’70s were sort of the beginning of the shortcomings of the postwar boom years in the United States.

The downward pressure begins in the private sector. It’s the beginning of moving jobs outside of the United States. If they’re not moved outside of the United States, a lot of unionized, good manufacturing jobs have already begun to move from the Northeastern and Midwestern states into the union-busting “right to work” Southern states, where they were de-unionized when they reopened.

A lot of workers in the so-called private sector—think of them as the manufacturing sector—were feeling a lot of pressure by the late 1970s, vulnerable that they might lose their job if they go on strike, and they were happy to hang on to a good union job. And then you’ve got Reagan firing people in 1981. The combination of the two was devastating. Unions begin to think: “We can’t really use the strike weapon anymore.”

I would say that the officialdom of the trade union movement in the 1980s were very risk averse. They assumed that the basic decent contract standards they had would last forever. They felt more comfortable sitting down at the table with management. They were missing the giant threat on the horizon of their own inaction.

In my second book, No Shortcuts, when I give the history of the birth, the rebirth, the collapse, the rebuild of the Chicago Teachers Union, I say that leaders like in Chicago, who had taken over that union in the 1980s, were just risk averse and didn’t really believe in striking and were scared of striking. They began to use the Reagan example as an excuse of why we could never strike. Then in the 1990s and 2000s, the strike does actually recede dramatically.

By the time I came back to organizing full time, which is 1996, there’s a lot of talk about beginning to organize again. But if you look at it retrospectively, the conversation about “we’re going to organize all over again” never really included the conversation about workers’ ultimate power, which is the strike weapon.

It wasn’t like, “We’re going to fight to the death to win again.” It was: “We’re going to organize again. We’re going to grow the labor movement again.” That commitment to organizing was really a commitment to growth. And it was growth in, I think, a kind of narrow way: “We’re going to grow the union membership.”

For some of us, we were always running strikes for that whole period of the new wave of the trade union movement. They just weren’t quite as big as the strikes we’re seeing now, and they didn’t get the attention they deserved. But we were largely winning, so for some of us it was like, “If we prepare well, and we bring the whole community in and the members are ready to go, some of us are really winning very good standards in contracts right now.” So the debate’s been going on for decades.

A little illness knocked me out of the ring for a while, and that’s how I decided to start writing the first book because I think it’s worth telling a story about, hey, for the last 10 years, a bunch of us were helping workers learn to fight and win, using strikes and being militant and seeing the community as the primary ally. So it’s gurgling the whole time, and when the progressives inside of the Chicago Teachers Union run for office against what we call “do-nothing leadership” and win in 2010, at that point their contract was expiring 12 months later.

They had very little time to rebuild an entire union, but rebuild it they did, because, like you’re seeing in other states now, it’s a reflection of how much anger exists at the rank-and-file base. Workers are pissed off in this country. It’s a seriously pissed-off country where people are frustrated, upset, hurting, living lives of misery.

The Great Depression in the late 1920s, early 1930s, the abject misery was somehow more visible, because the absolute unemployment rate was 25 percent. So people saw the misery more readily. But I think what’s happening today is a more disguised form of equal levels of misery because it’s grotesque underemployment. It’s like capitalism learned not to fully unemploy everybody this time, but just string them out.

If you look at underemployment, unemployment, precarious positions, workers working two jobs to make ends meet, two-parent households working four jobs to raise the kids, hardly ever seeing their kids, switching the kids up between day shift and night shift, not having money if there’s a health care crisis, not making their car loan payments, and in debt as 60 percent of Americans are right now, it’s hard to argue we’re not at a pretty high state of misery, and people are pissed.

The way I’m looking at the timeline of what happened: Chicago sets an example. They have this extraordinary strike in 2012. It takes everyone’s breath away in the most exciting way.

What they show, significantly, is that despite the movie Waiting for “Superman” and despite the rise of the Wall Street–funded charter school movement, despite a multimillion-dollar campaign to give teachers a black eye and blame them for the underfunding and defunding of public education, what people saw and took their breath away was: “Hey, wait a minute, the community in Chicago rallied around those teachers. They didn’t blame them. They stood with them.” And when workers in the rest of the country, especially teachers, saw that parents sided with teachers, that to me is the beginning of the spark.

What happens is a bunch of Chicago teachers who are progressive folks, they get involved in the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, and there’s a flow of information and a flow of relationships that begin to build.

