July 21, 2024

The Case for More Strikes

Unions nationwide must take advantage of their leverage and use the strike weapon more often.

In his book The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor, Les Leopold tells a story of practice pickets in which the late Tony Mazzocchi, then-president of Local 149 of the United Gas, Coke, and Chemical Workers Union, led a contract campaign in the 1950s at a cosmetics plant on New York’s Long Island. As the contract expiration loomed, Mazzochi knew that the workers needed to get ready for a showdown with management. The key was organizing a credible strike threat. Mazzocchi’s solution was for workers to save for a strike fund and walk the picket lines of other striking workers for more than 35 days, as practice for their own coming battle.

“The company was scared shitless,” Mazzocchi told Leopold. “They knew we were having a pitched battle with those Nassau County cops every day. The company figured, if you’re going to do this on somebody else’s picket line, what are you gonna do when it’s your own?”

UPS came close to asking a similar question, after some 340,000 UPS Teamsters were poised for what would have been the largest strike at a single private-sector employer in decades. But one week before workers were set to pound the pavement, the Teamsters announced they had reached a tentative agreement with UPS management. Put simply, their strike threat had worked.

As the fighting spirit spreads among workers, unions nationwide must take advantage of their leverage and use the strike weapon more often, but they need to do it in such a way that the rank and file is involved and demonstrating its power. For example, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has provided UPS Teamsters around the country with the tools to organize an aggressive contract mobilization, from campaign rallies and contract-unity pledge cards to a national day of action and practice picketing. With record approval ratings, a strong job market, and low unemployment, unions are in a position to secure big wins—so long as they keep the pressure on.

UPS workers began to participate in practice pickets in late June, with backing from the Teamsters for a Democratic Union. TDU encouraged this worker-led tactic, and the international union leadership promoted it. When contract talks broke down on July 5, every union local had practice picket signs, and the tactic took off, spreading to hundreds of work sites in 49 states.

A credible strike threat raises the specter of economic damage—the main leverage in a private-sector strike. UPS took note, delaying the release of its second-­quarter earnings report to investors until August.

In the end, the Teamsters extracted big concessions from UPS, including a tentative agreement to end two-tier pay for drivers (a setup in which older workers earn much more than new hires doing the same work). The talks had broken down over part-time pay. Now all part-time workers will get a $7.50 wage increase; starting pay will go up from $15.50 to $23 by the end of the contract; and 15,000 part-time jobs will be combined and converted into 7,500 new full-time ones. In a July 25 statement announcing the agreement, which members will vote on in August, the union’s general president, Sean M. O’Brien, declared: “UPS has put $30 billion in new money on the table as a direct result of these negotiations.”

Since the 1980s, the labor movement has witnessed a steep decline in strikes—even including the tiny uptick in 2022. In the 1980s and ’90s, manufacturers took advantage of strikes by members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) at small plants outside of the Big Three automakers to permanently replace union workers with scabs.

To bring the employers to heel, workers fought back differently. Jerry Tucker of the UAW reform movement New Directions encouraged tactics like work-to-rule, in which workers follow management’s rules to the letter to show that a business cannot run without the expertise of workers, winning a 36 percent wage hike at one plant over three years.

Today the strategy card deck has been reshuffled, and strikes are on the table again. Reform leaders in the UAW have already started negotiations with the Big Three automakers—Ford, Stellantis, and General Motors, covering 150,000 workers—ahead of contracts expiring on September 14. With the campaign ramp-up on a short timeline, the union isn’t wasting a second, whipping up fighting enthusiasm among the rank and file with contract actions nationwide.

We are witnessing an uptick in labor militancy the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades. Thousands of workers have started picket lines around the country, from striking screenwriters and actors to hotel workers, locomotive manufacturing workers, and Amazon workers. It won’t last forever. The time to build credible strike threats and hit the bricks is now.

Luis Feliz Leon is an associate editor at Labor Notes.