There’s a whole network of teachers meeting around the Bernie Sanders campaign. That’s absolutely how the information flowed into West Virginia, which is the first one of the next round in 2018. This is a key linkage through the Sanders campaign. They’re young. Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in every single county in West Virginia.

So you have fired-up young teachers in West Virginia, who were the Bernie Sanders troops on the ground, who actually thought that he really had a shot of winning, right? He doesn’t win.

A year goes by. A whole lot of energy is going on in West Virginia with these young smart teachers, and then right as they’re thinking, “What do we do now with all this energy we’ve built up?” the state proposes to take away their health care, to impose profound, huge cutbacks in their health care, that’s going to make them pay a lot more money—they’re going to have to wear something like a Fitbit on their wrist, to try and keep their premiums down.

This is a state with one of the highest poverty rates in the country. They’re going to blame people’s health on why they’re going to make them pay more for health care. It’s really insulting, and as the teachers say in my forthcoming book, a huge insult to their intelligence and their sense of privacy and their sense of dignity. And that sense of dignity is big. That was the final straw. Finally they said, “Okay, enough is enough, we’re going to start to build something here.” And they began to organize.

I think that had Chicago not happened, we don’t know what would’ve happened in 2018. When I started the call by saying workers learn to go on strike by watching other workers go on strike and win, that Chicago strike was the beginning of the first time people really saw workers winning big in a high-risk, all-out strike in a major city in America.

And then, boom: They win, and that sets off a whole round of strikes. Fast-forward to now. There’s the General Motors workers, who absolutely deserve to win this strike.

Everybody needs to throw their weight behind these striking workers because it’s across multiple states; it’s in a historic sector of the economy; and it’s a way to say to a company that American taxpayers bailed out for $11 billion, “Give us, in the form of the workers, some of that taxpayer money back, put it in the pocket of the workers in the communities who deserve it.”

I interviewed some workers who learned about the strike the same day the media did. As someone who’s run a bunch of strikes, I would say it’s certainly not the approach I’ve ever been involved in. When we’re getting ready to strike, there’s tremendous rank-and-file-worker involvement. There’s a build up to a strike where you’re doing lots of preparation; you’re doing picket-line training; you’re recruiting captains; you’re building a contract action team; you’re shoring up and being sure that that each facility has worker leaders ready to go.

But what’s also true is, the UAW workers are similar to those in West Virginia, where the teachers were building on a really strong culture where strikes existed for a long time. The women in West Virginia in the education workforce have fathers and grandfathers who struck the crap out of mines.

When I interviewed some of the teachers, one of them said to me she went home and said to her father, “Yeah, we did it! We did a one-day strike!” And her father looked at her and said, “What the fuck is a one-day strike? If you go out, you go out!”

I think this is happening in the UAW strike. There’s ability for those workers right now to rely on the muscle memory of the history of the strikes in the auto sector. I think there’s a combination of things there: The top officials in the Auto Workers have zero credibility right now with the rank-and-file based on the unfolding scandal.

And I think there are enough workers in the GM auto plant who either have been on strike or come from a family in that sector who have been on strike, or who are raised by parents or grandparents who have been on strike in the auto sector in some of those communities, that those workers are ingenious enough to try and pull this strike off and win. So yes, it’s flat wrong in my view that the workers were not involved in the contract campaign leading up to the strike, but it doesn’t mean they can’t succeed and win based on muscle memory that’s baked into most autoworkers in this country. They’re smart.

They have family traditions. Those things get handed down through the family.

Also, they’re being buoyed. You’ve got New York Times columnists cheering them on; you’ve got the political elite cheering them on. And frighteningly, you can even see the idiotic, anti-union, anti-worker, anti–working class, racist White House trying to help them. It’s a pretty strategic moment, quite frankly, in a very strategic sector.

1 Comment on "Why the labor strike is back in the United States"

  1. It is true, that old saying that workers have nothing to lose but their chains. In the USA today, that fact is so obvious, that saying as true as ever, it is why these strikes are happening. Even greater strikes are about to happen.

    We are in the era of the dying of capitalism as a system. It is a great pity these rapacious, exceedingly greedy capitalists have taken the world down with them to the degree they have done. Now, thanks to the promoted greed of the capitalist system, future generations have to try to overcome the massive Global Warming if that can be done before it is too late.

    How the younger people must curse the greedy fossil fuel promoters of the previous couple or three generations. It is they that stuffed your world, young folks. We oldies appologise for not seeing it early enough not fighting their greedy stupidity well enough.

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